"Black holes are where God divided by zero."
|Some time around 2778.255 AS
The guild hall itself is a large sandstone building, with outer halls and inner ones which only skalds are permitted in. There are bulletin boards with job postings, and other bulletin boards with things like "need transport to X, will work Y and Z in return". There's a desk where one can arrange to hire a skald or skald-in-training. Talking to her about what they need, it sounds like skalds themselves cannot be hired for off-planet jobs, but journeymen can. The next Steadfast (i.e. TK psi) up on the roster is Garamot. She can arrange an introduction, though Max notes that she has something of an odd look on her face when she talks about him. Is there anything wrong? No, he's just a little ... eccentric.
The small group meets with Garamot, and explain that they want his help with a scientific experiment to try and devise a defense for the Tarn redliner. The plan is that he needs to hold the ship still against its engines, which is much like what the redline weapon did. Then, they're going to mess around with a pair of vacuum wickets, which it would be nice to have a Steadfast on hand for in case of emergency. He says that they've come to the right person, that he's never seen a ship he can't hold. He quotes a price of 300 asters, and has an additional condition. There is someone who he has a disagreement with, who thinks herself as good as he. She is often found at a local tavern called the Silver Cup; he wishes them to go there and speak of how they hired him for this job, how they've heard that he is the best. Ah, they see, he wants good PR plus money. Well, yes. They haggle a bit - money first, good PR later? No, if he is to be sucked into a vacuum wicket and killed, good PR now to be spoken about at his eulogy; he won't need the money.
They head to the Silver Cup, and start talking about how they've hired "the best Steadfast." One particular table with a young man and a woman perk up their ears; then when they say that's Garamot, she splutters. There's some talk with the woman, named Piula, who is also a Steadfast - no, the fact that the desk gave you Garamot's name doesn't mean he's the best, it just means he's next in the Roster. Well, from what they've heard... She seethes, but won't bad-mouth him, as that's clearly against the rules.
Max and Maury get the bright idea to hire her as well! They do a strange little good cop bad cop routine, where Max suggests that she might have to come along in case Garamot isn't up to it, while Maury sticks to the positive-PR line of being sure that Garamot is entirely sufficient for the holding-the-ship task, but that they haven't officially hired him for the vacuum wickets part. They agree to meet her in an hour and a half (having arranged to meet Garamot in two hours).
As Piula dashes off, they interrogate the young man from the table. They're both quite good Steadfasts, but they did use to be an item, and then they... weren't. So now they're in something of a feud.
A quick bit of waffling later, they meet Piula and hire her as Garamot's "assistant", for what she says is the standard fee of 300 asters. Then Max hustles her aboard the Hippocrates, while Maury goes to talk to Garamot: "We told them all you were the best, and they were all pleased to hear that. We even acquired an assistant for you, so you can perhaps teach them some of your tricks of the trade." Maury is smooth enough in the explanation that Garamot doesn't get around to asking who the assistant is before he is also bundled onto the Hippocrates and the ship takes off.
The two Steadfasts get put into the crew quarters on opposite sides of the ship, and given tours in staggered timing, which prevents them from running into each other until dinner. (Both are somewhat startled by the Tinoori first). Garamot is stunned; Piula is smug. Sniping ensues.
"They hired me, in case you weren't enough."The Tinoori have prepared their trademark Meal of Peace and Harmony, so things don't go too badly.
"Ah, yes, they did mention that they hired an assistant, someone who might well learn something from me."
The TK ship tests ensue. The main thrust of the ship (STR of Body) proves insufficient to break it out of Garamot's hold; they try to have Piula help, but while she proves quite strong, Hippocrates proves very unlucky, and the two together are insufficient.
Next, Hippocrates tries squirming instead (PRE of Body with piloting); he manages to nearly break free, but then Garamot rolls again with his fortune, and keeps hold. The experiment is a success! Garamot, however, looks exhausted, and heads to his cabin to rest. Piula asks if he's okay; she might be sniping, she might be actually concerned. Hard to tell.
Off to the vacuum wickets! A first pass is made along the outside of the paired black holes, dodging flotsam and jetsam from the dust nebula along the way. In addition to the data being gathered, Max spots a ship on the very edge of the event horizon. Hippocrates wants to dash off and rescue the ship. Maury is not at all confident that the ship is friendly, so can they please finish the experiment? But Hippocrates is the one driving, so it's off to make a pass by the derelict ship. (There's one vote for it being **ELMER TRICONIAN** and one for it being Strategos Nomarche).
Max identifies it as a Hegemonic non-military ship. It has one life sign, but no life support, and it isn't answering hails. In the pass by, the skald journeymen manage to drag it off of the event horizon, and the two ships drift back out of the careening flotsam and jetsam without further incident. Hippocrates brings it in to dock at an airlock. It has a bunch of big antennas, most of which have been bent and broken by flotsam. Inside, there's a huge sensor array that Max covets, and two cryo-coffins.
In the machine in the center of the ship is a young woman in a green uniform somewhat reminiscent of Jim's; in the other is a skeletal corpse in a uniform exactly like Jim's, except that the sash is much more filled with merit badges. His rank insignia has a flaming bird, and at the top of his sash is a blue oval merit badge, with a grey infinity sign.
The ship is probably fixable in reasonable time. It's left in a safe place while the party does a final data pass. Sufficient data is acquired for the last of the redliner experiments! However, the ship hasn't run through the path between the two black holes. It's impossible to scan into it from outside, and it's possible that there's something interesting in there. Max is terribly curious, but it would be unfortunate to crash the Hippocrates. Well, maybe the frozen girl will know something.
Back to the ship. The ship is the Bird of Prey, registered to one Andrew Prey, and it appears to have gotten stuck in about 2420. The woman is defrosted (she's unconscious), and Max carries her to the Hippocrates sick bay. He dresses in a Skyguard consultant's uniform; when she awakes, and asks how long she was in there, Max says "A few years have passed." However, the apparent plan to convince her that she's still back in the Hegemony fails when the sickbay appears to be staffed by a consultant and a Jellical, neither of whom is a doctor.
They offer to have Hippocrates reassure her, but she's not clear that there's anything the captain can say over the intercom that will seem very convincing. Oh, he's not the captain, he's an AI. Ah, the Acheron theory? Interesting. And they admit that it's 2778. Where is Andrew? (Her name is Dylanna). They're sorry, he didn't survive. She wants to see him. Max tries to calm her, that there's nothing that can be done for him now, and she does a good job of submerging her initial outburst of grief. How did they get stuck in there? It was pilot error.
She does, however, want to go back and repair the ship. On seeing Andrew's body, she breaks down a bit again, pounding the glass. "Damn you, Boy Scouts - you'll pay for this!" So what were they doing out in the vacuum wicket? They were trying to get some readings on the singularity to get inspiration for a warp drive research project; Andrew was the scientist and gravitics expert, though. She was just the p.. she breaks off. Hippocrates gives her the official briefing on the state of the world today.
At dinner, she is surprised to see the Tinoori, but doesn't shriek. She greets them with "I share my perceptions with you" which they are very impressed by. There's some discussion of her patches (which seem to be like merit badges, but triangular) - she has some for cooking, piloting, tactical psychology, and so on. She isn't very voluble, and goes back to repairing the ship after dinner. The skald journeymen, meanwhile, are uncharacteristically quiet, talking together about life and death and tragedies.
Max and Maury tell her that they have a few survivors from the Hegemony she might want to talk to (that one of them is a Boy Scout is not mentioned). Dylanna says she needs to take Andrew home, back to Ridena - er, Craterrock. (She's reminded not to call it that to non-old people). It will take some time to get there, but she'll contact them again after that.
Off everyone goes back to Sparta; by the end of the trip, Piula and Garamot have segued through getting back together as a reaction to the senselessness of death, to remembering why they broke up in the first place, to no longer speaking to each other.