Acheron's Call

"If you find yourself wondering 'have I been here before?' it usually means you will be there yet again."

-- Sam, Binder of Lightnings, AS 2770

Riden->the Well

At this point, Talia's father is still in the mad science/mad engineering box that Sharra and Sophia built, to try to cure him of the groupmind nanites without using any valuable resources. He'd be in a lot of pain for a while, except that he's being kept unconscious as well.

Mirris gives Murdoch a data crystal, which he had requested from her earlier; it's not clear whether he gets to read it or not. Why would he get to? He admits that it's "for reasons of security and rampant curiosity" but does end up not reading it.

Just as the Hippocrates reaches the edge of the Riden system, an email message shows up. It's apparently an image file labeled "click here." The party nearly deletes it in paranoia, but finally views the message. It's a brief report from AI-Phaeton, who says that Hippocrates isn't on Tinara any more - he was transferred to non-networked media and loaded onto a ship. However, AI-Phaeton has tracked down an image of the ship. Additionally, Nero and AI-Phaeton have confirmed that the router constellation is nowhere on Tinara or Gateway.

Ace thinks the picture looks like the kind of ship that people like Murdoch fly - it's a high-end mercenary warrior type. Max thinks it doesn't look brand new, but it's well maintained. Murdoch confirms that it's an good example of a "big players back in the day" type ship.

People consider how to find the ship. Mirris guesses between "Go to Nurl" and "Go to Gateway" and thinks that "Go to Nurl" is better. Max attempts to psi-locate the ship, and thinks that it's at the very edge of his range, but Nurl is the direction to go. Just in case these leads are wrong, though, the party continues to waffle about which way to go.

At Katya's behest, the Red military gets pinged - have they seen a ship like this? After a while, the answer returns: there's no record of it having left Tinara or being in any of the Red systems, other than having been spotted crossing the border from Riden to Nurl. It was scanned and such, and has eight mounted guns.

As all three leads point to Nurl, the party decides to jump to Nurl. Making up for lost time, they take a high-energy jump. Once there, Max thinks Juice is the direction to find the ship, though he has no idea where to find Hippocrates himself.

Mirris and Katya start working on designing a secret handshake and a seal, for the Order of the Emerald.

Jim chats with people in the border regiment asking them if they've seen the ship pass by. The major in charge there is a great fan of both Sparky Cola and the Laddie show, and pesters Jim about plot points and the like, but eventually his men do in fact locate the record and indicate it went on to Juice.

Meanwhile, Hippocrates and DaVinci plot. Deep Blue has attempted to convince the group mind to lure Nero in as a "control", by creating a message ostensibly from Hippocrates to get him here as fast as possible, while embedding another message in lure. Unfortunately, as the party has left Nero behind several high-energy jumps, he will not catch up until after the run. Hippocrates has managed to connect to local power, and DaVinci has scanned the area, and they have the general layout of the place, including the seven sub-processors for Acheron arranged to encompass the four original AI mainframes.

Ruthie, Linnet, and Akito play with the bumper car in the shuttle bay. It turns out Ruthie still isn't a good driver.

A message is composed to be forwarded to Commander Branch reporting on the status of the search, but he's not in system. It's sent to his XO instead, down on Nurl, and then Max turns on a ship-scale "this ship is nobody's problem" going into jump space. About twenty-five minutes into the high-energy jump, Ace starts to realize that the beacon corresponding to the other jump gate is nowhere to be seen. That's not good. He calls Katya to the bridge, unnerving everyone else who hears the announcement.

Katya doesn't really get what Ace is talking about, he's prattling on about some random thing instead of worrying about rescuing Hippocrates. She's not really sure what he's about, but it's definitely not her problem. Ace pages Akito.

"Can you go and warm up the Dancer..." -Ace
"We're doomed!" -Ruthie
"... to see if you can see the jumpgate beacon?"
Max wonders which way the beacon is, but isn't familiar enough with what it should look like to be sure. Akito, followed by Ruthie and Linnet, jump into the Dancer, though the girls point out that they should bring Mirris and Katya if they're abandoning ship. Akito explains that they're not abandoning ship.

Akito scans for the beacon - there doesn't seem to be one inside the closed shuttle bay. That's less help than it could be, but the Dancer isn't really flying right now. Akito connects the Dancer's navigation system to the Hippocrates, and confirms that there's no beacon.

Wait, Max is using psi? Can he turn it off? After some pleading, Max is finally convinced to turn the effect off - the expert pilots are sure that the "you have to exit jump space in the same configuration you entered with" only really applies to to the ship's physical shape, not to psychic effects going on.

"If we can become jump space's problem, we might be able to *leave* jump space." -Mirris
Once off, the beacon reappears and the Hippocrates gets into the Juice system, and despite being people's problem, nothing particular happens. Max thinks the direction to go is towards the Well, and Jim does a little victory dance for having called it.

Ace fusses with the transponder to claim that the Hippocrates is the Gilded Horse and attempts to sneak to the Well unnoticed.

"It's easier to upcaste from a real tourist visa than a fake one." -Murdoch.
Max successfully locates the ship they're chasing as down towards the planet, so the Hippocrates heads that way. Max has his people arrange for tourist visas and a sufficient upcaste for a raid, while orbiting the planet scanning for the magnetic signature. Eventually, he locates it - in the Terran base where Donella was held! It used to be owned by Citizen Archibald, but Citizen Trask (the weapons collector) bought the land at auction.

"Good set reuse! The budget people for the show should like that." -Pete
"Congratulations. You are this facility's 1000th assailant." -Cael
Mirris wants to head in first to try and infiltrate the group mind, but no one else is very keen on the idea. Jim thinks there's a significant chance that they can flip her, which would be Doomful, and Max points out that this base had significant psi feedback defenses, which would knock her straight out.

Jim reminds people that if they need to make sure the bad guys don't flee, to remember the "abort to fall over dramatically" plan. Dylanna gets brought into the tactical discussion, and thinks that it's unlikely that the party will be able to disable the psi jammers from just one location the way they did last time.

People start stocking up on medical supplies. Mirris has Jim bring the Glitter just in case, and Ace hides two doses of Flash in his hand's secret compartment. Murdoch passes out projectile guns. Akito makes Ace a captain's hat out of tinfoil (just in case there are orbital mind-control lasers?)

In addition to the party, a number of NPCs plan to come along: Dylanna, Sam, Talia, Deirdre and Osric, the Smeerps, and (illicitly) Ruthie.

Murdoch has acquired two disposable bazookas, principally effective for property damage. Mirris considers which locations are the worst for blowing holes in. Of two walls and one ceiling under consideration, she can only rule out up to half, so she rules out the ceiling (directly above Mendel, as it will later turn out); everyone else happily declares the two walls perfectly safe to blow up.

Ace acquires mercenaries for use as a diversion - Jim points out that if they throw the diversion a turn afterwards, it will be much more psychologically devastating. That doesn't make a lot of sense, until "diversion" gets renamed to "reinforcements". Ace acquires twenty no-suicide-mission mooks, for 150 asters each.

Murdoch sneaks up towards the base, followed by a van full of everyone else. Murdoch blows up a wall with the bazooka, and the van drives in.

"Sons of drudges!" -Mirris
"Don't say that, it's not nice to drudges." -Jim
"Sons of Boy scouts!" -Mirris
"Point taken." -Jim
Combat commences. Several of the corridors have painful gravity fields, and much of the groupmind is sneaky enough that only Talia can see them.

Max, Sam, Deirdre, and Katya start reality-tunneling towards the nearest psi damper, after Sam turns on his suppress-nearby-tech effect.

The groupmind, having decided that they don't have time to wait for Nero any longer, start the AI merge. Mirris notices this and warns everyone else, shortly before being shot by a bunch of mooks through the window of the van. Rather than leave the room through the door (into an ambush), everyone heads through a wall that Max has left a shaped charge to destroy.

Mirris tries to extract background of a mook and finds that they get pretty good benefits. Turns out the criminal groupmind is a pretty good boss. Oh, and there's another 20 mooks and some more group mind members being held in reserve for a full turn hoping for a devastating psychological blow later.

Jim gives everyone a tactical plan: "Get Mirris to the mainframes where she can hack and take down the people who are getting in the way." No, he can't give the plan of "Get 'em", sorry.

Mirris manages to hack into the nearby piece-of-a-mainframe, and sends a message: I'm here {>. As it turns out, this goes to Mendel. Hippocrates manages to hack into the radio enough to communicate with Mirris, and briefs her quickly on the layout.

The reality tunnelers come in near a psi jammer; Sam suppresses most of it, and Max applies a shaped charge. This takes down the psi suppression in about half of the complex.

Talia gets into the room with the Ambush of Doom waiting for someone they can see. Sadly for them, they can't see her. The groupmind gives some of the mooks actions to hit Akito. People shoot Ace as if they have shticks in extra damage. Mooks shoot Mirris after being given another action by their boss, and she falls.

DaVinci explains the Acheron ramping-up plan: there are seven pieces of the Acheron processor, combined via redundant fiberoptic into one computer. Now that the combined Acheron is being built, it's very easy for the subsidiary AIs to slide into merging, if they don't concentrate. They have to pay "focus" points (which they get from Str of Mind rolls) to Acheron, which powers up his nodes, and have to spend focus to make any actual rolls. If a powered-up node is blown up, it loses all its focus, but a backup node will come on line until all the originals are gone. Combat continues.

"Katya breaks a window." -Andrea
"Can Sam see anything interesting through it now?" -Pete
"It was a window, you could see through it before." -Mike
Murdoch heal-patches Mirris and sets off a smoke grenade. Katya throws a gas grenade into the garden, covering Mendel. Jim constructs areas with cover (like closets) and puts people in them. Ace gets pinned in a closet.

Max puts a shaped charge on the second psi damper, and then the group gas-grenades a bunch of mooks and tunnels away; a nearby mastermind tells the mooks to take their Yellow. Jim shoots a rocket launcher down the corridor at a group of bad guys - the groupmind members dive back through locked doors, leaving the mooks to take damage.

Hippocrates starts hacking into the neutrino network to figure out what's going on; Acheron decides that's a good idea, and starts doing that too. He manages to connect to Katya's (currently out-of-reality) channel, which isn't much use.

Mirris inserts herself into another of the mook teams, and finds out that they're mostly just here because they get paid. They do know that Citizen Trask gets to keep any plasma brands acquired during the fight. They know that their secret masters are writing some sort of cool computer program, but not the details.

Akito chops one of the group mind leaders, as does Jim - Jim is appalled to note they have a healing shtick, as the nearly-dead guy gets healed to full. Jim attempts to call the wrath of the rest of the party down on the healer, but not everyone else is sure there's only one healer (we later find that they all have it, in fact).

Mirris convinces her group of mooks that she's a hacker who works for Trask, who infiltrated the party, and they should stop shooting people.

Katya's headset is still off because she's running around with Sam. Acheron switches to Akito, and wants to know why he's here.

Ruthie takes down a groupmind leader (well, okay, she hits him last before he falls), as does Jim. The remaining guys nearby shoot at Ruthie, though Akito jumps in the way and takes the damage.

Finally having hacked into the neutrino radio net, Acheron overhears the instructions to take out his nodes, and becomes suspicious. "Leave the boxes alone and concentrate on your enemies," he suggests.

"I'm defending the Hegemon. You keep making it difficult because you're turning off my plasma brand." -Deirdre
"Get a sword." -Sam
In the second turn, the reinforcements arrive. Jim announces: "All of you hired guns, our reinforcements are coming to take the compound. Put down your weapons and surrender and you will be dealt with justly." Two dozen of the enemy mooks flee. The mastermind's reinforcements show up, but they aren't nearly as impressive, and only eight party mooks flee.

Acheron starts making hallways more painful to move along, trying to defend his nodes, but between Jim blowing them up with shaped charges and the reality-tunneling group with the plasma brand, it's a losing proposition.

Akito is (briefly) knocked down by the groupmind, but they're down three from their first fire team, making them a lot less effective.

Deep Blue finds the spread carrier wave, previously thought to be irrelevant since it protects against a jammer the party didn't bring, and DaVinci and Hippocrates start trying to hack into it.

Osric and Deirdre chop some more Acheron nodes. Three masterminds shoot Ace, though he dodges most of it. Some more guys try to grab Akito out of the closet he's hiding in, but he dodges them. Jim sets off a smoke grenade goes in the area with Akito and Talia, letting them show off their blind fighting. DaVinci keeps hacking at the carrier wave generator.

"Roll precision of mind with Nano-active Carrier Wave Engineering." -Mike
"Sure." -Cael
More grenades fly around - Dylanna has a flash grenade ("Smile for the cameras, boys!"), Sam has an anti-personnel grenade. Hippocrates and DaVinci finish hacking into the spread wave carrier, and suppress some of the groupmind's shticks.

"Nobody blow up the spread wave carrier." -Hippocrates
"Hey, we could install this in all humans." -DaVinci
Ruthie attempts to escape into a vent, but a couple of guys grab her and promptly go into superstealth-mode. Mirris tries to insert herself into the actual groupmind, but they get to sum their minds together and they bounce her.

At the groupmind's request, Acheron starts trying to counterhack the spread carrier wave, but Hippocrates pushes him back out again. Acheron turns down the death field near the carrier wave, and tells the groupmind to blow it up - the invaders didn't bring the jammer.

Akito gets to do the dramatic Matrix-style leap chasing one of the groupmind leaders. Acheron makes a power play to grab Hippocrates' core focus, but gets suppressed by Sam, who has been suppressing something randomly with his fortune. The groupmind blows up the spread carrier wave, freeing their three suppressed shticks.

Max, channeling a particularly odd psi from Pierogi, switches places with Ruthie and then with Murdoch. Now that they have Murdoch captured, the groupmind tries to take him to one of the Acheron nodes to hack his brain. Murdoch zipties the ankles of his captor together, which provides enough distraction to let him escape.

Mirris spends five karma (her first karma expenditure ever!) to shore up Hippocrates' focus astonishingly. Ace shoots Talia in the back accidentally. Max summons the nanite-radio jammer, and turns it on; without their spread carrier wave generator, the remaining groupmind leaders collapse.

For a final dramatic twist, the third fire team, being held in reserve, launches their getaway spaceship from their hangar in the adjoining mountain. They start making their speedy escape, only to be shot down by the Inopportune Moment appearing out of nowhere.

At Murdoch's request, Katya searches some unconscious minds for memories and learns that the groupmind thought they could hack Murdoch at an Acheron terminal, and that this was because they'd got information about him from the guy who did his original head work. Murdoch is distressed by this--he hadn't thought the guy was that kind of guy. He clearly needs to go 'talk' to him now. He makes Hippocrates an offer: Murdoch will waive his fee in exchange for permission to keep this information after the mission. Hippocrates agrees, if Murdoch will accept an aster for accounting purposes.

Max (channeling the last of his weird psi guy) reads the bones and tells fortunes for Katya, Hippocrates, and Murdoch.