" "The briar patch, eh?" said Brer Fox. "What a wonderful idea! You'll be torn into little pieces!" "
-- Ancient Terran legend
Speaking of AIs, the ship is hailed, apparently by DaVinci. He's invited in, and Ciernan heads down to get the door, but it turns out that his avatar isn't a guy like Hippocrates's Bellarion-bot, but instead is a small floating drydock, holding a very junky and broken-looking ship vaguely reminiscent of the Dancer. The Hippocrates offers to meet in orbit, instead.
Meanwhile, Jim and Hippocrates have been in a meeting with General Hornberg, in which he lets them know he's been searching for the Terran mothership they all know is in this system somewhere. One of his patrol ships has gone dark though and is no longer responding, so he dismisses them and heads off to look into it.
Everyone converges back at the Hippocrates, and heads into orbit to dock with DaVinci. There is much comment about the horrible-looking ship.
"That doesn't look like the Dancer." -KithDaVinci allows as it is, in fact, the Dancer, and Ace begins to fizz. ("Does it fly? Does it even hold the vacuum out?") A flexible conduit is attached down to the smaller ship's airlock, and people troop aboard. Inside, it looks much the same, except that the galley is smaller.
"It actually looks like the Danced." -Ace
"It has a holodeck, for goodness' sake!" -JimDaVinci sends his hologram (which looks much like Hugo Weaving) to give a tour of the ship. Ace immediately pokes a blaster through it, just in case. DaVinci explains: "You've already seen the extra-perimeter hologram...." and goes on to explain the rest of the ship's enhancements. (See ship list).
"The backup engine, which is a reserve engine rather than an engine for backing up..." -DaVinciThe ship then receives a call from Major Danson: there is a message for Hippocrates from General Hornberg. The package that was misplaced has been followed by a second package misplaced in the same area. Major Danson sure hopes that means something to Hippocrates.
Hippocrates quickly briefs the rest of the crew: the Blue fleet has been looking for the Terran mother ship, since all signs continue to indicate that it's in the New Light system. One of the search ships had lost contact in Sector 5, but now a second one has been lost going from Sector 8 to Sector 5. Both ships were lost out near one of the stable interior Trojan points that has a lot of asteroids in it, so that's the immediate suspect.
The mini-Hippocrates fleet (Hippocrates, DaVinci, and the Exotic Dancer) heads out towards the mysterious asteroid area in question. Ciernan stays on Davinci, and then Ace, Jim, and Max sneak a bit farther forward in the Dancer. Max, on scanners, sees the asteroids briefly get bright, and Ace remembers a long-ago time in the Well when he flew through an area that got bright like that, and it burnt out his sensors and he had to land from memory. So whatever it is could be dangerous.
The Dancer sneaks farther into the asteroid cloud, and hides behind an asteroid. They haven't spotted anything responsible for the bright flash when they spot, on the other side of the field, a patrol group of three more Blue ships, heading in this direction, so they could fall into the trap soon too.
The Dancer sneaks back to the Hippocrates, and Max sends the data he got on the Mysterious Flash over to DaVinci. DaVinci does some analysis and thinks that it's some sort of an EMP which is likely to disrupt a bunch of systems. With the Smeerps' help (not that they're good at ship engineering, but they can carry things), DaVinci outfits himself and Hippocrates with magnetodynamic reflectors, which ought to protect them a bit from the strange EMP pulse.
The Dancer (with Hippocrates on board instead of Jim) heads out to the Blue patrol, and warns them about the trap. If given a few hours for the refit, he offers to support them with a fighter squadron. They agree to hold up and wait.
Ace and Ciernan head into the asteroid field this time on the Dancer; Max joins the Smeerps on DaVinci (which is now nobody's problem). This time, they get close enough to see some possibly derelict ships - three Blue military patrol ships, and one unknown ship (not the huge Terran mothership), also apparently derelict. Ace shoots the fourth ship and Ciernan puts it in a fog cloud, as Max identifies it as a standard New Light freighter.
Ace decides the freighter must be the bad guy, since it's not a Blue patrol ship, shoots it, and then takes off at high speed back towards the others. The Dancer is pretty far away from the freighter when the flash goes off again, so it only barely takes enough damage to take it down, so it pops back up with reserve engines. Then the flash bounces off of the other ships' magnetodynamic reflectors, head back to the Dancer and that takes it down again. Hippocrates tractors the Dancer out of the asteroid field, and the party regroups. All the ship radios have been burnt out by the EMP, though the neutrino headsets still work.
Jim realizes that now that everyone (including the Blue patrol) is badly damaged, it's the perfect time for them to attack. But nothing is attacking - which means that this isn't a trap, it's some sort of diversion. Uh, oh.
Kith notes that the downed ships have live people in them, and pings Jayla with "cure physical addiction", which is code for "I'd like to talk to you." As people discuss what to do (rescue the ships? flee? kill the freighter? sneak aboard the freighter?) Jayla drops by Engineering and marvels at the recently installed electric deathtraps hanging from the ceiling. Kith asks if she can get a message to General Hornberg saying that this area is a diversion. Jayla will see what she can do, though she doesn't have drop-in privileges with him.
"We found all the packages, but there was the can of nuts that was actually the snakey sproingy thing..." -DaVinciAfter much buffing and sneaking, and targetting by Max, the Dancer sneaks in and opens fire on the freighter's EMP unit. They managed to disable it and prepare to board. As they dock, a radio signal goes out: "Harbinger, this is Tar Baby. Phase 2."
The crew of the freighter immediately surrenders. Though their instructions were to hit the button any time anything moved, they claim to have thought they were targetting asteroids. They're handed over to the Blue patrol ships, and the freighter's shielded radio is used to call the rest of the fleet.
The fleet reports that it's on its way to Sector 5 and the asteroid field - they're told to turn around, this is a diversion. About that point, there are calls of alarm from the few ships remaining in sector 6, which then immediately go off line.
The Hippocrates heads off at top speed to Sector 6; Ace burns out DaVinci's engines and both Ciernan and Ace are exhausted. It looks like there's a small fleet headed for the gate to Sundown.
A large group appears to peel off from the fleet and head for the Hippocrates group. They aren't distracted by Max's SEP field, and, in fact, appear to be a missile barrage. Everyone goes wild putting up defenses - space tornadoes and extra dodges and ECM and more. Additionally, one of the Vircan fighters is sent off (with an autopilot installed by DaVinci and a Hippocrates-like signature designed by Max) to distract as many missiles as possible. It gets about sixty out of the hundred total. The rest don't get past Ace's dodges and Ciernan's tornadoes.
Max manages to detect that the "fleet" heading for the Sundown gate is actually one ship with a sensor echo reflector. It's managing to project the sensor echo of the actual fleet, which is heading for the Tyrell's Folly jump gate instead.
Deciding that this is yet another diversion and no time can be spared, the party fleet continues rushing towards the real fleet, trying to reach them before they get to the gate.
Finally, the Hippocrates fleet reaches the Terran fleet. It has about sixty (!) small escort ships, and the expected Big Terran Mothership. Max, Hippocrates, and DaVinci determine that the big ship has:
The small escort ships are in three classes: white, yellow, and purple. DaVinci says that white is unarmed but looks armed, and that purple should not be targetted by any psi. Kith determines that at least some of the crew of the big ship has bitey shields. Jim briefs everyone on how to "fall down" when hit to keep the enemy from retreating.
Linnet, who's been getting increasingly more nervous throughout all the mad dashing, asks Kith what's going to happen. Kith explains that they're going to fight the big fleet. Linnet wants to know if everyone is going to die? Kith isn't sure. Linnet is not so reassured by this.
The five Blue ships which manage to reach the intercept point are instructed to fire upon the purples, and then the yellows.
"What rules of engagement are there?" - DaVinciThe enemy commander gives Ace a round to soliloquy, because he's the most iconic of the party (Ciernan has been power-projecting into him).
"Kill them all!" - Jim
"Don't fire in or out of the jump gate box." - Hippocrates
"You brainwashing snakes! No longer will you strike from the shadows and then run and hide! You stop here!" - AceSeveral of Skyguard Battle Squadron 1 (the Vircan fighters) shoot white ships, and then discover that they can't shoot anything else. The white ships are also "blockers", and are slow and difficult to move away from.
<laughs contemptuously> "People of the Hippocrates. My people tell me you have caused us a great deal of trouble in the years that have passed. But know that you now face Noah's wrath personally, and you will lose." - Noah
DaVinci notes that the Harbinger is six separate ships, which can separate. And they have torpedo tubes.
Max gets people to target the attachment between ships, and one of the Harbinger sections is broken off. This makes it slower-moving (not that the Harbinger itself is very fast). The Harbinger launches its torpedoes, one per section, except for two - which Kith reports are refusing to fire on the Hippocrates.
The torpedoes hit the Hippocrates, with a clanging noise but no explosion. They seem to have attached. Everyone prepares for boarding parties.
Jim, in the Dancer, sets off a Death Blossom attack, which causes the Harbinger crew to stop having any qualms about shooting their torpedoes. Hoping to capitalize on the qualms, Ciernan summons Cassandra to the bridge.
No boarding parties seem to have come aboard, and Kith doesn't think there are any people in the torpedoes. Max thinks that they will eventually just fall off again, but nobody thinks that's all there is to it. They probably have Evil Plagues of Death in them! Hippocrates asks First Frost of Autumn to try and figure out what they're doing. Kith manages to get an external camera pointed at one of the torpedoes, and thinks it looks something like a limpet mine. Except it's not exploding.
The Dancer gets hit by a torpedo from the detached ship - he "falls down" spectacularly, preventing that part of the Harbinger from fleeing. On the Hippocrates bridge, Ciernan gets Cassandra to broadcast:
"Noah, the plan failed. Don't throw away any more lives." -CassandraFirst Frost of Autumn reports that he's perceived the "limpet mines" as best he can, and he doesn't think they're dangerous. They don't have any diseases and they don't have any explosives and they barely even have any power and they aren't doing anything except holding on, really really tightly.
"Greetings, High Lady. Now that I am awake, it is no longer your position to lead, but to ask. But if you wish to save lives, you need only not follow us." -Noah
Max finally figures it out: they'll hold on until a ship hits jump space, and then fall off, altering the ship's configuration, so it can't come out of hyperspace. DaVinci immediately alters his tone from "What the hell is up with these munitions with no warheads?" to "Man, that's cost effective."
Much more fighting ensues. The Harbinger slowly gets closer and closer to the jump gate, as the Hippocrates fleet knocks more pieces off. The Hippocrates acts as a blocker against the Harbinger, and is rammed several times, until Hippocrates has to go to auxiliary power hit points. Jim, in the Dancer, gets off a couple more Death Blossoms to good effect, until one Purple ship hangs out near the Dancer inside the jumpgate box, possibly to draw the fire of a Death Blossom and get the party in trouble with the entire known universe. Dancer's backup engines also get a good workout, as the Smeerps keep patching the main damage.
At Hippocrates' order, Ciernan takes the last dose of glitter, and becomes an even more terrifying Lord of Lightning. The Harbinger is finally split into all six pieces, and Ciernan blows the closest piece away from the jump gate.
Noah broadcasts again:
"Congratulations, Hippocrates. Well done. It has been centuries since I have met an opponent worthy of my skill. We will meet again."At this point, the small purple ship which has been in the jump zone near the Dancer turns and goes through the jump gate, surprising the party, which had not realized that that was the ship with Noah on it, rather than any part of the mothership.
"In the name of the people of the Linked Worlds, I require you to power down and surrender." -HippocratesMost of the rest of the Terrans surrender, though about 20% of their fleet manages to follow Noah through the gate.
Unfortunately, the torpedo mines will take even DaVinci twelve hours to remove, so the party is unable to give chase. They spend time removing mines and repairing, as the arriving rest of the Blue fleet takes the remaining Terrans and Terran ships into custody.