"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --
I took a machete and hacked through the bramble
In a completely different direction,
And that has made all the difference,
Because now I'm up to my waist in a swamp;
No wonder there wasn't a path going this way."

-- Da Vinci, AS 2782.116

Lost In Space -> the Planet

Cranberry Apple Pie wins the Dessert Election, and the crew gets to have that for dessert for a week.

People wonder exactly where they're going, now that they're lost.

"Tell me more about the 'lost planet'?" -Max
"I don't know anything about it." -Ciernan
There is some argument about exactly how many planets there are left in the dust nebula to find. Ace claimed to the Eyes of Ozymandius that his agents have landed on ten of the eleven planets in the outworlds, but it's not clear that this is actually an authoritative count. And the plan for the Donella-on-Rupert's-Hole ritual has some lines going to three places in the dust nebula that aren't known planets, and one of them is vaguely near Vertak and one of them is vaguely near the Black Goo planet, so maybe there's one more, but this is also not necessarily an authoritative count. And Rupert's map of the outworlds has three spots labeled "Gold in Them Thar Hills", one of which is probably Vertak, but who knows what's in there and whether it's a planet? Anyhow, there could be a lost planet, and the ship is lost now, so that could mean they'll find it!

While passing the time, Ace shows Dr. Kye a knife he got on Rupert's Hole. Dr. Kye gets a bit wild-eyed and says that it's full of "death, death, death". There is some maniacal laughter.

"I've got two words for this. Space Madness!" -Max
Kye offers Ace fifteen asters for the knife, but Ace isn't interested in selling. It's a small, heavily tarnished dagger, slightly curved, serrated on one side and sharp on the other (though it doesn't look very sharp). Kye says its history is full of death, millions of deaths, and it lusts for blood. Ciernan thinks it's "a knife with a red headband." Max puts the knife (on a plate) into a box, seals it with packing tape, and labels the box "Do Not Open." The crew puts the box in the brig and turns the psi damper on.

Ace declares that the dagger was probably used for the ascension that caused the Omphalos dust nebula and the Flames.

"That's a theory." -Ciernan
Kye thinks it was hand-smelted, hand-forged, and is several hundred zed old. That probably post-dates the Ascension. Ruehan thinks it was made by a race that was obsessed with death. Sharra and Max think that it could have been made in a death-related ritual, used for a lot of deaths, or more likely both.

The question remains of what to do with it, as keeping it in the brig is deemed to be silly. The knife doesn't actually seem to be mind-controlling anyone (Kith is pretty sure Kye isn't being influenced), and it would be very embarrassing to put a prisoner in and have them find it. Ace thinks it should go in his cabin, as it's his. Nobody else really likes this plan, not-being-influenced notwithstanding. Perhaps in the weapons locker on the bridge (which is actually used for Glitter storage, since only watch officers can open it)? But Ace can't open it that way, not being a watch officer. After much dithering, the knife is put in the bridge weapons locker.

Further discussion about the knife is put on hold however, as two Vircan pilots went missing on their most recent patrol, so there's more lostness to try and recover from.

The Hippocrates heads back to where the two fighter pilots were lost. Kith tries to sense emotion - she picks up frustration at very long range, and also notices that there's a shadow ninja on board the ship who eats one of her dice. Drat.

While searching, the ship comes across an odd anomaly - a section of nebula into which dust is flowing, with a filament whipping about. Max and Ace think this might be something called the "Mouth of the Serpent", but all they really know about it is that people who go in don't come back.

Max does his best to scan it - it gets very complicated, with possibly multiple vacuum wickets inside? There's dust flowing through it at a very fast clip. And the fighters are definitely in there or on the other side, though getting fainter.

Katya worries about going into something dangerous with the kids on board. On the other hand, none of the other options are very good:

Splitting the party seems more dangerous, in the end, than anything else. Maybe the kids shouldn't have been brought along on "get lost in the dust cloud" in the first place, but it's a little late for that now.

"All the kids (except Martya) are able to take care of themselves when push comes to shove. -Ace
"Ruthie and Linnet write that down for future reference." -Mike
Ace figures that the Hippocrates has an extraordinary crew of extraordinary people, so they should be able to do anything, even if it's dangerous. Katya tries to intuit how dangerous it will be to go through, and eventually concedes that the plan should be to go in.

In they go!

The traversal of the Serpent takes about a week in total.

Tongue of the Snake
The very space here seems to dart and shift. The walls are vertical one moment and horizontal the next. A fast-moving stream of dust seems to warp space around it, until you realize it is not dust at all, but a stream of microscopic black holes. Luckily, the current carries you past.
Fangs of the Snake
The dust here is sharp, honed to fierce points and razor edges in the void. It is nearly impossible to see where it is safe to fly and where will kill you. Luckily, the current carries you past.

Eyes of the Snake
A pair of white supergiants, heating the dust around them to nigh-plasma ignition range. Sensors fizz and overload just thinking about looking at them. Luckily, the current carries you past.

Heart of the Snake
Two black holes and two white holes, spinning about each other at high velocity. The gravity in the area flexes and throbs - a stream of fluid dust races from farther upstream, sucked into the black holes, and a stream of high-energy radiation spews from the white holes downstream. This is what drives the current of the Snake, and plotting a course past the heart seems impossible. Luckily, the current carries you past.

Wings of the Snake
Very thin walls of dust bell and shimmer. They seem to drift apart and together with deceptive lightness, but any ship foolish enough to be trapped between them may well be crushed. Luckily, the current carries you past.

Belly of the Snake
A maze of twisty little passages in the dust, all alike. Most seem to curve back and around downstream. Even if you aren't looking out the portholes, everything seems very claustrophobic and nerve-wracking. Luckily, the current carries you past.

Tail of the Snake
From outside, you can see the long straightaways and smooth curves. Thin dust flows through them. From inside, you will be flying blind. Luckily, the current carries you past.

The Hippocrates eventually emerges from the snake into a system. The two fighters, badly damaged, are drifting nearby. They're tractored aboard, and the pilots sent to Medbay. There seems to be one habitable planet shining an odd gold color. But it's sending out a traditional carrier-wave radio signal.

Max scans from long range - the planet seems to be entirely land, though there are subterranean rivers and a water table; there are crystalline ice caps, a big crystal dome, a collection of ships, and a spot that the radio is coming from.

"Hello, this is the Spaceship Hippocrates. Who may I be addressing?" -Ruehan
"Woah! This thing does work! I thought they were kidding!"
"And who might this be?"
"I'm Walt! Um, I'm going to go get someone. You wait right there, I'll be back."

<A short pause>

"Yes, hello? I understand there's a signal. Excellent. Actually, strike that. Thank you for calling, and I don't want to sound rude, and I'm greatly appreciative if you're here to save us, but are you here to save us or are you screwed too?"
"What is your status here?" -Ruehan
"Yeah, you're not here to rescue us, are you?"
"We'll try." -Ruehan
"Everyone gets their try."

The guy on the radio has been here since 2766. There's about forty people in a settlement. Ruehan tries to find out more, but the guy on the radio suggests that maybe they could land, near the other ships.

Kye notes that the earliest of the ships looks like it's from about AS 2000, and that one of the later singleships appears to be of Vertaki make.

It's still not clear why everyone here seems to think that they're trapped, until Ace contemplates the idea of flying up the Serpent in the other direction, against the current. Oh. Well, that could be a problem.

The Hippocrates lands, and a little three-man party comes out to greet the ship. They introduce themselves as Jack, Sayid, and Sawyer. Ruehan notes that Jack and Sayid have reasonably large minds, but none of them have appreciable psi. Katya scans their thoughts - Jack and Sayid are thinking "we'll have to try and break it to them gently. There could be a lot of them on that ship." Sawyer is thinking "They're screwed. More meat for the grill that is life. Hah."

People ask about the oldest people here - well, most everyone was from the one ship that came down about fifteen zed ago, but John was the only survivor from an older ship that came down about five years before that. They've never been able to get into the dome - it's one of the big mysteries of the planet.

Kye starts to head off to ogle the other ships, but Jack calls him back. They're welcome to come in to town, but don't mess with people's ships after they're dead. Generally people seem to go back to their ships to die, so they're a memorial, and don't loot them. Also, stick to a buddy system. Don't go anywhere alone.

The crew wonders why - are there predators? Sawyer grimly points out that the Others will get you. They come out of the night and drag you off.

Jack briefs them a bit more about the little settlement. They live off fish, from the underground rivers, and they grow some kitchen gardens. They made a couple of attempts to fly back up the Serpent, but it's just too hard, nobody can make it. The crew assures Jack that they probably can - Ace says they have a good pilot and a good ship, so they expect they can do it. Jack says that's a good start, but they need a good navigator too. Ace says they have one of those too. Well, then maybe they can do it - Jack is impressed.

Ace suggests to the crew that they let the ninja out "to run around" since there's no point in her escaping onto the planet. Everyone else thinks she's a prisoner, not a pet, and that one doesn't let prisoners off the ship to stretch their legs.

Jack gives them a tour of the ships' graveyard. Kye supplies more details to the crew:

Ace suggests that Cassandra paint the planet, while she's here, since she may be here a while.

Jack also shows the crew around the settlement. The "houses" are bubble-shaped crystals, which have had spaces carved out for living areas, like crystal igloos, and a number of kitchen gardens. There are a small number of kids, who find the idea of newcomers very exciting. Most everyone is very sympathetic and understanding to the newcomers and offer to help people acclimate.

Ruehan doesn't see any active psi in use (other than in the party) and doesn't see anyone immediately who seems to have very high psi potential. Kith and Ciernan look at the kitchen gardens - it seems a bit odd that the plants haven't spread, as the rest of the surroundings still seems to be crystal and sand with nothing growing. Maybe the colonists are carefully making sure nothing blows away in the wind?

Ruehan asks where John is - he's off in one of the crystal forests to the north. Ciernan wonders whether being a Vertaki all alone on the planet for sixty years could have turned him into the Others, and suggests being careful.

The Crystal Forest appears to be not very forest-like at all; there are six equidistant rays of crystal pillars (the trees) out from a larger pillar in the center. The innermost pillars are square, and then they become round and blobby at the farther reaches; the larger central pillar has a ramp leading up to the top. John (or at least someone) is sitting under one of the trees, meditating. Ruehan heads over to talk to him.

"The danger sign will be you falling over and twitching." -Ace
John looks up at Ruehan's approach.
"I thought there would be newcomers. I had not expected any of them to be civilized." -John
"I am Marquis V'Dalari, first son of the Name." -Ruehan
"The Name will be greatly disappointed at your absence. The most minor of branches of House Rigun offers its condolences to House Dalari." -John
John, like Ruehan, headed off to travel a long time ago, for general intelligence-gathering, but he got lost and ended up here. Ruehan says his travelling mission was to have everyone not be killed five months ago. John is intrigued - the day the sky came to kill everyone and failed? Yes, that. How has John been managing here? Well, the settlement values his skills, and they provide him with what he needs. John doesn't know very much about the Others - they come and they hunt, and the people they take are never seen again. He doesn't know what they are, but doesn't think they leave human footprints.

Does John want any particular news of home? Well, he imagines that in the years to come, he will have many questions, but he doesn't have any questions of immediate import. Ruehan says that Vertak has opened up relations with the Artak of the Linked Worlds. That surprises John. And, Ruehan rules one of the Artak planets now. John is perfectly willing to admit that Ruehan is more powerful than he is, and is willing to be ruled by Ruehan, but he mostly thinks that that means it's much sadder for Ruehan to be trapped here on the planet than it is for John, who had so much less far to fall.

John congratulates Ruehan on the quality of his Artak, and notes that he thinks that the "forest" is the key to the planet, though he hasn't figured it out yet. He demonstrates by striding over to one "tree", and punching it as hard as he can. A crystal hammer falls from the tree, and John catches it. On the other hand, the tree he was sitting underneath allows one to get closer to enlightenment - but he hasn't yet reached it.

People wonder what the hammer is for - what do you hit with it?

"I've hit everything on this planet with the hammer." -John
There is much experimenting with the trees - Kye describes it as an ancient Swiss Army Knife that can do almost anything. To summarize: Each spoke of the forest appears to be associated with one stat, and each tree in the spoke is a substat. Doing something to a tree with the appropriate stat will, with six successes, generate a crystal widget for the first person who does so. In addition, anyone who is up at the top of the central pillar when a tree is frobbed (not just the first time) will roll that stat with their biggest non-talent skill, and determine something appropriate.
Meanwhile, Kye has been thinking of all sorts of archaeology background for papers to write. People with power projection end up giving successes to other people. Ace thinks there are other ships on the planet with his piloting. Ruehan steals some of Sharra's Psi Theory, making that his highest skill, so he figures out that if there's someone on top, and people frob the trees for all their substats simultaneously, that person will Ascend. Max has been randomly seeing other places, including some gardens in the settlement in which some Others are sneaking up on Walt. Uh oh.

It takes a little while to pry people away from the experimentation, but they call Twig to fly the Dancer over to pick them up, and then fly them to the settlement.

Landing the Dancer near the kitchen gardens triggers the combat - it is, in fact, a squad of eight Deciders (who are cloaked with some sort of Outline ability) trying to grab Walt. They manage to grab him in their initial rush; Ruehan turns into a bird and then mind-controls one of them into protecting him instead. The other Deciders promptly neural disrupt the abominating decision-changing bird until it splats into the ground. Max reality tunnels to Walt and his Decider, and then tries to get back to Deirdre; several more Deciders jump in with him. Ruehan convinces everyone that there's a mob of settlers coming to help - everything is under control. Several of the Deciders try to run off with Ace, but they can't hold onto him.

Ruehan does some more mind-controlling, and there's lots of shooting at Deciders; as they start to go down, many decide that discretion is the better part of valor and they flee. In the end, four are captured and four escape.

Ruehan, wearing Kith's amulet, mind-reads them. They came here about a year ago, as part of the Decision to find human planets in the dust nebula. When they failed to be able to return to report in, they have been attempting to carry on the mission on their own. So they capture humans, try and learn the location of their planets, and then kill them.

The party waffles over whether they should try to convince the Deciders that their Decision is obsolete, or just kill them all. According to Jack, there's been about twelve people who have gone missing in the past few years. Well, the Deciders might be necessary in the Crystal Forest, so they probably shouldn't all be killed before that.

Kith instructs the Tinoori to watch for Deciders trying to sneak onto the Hippocrates. Ace and Max sneak onto the other ships to see if anything can be learned about flying the Serpent. It seems very hard - first getting a bunch of successes, and then getting smaller numbers of very difficult successes. Plus, not getting any ones at all. Failure and rolling 1s results in sending the ship back to the beginning with ever-increasing amounts of damage.

Next, the party heads to the crystal dome. Max tries to find its past - like the forest, there's way too much of it to process. It appears to be a sphere and not just a dome - the settlers have dug down a ways, and the surface continues. Ace and Ciernan try to dig through, but don't manage to scratch the surface. Kye is also overwhelmed by communing with the dome, but is pretty sure the purpose is to protect the things inside ("Not for eternity - they weren't that foolish. But for a long time.") Sharra thinks the material resembles (a little) the Palatium Tamarch and the Crystal Palace. And the person Kye thinks it is most associated with is the Great Omphalos Dust Wyrm.

The party thinks more about how to get out. First Frost of Autumn plays with the Fortune/Perception tree while Max and Ace are at the central pillar, and they conclude that if they have a navigator who is as good a navigator as Ace is a pilot, then they can get out. Max, unfortunately, is not such, having a tenth of Ace's skill and none of the shticks. Well, how about the villagers? They have a navigator with three or four skill. The Deciders, even coordinating, aren't really much better than that. This just isn't sufficient to build a legendary navigator out of, even if Ruehan eats all of them.

Max contemplates the path to the exit - it appears to be "talk to Kith". Well, that's odd. What can Kith do? She can buff people, of course, but that's hard over the course of a week. Kith points out that she can talk to Jayla.

Kith pings Jayla, who shows up a little while later. After Kith explains the problem, Jayla wants to know if Katya is there, as Katya is non-abandonable, and then says she'll see what she can do to try and find a navigator to rescue them.

Meanwhile, Kye gets to go negotiate with the four remaining Deciders (as the only one who speaks the language). He's not really so diplomatic, but the Deciders do say that "faced with a superior force, we wish to negotiate." Kye works on convincing them that the Flames are over, as of months ago, and their Decision is failed.

They claim to be willing to think about it. They'd be more willing to think about it if the party were to give their friends back. The party does so. Well... how about any evidence for their Decision having failed? Ciernan talks about Ghier's description of the other plan, as does Kith - translated by Kye, this seems fairly convincing that the party knows what it's talking about. Ciernan confirms that the other Decision was Confirmed, and that theirs is Failed.

They say "We will consider these things and inform you of our decision."