"Magic is no more difficult to explain than physics -- but neither is it any simpler."
-- Ganelon, first Archmage of the Rosicrucian Academy, AS 2054
Gateway -> Crux
Jim briefs people on the conversation with Viktor. He has a crazy "braid" charging-the-lines plan which involves swapping the blood lines in and out of two political thrones. He pointed out flaws in their plans, and they pointed out flaws in his plan, and they both agreed to think about it. Viktor is also worried about Red being swallowed in a merger, and is more concerned about there being a Red-like Hegemony than about there being just one Hegemony.
The radio buzzes as someone asks for permission to board. He meekly says that he is Saladin, and he has things to discuss which he cannot say over open channels. As people wonder what this means, Ciernan goes and lets him in. Saladin has a suitcase, and asks if there is somewhere he can change. Ciernan lets him use his stateroom ("Mmm. Spartan."), where he swirls a voluminous cloak around himself and puts on a poofy hat.
Ciernan escorts Saladin to the conference room, where he announces himself as the Third Fool of Nonesuch. The crew asks how they may be of service to him, and he says that a light snack will suffice. Then, he declares:
"Know all ye present that the Fools Council, having accepted the reccommendation of the Super-secret Negotiating Committee, on behalf of the 123rd Random Congress, accepts the Hippocrates' proposal. I am not permitted to discuss the nature of the proposal, only that it has been accepted."(Note: For those curious about exactly how the Nonesuch government works, Jim has a paper which includes substantially more detail than the bluesheets.)
Saladin says that he will require but one servant - Akito volunteers. Saladin notes that this is a better class of ship than he usually gets - what time is dinner?
The party recalls that the messengers from Crux haven't arrived yet, but Jayla said they were on their way, and that everyone (Crux, Nonesuch, and Red (consulted but non-voting)) wants the Nonesuch/Crux jump gate opened. After some dithering, they decide to go to Vircus to pick up the Key of the Strategos first, rather than go to Crux, get asked to open the gate, and then have to go back to Vircus. But they'll have to make sure that Saladin doesn't know what's going on. Maybe they should jump around to fifteen different systems? On the other hand, he might find that somewhat suspicious.
Ace wonders whether they can acquire someone to go be an escort at the Throne of Klothos to possibly get hooked up with the Fifth Consort and spy on him for them.
"Don't you know someone, Ciernan?" -AceHow about Viktor? Can he suggest someone?
"Yes, but she's on Tinara spying on Sook." -Ciernan
"Why are we spying on Sook?" -Ace
"She's not spying on Sook for me." -Ciernan
"He's the heir to the Red Hegemony. He doesn't go around hooking people up." -JimAlso, it's not clear if someone Viktor recommends as a spy will be likely to spy for the party instead of for Viktor. And while Belle might have spies out here, she hasn't given all their contact info to Ace. There being no obvious spies at hand to send to the battlestation, the Hippocrates finally heads out towards Vircus. Sharra turns off the perilous-experiment broadacast, so as to not alarm Saladin (or let him know exactly when the ship is jumping).
When the time comes for dinner, Saladin doesn't show up in the mess hall. Akito has to fetch him - he's standing in his room waiting for Akito. At dinner, Saladin compliments the ship again - he'll have to see about getting a ship like this commissioned for the Fools Council. Usually the high and mighty Klothos provides transport for them, but it would be nice to have their own ship.
After dinner, Saladin enquires about what entertainment is provided, and is directed to the holosuite in the Exotic Dancer. Hippocrates asks Deirdre to let Jayla know that they're coming for the Strategos Key. One jump later, the Hippocrates is hailed by a pilot in a fighter - his heart is bound by the chains of command. The package is currently en route; at what priority rating should it be delivered? Hippocrates says normal priority, but he'll meet them halfway in.
Saladin asks for some brief radio time to speak to his people on Nonesuch. It is explained that they're not at Nonesuch. This puzzles him (Klothos's ships are usually faster, as they don't go on random side trips) but he goes back to his stateroom.
The fighter docks with the Hippocrates - the "package" is in a torpedo mounted under the fighter. Ah, that's what they meant by "what priority should it be delivered at?"
Ciernan investigates Saladin's piece type: he's "the bowling pin". Well, that's somewhat weird. The bowling pin? Unless it's from Bandu, and not bowling, in which case he's probably the one on the top.
Meanwhile, on Crux, Michael Firebrand arrives to his new post as escort to the Spartan Envoy. He is immediately pulled into the intrigue of the day, as it seems that the Parliament must vote on whether to allow a dangerous elemental ritual to be performed at the Rosicrucian Academy. A bunch of politicking later, Parliament decides to postpone the big ritual for a few days while they consider. (More on this later.)
The ship heads back to Gatway, and gets in line. The Hippocrates is not waved to the front of the line this time, and gets the traditional harbor pilot. Ace and the pilot swap stories (though all the pilot's stories seem to start "There I was in front of the jump gate...") as Ace tries to find out whether he's seen any weird hyperspace monsters. He doesn't admit to knowing too much about them.
The Hippocrates arrives at Nonesuch. Saladin says if they're continuing on to Crux he doen't actually have to talk to his people after all. People begin to wonder how to be sure that he's really the Third Fool.
"Has anyone read his mind?" -AceStrangely, the Nonesuch web doesn't have any pictures of any of the Council of Fools at all. Ciernan talks to his home office and asks for one - they say they really aren't supposed to do that, but they can if it's important. Apparently, the official Nonesuch policy is "no one is so much a fool as to claim to be a Fool when they are not."
"We don't have any mind readers." -Ciernan
"Can't you just zap him until he talks?" -Ace
"That's not the same thing." -Ciernan
Then, it's off to Crux. There's a hail on the general system defense channel: "Attention all ships in system. By Order of Parliament, all mages possessing elemental abilities are to please report at best speed to the Rosicrucian Academy."
The Hippocrates heads, (at best speed, with Ciernan and Ace helping) to the Rosicrucian Academy. In contrast to the last time they were here, there is a large rectangular wall around it, with a large obelisk at each corner. The ship lands outside the wall. Saladin is distressed to discover that this isn't the capital. There are people who can be hired to get him there in a couple of days, but the crew tells him to wait a few hours while they see what's going on. He dutifully retires to his state room.
Ciernan spots a familiar face among the crowd - Emmaline, a skald he knew from training. As he tries to catch up to her (but fails), he runs into Michael Firebrand, who briefs them on the mad plan: the Academy is "drilling a hole through the dust nebula to Creek" with a big psychic elemental ritual. The Rosicrucian Academy demonstrated a small-scale test to Parliament, only to discover that the dust nebula is "trying to develop an immunity," so they have to do it now if they are to do it at all. Only the Archmage knows the details of the whole ritual, but he's very persuasive. There's a three day delay that Parliament has called for while they look into this, which means the people doing the ritual are having to stall.
Akito gets intercepted by someone who recognizes him, as well: Johnny Cage! He says he's been defending Akito's honor. There are rumors that Akito travels around the Linked Worlds saying he's "the guy". But Johnny says no way, Johnny says Akito is more humble than that, so he fights anyone who says that and won't take it back. Akito shrugs, and says that he is "the guy", so strap them on and they can go fight. Johnny is very disappointed, but okay, they can fight. Ruthie thinks this is great, and points out that Akito could beat up Jim, too, and that Jim says it'd be exciting.
Ciernan mentions to Firebrand that he saw Emmaline. Firebrand says she's left the Guild - she was reprimanded for using too much force during a war, and she quit.
Ace starts sneaking around the premises - he can't get into the central ritual area, as it's being guarded (not so much by thugs as by people making sure nobody disturbs them). He climbs up onto the roof, and tries to eavesdrop through the skylights. They seem to be doing a ritual, with a cistern of water, a globe of air, a brazier of fire, and a mound of earth. Ace pries out a skylight, and this causes the people in the air part of the ritual to get very excited. The people outside at the huge air-obelisk also get excited. Ace carefully puts the pane of glass back.
Firebrand checks back in with the Spartan envoy - the Crux Parliament is going to vote on whether or not to continue the ritual, at the end of the delay period.
Someone plants a note on Ace: "Important. Meet me at the park at midnight. -B"
At some point, while taking the tour, Hippocrates starts taking damage to his robot body. Much panicking later, it's revealed that one of the many mages here to help is some sort of electro-suppressive. He introduces himself as "Sam, Binder of Lightning". Sharra's scanner really hates him, as he's smiting both Hippocrates and the scanner, but eventually he leaves and heads over to the air pillar, and all is well.
Meanwhile, there's an explosion of ice at the Water tower, and Firebrand goes to substitute in. Apparently until the ritual can go forward, everyone is just holding it in place getting specific numbers of successes. However, if anyone accidentally rolls too many successes, then the ritual ramps up and all the other towers have to ramp up quickly thereafter or it will become unbalanced.
Meanwhile, Jim investigates the local propaganda, trying to figure out what sort of nefariousness is up. The general propaganda for the ritual seems to be geared towards making Crux even more of a center of the outworlds, and doing something great and important, and the Rosicrucian Academy being cool because of that. Jim tries to tell if there's a flavor to the propaganda (Scout-flavored, Bibble-flavored, etc.), but ends up deciding that it seems to be by the same people who wrote the propaganda for "Come learn power projection and save the universe!" so it's probably local.
It turns out that Emmaline was the mage who exploded at the water pillar as Firebrand spots her on a stretcher, being carried to the medical tent. He sends Ciernan to find out what's going on, and Ciernan sends a bird.
Ace reports on what he heard from the ritual, and Sharra attempts to analyze it, with Ciernan's help. It appears to be a balancing act: the towers are providing the energy and doing the actual projection, while the central ritual simply keeps everything in balance. However, Firebrand's notes on the ritual from the tower point of view indicate that they're sending all the energy to the center, which is handling the actual projection. So where is the energy going and who's controlling it? Also, the ritual appears to have no way to stop.
"There is no cranking down, there is only cranking up." -SharraAs the needed successes ramp up, one of the organizers from the Academy passes a dose of Glitter to Firebrand "for emergencies".
In the medical tent, Ciernan asks after what happened to Emmaline. Apparently when the ritual went from 6 to 7 successes, she was overstressed and couldn't keep up. Ciernan thinks that's crazy as she was a Skald and can clearly handle seven, and besides, that still shouldn't take her out. Ciernan calls in Hippocrates, who wakes Emmaline. She stares deeply into his eyes and says "My hero!"
Ace relays that the central ritual says to be careful at sunset. People with psychic/magical theory wonder what happens if one of the towers folds - then each of the other towers overloads and generates a big elemental effect. At 7 dice, each tower would explode into a 28-die effect. The party remembers that the huge hurricane on Juice was a 30-die effect, and shudders.
Firebrand mentions that Parliament is hoping to have the ritual coincide with "Some other big event that has to do with travel." Oh, that would probably be... well, something they're not going to mention to Firebrand.
So... how does the ritual get shut down? Somehow the energy needs to go somewhere. Maybe some Vertaki can absorb it? Firebrand puts his foot down: no asking the Vertaki for help.
"The last thing we need is to go to the Vertaki and say oh, us poor outworlders don't understand psi, we can't shut down our ritual and we need you to save our butts. I'd rather blow it up." -FirebrandPeople ask First Frost of Autumn to try to perceive where the energy is - he thinks there's energy here, and more energy way out in the sky at the dust cloud. Firebrand mentions that not all of the Rosicrucian faculty is here - the main professors are, but some of the others are missing. Maybe they're in the dust cloud?
Sharra doesn't think this makes any sense - how can there be two connected rituals without big columns of elements connecting the two?
A field trip is made to space, to look at the dust cloud without the atmosphere in the way - Hippocrates, Sharra, and First Frost of Autumn head up for a bit.
"We need to figure out what the ENTIRE ROSICRUCIAN ACADEMY would be willing to go into a secret plan to do!" -CiernanJohnny and Akito get ready to fight - Johnny has marked out a fighting octagon. Firebrand tells them not to not use any elemental magics, lest they disrupt the ritual.
"Chi is just a crutch." -JimPeople decide to test Johnny's Iron Shirt chi technique, to see if it is "elemental". Ace throws a dagger at him, which bounces off - he's not very impressed with Ace's two successes. The fight begins, and Akito knocks some of Johnny's (earth-flavored) chi loose. Ciernan makes an earth dome over them, and Firebrand lights the inside with torches. Several Rosicrucians run out in a panic:
"Eat hot crutch." -Akito
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" -RosicrucianFirebrand calls his ambassador to ask what the Creek envoy's official position is. Apparently she's psyched about pulling Creek into the other outworlds a little closer. He reports that the Defender party just slammed things into stall, though. (This was due to Hippocrates talking to Senator Peters and asking him to slow things down until the party can figure something out).
"Do you want the Lendtian chi masters running amuck? You summoned all these powerful people and half of them are bored." -Firebrand
The people in space are curious whether the weird energy at the dust cloud is perfectly synchronized with the ritual on the planet. So Jim climbs up to the roof and takes the pane out. The air part of the ritual promptly goes horribly awry and two people fall off the air tower. They stuff Sam into the ritual; First Frost of Autumn thinks that the part in space also did something weird with air energy at the same time, so yeah, they're definitely related.
Eventually, too much "earth chi" is being flung around, and Firebrand stops the fight. It looks like Johnny can't touch Akito, though, and Akito has enough armor-piercing to get through Johnny's invulnerability eventually. Most learned observers give the fight to Akito, but Johnny insists on a future rematch to be sure.
Sharra builds a "psi long range scanner of doom robot", and they launch it towards the edge of the system.
Ace heads off to his midnight meeting with Belle. When he returns, he briefs everyone (except Hippocrates and Sharra, who are still up in space): that he doesn't know about an assassin who wouldn't be hitting someone who isn't Hippocrates. He promised (before Belle would tell him anything) that this wouldn't come out or get back to her. But the assassin, who might be on the way even now, has some sort of ability to touch you and then cause you to die much much later.
Akito thinks this sounds like Dim Mak. Ace glares at him, thinking himself mocked.
Sharra's Mad Probe reports back ("muah hah hah... soon I shall be THERE!") The area of the dust cloud has fire and other elements, but no people. The dust is roiling in what appears to be a big wide beam going away from Crux.
"So they're really doing what they say they're doing? That makes no sense!" -FirebrandMisfortune befalls Emmaline in the Air tower - an ice cloud forms around her, and she collapses again. Sam is holding the other half of the Air tower so he gets to meet Ciernan when Ciernan shows up to replace Emmaline. Perhaps he's an arch-nemesis in the making?
Over at the medical tent again, Jim wakes Emmaline up, and gets to be her hero. He follows her out of the tent, refusing to be ditched and trying to talk to her about what's going on. She says she thinks the Archmagus screwed up, and now they're just patching the dam.
"Why here?" -JimAce heads over and meets Emmaline; they make mutual hitting-on-each-other rolls, and head back to the food tent, leaving Jim behind. Ciernan and Firebrand close in on her from either side, and then the three of them start interrogating her. Ciernan thinks she's putting up a good cover, and is worried but not for the reasons she says she is (such as "being close to Creek is not necessarily a good idea"). Ciernan thinks her piece type is the "ironclad contract". After they've all eaten and finish flirting, the little party breaks up and Emmaline heads back towards the towers.
"This is where the academy is. The finest minds in the outworlds. So they keep telling us. Incessantly." -Emmaline
Meanwhile, Akito and Jim are trailing after Hippocrates, making sure he doesn't wander near any assassins, when Jim collapses. Gah! Hippocrates and Akito converge on him to find out what the problem is, but Akito won't let Hippocrates touch him, which makes medical work somewhat difficult. Maybe a cerebral hemorrhage? Akito makes Hippocrates put on gloves, after which they carry Jim to the Hippocrates sick bay. Jim gets some more hit points stuffed into him, and is then put in the tubes. However, Hippocrates has begun to lose hit points himself, due to mysterious radiation damage. Firebrand and Sharra rush to help. Sharra keeps feeding Hippocrates hit points, while Firebrand detects and neutralizes the radiation. A quick search of his eiditic memory indicates that one of the many people who have touched him on the fore arm today right where the radioactive substance sat was Emmaline. Perhaps she planted something on him that reacted with something else she planted on Jim, causing Hippocrates to get radiation poisoned after she was long gone.
Ace wanders around, looking for Emmaline again. He hears her voice from inside the Academy, and starts sneaking around inside too. Eventually he's confronted with two different rooms that have people in them, but isn't sure which has Emmaline, and stops short of wandering into rooms full of strangers.
Firebrand gets called by his envoy contacts regarding the missing Rosicrucians. They confirm that there are several missing, but don't know where they went. Ace gets a call from his secret masters on the same topic. Apparently, a bunch of Rosicrucians headed out on an undercover ship to Creek a month ago. So the other end of the ritual is on Creek? This is more evidence that they're doing what they claim, which is of course, crazy. Sharra thinks that it's totally mad to have two rituals at the same time, separated by a month's travel time. They'd never get the timing right.
"Unless it were acausal!" -AceCiernan declares that it's time to walk into the center of the Academy and demand to talk to the Archmage. Akito is happy to be a part of the plan. So is Johnny Cage! Ace goes and puts on his stormtrooper armor, just to be prepared. As does Hippocrates. But using elemental magic near the center of the ritual could still be dangerous.
"Perhaps I will, for once, wish I could use a blaster." -CiernanHippocrates calls Senator Peters, to explain that they think they ought to be marching in and demanding an explanation. Except that that's extremely dangerous. Does he want to know more? Yes, actually, he does. Well, the question is what authority to use. They could do this under the authority of Mr. MacPherson and Mr. Firebrand as Skalds? Senator Peters doesn't really like the precedent of Skalds getting to act as Crux law enforcement, so sends them a subpoena from his Parliamentary sub-committee.
In they go, waving their subpoena at the guys who are supposed to keep people from bothering the ritual. Akito says that the Archmage is Agent Morden. The ritual master panicks, trying to get the party to go around the outside of the ritual circle. Ciernan manages to keep standing between the Archmage and Akito, so Akito isn't spotted yet.
There is more brandishing of the subpoena - the ritual master and the Archmage both say dragging him out of the ritual will be catastrophic. Ciernan says he's going, one way or another, and Akito brandishes his finger. The Archmage, seeing Akito for the first time, blanches and proclaims that they're all mad to bring him here - they'll kill them all! Some argument (and dosing the Archmage with turquoise) later, both the Archmage and the ritual master drop out of the ritual, with only partial awryage (but enough to take each tower up to 12 dice each, or four 48-die elemental effects if something goes wrong). Most of the crew heads to another room to interrogate them, leaving Firebrand to oversee the ritual (joined, he is aghast to discover, by Ruthie).
The group tries to explain that the Archmage is possessed. Where are the Rosicrucian mentalists? The ritual master is a mentalist, and he says the Archmage is fine. Though when Akito touches the ritual master, he seems to be able to read Agent Morden's mind instead, and that convinces him.
"What does that mean, 'the guy'?" -the ritual masterSharra and the ritual master work on coming up with a way to shut down the ritual without catastrophe. They decide to dump the elemental power into creating a nice fertile oasis in one of the more arid areas in Crux. It takes two rounds of shutting down to defuse all the power, but eventually it all bleeds off (and there's one nice oasis). Agent Morden fades out of the unconscious Archmage.
"Do you hear that?" -Akito to Johnny Cage
Sharra's device calls her, to say that there is FLAMING ELEMENTAL DEATH heading its way, and this is its last report. Hmm. Um, maybe Creek didn't shut down its end of the ritual so cleanly, since nobody on that side knew it was happening... that could be bad.
"I just wanted to say: nice knowing you. And, next time... kzzzt!" -DeviceThe ritual master spends a little while trying to dig interesting facts out of Agent Morden's mind before he fades out. ("You did that? Oops, I shouldn't talk about the future...") The ritual was, in fact, drilling a tunnel to Creek as promised, but in an acausal way. Agent Morden thinks it would have worked and everyone would have been happy about it, for a couple of hundred years at least. Also, the fact that he's supplying the Terrans with tech doesn't mean the Terrans are going to survive the universe-transformation.
Firebrand still professes himself somewhat mystified.
"He's trying to help us in the present to destroy us in the future" -CiernanHippocrates tells Senator Peters that the ritual has been shut down. Everything seems to be resolved, except...
"I always feel like this around you, Ciernan. I'm told we saved the world, but I have no idea what we did or how." -Firebrand
"You probably want to explain to that fool guy why he's been kidnapped for a day and a half." -RuthieSaladin is discovered, having collapsed in his stateroom. Oops. He's revived and given something to eat, and then Akito gives him a ride to the capital in the holosuite of the Dancer. The Fool and Parliament agree that they want the jump gate opened; a senator from the Good Neighbor party, the Speaker of Parliament, and the Fool are all taken by the Hippocrates up to the jumpgate, where Sharra opens it. The Strategos Key calls her "Master" and is quite pleased to be Doing Her Will to open the jump gate, but nobody else hears it.
Hippocrates gives the general report on Agent Morden and his nefarious plans to selected Crux parliament members. Firebrand refuses to give the Glitter back to the Rosicrucians when asked for it - what are they going to do, have him arrested?