``Fear not child, for so long as the Hegemon watches over us, we shall be safe from the flames.''
- The Book of the Hegemon (Puritan edition)
The last of the loose ends on Tinara are wrapped up. Or perhaps there is only one loose end, and it is wrapped up. But no - there are no loose ends at all, and so the time spent discussing the grammar of the situation is lost. The party leaves the system.
They postpone any taking of the OmniNet people on a secure jump, at least for today, and jump to Vircus via the closed gate to Ganfrey. Janzur queries the gates along the way, and all the expected ones answer that they're in secure mode.
Arriving in the Vircus system, Hippocrates once more notices the weak broken signal. As they head down to the planet, they confirm that the two stations are still in orbit, and the mysterious signal, which is on the general broadcast frequency is pinpointed to be coming from the battlestation. After about a day and a half of travel, it finally becomes intelligible.
"This station is off limits. Do not approach. Authorized personnel, identify and state your command chain and authorization."
Janzur, Sophia and Hippocrates all compare chains of command. Well, Janzur and Hippocrates do, Sophia sort of vaguely remembers hers. Some debate occurs as to which chain of command to give the station. Hippocrates' chain of command is pretty long, and goes through the medical wing of the SkyGuard right up to the Strategos. Janzur's chain of command is much shorter, going through the head of the Elite and then straight to the Hegemon.
Ace proposes cutting cards to pick one, but Janzur decides to send Hippocrates' command chain and authorization. Hippocrates does so; it's quite impressive. The station doesn't say anything except to keep repeating its demand for authorization. After fretting a bit, they send Janzur's code too. Still no response. Hippocrates tries to figure out whether some sort of response would traditionally be called for, but this whole asking for a chain of command is somewhat aberrant for a well-behaved battle station in any event.
Hippocrates closes to just outside of weapons range (about 1.5x) while Sophia attempts to build a test probe to send closer in. Not wanting to destroy the party's only hamsterball, they decide to use a flying video camera with a little radio on it. It doesn't steer or have any attitude control,so you mostly just fling it... It transmits, "I belong to the Hippocrates, please don't shoot me." Ace makes a piloting roll to fling the little probe towards the station. It receives a couple of warning shots across the bow (or perhaps the battle station just missed at long range), and then it is vaporized as the entire station opens up on it. ("Kathoom" go the 18 photon cannons.)
More discussion ensues, as the station is quite mighty, and Hippocrates is not entirely psyched by the idea of being atomized. Janzur finally proposes flying into weapons range. Hippocrates orders all hands to battlestations, (confusing the Tinoori, who decide that their battlestation is the kitchen), and in they go.
The ship gets into weapons range. Hippocrates sends his code again. The station shoots, and misses. (A warning shot?) The station shoots again, and misses. Janzur takes this chance to send his code. No further shots are made, which is good, because if things went similarly, the next shot would have been a lot of guns. Ace pilots the Hippocrates closer, and still doesn't get shot at. Hippocrates notes that various things are on line, like weapons and the docking bay. There's a lot of low-grade radiation, and one active power source: the main reactor. Scans of the planet indicate that there are at least two mining domes down there.
The plan is: Hippocrates lets people off at a battlestation airlock, then goes to the top of the station where there's no good way to shoot him. Everyone who isn't Ace brings two of each first-aid patch/injectors. Sophia and Kith bring first aid kits, and Kith takes some of the drug supply. On the station, the radiation is painful, but not instantly fatal. Sophia takes this opportunity to unveil her experimental enviro-suit, which looks something like a Dune force-field, with a crackly transparent halo effect. There's poofy inflatable bio-suits for everyone else, but it turns out they're not so good against radiation. ("Acquisitions - get radiation suits." --Ace). Everyone else brings poofy bio-suits just in case, something else happens, and in they go. They do an air test in the airlock. There's oxygen,though it's stale, so off go the poofy biosuits again.
They barely get five minutes in to searching the battlestation when it suddenly goes to red alert! Hippocrates notices a tiny little ship ascending from the planet and heading towards the station. Monitoring the communications indicates that someone is transmitting a "chain of command":
"I am Dyvas son of Anadis son of Kyfor. My heart is bound by the chains of command; I serve the Sky Guards in all things and humbly await your judgement."
Unfortunately the battlestation computer is not impressed by this transmission. A tractor beam shoots out from the battlestation and roughly swats the incoming vessel. It's is knocked off course, and sent into a staggering orbit around the planet. The pilot goes silent.
The party double times it to the battlestation command center (passing signs for interesting things like the hangar bay on the way). Everyone but Sophia takes some radiation damage. They get to command, and the doors open to Janzur's Elite code. Inside there's a dessicated long-dead guy wearing the uniform of a SkyGuard lieutenant, slumped in the computer console seat - the first body seen yet. He's typed in a long long last log. Around this time, Ruehan wakes up and gets briefed by Hippocrates.
Ace and Janzur manage to keep the small ship from being swatted a second time when it comes back around the planet and instead use the tractor beam to get it into the landing bay. Sophia discovers that the reactor isn't dumping radiation any longer, things are just radioactive from when the exhaust vent got vented originally. Ruehan finds the one last radiation suit and stuffs Ace into it. Ruehan himself claims to not need one (there's that "Dead or immortal" thing again). Kith loots the sick bay for stuff, though it's mostly like the Hippocrates' sick bay stuff, but old and irradiated. Ace manages to get Hippocrates a channel into the computer so he can continue the hacking of the computer even after they leave.
The people in the hangar (Sophia and Ruehan) get to the primitive ship. Along the way they notice that the hanger still has twelve Skyguard Fighters in it. The pilot, Dyvas, staggers out of his space capsule (more like an Apollo module than any of the ships people are familiar with), and salutes Sophia in particular (she's wearing her Skyguard uniform today). She insists that he sit down and have his arm splinted. Then he is hustled to the Hippocrates, so as not to be further irradiated.
Ace and Janzur discover that the armory, alas, is mostly empty. The ship weapons armory on the other hand has various torpedoes, and replacement parts for fighters and photon cannons.
Meanwhile, the medical parts of the party are interrogating Dyvas. Apparently the people of the planet have been sending up their best and brightest hero, every single year for the last couple centuries to be judged. Not one of them has ever returned; they have evidently not yet been judged worthy by the Sky Guards. Everyone is disturbed by this, so Kith feeds everyone tea.
Throughout the interview, Kith notices that Dyvas is getting worse and worse, though not due to his arm. After a bit of diagnosis, they discover that he has a blood clotting problem.
Dyvas: "Perhaps it is because I am impure and not worthy of the
rarefied air of the Sky Guards"
Kith: "That's probably not it, dear, let's just check you over."
They bring in the Tinoori to examine the residues on his uniform and stuff. He bravely faces them with the Sky Guards' reassurances. They detect lot's of nasty hydrocarbons all over him. Piecing the evidence together, they realize the Vircus atmosphere is filled with (among other things) nasty blood thinning agents. The population has become environmentally adapted to having some blood thinner in the air, and now that Dyvas is breathing clean air, his blood is beginning to thicken. Kith and Ruehan administer some anti-coagulants and all is well.
The party then tries to figure out how to convince the planet that they should stop sending primitive spaceships up to get killed. Then people try to figure out how in reintegrate them into galactic society given their odd religious beliefs.
Meanwhile, Ace is appropriating a radioactive torpedo. "Why do we need a radioactive torpedo?" "This is the densest worth per pound I could find." Doctor Symphony-Hayes builds a little containment thing for it in Ace's quarters.
Janzur interrogates Dyvas about his martial training. Dyvas says that he's ready for the test of physical worth, but Janzur declines to beat him up since he has a broken arm.
More discussion ensues about what to do with the 5171 guys on the planet. (5172 if you count Dyvas, but given the way the Judgment Day flights have gone for the last few hundred years, they tend to deduct the pilot from the official population total just before he takes off.) Ace points out that since the children aren't adapted to the thinner atmosphere yet, they could take some babies and dump them off somewhere. The rest of the party decides this notion isn't quite appropriate.
During the discussions, Janzur relents and decides to go beat Dyvas up anyways. Well, Janzur at least tests his level of skill. Dyvas seems competent, though has a broken arm, and fewer dice due to his atmospheric problems.
The discussions are still somewhat fragmented, but it seems time to head down to the planet. Well, maybe not just yet. They decide instead to head over to the mining station. Yup, it sure is a mining station. There's some unprocessed ore and things, but nothing really useful.
Ace points out that this planet is the second remnant of the old Hegemony, and it should be treated like that. Um, what does that mean? Ace isn't clear on that part. But maybe it's okay for them to be the holy warriors of the Old Hegemony.
The decision making isn't quite finished, but they finally head down to the planet. (Hooray! The GMs were beginning to think that would be left for next run...) En route, more discussion about how to present ourselves. Should we heal them and get them off the planet, or turn them into our elite cadre of personal warriors? Ruehan claims to have significant skill in directing governments, so expects he could get them to implement whatever plan people want without disrupting their whole culture, if only people would give him one. Maybe the populace can be put in charge of decontaminating the battlestation?
Perhaps they simply help the people fix their domes, stop throwing away their entire economy once a year, AND start cleaning up the battlestation. Yeah! That's a plan!
With this plan in hand, Hippocrates lands on Vircus. There are three domes, only one of which is inhabited, as two of them are seriously holed. The landing plaform is in between the three domes. Half of the platform is covered by the launching gantry, but there's enough room for the Hippocrates. Hordes of people quickly run out of the dome and prostrate themselves before the Hippocrates. Sophia comes out in her glowing enviroshield and uniform and orders the crowd back into the domes. They obey instantly and run back into the mostly breathable air.
They are greeted inside by the populace and the three priests. There is the 80 year old patriarch, Marchand III. Under him are two high priests, Vocari Donaris (the Commandar in charge of doctrine and ceremony), and Vocari Selwyn (the Commandar in charge of training). The patriarch leads them to the high temple fo the Hegemon where they are invited to examine the holy books. One is an ancient original copy of the Book of the Hegemon (Puritan version). The other is a more recent (penned about a century and a half ago) Book of the Hegemon (New Reformed). The books are under a transparent shield, protecting them from the atmosphere, but even so, the first book is decrepit and nearly unreadable. Vocari Donaris receives a message from a novice and tells the party of a feast prepared in their honor, but they are scared of the Vircus atmosphere contaminated food, so they stall a bit.
The Patriach tires from his exertions, so eventually Donaris, Selwyn, and a picked honor guard escort the party to the feast. Donaris speaks as they go. "I am grateful beyond words that the final test has come during my own lifetime. Now, I can complete the tasks laid upon myself and those who preceded me for hundreds of years. Death to the Sky Guards!" At this, several of the picked escort turn and fire at Sophia! Vocari Selwyn cries, "HERESY!" and attacks Vocari Donaris. General combat commences. They take down Sophia, who fails her death check. Luckily, Kith has a stabilizer pack and applies it in time. An illusion of the Strategos shows up briefly to say "This is not the way!" but, alas, the party are really the only people who recognize him. When things turn south for him, Vocari Donaris pulls out a hand grenade and drops it at his feet praising the Strategos. Janzur kicks it away and one of the students of Vocari Selwyn throws himself upon it. As his final act, Donaris manages to poison Selwyn, but Kith is there with Hippocrates' anitdote drug. All the cultists are eventually captured or killed, and the only actual death on the good guy side is the poor guy who threw himself on the hand grenade. Janzur's biosuit was destroyed during the combat, and his uniform is recognized by the Vocari and Patriach as the Hand of the Hegemon. The cultists are given to the judgement of the Sky Guards and the party decides to interrogate them privately.
In the in interrogation, Kith softens the prisoners up and Ruehan interrogates / mind-reams them. They were the little Cult of the Strategos hidden all this time among the worshippers of the Hegemon. Kith tries to persuade them that they've made a bad choice; given all the mind softening, they are somewhat convinced. They also get out of them the other two members of the cult who were not present at the assassination attempt.
Sophia: "These guys are going to be doing a lot of radiation scrubbing."
Ace: "No, only the holy get to radiation scrub."
The prisoners are returned to Vocari Selwyn for his justice.
With the Patriarch on one side, and Vocari Selwyn on the other, Ruehan stands to address the gathered population of Vircus. By now, word of the assassination attempt has spread and the crowd holds its breath, waiting for their doom to be pronounced.
"Good people of Vircus. You have waited long, you have overcome many hardships, and you have tested yourselves along the way. All this time, you have been waiting and now we have arrived to assist you along the next path. However, there has been corruption amongst you for this time, which means you must work ever so much more diligently. You have passed the first test, but there are more to come. We are here to make your lives easier and to give you a challenge to work towards rejoining the people amongst the stars. We will help you rebuild the domes, we lay the task upon you to preserve and maintain the Star of Judgment, and to expand your cleansing to serve humanity and the Hegemony. You no longer need to have your yearly test; you must now refocus your efforts to improving your lives and to the next path of cleansing the Star of Judgement. We will lead you up into the air and we will teach you how to do these things. Prepare yourselves. You have kept the faith as some others among the stars have not, but you must continue to keep it as there are always trials ahead."
The crowd is relieved and cheers the Sky Guards.
Sophia has an idea about hardening foam on the outside of the dome with Hippocrates' plasma jet. They enact this plan and it works pretty well, sealing up the dome. Sophia works on the air plant a bit and with the new sealed dome, they start the long process of very slowly clearing the dome air, so that the populace can be weaned off of the addiction to atmospheric blood thinner. Janzur investigates, as usual, the armory, and determines that they have a lot of cool stuff, but all of it is very very old and in disrepair. (Roll-a-d10; 8 and 9, nothing happens, on a 10 it explodes.) Kith brings in a bunch of new plants, and heals a bunch of people throughout the domes. (She lays hands on them and they get better. All hail the Sky Guard!) Sophia and the local doctors go over how to monitor the increasing filtration and the colony looks to be back on its way to health.
Finally the party gives the Vircus priests space-train Engine No. 9, appropriate fix-it manuals, and flight simulators and so on. Xanthippe's car is docked to the docking ring. They carry five volunteers and Vocari Selwyn up to the battlestation to learn how to decontaminate things. It will take the efforts of the volunteers and the PCs four days to decontaminate four fighter and put them in Hippocrates' bay. After the Hippocrates leaves, the Vircus people will be (so they trust) able to use Engine Number 9 to get up and down to the battle station and continue the radiation decontamination to make it safe.