A Synchronicity of Smeerps

"Watch where the audience is looking, if you want to see the magic.
  Watch where no one is looking, if you want to see the trick."

-- Kaliol Rogard
   Poetry for Pedants

2778.297 - 2778.338 AS
Creek -> Rupert's Hole


As loose ends are tied up on Creek, a message is sent to the Hippocrates that Grandmother Sandra wants to see Kith. Kith has, alas, gone into the tubes, so Anya and Jayla go instead. She has heard that they may be going to Rupert's Hole - if so, can they bring a message to a man named Ghier, that his expertise is greatly needed at Fernwash? And bring him back, if possible? She would prefer that he not be told too many details of the Fernwash project without a commitment, however. They have been sending him messages, but have heard nothing back. Someone (Max?) asks to what extent he should be brought back if he doesn't want to come; Grandmother Sandra doesn't think kidnapped researchers will actually prove useful to a project, so not. He is a talented Gatherer, and psychic theoretician, now retired to Rupert's Hole. Is there anything they need before they go? Information on Rupert's Hole would be good. They are directed to the wisewomen at the Traveler's Assistance hostel.

The wisewoman there provides them with a "standard navigation tape" (actually a piece of paper) with astronavigation directions. What can she tell them about Rupert's Hole? Well, what are they going for? To settle? No, to, well, to look around. Ah, tourism. There's not a lot of tourism on Rupert's Hole, to tell the truth. Only one continent is settled, the one that FirstTown is on. FirstTown is still there, and the starport is nearby. There's no planetary government, though there's a FirstTown government. The population tends to be divided into settlers and bordermen, the former in the interior of the settled area of the continent, the latter expanding the frontiers. Settlers tend to be second-generation or later, while bordermen tend to be first-generation frontier types. It's a nice place.

Off the Hippocrates goes; Ace plots a course which shaves a little bit off of the expected travel time. Along the way, Jayla starts making long heavy leather jackets out of tanned blood lizard hide. Ace helps make them Cool. By the time the Hippocrates reaches Rupert's Hole, Jayla, Ace, and Max all have Cool stiff lizard-leather coats the color of dried blood. Jim is next on the list to get one, and then that's about it for the one blood lizard hide.

People obsessively scan the planet as they approach for radio traffic (there's a little), and then land at the starport by FirstTown. The place seems deserted; there's a building with a Welcome lounge, and another building that has spare parts for repairs. There's a big map of Rupert's Hole, which has the settled area on the FirstTown continent mapped out, and some X's and O's over on the other continents.

The whole nobody's-home-at-the-spaceport is deemed a little odd ("Customs should be this easy on all planets"), but just as everyone (including Night-Blooming-Wisteria) is about to pile into the van to head to FirstTown, the sound of hoof beats is heard. A rider shows up - it's a young woman who introduces herself as Cassie. She welcomes everyone to Rupert's Hole - she came out to see the ship, which she's very impressed by. The party offers to trade her a tour of the ship for a tour of FirstTown, which she's happy to do. The thing she's most interested in seeing is the engines, though; they tell her that that's at the captain's discretion, and the captain is busy, so that's not possible. Maury talks shop with her - she turns out to be more of a mechanical engineer and not actually a starship engineer. He gives her one of the books on starship engineering that got picked up for Vircus.

Does Cassie know Ghier? No, but if he's around FirstTown, the Boss Man would know him. Who's the Boss Man? He's the guy who runs things in FirstTown. What's his name? Um, Boss Man. Okay, what's his title? The Boss Man. On the way into town, Cassie mentions the alien invasion (the "Tarnation") - they're working on a plasma cannon for ground-based defense, since they don't have so many ships.

The tour of the town includes an inn, the Boss Man's office, the plasma cannon building (it looks like a partially constructed observatory), a new park that'll be dedicated soon, and a number of other small-town type things. FirstTown has grown out around the original settlement; the building style is similar, but the initial settlement sticks to a careful grid, while later parts aren't so rigid. Various people wave to Cassie and the strangers; nobody seems terrified of Night-Blooming-Wisteria. Max asks how the plasma cannon project is overcoming the power requirements. Cassie doesn't know, but is sure people would be happy to talk to him about it.

Cassie points out the Boss Man ("Hi, Cassie!"). They ask him about Ghier; the name rings a bell, but he's not sure who Ghier is. Messages from Creek get mentioned - ah, then he must have Ghier's address on file somewhere. Everyone troops back to the Boss Man's office. His organization system seems to be a Huge Pile of Index Cards. (Max thinks this is reasonable - he can always find what he wants in such a pile). The Boss Man unearths a card with Ghier's address - he's down south, in the unsettled lands just past the Camara Peaks. He also unearths the last message that was supposed to be passed on to Ghier; it seems to have gotten badly mangled, squashed, and waterlogged. The group takes that, plus some messages to give to other people in Camara Peaks, if they're going down that way. Oh, and Camara Peaks has a serious gith problem. Does the Boss Man know what the X's and O's are on the map? No, that's not in the settled lands, not so much his problem.

A tour of the plasma cannon is arranged. It's a big building with a rotating dome, with a huge partially constructed device in it. It's still got wires every which way and opened panels. Everyone is very pleased with how it's turning out. Maury notes that it's "Hegemonic-ish" tech, and that once it's built, it could probably blow Hippocrates out of the sky without even blinking. Cassie is working on the roof dome assembly; Danielle is their plasma expert, and she's on the night shift. It seems to use a "macroplasma lens" (Hippocrates's drives use plasma lenses, and a plasma brand uses a microplasma lens), which is still in a very large box labeled as being from Tiras Nova. Cassie says that's from the warehouse. What does it use as a power supply? They haven't built the power supply yet, as it turns out, but they've left a space for it. They'll figure out something, they're sure. ("It's people!" -Tom) How long do they figure it'll take to finish? Oh, maybe a couple more weeks. They've been working on it close to a month now. Everyone boggles. Maury, Anya, and Jim arrange to come by during the night shift and help.

Everyone retires to the inn for dinner; luckily, nobody else is staying, and it's now full. Ma (the proprietor) asks what the giant spider critter eats; Night-Blooming-Wisteria says he can eat pretty much anything that humans do, but when she asks what he'd like, he says he's fond of mints. Dinner arrives a short time later, and it's a minty jubilee. Slices of meat with spearmint jelly, a peppermint and squash soup, a tangy salad with cresses and fresh mints. Everything is very good, and Ma encourages everyone to have seconds and thirds. (Night-Blooming-Wisteria mentions to Jim, later, that he was unable to perceive assistants back in the kitchen, but that she produced the dinner faster than he would have expected one human to be able to). Maury is interrogated as to whether the plasma cannon will actually work - what about atmospheric effects? He thinks it'll disintegrate the atmosphere rather than bending.

Anya, Jim, and Maury head to the plasma cannon facility after dinner, where they spend the night shift working with Danielle and Cassie on the plasma cannon. There doesn't seem to be a project coordinator, or anyone in charge of the overall design; people just seem to be building things that need building, as they go. Everything's very smooth and in sync; someone will put down a wrench just as someone else comes by to pick it up and use it. While some of the components come out of the FirstTown warehouse (like the macroplasma lens), much of the parts are made locally. The blacksmith, apparently, can forge things to micron-measured tolerance. Anya finds this all perfectly reasonable, even ideal, while Maury and Jim are deeply disturbed by the whole thing.

"This is just how it's supposed to work!" -Anya
"This is so many kinds of wrong." -Maury
Meanwhile, Max, Janzur, Jayla, and Ace go to a local bar. Ace, Max, and Jayla have the bartender's recommendation, which is something like an ale with a couple drops of hot sauce in it; it doesn't add much to the taste, but adds warmth to the buzz. Janzur says he's fine - the bartender remarks that he must be the designated walker, and gives him a club soda with lime. The locals are all pretty friendly, and are happy to swap stories with Ace, or let Jayla join their table and talk. Jayla notes that even when people are complaining about things, they're all fairly minor, short-term things - the blacksmith got his foot stepped on by a horse, someone's kid has the flu. Nobody is complaining about their horrible spouse, or their disobedient kid, or their sucky job... everyone, for example, seems to mostly enjoy what they do. From Jayla's point of view, this is like everyone has their own personal Hegemon helping them make decisions that are good for them, but she doesn't think the Boss Man can possibly be doing that for everyone in FirstTown.

After a late night for all parties, everyone retires to Ma's inn. In the morning, Jayla offers to help Ma cook. She doesn't need the help, but is happy to give Jayla some cooking lessons, as that's the sort of thing that a young woman should be learning. Ma is really very very efficient; she's in constant motion with adding things to this and that, putting things in the oven and taking them out just when they're done. Jayla improvises a little, adding cinnamon to the French toast (that seems to be a good thing), though she does not find herself being quite as blazingly efficient. Over breakfast, the party begins to sort themselves into the "this is great!" camp (the outworlders) and the "this is terrible" camp (the inworlders and Hegemonics).

"You got eaten by the Great Omphalos Dust Wyrm, and you think this is spooky?" -Anya
"Yes!" -Max
The group swings by the Hippocrates in the morning; Night-Blooming-Wisteria asks Hippocrates if anyone was around last night. Hippocrates says no. Does Hippocrates think that the engine splash marks have changed at all? The bits that were under camera surveillance don't seem to have. Night-Blooming-Wisteria is rather upset, saying he doesn't see how he can be going mad so fast. Hippocrates calls Jayla and Janzur, while Night-Blooming-Wisteria goes off to talk to Jim. Jayla and Janzur arrive to find Night-Blooming-Wisteria rather agitated, talking about the splash marks having grown smaller, but with no perceivable marks of washing or repainting or precipitation. He doesn't see how Jim can have done this to him, Jim didn't even notice the splash marks, or say anything about them! Jayla manages to calm him down, such that he doesn't think he was mis-perceiving or imagining things, but after this Night-Blooming-Wisteria stays on the ship.

Jayla ponders whether to bring this (or any other mysterious bits about Rupert's Hole) up with the Boss Man, but decides it probably won't actually result in an actual Explanation. Max and Hippocrates scan the heck out of the spaceport and the spaceport supply warehouse. As an experiment, Ace starts to work on the computer system for the Dancer, trying to clean up some stuff he's been supposed to do. There's a note in the system from Sook saying he really needs to get the filesystem tidied up. He starts working on it. Jim wanders by and helps. In the end, the work that needed to get done has been done. It's unclear whether this is Mysterious or not.

It's getting to be time to head to Camara Peaks. Hmm. How did the waterlogged tape get waterlogged, if this is the planet where everything works right? Maybe he didn't want to get the message? Or the planet didn't want to lose him? If the Hippocrates steals the plasma cannon, they could be the Yamamoto! This seems like the exact sort of weapon that would knock out all power on the ship for a while afterwards. Ace loots the supply warehouse for spare parts the Dancer can use (though it does not have the thousands of credits worth of parts necessary to do a serious upgrade), and leaves a bug behind.

Then, it's off to Camara Peaks. They land outside of town in an empty field, and walk in. The town looks deserted, though people seem to be peeking out of windows at them. Max starts calling out names of people they have mail for. Someone quickly opens a door and tells them to get inside, quick, before the gith come!

Hippocrates scans the area, and notes a lot of life signs crowded together under the elementary school. The locals tell them about the gith infestation - it's a good thing they have Dargar Thomson to help fend them off. He's a renowned githslayer, who used to live on the borders before he settled down. In fact, there he is out there now. In the street is a big man, dressed in leathers and armed with a sword and a long knife. As the sun sets, a swarm of wet-looking badger-like creatures pour out from a tunnel under the school, and the party goes out to help him fight.

Maury and Jim are up on Jim's scooter; Janzur and Anya wade in, with Anya covering Janzur's back. Ace and Max and Jayla mostly stay farther back, shooting or offering advice. The townsfolk coordinate with blaster fire from upstairs windows, which also helps a lot. Hippocrates takes off and hovers over the combat, but can't figure out a good way to get the additional medical supplies down to the combat (Moment-Before-Dawn is willing to try and jump down, but thinks it's a little far...) Eventually the first wave and then subsequent waves of gith are slain; Dargar is badly wounded, others slightly less so. Heal patches are dispensed all 'round, and Jim first aids everyone in sight. Dargar is brought onto the Hippocrates to make use of the sick bay.

Dargar tells a lot of stories about the borderlands, and the gith. They've only been bothering Camara Peaks for the past couple of months now; it's a good thing he had settled down here, or there could have been even worse trouble. (People consider whether the fact that the plasma cannon has been under construction for a month, and that Creek has been sending messages to Ghier for the past couple of months, could all be tied together). Then he's dropped back off with his wife, who fusses over him.

Jayla talks around to the Camara Peak townsfolk about gith and other things. There haven't been any fatalities yet, but it's a close thing. There's a big attack a couple of times a week at sundown, and other sporadic gith attacks during the day at other times. The party confers again. It seems like Dargar and the gith might be related, but what's cause and what's effect seems a little confusing. Ace speculates that he came here to settle down, but deep in his heart still wanted adventure. How did he ever meet his wife anyhow? (He rescued her from gith once).

Anyway, the gith nest really ought to be cleaned out too. There seem to be two entrances to the nest, the small one into the road that the swarm came out of, and a larger one which goes into a broom closet in the school. The idea of using explosives is broached, but the town would really rather not have the elementary school destroyed in the process. The group plans to go down into the nest, instead. The town is asked to send everyone out of the school, while Maury uses Dumbo to pile dirt in front of the street entrance (he manages to make it look like an integral part of the building landscape). There's a shriek from inside the school, and a small child has to be saved from a gith - she just went to get her book, since there wasn't school today.

Janzur and Anya climb down into the nest, followed by Jim, Ace, and Maury. It's a dank cave, with gith goo, and what look like Alien-style gith eggs. Dargar shows up to say that the traditional way to clean out a nest is with fire, but then, they all wake up at once that way. The group decides that "chop one egg at a time, then burn" is the way to go, and this proves much less dangerous.

Then, it's off to Ghier's hermitage; the Camara Peaks locals are happy to give directions, and it's a several-hour walk.

"Janzur tries to set a brisk pace."
"Setting a brisk pace, you find, is much like scouting ahead."
They're met by a barking dog, and then by Ghier. He doesn't seem to have received any of the messages, but he's distressed at the idea that he has to leave now, when he hasn't finished his work. He tries to explain the thing that he's working on, with xenopsionic resonances, and that the psionic signatures of Rupert's Hole fauna is very epitomic of psionic signatures across the board, but it's not clear he's getting his point across. However, he does repeat that he has so much work still to do. "Perhaps we could help you?" Maury suggests, stunning everyone.

He's done experiments using a whole bunch of different Rupert's Hole creatures, and doing meditative explorations on his own. Of the experiments left to do, he has a large computer simulation he needs to run (he doesn't have a large computer, but he was going to worry about finding one later, something would surely turn up. And lo, it has! The party has a big computer!), he needs to get a whole bunch of a particular local creature called smeerps together, and he has to do a psionic assay on as many people as possible.

Smeerp hunting is apparently best done in the morning, when the creatures come out to eat. So perhaps the assay could be done now? What is required? Well, it's something of a big gathering-together, to extract out people's psionic resonance and look for interference patterns. The more people at once, the more pattern can be seen (he tries to demonstrate with his hands, but he only has two hands). Jayla thinks that her participating, in particular, is important.

Everyone volunteers, so Ghier tells everyone to clear their minds and meditate, while he starts lighting incense. He begins to gather them all into the psionic gestalt, and people feel their minds and thoughts being dissected and spread out for all to see. It's very invasive and somewhat unpleasant. Everyone manages to keep calm except for Anya, who gets a little worried and puts up some sense-danger dice (this will cause some of her part of the pattern to not appear).

Everyone ends up having a question occur to them, which they can answer or force someone else to answer instead.

Who do you betray?
Anyone I need to, to save All People.
Who have you lost?
The Hegemony, and my scout troop.
What is your greatest flaw?
Ace gives to Max
What would you do again differently?
Back when I lived on the Well, there was a case in which I did the expedient thing, instead of the correct thing, and people suffered for it.
What do you seek to find?
Freedom, glory, and acceptance.
What has been your greatest failure?
Not being there when my Hegemon needed me most.
What do you want?
A future for humanity, and a future for Pierogi.
The pattern takes some time to make out, but in the end is identified, and the experiment a success. The party retires for the night, and sets out smeerp hunting in the morning. Ghier says he has a smeerp to show them - oh, drat, no, he doesn't. The cage door is open and it seems to have escaped.

Max sneaks up as not-their-problem until he grabs one. Maury teleports smeerps to him. Anya pounces with a big butterfly net. Jim discovers smeerps find Sparky Cola tasty; his smeerp licks his nose. Jayla sets snares. Ace sneaks up on them, and Janzur uses his natural quick reflexes. Eventually, seven smeerps are caught, but that's not sufficient. The trick, Ghier says, is keeping them from escaping.

Max sets up a camera to monitor the cage of smeerps, but then trips over the camera cord, tipping the tripod over and into the cage. The door springs open. Janzur springs forward to shut the cage door, but smushes a smeerp's paw in the door. It whimpers and fixes him with a soulful pained gaze, but he is resolute, and pushes it back in. Then he backs out of the room very carefully.

Watches are set, in which two people carefully stare at the cage of smeerps from outside the room. There's a bit of a fuss on second watch, where Paddy (Ghier's dog) comes over to bark at the smeerps; somehow, Ace's neural disruptor gets flung into the air and goes off; Janzur jumps for it, taking the bolt instead of Maury. On third watch, an insomniac smeerp hops around for a while and the cage door accidentally comes open, but again, the smeerps are stuffed back in before any wander off.

The next day, nine more smeerps are caught. They're all stuffed into the smeerp cage and Ghier goes into the room to figure out whatever it is he's figuring out about smeerps. Some time passes. Ghier shouts "Eureka", which is shortly followed by a huge crashing noise. The party rushes in to discover that the tree which used to stand next to the house has fallen on the study, crashing through the wall and into the smeerp cage. There are smeerps everywhere, leaping out through the holes in the house and out the door.

Max is very tempted to bring a smeerp as a pet (it seems friendly enough), but it is declared "Less likely than a croc rat to maim a crew member, but more likely to destroy the ship." He is persuaded to leave it behind.

The Hippocrates heads back to FirstTown again, where they find Cassie at the starport supply warehouse, looking somewhat distressed. She's been looking for a polarity reverser, and Craig thought there might be one out here, but there doesn't seem to be. Luckily, Maury and Hippocrates's fabrication lab are able to come up with one, which they give to her.

The group is also interested in seeing "the Magic Warehouse" (well, Cassie doesn't call it that, but the Hippocrates crew seems to be in moderate awe of it). She's happy to take them there. It's up on a bluff over FirstTown, next to Rupert's mansion. Max looks around the warehouse for a microplasma lens, but no luck. Jim looks around the warehouse for hegemonic scouting records, but also no luck.

The mansion seems to be a fairly normal mansion, though it's a bit dusty. No secret compartments in the floor are discovered, and Max doesn't think there's a hidden safe. There is a trophy cabinet, which shows a young Rupert Milhouse in scouting uniform (Nebula rank), shaking the hand of an older man. On the back, it says "To remember us by, now that you're leaving the troop."

Still fretting about the X's and O's on the map, the party has Hippocrates do a fly-over. The X's seem to be small frontier settlements; the O's show no signs of inhabitants.