"No point in getting across the finish line first, if you don't get across alive."
- Barse Metrona, Whiterunner, 2768
Nurl -> the Well
Ace asks if Twig knows a Brochoan engineer who would want to go and work for one to two years in an undisclosed secret location. Twig says he'll look into it. He doesn't turn up such an engineer in a few hours, but does return to report that he's found a suspicious gentleman investigating Ace, at an "unofficial employment office". Ace disguises himself, and heads back with Twig to see who it is. Sharra and Kye follow a ways behind, trying to look like they're a different party.
They reach a Seedy Bar, completely archetypal in its seediness despite being between a school and a store, in a relatively nice neighborhood. Ace talks to the bartender, and says that he's looking for someone who's looking for Ace. "Well, a lot of people are looking for Ace." Ace allows as he might be a crewmate of Ace's. The bartender thinks he can arrange for an introduction, with the proper incentive. Ace pays 10 asters for the drink, and the bartender suggests he check out the action in the back room. Ace offers double or nothing, and receives another drink, which he does not pay ten asters for, leaving both parties confused.
The Brochoah at the door into the back notes that an entry fee is required. Ace wonders how much - the Brochoah asks if he is a player or a spectator. A player. That would be five hundred asters. Ace allows as he doesn't have that much in his pockets right now. Spectator is 10 asters, then. What does the 500 aster entry fee buy? Seventeen chips. Ace wonders how much he can redeem the chips for once he's cleaned out the room. Twenty-five asters each. Well, it's moot since he doesn't have the five hundred, so he buys a spectator pass and heads in through the door.
The area in front of a later curtain is, to Ace's eye, a little strange - like everyone playing is desparately being shady as hard as they can. It's... it's like the Well, but for kids! No, no, that's not it, but they're all definitely acting shady rather than being shady. Very strange. Ace crosses the room, a little creeped out, and talks to the Brochoah at the far curtain, to pass.
A guy at the bar inside the far room gets up and starts heading for Ace. One of the poker players wants to know where he's going, a little ominously. Ace notes that the game being played looks like a standard poker game, but it's being played with too many people. (Kye speculates that you can buy booster packs with extra aces).
Ace recognizes the guy heading for him as an old friend of his, Horace "Watts" Wattley. They pummel each other for a bit, and then start to head out again. The guy who Watts was waiting for waves at him not to leave yet. Ace gives Watts the slip number the Hippocrates is in, and leaves. After a few more rounds of not-right-poker, the guy calls Watts over and gives him the Hippocrates' slip number too, in exchange for Watts' "last 20 asters". The guy tries to do some clever sleight of hand, but doesn't pull it off. Or something, Watts isn't quite sure.
Ace brings Watts back to the Hippocrates, and introduces him to the other two:
"Dr. Kye: quick with a gun, quicker with the women." -AceWatts explains that Juliana Giambrone got grabbed, and he got a note that said he needed to go and enter the Race for the Golden Ticket on the Well, but he has to throw it, but the only Citizen he could get to sponsor him (Citizen Gault) will take his ship if he loses, so he can't lose, but he can't win, either. He thinks a guy in the outworlds named Camus is behind it all, and the bounty hunter who grabbed Juliana is named Alonzo Lassiter. Ace recognizes the name, and then the conversation derails for five minutes.
"My kinda doctor." -Watts
"And Sharra: the second best engineer you never saw." -Ace
"He goes by the monkey ear the Eel. " -AceUnfortunately, Watts's ship, the Turtle, is not the greatest of racers, so Ace and Kye suggest using the Hippocrates instead. What if they lose, though? Well, then Citizen Gault would get the Hippocrates. Everyone makes it clear to Ace that he had better not lose.
"The what? He calls himself the monkey or the eel?" -Kye
"He calls himself the Eel." -Ace
"What about the monkey?" -Kye
"The monkey-ear." -Ace
"Ace, I love you, but you gotta get that fixed." -Watts
The rules of the race are explained:
The Race for the Golden TicketThe question of what to do with the members of the crew and others, who don't want to be stowaways and risk downcasting to Drudge. Will everyone be kidnapped immediately if they stay in a hotel on the Well? There seems to be some belief that this might be the case. Perhaps they should be set adrift on the Aberdevine and left in space? Or in the Juice system, on the way to the Well?
This race is a holdover from the bad old days when the Matrix used it to recruit Whiterunners. It's been revived by the Architect, though he's not really looking to recruit from outside at the moment. However, he's upped the stakes and now instead of a job in the drug trade, the winner get a free permanent upcaste to Compatriot status on the Well.
That, of course, is enough to drag in contestants. So many, in fact, that you need to be sponsored by a trio of Citizens in order to enter. The entry list is full for this years race, so if any of the racers drops out or is killed, there are numerous people on the waiting list to jump in and take their place.
The race itself happens in four stages, followed by a final sprint. Each phase of the race is scored by points. These points accumulate and in the final sprint, initial starting positions and leads are determined by the points. Whoever wins the final sprint wins the race.
There really aren't a lot of rules. These are the ones there are however:
The race shall be run in four phases. There shall be a six hour rest period between phases. Crews must report for launch at race headquarters precisely six hours after the end of the previous phase, or risk being disqualified.
- Each contestant must register his ship at race start time. Once registered, this is the only ship that may be used by this contestant. If it dies, oh well, you are disqualified. No substitutions.
- Each contestant ship may have 1 pilot, 1 co-pilot/gunner, and 1 engineer. From the moment of registration, each of these three people are re-caste to Sentarist. This casting lasts until the end of the race. Ships may also have as many ``stowaways'' as they please. Any stowaway found on any ship by race officials shall be re-caste to drudge. This re-caste will last for two years.
- Each contestant ship must be sponsored by a trio of Citizens. Once sponsored, the Citizens can not change to another contestant.
- The Citizens sponsoring the winning team will receive exclusive work contracts from the Architect worth millions of asters. The winner of the race (pilot) receives an immediate upcaste to Compatriot. The co-pilot, engineer, and stowaways, of the winning ship may be compensated by the pilot if he so desires, but need not be.
- No attacks, interference, sabotage, or killing between crews shall be tolerated between phases of the race. During phases of the race, race officials shall monitor contestant conduct and report any infractions they happen to notice.
There will be a special twelve hour repair phase before the final sprint to the Golden Ticket.
- Phase 1: Navigation
- Twisty passages race to the finish. Watch out for that drift!
- Phase 2: Stealth
- Sneak through the lasers of death!
- Phase 3: Timing
- Various boobytraps and barriers which are only active part of the time.
- Phase 4: Combat
- Survive the onslaught of your fellow contestants!
The Hippocrates heads (the Turtle in the docking bay) to the closed jump gate to Juice, on the other side of the restricted zone, and has a somewhat tense conversation with the patrol units stationed there. They are eventually given two fighters as an escort, and permitted to jump to Juice. Ace shows off the extra-fast jump engines - Watts is impressed.
In the Juice system, Dr. Kye gets email - IPX has found a strange artifact from a deep-sea dig, that they can't figure out. The group is running late to the race, so they tell the IPX people to come meet them on the Well. Once in the Well system, Sharra and Twig set to work installing the guns again. At the end of the first day, Sharra has installed a gun, and Twig has produced a bunch of drawings of guns. Sharra is nonplussed - they needed the gun installed, not just sketched. Twig understands. Towards the end of the second day, Sharra is struggling to finish her gun, and Twig moves into overdrive, installing the third gun with gyroscopic stabilizers and extra chrome.
Tourist visas are acquired for the party (plus the Tinoori, Cassandra, and Twig, who have not been left in space or at Juice after all). Ace and Watts, as natives, go through customs - this is the first time Ace has allowed his name to officially be tracked. A to-do list is compiled:
Ace considers "kill Camus" if it can be gotten away with, but doesn't tell anyone to do anything.
- Rescue Juliana
- Win Race
- Get Cut of Action
- Thwart Camus
- Keep Turtle
- Smack Eel
Ace visits some shady bars to see what he can learn. He hears that there's a bounty on him, dead or alive, and a bounty on Juliana, just alive. People aren't really familiar with Camus, but have heard of the Eel, because he's here, flying in the race. His sponsors are some of the less famous Citizens, apparently.
Watts gets a call from Camus, reminding him to "remember what's at stake". Watts says he's trying to get something better than the Turtle to fly. Camus thinks that's good - he shouldn't make it look like he's trying to lose. Just lose.
Lassiter's ship, the Moray, is in the paid-security zone of the starport. Ace talks Moment Before Dawn into letting First Frost of Autumn go off to look at the ship. First Frost heads off with a headset (which vanishes off the HUD when he puts it on).
Meanwhile, to provide a distraction, Kye and a disguised Sharra (a wig and miniskirt!) go to be the Sparky Cola Prize Patrol. They tell the guards near the Moray that they have a prize for Camus's secretary (whose name Ace had acquired earlier). The guards claim that the secretary isn't there, but that they can leave the soda. They'll send him a message, but won't let the prize patrol onto the ship. They agree to come back in a few hours, and Kye gives everyone a Sparky Cola.
First Frost of Autumn returns, and reports that there are a number of mechanical perceivers on the ship, and a few not-very-good human perceivers. That is, a couple of engineers working on the engines. There don't seem to be any suspcious person-sized boxes in the cargo hold.
Ace and Kye head out to negotiate with Citizen Gault for a cut of the winnings. Ace checks if Twig wants to help. Twig wants to know if this is a good faith contract being negotiated. Will they really give the Hippocrates away if they lose? Kye assures Twig that they won't lose, but Twig doesn't consider this quite enough of an answer to his question to help with the negotiations at this stage.
Kye tries to figure out the angle on the business deal. The Citizens are probably not really receiving millions of asters, more like contracts worth about 100,000 asters each. Kye and Ace drop names ("Friends of the Architect, perhaps you've heard of us...") at Citizen Gault's estate (which is a little less grand than some of the others they've been to), until they get to see the Citizen.
The Citizen doesn't seem particularly interested in giving out a big cut of his winnings, until it is made clear that the Hippocrates itself is at stake, which boggles him mightily. He offers 7500 asters as a cut. Kye laughs at him: 7500 out of 300,000? No, no, Gault himself just gets 100,000, he can't offer the other 200,000. There's some more haggling. Kye tricks him into letting slip that he has power of attorney over the investments of the other two in this matter. Several rounds later, the deal settles at 10% of the total, or 30,000 asters, pending a title search.
"There's no watch officers. When else when I will have the chance to sell the homeworld?" -Dr. KyeShortly before the race, several armored guards, Matrix-style but in white instead of black, show up. A title search has been done, and there is sufficient legal ground to support Dr. Kye's claim that he's the owner of the Hippocrates and can legally dispose of it. The contract with Citizen Gault is signed and sealed.
Watts declares his registration: Pilot Horace Wattley, co-pilot Ace, engineer Sharra. They ask if he would like to declare any stowaways. He can't think why he should, which is good, because it's a trick question. At the declaration that the ship is the Hippocrates, there's a lot of murmuring and comment from people.
The registered ships are:
Kye hides in the smuggling hold of the Aberdevine on the way out, which is really pretty well hidden. Race officials come on board, searching for stowaways. They want to know about the Kaufman facility that they're not allowed in. It's described as private medical equipment. Due to the absence of life signs, and Ace/Watts on persuasion duty, the facility is left alone.
- the Boomer, flown by Thorpe Giles
- the Centurion Hawk, flown by Harlan Gorson
- the Moray, flown by Alonzo Lassiter
- the Minesweeper, flown by Vaster Deep
- the Flying Purple People Eater, flown by Dwight Spengler
- the Incredible Pufferfish, flown by George Henry George
- the HMS Hippocrates, flown by Horace Wattley
The first round of the race starts - the Centurion Hawk also moves in the "good guys" phase! Sharra tries to remember what she's heard about them - they're supposed to be mercenaries, but they tend to end up on the good guys side (no doubt coincidentally). They're a bit like like Meddlers, but they're inworlders.
The Boomer goes on the offensive against the Incredible Pufferfish, which demonstrates its mad ability to puff other ships into walls. The Flying Purple People Eater starts revving its engines, punching through about four energy walls at once and taking enough damage to knock it down. They repair madly. The Hippocrates reaches close to the finish line, and then stalls, arranging to drift across - just after the Flying Purple People Eater, which burns two actions to move and races across the finish line. Hippocrates drifts in to second place.
Camus calls Watts and complains. Does Watts want Camus to send him one of Juliana's fingers? Watts tries to claim that they're slacking off, they had to just sit there by the finish line while the Flying Purple People Eater passed them. Camus is a little mollified, and hangs up.
The IPX ship arrives, carrying what Dr. Kye identifies as a spatial anchor, which bleeds off momentum and small relative frames of reference. Twig starts installing it on the Hippocrates. Kye says that it was used in the construction of a floating city, but had a power failure and sank.
Watts tries to find out what he can about the other ships. The Flying Purple People Eater is kludged together from many other ships and pieces of ships. It has mad engineers. The Centurion Hawk has a reputation of being "wandering mercenaries with a heart of gold". The Moray is from the outworlds, and is supposed to be sneaky. No great surprise there. The Minesweeper, well, "sweeper" is something of a misnomer. It has lots of hit points. The Boomer, like the Moray is known for stealth, but also for excessive artillery. The Pufferfish has extendertrons, which can push nearby ships around. Commenting on the Hippocrates's second place finish:
"Looks like the race was theirs to lose, and then they lost it." - the newsAs Twig works on installing the spatial anchor, Sharra works on building a "sticky" noise generator that can be flung at one of the stealthy ships.
Ace scopes out the Moray, determined to follow someone leaving who isn't the Eel. The co-pilot leaves, so Ace follows him, while Kye tries to follow the Eel. Kye is led a long and complex chase, and then the Eel vanishes around a corner (though Kye doesn't think he was spotted). The co-pilot goes to a hotel in Joyous Gard and goes to sleep. Ace checks at the hotel to see if anyone in that party brought in any Secret Luggage - well, yes, but nothing the size of a coffin or anything. The co-pilot in particular didn't have any. Eventually Lassiter (the Eel) arrives at the hotel and also goes to his room.
Watts looks around for "crazy tourists who are a bit above themselves", hoping to run across Camus. A lot of shmoozing later, he learns that Camus has in fact been around town, talking to a lot of Citizens and trying to arrange something. He's apparently very smooth with the Citizens, and they're not talking. Among the Citizens he's been talking to are the sponsors of the Moray, the Minesweeper, and the Boomer.
Looking into other sponsors:
The Hippocrates throws Sharra's noise-making at the Boomer. Its point defense lasers hit it a few times, and the device is damaged, but sticks. The Minesweeper lays mines, which some other ships proceed to hit. The Pufferfish and the Minesweeper drift into the same hex, and Pufferfish puffs Minesweeper into a laser. Zapp!
"Am I the only sane person here?" -SharraThe Moray seems relatively immune to the laser fire. Or at least undetectable by the lasers. The Boomer manages to redirect some of its damage onto the Centurion Hawk , but this draws more laser fire, so it's not an overall win. The Pufferfish goes down. The Hippocrates bumps the Moray, getting both of them shot.
"We really gotta rescue Juliana!" - Watts to Ace, remembering the original missionThe Flying Purple People Eater does more crazy caroming through various target hexes, again drawing a lot of laser fire. The Hippocrates starts handing out actions to the bad guys: first the Flying Purple People Eater then the Moray. After much argument, the party decides to win this round and either skip or completely throw the next round. They give Moray a phase and then zoosh past and win.
Camus calls Watts again, most displeased. He's not buying the "trying to make it look good" story any more, and makes it clear that Hippocrates' score after round three needs to still be 15.
The party devises a plan: Ace will try and plant a bug on the Eel, and First Frost of Autumn will try to follow him. After some dithering, they ask First Frost's parents. Night Blooming Wisteria wants Ace's estimate of percent chance of injury to First Frost. After some evasion, Ace finally estimates (with lots of uncertainty) an 8% chance of his actually getting hurt.
The plan starts up. Ace goes to talk to the Eel, wanting to know why he's just puzting around. The Eel isn't interested in being mocked. Ace plants his bug and heads off again. As it turns out, the Eel has one anti-tracking shtick, so between the bug and First Frost, he can't block both. First Frost calls from an office park downtown, just as the Eel is leaving again, to go back to Joyous Gard. The team purchases a quick offensive upcaste to Compatriot for the strike against the office park.
Meanwhile, the party talks to the Centurion Hawk, and tells them that the Moray, the Minesweeper, and the Boomer are in cahoots. Should they drop out? No, they should win it for Juliana! Armed with their new knowledge that it's a good cause ("For Juliana, whoever she is!"), they head off to win Phase Three.
There are a few guards at the office park, who are quickly neutralized. Camus is watching the race on a lot of big-screen TVs. Ace neural disrupts him into immobility. Sharra and Kye watch the doors whlie Watts intimidates Camus, telling him he's not on his home turf, he's on the Well, where it's now completely legal to kill him. (Technically, this isn't true, as Camus is defensively a Compatriot as a tourist, and you can't upcaste for murder, but everyone is convinced by Watts's impressive intimidation roll, including Camus).
Camus cracks like a grape (as Ace might say). He admits that he doesn't actually have Juliana any longer, he turned her over to Giambrone when he hit planet, for enough money to buy off the Minesweeper. She's been sent over to ReCollections to get a new personality installed, as Giambrone is tired of her uppity nature. Camus gives them a card for ReCollections. Unfortunately, he doesn't have any more money on hand to bribe them with, so Ace kills him, recorded by Dr. Kye.
A defensive upcaste for Juliana, when she's not at the office, will be more expensive than another offensive single-strike upcaste, but it will mean the Hippocrates gets a less of a reputation for shooting all the bureacrats in their way. They purchase one for 3000 asters.
Meanwhile, the Centurion Hawk has won the timing competition (like the Hippocrates, the Incredible Pufferfish has sat this round out to make repairs).
The party, complete with upcaste for Juliana, converges on ReCollections with some Architect police. The defensive upcaste trumps the permission from her father, and she's released. She gets hidden in the Aberdevine as a stowaway.
Notes are sent to the crew of the Minesweeper saying that their fix isn't needed any more, and to the crew of the Boomer. It's not clear how convincing this is, and whether they're being blackmailed or have been bribed or what.
The Centurion Hawk crew wants to know if the Hippocrates got the girl. Yup, they did, and before she got mindwiped. The Centurion Hawk hates this place too.
Round four starts: Sharra and Kye are on guns; Ace is piloting and Watts copiloting. The combat is complicated and messy and the scoring is based on the final health of the ship - as it turns out, Sharra is crucial for this particular phase. The Hippocrates fixes its last damage, and manages to dodge the final shot, by Centurion Hawk, in "late action in 10". Whew.
The Hippocrates does not, in fact, lose its title, Watts becomes a Compatriot, and the party wins 30,000 asters (of which 20,000 is put in the ship treasury). There is a victory party, which goes off flawlessly; most of the competitors come, as does Citizen Gault (who is, admittedly, disappointed at not having had his guys lose so he could get the ship).