``The Hegemon requests and requires that the ships and crews of Bastion Home Force 3 be turned over to the Strategos at this time. A refusal to comply will be considered an act of treason, or an act of war. We will permit Bastion to choose which.''
- Strategos Ambros Gabriel Nomarche, AS 2439.202
Twelve hours later, the Hippocrates arrives at Craterrock, no worse for wear. They proceed towards the planet, passing a suspicious debris field, which Max proceeds to scan to within an inch of its life. However, nothing comes out, nor are there any distress calls, so the debris field is left behind and the planet approached. As the ship nears orbit, Max notes that there's a ship on the Preserve side of the planet; its transponder identifies it as the Triton's Dream. They're very close to a location about fourth on Kye's list marked "Zoo?"
Much discussion of whether to hail it ensues. Max notes that the ship's gravitics are on, though it's landed - that's a bit odd. The Triton's Dream finally notices the Hippocrates and pings its transponder, so Ace hails them. Someone who introduces himself as Starfarer, but speaks in a computer-generated voice, says hello. They're from Juice. Is the Hippocrates also here for archaeology? Yes, well, maybe. Research, that's it, research. Did they bring techies? Yes, the Hippocrates' techies are really hot shit. Starfarer is a bit taken aback; does the Hippocrates have any more regular techies? No, no, just really good ones. "Really good" proves a bit more reassuring, so Starfarer explains. Their group is trying to get into a cryostorage facility, but their attempts to get through the final door failed and resulted in the security for the door going into lockdown mode. The Hippocrates is willing to consider helping, though Sook is suspicious that they seem so willing to accept help from completely random ships happening by.
Ace brings Hippocrates in for a landing across the clearing in which the Triton's Dream is landed, and the party proceeds over, though not before Sophia demonstrates her new toy, which is a holoprojective disguise; it currently looks like a giant blue chicken, though with some tweaking she changes it to look like a cartoon version of Craterrock. Also heading to the Triton's Dream are three shaven-head humans, returning from the forest (where, presumably, the actual site is). The humans introduce themselves as Vacuitas (engineer), Itus (thief), and Certus (fighter); the ship itself is in zero-g and very humid, and has three dolphins in it, who introduce themselves as Starfarer (the captain), Seeker (visionary), and Curmudgeon (computer ops).
It's "Seeker's gig" so Seeker gets to explain that they're there to look for whale DNA; he's been having dreams of whales. Starfarer explains a bit more - dolphin visionaries are supported by the communities on Juice, because they're usually very useful. Seeker in particular has had a lot of important visions, such as foreseeing a storm which sank the floating city of Mist; normally "support" doesn't extend so far as to involve a whole ship and crew, but in this case it did. When things broke three days ago, Seeker said to wait, so they did.
The ship is Starfarer's; the human crew are Nullers, who are traditional partners with dolphin ships, since both prefer zero-G. The Nullers are a bit contemptuous that nobody but Sook has any zero-G skill, but they try and hide it.
The group retreats to the Hippocrates to confer. Should they help? Whales seem harmless enough, though making whales out of whale DNA is quite a large project; Juice hadn't been known for that level of biotech commonly available, but it's possible. What will they ask for? The rest of the old DNA that isn't whales? Access to the biotechies on Juice (who must be pretty good if they're going to be building whales from scratch). Sook suggests that this group probably can't actually promise other people's help, so what they should do instead is just convince these guys that the Hippocrates and crew are really great, so they can show up later on Juice saying "How did the whale thing turn out? Do you need any help with that? Oh, and we have this other thing, maybe you can take a look at it if you have a chance?" and they will. That seems both more polite and easier than trying to get this group to sign a contract saying "We owe the Hippocrates a large but unspecified favor to be determined later."
Kith thinks maybe they can acquire some willow tree DNA? Sook, caught up in the moment, thinks that the Hippocrates should grow a whale in Hydroponics; they can give it to Juice when it's too big. It's pointed out that a baby whale is still pretty big (not to mention the previously mentioned "building things from DNA from scratch is hard"). Alas.
Everyone takes a look at the site. It's got an upstairs, which is officey, and a downstairs, which doesn't so much suggest "lab" as "science center." The door to cryostorage is off of the downstairs. Wilson and Sook manage to repair a hard drive from an upstairs computer, and find an actual list of what's in cryostorage; it's backup genomics for the Hegemon's Preserve. Is there anything really dangerous, like bioplagues? No, the dangerous stuff is more like velociraptors, nothing as small as bacteria or viruses. Eva tries to determine if there's anything that would be tactically useful to acquire. Well, again, there's velociraptors...
Ace talks to the three Nullers, and gives them an evidence packet. They think that's pretty cool. They're really quite well-informed; they've heard of the Hippocrates (old ship, dug up on Janus, went to the outworlds and watched an alien invasion, etc. They're also considering going to the outworlds and fighting the Tarn, though they're not sure what they specifically can do. They think that downsiders don't care so much about trouble elsewhere, whereas Nullers, being tied to no one planet, can see the larger picture.). Eva, Kith, and Hippocrates query Seeker about Simeon Bellarion (last known of on Cerulean), who Hippocrates says was related to one of his crew members. Seeker wants to know what crew member, notes that surely anyone like that would be long dead, and then says he is sorry that he has no information to provide. This is considered mildly evasive by everyone but Hippocrates, but they don't press. Kith has "Detect Lie" up and notes that he's not actually lying, but he's surely not being entirely forthcoming either. The group diverts into interrogating him about whales. What sort of whales? You know, whale whales. Like dolphins, but lots bigger. Well, what were they doing? They weren't doing anything. Well, maybe swimming, they weren't space whales. Nobody is entirely satisfied at the exchange, as whatever the group is trying to find out has not been found out, but then, it's not clear what they were trying to find out.
Anyway, as there aren't any terrible plagues, and whales don't seem like a bad idea, the group agrees to help. Sook chases everyone away from the little door computer, and attemps to open a back channel to convince it to come out of lockdown mode. An initial attempt doesn't quite make it, but doesn't break it any further. Sook switches to her lucky wire, and then breaks through easily, acquiring both the reset code and the door-opening code. The room inside is chill, and about the size of a walkin closet, with many many pullout shelves behind force fields (the force fields appear to be keeping the cold in). The keyboard controls for the shelves have to be replaced, but that's not hard.
There's some quick discussion of whether it would be bad to take lots of stuff that's the only extant sample of it, since there's only the one tube each, but Sophia realizes that DNA is small, so you can take aliquots of the sample and leave the rest. The nullers take some of the whale DNA, as well as that of a lot of other underwater animals. The party takes aliquots from two Cabry specimens that none of them (nor the Tinoori) have heard of, and two from Nerele, and one completely random sample. (Max picks which, with two fortune succeses). The group also plunders the rest of the hard drives from the office computers.
Then, it's off to the Hippocrates's site. Should they ask the Triton's Dream to stick around? Well, they don't really want to give away where they're looking. As a compromise, they figure that it'll take the Dream two days to leave, and if there's anything that they're really needed for, Hippocrates can radio them.
Hippocrates lands in a clearing near the other site. On the way across the clearing, a mountain lion turns aside from the rabbit it was chasing to eye the party consideringly. Kith attempts to look menacing at it, so as not to look like prey; the lion takes this as an attempt to look like competition, and attacks her. After Kith is mauled for a bit, the lion is shot to pieces. Max, investigating whether it was a real lion, notes that it has a dyed/tatooed patch on its chest, which looks roughly like a hand and squiggles. Hmm.
The party proceeds the rest of the way across the field without incident, and into the woods and to the entrance. Like the previous place, from the outside, it resembles a shallow hill with two overlapping natural-looking walls shielding an entrance. The entrance itself is a solid-looking metal door, more like a blast door than a front door, which has a symbol of a circle and a wavy line etched into it.
Kith identifes the symbol as something used in the outworlds to mean "mage locked." As further clarification, this doesn't necessarily mean there's active magic on it, only that it's expected to require a mage to get through (such as a combination lock that's been randomized and needs a farseer to tell the combination). Kith being the closest thing the party has to a mage, everyone continues to look at her.
Ace: "You're the oogly boogler. Go oogly boog!"While everyone is busy looking at the door, a rabbit (that is, a guy wearing skins) appears from the woods, goes and looks at the lion, looks at Hippocrates, then looks in the direction of the site, then leaves again. Once he's back in the woods, he's very hard for Hippocrates to keep track of. Hippocrates lets the party know, expecting there to be an ambush by rabbits shortly.
Ace: "Want one of you talky people to try bellowing?"Max and Ace go and check out where the rabbit vanished, but neither of them is an adept tracker, so they don't figure out much. They head back to the entrance again, and stunners get passed out to anyone willing to take one, while Hippocrates scans madly around looking for larger groups. Max and his tricorder determine that it is basically a blast door, with two big bars and a turny wheel, all on the other side. It'd be easy to open from the other side, or maybe with a telekinetic. Sophia starts scribbling designs for an electromagnetic projector.
Eva: "Like, um, yelling 'here I am, come leap on me?'"
Hippocrates spots a group of some humans, approaching the cave. He lets the group know. Eva and Kith head over towards them, to make first friendly contact. It turns out to be about ten of them, bearing nets and spears. Eva offers her knife, hilt-first; they throw a sticky-vine net on her, and then on Kith. Kith, trying to make the universal surrender symbol, discovers that the tangle-vines are also built to constrict when you wiggle - she stops before she passses out, and confines herself to amplifying positive emotion on the leader of this group (about the best she can get is curiosity). Poles get strung through the nets and the carriers start heading out; a couple of other rabbits peel off in different directions.
The stealthies (Ace and Max) start to follow the rabbit capturing party, while the non-stealthies (Sook, Sophia, and Wilson) start to head back to the Hippocrates. Sure enough, the non-stealthies are soon set upon, except that Sook has happily blended into a bush and is not spotted; Sophia and Wilson surrender and allow themselves to be carefully wrapped with nets so that they can still walk, while Sook manages to get back to the Hippocrates by herself. Hippocrates insists that Sook sit in the captain's chair for the rescue mission, which Sook agrees to ("Only because it'll make you feel better").
The captives get dumped into a big square cage made of bamboo pieces roped together. Happily, that's as far as the Flash Gordon reference goes and they are not dumped in a swamp. The leader of the rabbit tribe interrogates the captives - why do they work for Exit Only? He is met with complete confusion. Who? Why did they kill the totem animal of Hot Caution? The lion? Because it attacked them. Who is Hot Caution? This tribe. Soemwhat haphazardly, more bits come out. The tribe of Exit Only has invaded the lands of Hot Caution, and rather than fight, they had agreed to let it be settled by a fight of totem animals. However, the party has killed Hot Caution's totem animal. Does the party have a totem animal? "Yes", Eva answers without hesitation. Ah, then if they send the totem animal trainer, and they are inducted into Hot Caution and the animal fights for them, then they will let the captives live.
This isn't quite a fair deal, but the group will consider it. Eva requires that Sophia and Kith be freed first (Wilson is forgotten). Yes, this is acceptable, but they must be accompanied by warriors. This is also acceptable. Meanwhile, Sook is ransacking Jayla's room for fur and skins to wear; she adds some feathers for decoration, and a hegemonic symbol from the Hippocrates uniform, on a ribbon. (Clan Hippocrates cannot be symbol-less if Hot Caution has a symbol). The clan chief tells them about the No Exit totem animal, which is a large white lizard with a crest of spines; Sophia recognizes it from the description as a bone angel, which might well have been in the Hegemon's preserve. Very fast, and poisonous.
Sophia and Kith and the six Hot Caution warriors get back to the Hippocrates. Kith attempts to convince the warriors to be calm, but they're really not going for it while in the actual flying hell of the Sky Devils. Sophia programs the holographic belt to look like a fire-breathing wingless dragon, sporting both the Hippocrates logo and the Hot Caution logo. Then she and Kith and the warriors go back outside to picnic, while Ace puts on the belt, stocks up with blaster, neural disruptor, stunner, knives, and Yellow patches, and then heads out with Sook.
The Hippocrates tribe's animal trainer and her totem animal, as well as the ex-prisoners and their escort, traipse back to the village, where they prepare to pack up and move half a day's journey towards the battleground with No Exit. The Hot Caution shaman examines the Ace-dragon somewhat cautiously; she ends up deciding he is a very unusual totem animal, but acceptable. Then Sook is tatooed with the Hot Caution symbol on her upper arm, and blood is traded, making her officially People and not Sky Devil. Eva successfully negotiates being let out of the net, but not the cage, so the Hot Caution warriors do in fact carry the cage and the two last prisoners along with them, since most of the Hot Caution village is going to the war. Kith carefully works on making them all be patriotic and pro-dragon, if not actually pro-Sky-Devil.
Both tribal chiefs meet in the center of the battlefield (another clearing), and agree that the war shall be decided by battle of totem animals. Then the "animals" are set at each other. The bone angel is indeed fast; its strategy appears to be to dart in, score a hit, and then back off and dodge in the hopes that the opponent will fall down due to poison. Sadly, since Ace is well stocked with Yellow hyposprays, he does not fall over paralyzed, as it expects. Still, it's pretty strong, so it gets in a number of good bites before he finally takes it down with blaster fire disguised as fiery breath. (Lesson two about neural disruptors is that they're not as useful as they might be against an opponent with a lot more actions than you). Kith heals Ace once, but the No Exit shaman immediately perks up, suspicious, so she doesn't do it again. Eventually, Ace is victorious, and cuts the bone angel's throat for the killing blow.
Eva and Wilson are released (though Eva was in the process of cutting herself free anyway). Eva and Sook (followed secretly by Max) walk back with the tribe, while everyone else has Hippocrates pick them up. Eva tries her best to convince the Hot Caution leader that there are many clans among the Sky Devils, and picking on the wrong one is likely to get you in trouble. The leader is pretty sure that they could have killed at least a lot of the Sky Devils had they chosen to, and is not completely impressed by ideas of vast retribution later. He's willing to concede that the Hippocrates Clan of Sky Devil was useful, but not that they're not evil (because all Sky Devils are, really). In addition, he has the (probably correct) idea that if all the People were to stop killing Sky Devils, they'd be invaded by more Sky Devils, not fewer.
By the time the walking people get back, Sophia has mostly finished building her magnotorque generator; it does, in fact, open the door. The aphorism about any highly advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic is considered proven. The compound is furnished in a style reminiscent of how Kith has decorated the guest staterooms; there are conference rooms and offices and living quarters, for a reasonable number of people. A note on a plastoflimsy has been left on the entry hall table; it was left by the last Consul from the Deep Expansion Worlds, as well as an envoy from each of the outworlds, in protest over the war being started against the outworlds.
The computers are powered up and looked through; the main thing they have information on is the investigation of the outworlders into the incident that sparked the conflict. Apparently, there were joint military excercises in the Bastion system, in which a Hegemonic ship was "accidentally" destroyed by one or more Bastion ships. When the Strategos requested and required that the crew of the ships in question be turned over to the Hegemony for investigation or prosecution, the Bastion government refused. This was taken as casus belli for war. The outworlders had been trying to find out more information on the incident, but much of the data coming out of the outworlds was classified or otherwise inaccessible. However, several of the Bastion staff believed that one of the ships being accused of shooting the Hegemonic ship was a Courier-class vessel, and thus unlikely to be carrying weapons mounts (though it could have been armed with torpedoes).
An assortment of things are carried back to the Hippocrates. While the envoys clearly packed up before leaving, that was in the sense of packing many suitcases, rather than a moving van of things. On the other hand, the compound is not a permanent living area, more like the Camp David for Outworlders. An eclectic sampling of things, from the Wisewoman's spare formal robes to an elegant but fragile vase to a Hegemonic toaster oven to an elegant antique footstool, are collected and taken away.
Ace prowls around the Hot Caution village disguised as the dragon, trying to auto-scan people with Max's tricorder and taking one blood sample under the pretext of biting them. Ace and Sook fly around for a while trying to get a glitch in the Dancer's automatic gravitics sorted out. Then, the investigation is deemed mostly done, and the group takes off again. Oh, and there's the Fifth Jumpgate here - a look is taken at that (after two days of travel time). Sure enough, it's been somewhat dismantled, and in huge carved letters on one facing is "GOOD FENCES MAKE GOOD NEIGHBORS." Sophia is sent out to carve a small bit off of one of the letters, to attempt to date when it happened.