Don't Shoot, Don't Shoot!
As Jayla has been planning to tell the three wisewomen bound for Vircus about the role she expects to play in the saving of All People ("Before they convince them all to stop their Hegemon-worship, they should know why it might be relevant"), the run begins with a bunch of discussion about what being a Hegemon means and whether Jayla or Katya are good ones. In addition to the briefing-about-Jayla, the wisewomen are briefed all about Vircus, and are berthed on the Hippocrates rather than the pirate ship.
On the way to Crux, Ace and Anya take turns flying the pirate ship (Katya keeps them company while commuting back to the Hippocrates to work on Ruehan's research project), and Jim flies the Hippocrates. The group arrives at Crux without trouble on 2779.66, and Ace sets about selling the pirate ship. Everyone else pleads with him to sell it to someone legitimate, even military, so he ends up selling it to the Defender party after six days of shopping around, for 2400 asters. Kith goes and visits the people from her summer rerun - Grandmother Hannah has died, but the Small Field surly teen has in fact gotten a job as a spaceport guard. He proudly shows off his blaster to Kith, and tells her if she needs anything, he has Connections now and just say the word. Jim goes and watches some police training excercises. Maury, Martan, and Wilson all run some errands. Jayla talks to the outworld courier office and tells them that they'll be heading from Crux to Nonesuch in about two weeks, so they can take mail then, and faster than the dust nebula route. Mail starts being held for them.
Anya gives the redliner computer data to the defensive alliance - they're impressed, as they haven't been able to make heads or tails of the redliner computers themselves. Since the Hippocrates will be heading out again, Anya gives them Phaeton's name (and suggests motivating him by telling him that Sook did the other redliner). They've already started looking for inworld consultants, but the lag time is pretty high.
There have been three more redliner incursions in the area of Sparta - much of the outworld alliance fleet has moved there. There are no confirmed reports of an escaped redliner yet, but the general belief is it's only a matter of time now. Maury mentions that the Golden Ascension party has sent a ship to Sparta as of about a week ago. Jayla goes to try and talk to the Golden Ascension people; they try to chase her away when she says she's from the Hippocrates, but she manages to badger her way in anyway. They don't have a lot to tell her, though, other than the fact that there'll be a big party meeting in about two weeks. The group has to stay a week while Ace deals with selling the ship, so the question is whether to stay the extra week, or go to Pierogi.
Dmitri is pretty busy, but Vela has more time for Anya and the others. The originals of the Farseer's notes and books are left with them, and Anya asks what books they should bring back from Pierogi. Dmitri, through Vela, says it's up to Ruehan, and when it's pointed out that Ruehan isn't available, he says to use their best judgement. Another bit of information that turns up is that there is (or was) a Blue fleet buildup at Juice, and a Red fleet buildup at Nurl. Ace recalls that there's a closed jumpgate between the two. The Rupert's Hole plasma cannon gets mentioned - people start looking psyched to build one themselves, but it's explained that it requires old Hegemonic parts, which Rupert's Hole just happened to have one of.
The Pierogi expedition has returned some time ago, and the most significant thing it has to report is that the loa is apparently quite mean now. The capital is extraordinarily dangerous; people who go in don't come back, or come back wounded, or deranged. One survey mission is still on the planet, headed by Wolfe Sinclair; it's protected from the mad loa by another loa, somehow.
The group starts back to the Hippocrates to set out towards Pierogi, when they are intercepted on the street by Elmer Triconian! He is overjoyed to see his friends, the heroic crew of the Hippocrates! And lo, he has fulfilled his promise to them - he gives Ace a map. It's a large square, with Lendt marked in the center, and a bunch of dust drawn in by hand, and then a sort of twisted mazey area of dust, and then an X. Ace considers the map with what he knows of the outworld starlanes, and decides that if they were to try to follow it blindly, they would all surely run into dust walls and die. Elmer does admit that he has drawn it himself, based on many months of tracking of clues and investigation (the Inopportune Moment has disappeared into this particular section of space many times in the past, and the last time it went there it didn't come back) , but the Elmer's Gold would be able to take them there. And then, surely, the debt shall be paid! One of Elmer's shield generators tugs on his sleeve and whispers something to him. Oh, yes, and the asters he owes them. Those he repays as well. People note that while the last time they ran into Elmer, he dressed dramatically, but the clothes were a little worn; now he dresses dramatically in new finery. There is some covert speculation, based on the group's newfound knowledge about fortune as psi, as to whether Elmer is secretly the (or a) Blue Hegemon. It doesn't seem likely, though.
Then, it's off to Pierogi. Elmer has a few errands to run, but will meet them when they return and show them the way to the Inopportune Moment. The three wisewomen are strongly invited to come along and help with the loa. (It's past time to name these three: Grandmother Arabelle, a "healer of bodies, spirits, and places", Grandmother Clara, a sociologist, and Grandmother Serena, a herbalist and ecologist).
The group stops at the Pierogi Ogral first, and spends a while taking out the planetary disaster beacon. There doesn't seem to be a DNA scanner or palmprint reader or anything at the switch Jayla flipped, and she determines that it's not worth making a fuss over. The beacon, Wilson and Maury note, will basically say "Disaster on Pierogi" no matter where it's installed. The idea of all the emergency response ships accidentally blowing by an invasion on Crux to head to Pierogi would probably be more worrisome had anyone but Hippocrates shown up to Pierogi the first time.
Anya radios the planet, and the group talks to Wolfe. He's heard of the Hippocrates, but is a little puzzled by what they're doing on Pierogi again. He recommends that if they're going to land, they do so close by, where they can be protected from the loa.
The group spends the night in orbit - Anya has a bad dream, which she tells Katya and then everyone about:
You're walking along a street with the party. Suddenly, your attention is drawn to Katya. Her face is contorted with rage, and she points a hand at Ace, and clenches her hand into a fist. He looks startled, then pained, and then blood starts to flow from his nose and mouth...Maury suggests leaving Katya back in the ogral, but Anya points out that this is just a possibility, not a guarantee - maybe it's really "someone" rather than Katya and Ace in particular, and maybe the warning is that if everyone goes mad, Katya is the one best able to cause a lot of damage.
The plan is made to land the Hippocrates near Wolfe's group, close enough to be under their loa's protection. Further expeditions will use the smaller ships. Hippocrates is instructed to take off in five days if they're not back. Jayla and Katya try and bolster everyone's mental defenses as much as possible.
Wolfe and his team come out to greet the party. Among them are a "scryer", several techies, several biologists, and a bunch of handyman. They've been travelling around slowly, burying people and putting places in order. Wolfe asks again what the group plans to do on Pierogi - the two natives are hoping to go back to their homes and lay people to rest; plasma brands are not mentioned. Wolfe warns that the mad loa is likely to find them in an hour, no matter where they are, and it manifests outside the capital as people who attack. He also warns against going into the capital, where everyone goes mad.
Jayla considers the two possibilities of putting the loa to rest, versus just trying to dash around and get stuff done in half-hour chunks. She determins that trying to deal with it is more dangerous, but also more likely to lead to things getting done. Grandmother Serena stays with Wolfe's group, while the other two come with the party as it heads off to Jayla's valley, intending to face the loa there.
The group flies around overhead for a while, while Jayla points out landmarks (the tribe moved around in the valley) and Grandmother Clara looks for areas that look like long-ago burial grounds. Three likely spots are identified - one burial area, one set of barrow mounds, and a mountainous area with mines or caves. Upon further investigation, the burial area is probably too new for 2478, which is when the "last Alite" was buried, according to the Hegemonicon. The Dancer lands in a clearing near the barrows, and people get out to start looking around.
Shortly thereafter, a man walks up from the forest to shout at them that everyone is dead and that the group failed them. He charges Maury. While he's quickly grabbed, more manifestations of the loa continue to show up. Some people try and reason with them, especially Jayla and Anya, but they don't quite seem to be paying a lot of attention yet. Psychic powers aimed at one particular manifestation seem to drain away into the larger mind of the loa fairly quickly, but Jayla and Kith's combined efforts against one particular manifestation do cause it to be somewhat sulky and non-hostile. For the most part, the party tries not to hurt them, though some people lose their tempers and some do attack back a bit, despite Jayla's exhortations to not shoot them. Being hit by a loa manifestation is a disturbing experience; it drains mind dice.
Eventually after much grabbing and persuasion, the manifestations retreat, and another one shows up, striding purposefully forward in an Anya-like costume (Anya later describes it as the uniform of the captain of the Farseer's guards). As everyone has been saying that the group is here to help, he fixes on that.
"You are here to help? You have shown yourselves capable. You will avenge us, then."
The mad loa, originally in denial, seems to have moved out of anger and into bargaining. Some negotiation ensues. The loa wants those who did this slain. All of them. Jayla offers justice instead of vengeance. What justice would she offer? Maury pipes up "Burning in the Flames." The loa find that acceptable, that all of them be burnt, and ask Maury if he so vows that it will be done. Maury backpedals, saying he doesn't make vows, that's Jayla's job. Anya tries to explain that the people here have a mission to save All People instead - would he let everyone die, such that they would pursue his mission instead? Yes, actually, he would. Though the fact that they're on a mission from the Farseer does give him more pause.
More negotiation continues. How about if the Deciders in question are judged fairly? They counteroffer that the Deciders in question should be brought here to be judged. Fairly judged, Jayla insists. He's willing to listen and judge fairly, though it seems clear that he doesn't really expect there will be any excuse substantial enough that fair judgement won't involve killing at least a whole bunch of them.
Jayla says she can't promise to bring them all here. Will she promise to try, the loa demands. She will not promise to devote her entire life to a war with the Deciders, and it could be impossible.
Maury suggests that it won't take a war - just bring a really big psychic noise generator to Pierogi, and the Deciders will surely follow.
"Maury: simple technical solutions to complex ethical problems."Jayla isn't willing to put this as first priority - saving All People comes first. The loa manifestation isn't willing to allow saving of the people who did this as an acceptable priority above his. Anya argues against attacking the humans who are already on Pierogi - the loa is surprised. There are other humans on Pierogi? Yes, there are. The loa counteroffers - bring them someone else who is capable, who can commit to doing this for them. What does the party get in exchange? The loa won't kill everyone else on the planet.
The group withdraws to confer. Some long discussion later, they come back to talk to the loa again. Jayla starts: "I have stood where you do now, and I took my vengeance, and it did not help. Can you read my mind?" Another loa manifestation, an older woman, shows up and does so (that also drains some of Jayla's mind dice). The loa concedes that it did not help Jayla, but points out that she could not have moved forward until she had passed through that door.
Finally, an agreement is made. The party will bring people here who are able and willing to act for the loa, and the loa will allow people back on the planet, though anyone who comes must bury the dead. When the murderers are brought here, the loa will judge fairly. However, no one may enter the capital until their deaths have been paid for. Troth is pledged.
While everyone else settles down for a long time of barrow searching, Anya (borrowing a pilot) heads heads back to Wolfe's camp to tell them what happened and then take a fighter to Cemla. She sets about digging a mass grave for the dead there, and happens across a stone for Vodrich Sentinel, marked with a hand.
Back in Jayla's valley, the oldest barrow has been located; Maury tries to teleport a plasma brand out of it, but nothing happens. Before days are spent digging up all the barrows, though, Mirris gets bored and checks out the caves. Look! One portion of the cave has been bricked up, and is marked with a winged hand and eye (like Janzur's symbol but with wings. Jayla points out that by the time she was around, Alite were like angels, and having wings wouldn't be surpising).
Pictures are taken for Dr. Kye, and the bricks are carefully de-bricked. Inside is a burial chamber with carefully wrapped bodies; above each is a name and date. The first is Ticerus Vanalen, 2052, the last is Iorich Peredrin, 2478. There are also three plasma brands, but they look badly corroded, and Maury determines that their microplasma lenses have broken. The buried elite don't have spiffy Janzur level armor, but they do have some Hegemonic pins. Maury grabs samples from all of them for later genetic analysis.
Since people are thinking about genetic samples, the group proceeds to where Jayla's tribe was, before they were killed. She didn't pay attention to which people were her biological parents when she was doing the burying, but lots of samples are taken from the two burial areas.
Dr. Kye did say that there was a working microplasma lens somewhere on Pierogi, so the next guess is the spot 140 km east of the valley, where Hegemon Varna sent the second settlement. The Dancer flies that way, to discover that that's Cemla. The group calls Anya; she's still digging graves. No, she doesn't want any help. She does mention the grave of Vodrich Sentinel - that's likely to be where the working plasma brand is.
Everyone else heads back to Wolfe's camp, and fills him in on more details about the loa. He's impressed; he hadn't really expected them to be able to deal with it. A few days later, Anya finishes her burying task, spends a while angsting about whether to dig up Vodrich Sentinel's body, and finally does so. He's wrapped much like the other Alite, and in a very long sealed box is a plasma halberd. (It also isn't in working condition, but the microplasma lens is unbroken). She also gets a tissue sample for Maury's analyses.
Then, loot acquired and loa semi-pacified, the Hippocrates heads back to Crux. The Elmer's Gold is about halfway out to the jumpgate to meet them. He's psyched to head off to Lendt, but there's still the Golden Ascension party meeting. Jayla considers this, and ends up at the conclusion that her attendance at the meeting is not likely to have a strong effect on the fate of All People either way. Wolfe's messages are transmitted to Pierogi, and various other political contacts (Dmitri, the Cooperative Front, the Defenders) are warned that there's a Golden Ascension meeting and they should make sure to have people in attendance. The various politicos don't seem to find this as important as the party does, and they don't admit to making a habit of sending spies to each other's meetings, but they've been warned, in any event.
The Elmer's Gold leads the Hippocrates through the maze of dust clouds outside Lendt for about a day's travel, until the ships round the bend of dust, and see: a large asteroid, a ship, and a smaller asteroid. The ship appears to be hitched to the larger asteroid with a towing coupler, and has a very large bite taken out of it, and probably went straight to vacuum when that happened. That asteroid appears to have some hollow spaces inside, though the asteroid material is dense enough that it's hard to tell what. And the smaller asteroid is solid titanium.
Anya has had a bad dream about something coming out of nowhere to attack, so everyone is quite on edge. Anya and Jim are put out in fighters, and everyone gets into vacuum suits. The expected enemy fails to show up for a while. What sort of thing would take a bite like that? Ace hasn't heard of any applicable space legends except for the Great Omphalos Dust Wyrm, and that seemed to eat ships whole.
The bite has taken out the ship's airlock, so there's nowhere really to dock. Jim takes his fighter into the bitten-out section, but it's not really feasible to land it on the inside deck of the ship, and the idea of his ejecting and then flapping over in his space suit, while hoping the fighter doesn't drift away is deemed a little dangerous. Maury declares this to be His Job, shoos Jim's fighter back again, and teleports over.
That is, he attempts to teleport over. What actually happens is that he teleports briefly to the empty bitten-out section, and then a ship appears there, overlapping/nestled into the derelict, and Maury appears on its bridge.
Chaos ensues. The Inopportune Moment (yes, of course that's who it is) is pretty sure it's under attack; they peel away and start shooting at the Hippocrates. Ace manages to dodge, while Jayla goes on all-out peacemaking, shouting at the fighters not to shoot. Kith dashes for Engineering.
On the bridge of the Inopportune Moment, Janina Megaera orders two highly tatooed and beweaponed women to take Maury into custody, and demands of Aristotle (at a nearby console) to find out what zed it is. Over the intercom comes another voice - "Captain, this is Grimm, and it is down here." A vastly painful-sounding (to Maury) damage report follows. Maury notes that he's at the bottom of a very deep teleport well, allows himself to be captured, tells Aristotle that it's 2779 and makes a bunch of suggestions to Grimm.
Jayla works hard on explaining that the Hippocrates isn't the enemy, and keeps anyone from actually shooting back just yet (though Jim keeps asking for orders hintingly), despite the fact that the Inopportune Moment keeps shooting at them (though Ace and Katya are able to prevent any damage so far through heroic shields and dodging).
Back on the Inopportune Moment bridge, Grimm reports in again: "Captain, I'm trying not to listen to the saboteur, but he's making a whole lot of sense." Captain Megaera demands that if the Hippocrates is friendly, it should deactivate its weapons and surrender.
No weapons get powered down in the next action or two, which Captain Megaera seems to consider dilatory, and shoots a warning shot with one of its cannons (it would probably have looked more like a warning shot if Ace didn't have to dodge to keep from getting the ship hit.) Grimm comms up again: "Captain, this is not a very good moment. Can we have another one?" but she tells him "he isn't back yet."
The Hippocrates and fighters do eventually power down their weapons, which the Inopportune Moment is willing to consider a truce. Jim/Maury identifies the Inopportune Moment as resembling an early Hegemonic (others will be able to peg it as Marathon class) courier ship, but it's clearly been highly modified.
Janina: "You understand, we're not used to having the Skyguard on our side."The Hippocrates' captain is invited to bring a small delegation over to the Inopportune Moment to discuss matters. About now, Maury notices that something is about to appear where he's standing. He shouts "incoming" and dives out of the way; the two Painted Ladies on him also dive. An unconscious man appears in the circle where they were just standing.
Aristotle sets up a targetting lock on the Hippocrates - Captain Megaera tells him to set it so that if they power up their weapons, blow them away.
The party (including Grandmother Arabelle, but not the other two) go to the airlock to parley with the Inopportune Moment crew. Kith brings a box of teas and aromatic herbs as a gift. They're met by four highly tatooed fighter-types (one male, three female). They're relieved of their blasters (not Anya's ceremonial halberd, not Ace's hidden mini-blaster or neural disruptor, and not Jim's paint gun); it's suggested that the Ladies should also be unarmed, as well. They consider this and comply, amusedly, though they decline to let Ace search them. As they search the party, the male Lady reports to Janina:
"There's seven, one is scanning us into the dirt, and two of them are Creekians."The group is ushered into a conference room, Maury is escorted in (he marvels at the ship on the way down), and they're left to themselves. The captain will down shortly, one of the Ladies says. Kith doesn't think she's lying, though there is a brief paranoid examination of the air vents (they exist) and looking for separate gas nozzles (none are spotted).
Maury amuses himself by tweaking his own radio to listen to the Inopportune Moment's traffic - they appear to be listening to the group, and are a bit taken aback that they haven't interrogated the boarding party. "They must still be on plan." Eventually, Captain Megaera tires of the waiting game, and she and Aristotle come to talk, accompanied by all five Ladies. Introductions are made all round:
A briefing of the past 150 years ensues, up to the Decider infopacket, and an explanation is pieced together for what happened to the ship. They had been intending to teleport ahead a few years, but while they were gone, another ship showed up and tried to steal their asteroid. This being a somewhat slow process, they were still there when the Inopportune Moment began to reappear on top of them; that was a disaster, so they tried to jump back out again, but instead hung in time, until Maury, the teleport sink, got into the area and dislodged them. Maury asks if they can teleport back in time as well as forward. Captain Megaera says that's a trade secret, but the Ladies are thinking "no, only forward". She asks "if things are progessing as you say, where did you get the hardware?" and he answers "Trade secret."
Anya points out that they could skip forward past the Flames! What flames? They get briefed on the Flames, too. Jayla tries to suggest that the Inopportune Moment should refrain from going after a lot of merchant shipping during the war with the Deciders, and could instead make a good living capturing redliners. Ace tries to suggest that it would be Far Too Hard to capture a Decider capital ship (as he's pretty sure that would motivate him to try), and Jayla agrees (in all sincerity).
Partway through the conversation, Captain Megaera appears to decide that the party is an ally and not an enemy. The crew of the Inopportune Moment is officially happy to accept the help of the crew of Hippocrates in their future endeavors; there's some exchanging of looks as if to wonder exactly who is the PCs and who are the NPCs, but Maury does get to help Grimm repair the damage; the party decides to stick around for a little while while repairs are made, rather than dash back to Crux. (Alas for the waiting mail!)