"The cooties, they get in your brain, and secrete dangerous sex chemicals! Euphoric, and highly addictive! Stay away at all costs!"

-- Akito

Riden -> Nurl

There isn't much to be wrapped up on Riden. Sharra reads the bit of the Hegemonicon with Materials Engineering: now they can make a new Star! Twig and Dylanna are having meetings in the brig to make the brig better (Dylanna thinks it's a disgrace). Twig assures people that there will be no construction started until after Dylanna is gone. Max's book seems to have been selling better than expected since the Flames - apparently there's a strange niche market for "Remembrances of horrible real life tragedies where tons of people die".

Then, it's off to the Blue Hegemony - the plan is to drop off Dylanna at New Light, and then head to Stannis' Law. However, once the Hippocrates reaches Nurl, there's email for Dr. Kye.

The message is from Artie McDevitt: he's in the IPX post-graduate program, and Dr. Kye is his advisor of record. So could Dr. Kye sign a form for a last-minute thesis change? Dr. Kye sends a message back to Artie to meet on the Gloryweb orbital station for a quick discussion.

On the way down to the station, Max pulls out some interesting articles from the news feeds, and some of the more politically savvy crew members take a look. There is a lot of news about the meeting between the Blue and Red Hegemons, and a lot of news about the Brochoan Protectorate and the ENTS dealing with the crisis of the plague. In order of increasing levels of subtlety, the news is slanted to suggest:

  1. This is Blue home turf, and the Red Hegemon had to come show up. Go Blue.
  2. Despite being Blue home turf, the news is calling Shaddam a Hegemon.
  3. The camera lingers a little more on Shaddam, who went more out of his way to have this meeting. Go Red.
  4. This is actually the Brochoan Protectorate's home turf, and both Hegemons are visitors.
People find the subtleties interesting, but don't see any call to action.

Akito docks at the station, but notes that there's some sort of interference, or shoddiness, on the part of the people running the docking interface. They didn't send the coordinates correctly - like someone wasn't paying attention.

Kith and Sharra and the Tinoori head to a hydroponics store to replenish the supplies, and get more catnip. Kith gets a cubic head of hydroponic lettuce, though the Tinoori are dubious. She assures them it's art, not food. Kith does note that some of the things she would particularly want to pick up are a little low in stock.

Max and Ciernan go poke around, and ostensibly complain about the trouble with docking - all the people in charge of security seem to be in a meeting.

Kye and Akito head off to meet Artie. They show up at the appointed lounge, but find no one waiting for them. After a while, they notice a likely suspect in a corner booth sound asleep. Approaching him leads to a comical introduction intended to put the poor kid off his game.

"You're not Dr. Voriig Kye, are you?"
"I don't know, am I?" -Kye
Artie eventually explains his situation: his old thesis topic is an analytic model of Brochoah business and politics. His new new topic is about the Grandmothers of Creek, and their social and political impact on societies. Akito thinks that's a terrible topic. Why did he decide to switch topics? Well, he was watching the Grandmothers when they were watching the Brochoah - he's been keeping notes, and he thinks there's only three or four of them, but they're everywhere - and wants to do something important with his life. He points out on his graphs where his simulation changed, and it's just when the Grandmothers showed up.

Kye grudgingly writes him a change of topic permission slip, but post-dates it three days, and instructs him to think about it. Then, Kye generously gives him shuttle fare back down to the planet and money for email, and pays for dinner. Several people find this strange generosity on the part of Kye to be somewhat disconcerting.

Meanwhile, Ciernan and Max head back to the security office, where they file a formal complaint about the troubles docking, and try to find out more. Ciernan notes that there's "a big Chance card on the board", whatever that means. They bug the security office, and overhear part of an argument.

One guy doesn't care if there's a medical emergency - nobody is leaving until they get scanned. Another guy isn't sure what's being scanned for - all the ships have computers. Some specs get brought up, which sound like computer equipment on the level of Hippocrates' mainframe.

Kith contacts the Outworlds Embassy down on the planet and talks to Grandmother Martha. Martha says they were touring here on the way home (they were part of the Flames ritual) and found the Brochoah fascinating, so they decided to stay for a while.

Meanwhile, Sharra notes that all the outgoing flights are delayed, and requests clearance for the Hippocrates to leave.

"We should head to the planet, because this is getting bizarre." -Dr. Kye
Traffic control contacts the Hippocrates, apologizing that they've had a small - Ciernan interrupts to finish their sentence: "Gas leak." Before they depart, the station needs to scan the ship for residuals from the gas.

Meanwhile, down on the planet, in a tiny archives office, a small Brochoah named Banyan is looking through mug shots, nursing a headache. He finally reports that none of the men he recognized is in the current Wanted List of mug shots. The investigators put his report in the not-very-helpful pile. He continues, starting to look through other older sources of photos.
Kye calls his IPX office down on the planet - do they have anything that needs to be shipped out? Can they go now, and try and see what sorts of difficulties they see? The local IPX head, Nancy Cartwright, agrees to go and try to send off some pot shards. She also mentions that Artie McDevitt might be talking to Dr. Kye, and for heaven's sakes not to sign his change form.
"I told him to think about it for three days, and then, you might have to steal the paper." -Dr. Kye
Kith chats with Grandmother Martha again - Martha thinks that some sort of military computer has been stolen, and everyone in charge is running around like chickens with their heads cut off. The Creekians tsk together companionably.

In a collection of archival photos of previously arrested criminals, Banyan discovers a mug shot of one of his attackers. A small time computer hacker, who was last reported fleeing to Blue jurisdiction several zed ago. (While Nurl was still under Red control.) He reports this lead to investigators and they assure him they'll look into it.
While the crew continues to wander about the station curiously, Gloryweb Breaking News announces that the planetary lockdown is due to another possible plague outbreak. A picture is diplayed, identifying a man as "Patient Zero", the possible plague carrier. If anyone sees this man, they should immediately contact the police. Sharra thinks she might have seen him once before - after a bit of brainstorming, he is identified as one of the men trying to steal the Strategos's book, one of the Criminal Masterminds.

Well, if the Hippocrates crew thinks this is a bad guy, and the authorities think this is a bad guy, maybe they can work with the authorities this time? To Security!

Max and Ciernan put together a dossier on the Criminal Mastermind, and enclose a different picture of "patient zero". However, Security is not immediately convinced by arguments about nanotech group minds, and says they'll be in contact to ask more questions.

Banyan is handed a ridiculous report about nanotech groupminds to keep him busy while more important investigators get some work done. He immediately deduces that his attackers were, in fact, acting as one.
Kith calls the Grandmothers and tells them about the group mind as well - she says Security didn't believe them. Martha is shocked - what does Kith mean, she wasn't believed? Kith admits she wasn't at the meeting, she was working on a device to stop the groupmind with the ship's engineer. Grandmother Martha boggles - Kith was working on a device? Kith makes devices? Well, no, she was just helping. Ah, that makes more sense.

Akito searches the ship for signs of Patient Zero having hidden on board. All he finds is a child-sized fort in Sludge Reprocessing.

Nancy Cartwright from IPX calls back - the pot shards got through, after scanning, but they definitely weren't looking for plague for real. You can't tell there's no plague on pot shards just by looking. She mentions that it's the ENTS handling the scanning.

Banyan calls the Hippocrates:

"Banyan: acting with security. Kind of.
Discussion: Fascinating dossier.
Discussion: soon."
Ciernan places a call for Commander Branch, letting him know that the Hippocrates crew is here and has dealt with these criminals before. Commander Branch isn't available right now, but the message will be passed along.

Banyan manages to get transport up to the station to talk to the Hippocrates crew directly. Banyan complains that he is trying to investigate the theft, but that "Security: ignoring all good leads. Security: incompetent." Eventually, he expounds:

"Banyan: witness abduction. Very clever, escape certain if standard protocols observed.
Standard protocols: observed.
DaVinci: stolen.
ENTS: including 'patient zero'.
Beginning: transmission claiming Commander Branch.
All Brochoah: meeting with Commander Branch.
Banyan: not going.
ENTS: invasion, assault Banyan, take DaVinci."
Who does Banyan work for, anyway? DaVinci. Hmm. How can they know that? What can he tell them that would prove he knows DaVinci? Banyan offers "Mindset: simulation-based", which proves sufficient for the crew.

Banyan manages to get clearance for the Hippocrates to head down to the planet - since they're not leaving system, it's not too much of a problem. They rent a van (good thing Max downloaded this list of van rental companies!).

The group heads for DaVinci's construction base; Banyan works on calling his way up the investigation chain as they go, to get permission. Apparently it's quite irregular for witnesses to hire their own experts, but it's finally permitted, under escort by ENTS.

The crew arrives at the base, and looks around. There are a number of Brochoah there, armed and taking notes. Banyan indicates the observation dome where he was knocked out. Max thinks that the assailant must have been hiding overhead, above the door - unlikely to have been a Brochoah.

Sharra checks out DaVinci's mainframe - there is one access panel open. Banyan indicates that that's where the team connected some sort of device. While he observed all of them, only one of them had their picture in the mug shots he was able to access (i.e. "patient zero").

Max retrocogs the observation dome, and sees Banyan knocked out by a ninja dressed in black. He describes the ninja's gi as tied with a reverse overhand knot, which boggles Akito - it must have been a Shadow Assassin! They're the sort of people who leap out of the shadows and go Ki-yaaa! Banyan notes that that's what this one did.

The cameras in the construction bay didn't log anything, but Sharra chats with one of them (Kith thinks there's some self-mind-control going on), and it says it saw a truck, but it was noisy and it didn't write it down correctly. It says that the grey truck (with nice corners) went off along the road that has the small tree and the bent tree and the yellow tree. The party confirms which road that is, and the camera happily takes a picture of Sharra there.

Nancy Cartwright calls Dr. Kye, and asks if he told Artie to stay away from the grandmothers? Can he give Artie some of his first hand knowledge? Perhaps Artie can join Kye for a couple of days of first hand tutoring. Kye instructs Cartwright to send Artie to the Hippocrates.

Banyan reports to investigators about the grey van, as determined by a woman who talks to cameras. The investigators continue to put Banyan's reports in the "iffy" pile.

The party gets back in their van, and heads out along the indicated road. The only interesting things of note before the big highway are an ENT base, and an industrial park. Max considers where to look for information, and notes that both the ENT base and the industrial park are prime investigating territory; the former is likely to have some information, while the latter is a vast black hole of no information at all. Max is ready to head off to the ENT base for that, but Ciernan points out maybe that means the shadow assassin is at the industrial park. Oh. Yeah, that seems plausible.

An assault is made on an automatic street-sweeping truck on the way to the industrial park - there are rats aboard, but no humans. Ciernan flies himself and Sharra to the top of the truck, and Sharra chats with it. Sadly, it doesn't really see much other than the tracks it's sweeping up.

The Citrine Industrial Park is a gated secure facility, with a small set of companies:

Permanence Floral Arrangements
Sathar Trophy Manufacturers
Data Projections
Silent Tree Games
Reciprocal Resource Remanufactury
Cerulean Aquatic Tint Prints
Spokene Crystallography
Kye sends email to the park administrators, suggesting that Sparky Cola might be interested in setting up a facility in the park, and can they please contact him?

Banyan, with the help of Kye and Max, breaks through the security system at the gate without setting off any alarms. Once inside, though, everyone with psionic sense modes is at extra difficulty to notice anything:

"Like a million voices cried out at once. And kept crying." -Kith
Each complex has its own parking lot, and there are two empty buildings. There's no obvious grey van, though. Max reality-tunnels with Kith and Akito and Banyan into an empty building; Ciernan and Kye stay in the van, while Ciernan directs various birds around to nearby roofs; Sharra heads to the corner of a building where she can keep an eye on the park gate.

Max's group discovers a grey van in the garage attached to the empty building. Banyan disables the garage security, though it's more likely to have set off an alarm somewhere.

The party van develops a flat tire, and Ciernan and Kye battle a ninja for a moment or two (who absorbs some of Ciernan's psi during the fight), before the ninja retreats and vanishes again. Ciernan is somewhat disturbed by this, and asks everyone to check in. Sharra doesn't - and she's off the neutrino net. Max's group starts reality-tunneling out towards Sharra, which causes them to go off the network again, leaving just Ciernan and Kye. Ciernan promptly flies about fifty feet up, leaving Kye alone to nervously change the tire on the van, while watching for ninja.

Max's group appears by Sharra, who seems to be napping by the corner of the building. Kith's quick diagnosis is that she's asleep, but she's still awake. She's strongly influenced by something. Max notes that she's been searched, but the only thing missing is her radio. Kith counters the shadow assassin's influence, and wakes Sharra up.

Max searches out the past of the grey van, and notes that the guys being pursued took a big box out of the grey van and took it away. Then, a while later, they came back with a bunch of smaller cardboard boxes, got into the white van which had been next to the grey van, and drove away.

Dr. Kye communes with the van, too. It was stolen and brought here, and then it sat here, and then ENTS got in it and drove it somewhere else and back again. It belongs to Joe, the owner of Joe's Bakery, from whom it was stolen not long ago.

Citrine calls Dr. Kye back. They're psyched about the idea of having a Sparky Cola facility, and offer him a tour. Kye asks for some brochures first. After a little while, an electronic dataset of brochures shows up for him. Interestingly, one older brochure says there are three openings, while another says there are two. Hmm. Whichever is the newest is clearly the most suspicious.

Banyan starts working up a plan for how to spot a shadow assassin. It involves whirling around with a flashlight and shining the flashlight into any extra-dark places.

Ciernan talks to Spokene Crystallography, which has been in the park since it's been built. They mention that there's a reciprocal arrangement with the ENTS, so security shows up pretty fast if there's any sort of trouble. Banyan notes that Silent Tree Games (they make game consoles) got some new investors about three weeks ago. As a New Event, that's suspicious. So... the whole thing with the van was trading DaVinci in for a bunch of computer games? Surely he's worth more than that. Banyan suggests maybe he was being saved onto game cartridges instead.

If that's true... where's the computer DaVinci originally came in? Max locates it behind Silent Tree Games, smashed and in the dumpster. Banyan calls in his new report, which starts out well but then segues into video game cartridges, so they are again somewhat dubious. Kye notes that the smashed storage device is owned by the group mind. Okay, still on target.

Ciernan finds some other interesting clues in the dumpster, such as leftover sticky labels for a console game cartridge: "Core Raider", by Silent Tree Games. Banyan notes that Silent Tree is known for its custom cartridges, which can possibly pack a little more into the allotted space, but that the next game it's supposed to ship is something with a completely different title. Max thinks the rest of the Core Raider cartridges are in the direction of the highway.

The crew proceeds down the highway to the nearest starport. Dozens of ships are hanging around waiting to launch. Several ships are apparently cleared for launch now, after having been searched and scanned by ENTS teams.

As the party arrives, there's an announcement: "We'd like to thank you for your patience. The Astro Queen is cleared for immediate departure from gate 7. Please gather in the embarkation area." Right. So the combat must be in the embarkation area - the party heads there.

There's a traditional security gate on the way to the embarkation area - they don't always require tickets, but right now they are. And there's a metal detector. Max reality-tunnels through with Kye, Sharra, and Kith's bag (which also has several blasters in it). They show up at a table in the waiting area, next to a table at which Ruthie and Artie are seated.

Ciernan spots one of the tourists in line as the "patient zero" guy (but in disguise) and pickpockets his ticket. When Patient Zero reaches the gate, and starts to note that his ticket is missing, one of the airport security guys notes that he has dropped his ticket, and hands one to him. Hmm, it seems that at least some of the security guards are up to no good.

Akito manages to convince the guards at the gate that his sister inside has his ticket. Somehow, that manages to get them to let him right in - apparently the lost little girl has been causing them some trouble.

Ciernan calls a bunch of birds from outside, where the ships are, and tells them to swarm Patient Zero. Banyan executes his shadow assassin location plan, leaping about with his flashlight, and finishes by pointing it under a table, where he declares that there's a shadow assassin. Of course, nobody else can see the assassin. Max thinks that the closest hunk of DaVinci is at a nearby table.

Kith gets Banyan through security by claiming that she's a wisewoman and the mad flashlight-waving Brochoah is her patient. With a bit of a push from a geas, they get through.

Dr. Kye flings the table away, and, in fact, there's a ninja underneath. The shooting starts, and the ninja chi-pushes Kye away again. Ciernan starts blocking the ramps to the ship with walls of dirt, to try and prevent the passengers from getting on the ship.

Akito bows to the ninja, and introduces himself:

"I am the last disciple of Tiger Crane Kung Fu. Defend yourself, dark one." -Akito, giving the ninja an action
With the action, the ninja stands, bows, and chi-strikes Akito. Dr. Kye, Banyan, and Max helpfully shoot the ninja a couple of times; the ninja seems to think it's cheating for Akito to bring gun mooks to a duel, and leaps away.

One of the security guards declares "Code Black", and about half of the passengers in the lounge start running for the ship. Ruthie taunts the ninja into turning around again: "My big brother made the puny ninja run away!". However, the gun mooks are still being annoying, so the ninja tries to splat Dr. Kye - only to have Akito leap in the way.

"Artie! Don't run around in combat unless you're trained!" -Ruthie
"She's just mocking me now." -Akito
As the party is the most obvious trouble (it's suspicious to be dressed like a ninja, but not actually illegal), security starts shooting at some of the "gun mooks". Artie tackles Dr. Kye to "protect" him, but nobody really appreciates his efforts.

Ciernan battles over to the entrance to the ship, pushing ramps and guys out of the way, and Max joins him to help try and shut the airlocks.

With a mighty blow, Akito unmasks the ninja - her long black hair swings free, and Akito is struck dumb by her dark eyes. She flees, casting a glance over her shoulder. Akito chases her, shouting "Wait!", but she makes it to the women's restroom.

At the ship, Ciernan goes down, leaving Max to beat up the boarding passengers by himself. Kith hurries over, to try and heal Ciernan. The shadow assassin tosses three hapless passengers out of the bathroom, stands there in a Pose, and then flips the light switch, plunging the bathroom into darkness.

Once Kith stands him back up, Ciernan lightning-blasts the ship. This proves somewhat troublesome, as the ship doesn't have a good way to defend itself. One of the commanders calls out "Abort Plan #2", and the bad guys all pull out their video games.

"Let us walk out, and you can have the cartridges as we leave. Otherwise, they get it!"
Many of the security guards are baffled by this, but the group mind has infiltrated security enough that there's a lot of support for the exchange. The games on the ship are demanded too, and the offer is accepted.

Kith convinces a security guy that this is an international incident, and to call his superiors. Banyan reports in, and directs his bosses to try and arrest all the guys after the swaps, but only after all the games have been traded in.

Akito finally gets up the courage to investigate the women's restroom, sticking his arm into the darkness to flip the light switch again. He is shocked to discover that the women's room has couches. But no ninja - there's an open window on the far side of the room.

Ciernan and one of the group mind chat, as the hostage exchange progresses, and swap astonishment about their kung fu kids. Apparently, the ninja is the last disciple of Shadow Form, which makes an interesting match to the last disciple of Tiger Crane. The group mind wants to know how they found them - Ciernan considers the answer "lots of psi" less interesting than "The tree knew the video game company was shipping a new product," so that's what he tells them.

Ciernan and the group mind's leader continue chatting throughout the exchange. Apparently, the group mind has something the Shadow Ninja needs, so they've got her over a barrel so to speak. Ciernan confesses that Akito mostly hangs out because he's a fan of their work, but they do have something he needs too. Then the last cartridge is swapped and the group mind people are gone.

In the end, the official investigators arrive, the group mind escapes, and DaVinci is restored to his mainframe.