The party leaves Sparta for Crux to pick up Kith and Anya (Eva and Jayla probably have to fly the two shuttles, because the Hippocrates' landing bay is overfull). The broken redliner is given to the Crux redliner defense project, though it's not clear how much good this does them just yet. It has also reached the prototype phase; while Maury's prototype involves an electrogravitic skin around the hull, the Crux prototype seems to involve a Gathering between a Steadfast and a Mover, and a storage hold full of boulders. Well, whatever works.
The orbital around Crux doesn't seem to have a planetary distress beacon any longer. Max identifies a bit of the outside antenna as part of the original, but other than that, it's been disassmbled for spare parts a long time ago. Hippocrates gets an official Crux registry, to look a little bit less like a pirate ship.
Anya has made an appointment for people to talk to Dmitri. Everyone gets to be surprised by Vela, the other Pierogi armsman on the planet. Two fighters are loaned to the war effort. At Dmitri's advice, the Defensor Hominem is loaned to the Defender party, and the Star of Pierogi is loaned to the Good Neighbors, as this may get it into the hands of other planets that need defending. It's made clear that these are loans, not gifts, and that they're not to be sold to the inworlds. Dmitri briefs them about the defense status - Crux is basically the Outworlds Defense Headquarters. There have been no incursions other than Sparta, as far as anyone knows. There is strong outworld resistance towards asking the inworlds for much help; the Hegemonies will not offer much assistance without being asked, but the outworlds will not beg for aid, and also have no wish to defeat the Tarn only to end up a protectorate of the Red Hegemony. There are some backchannel negotiations going on; the current issue under discussion is heavily armed whiterunners (er, Gateway merchant vessels), which are a good thing against the Tarn but a bad thing in most other circumstances. Dmitri is then briefed about various useful things the party has done.
The issue of Vircus comes up. Might there be people in the outworlds who can help? Dmitri thinks that it might be possible to trade ecologists for fighters, but bristles at being asked for what seems like charity (there is a war on, after all, he points out as he gets to stand up, looking aggrieved), and seems to regard it more as the Hippocrates' private planet and not necessarily as a resource which could easily be put at the disposal of the outworlds.
Next, the party troops off to talk to Charles Forsythe, the chairman of the new Cooperative Front party. They're interested in specific back-channel people to talk to; they don't need a list of inworld ambassadors and governors, they know who those are. They're given the name of Sharra's father with a suggestion of setting up a "touring museum of old ships."
That's about it for the loose ends on Crux, so Jayla buys everyone lunch (she seems quite pleased at being able to do this), and the party departs for Creek. While Ace is in the tubes, he's left navigation notes for the pilot, and there's no getting lost on the way. The last Kaufman experiment involves trying to fix things with nanites. It seems likely that some people with fatal conditions can be found, but probably not things like fatal unfixable broken bones or pulled tendons. So there should be a round of volunteers first. Kith is unwilling to call for people to be broken, it being somewhat against the "Do No Harm" portion of the medical wisewoman's dogma, so there is a series of Sparring Accidents.
About two weeks into the journey, dinner is surprisingly more festive; there are crimson tablecloths and sparkly silver candles, and even pine branches festooning the mess hall walls. The Tinoori have prepared a hearty holiday meal, with extra spiced ciders and desserts. Eva explains that today is Winterfair on Highguard, and there are little wrapped gifts for everyone (purchased during one of the earlier shopping trips during summer reruns).
After four weeks of travel, the Hippocrates rounds the corner of the dust nebula, and there is the Creek system. Kith gives everyone a crash course in Creek survival (Survival tip number 12: don't lay down.) It's a very green planet. They're hailed by the starport, who seem to know what "We're bringing Kith back" means. Customs is really quite informal, as such things go; everyone is asked if they're bringing in any bad stuff. Strangely, nobody answers, perhaps assuming that the question is rhetorical. Eventually, Sharra says no, they don't have any bad stuff. The Tinoori ask for some shore leave to go and investigate the local plants.
As everyone is somewhat sick of accomodations aboard the Hippocrates (four weeks of cabin fever has taken its toll), rooms are acquired at to neighboring bed-and-breakfasts in the capital. Kith explains that her test will take about half a day, and then she'll be given a new assignment, but that she'll ask to be assigned to the Hippocrates, because otherwise she'll die.
Everyone proceeds to the Wisewomens' School, which is very verdant (Kith says that none of the plants in the city should be very hostile). Kith makes an appointment for her test - this involves saying when she wants it to be (tomorrow afternoon). She turns in the carpetbags belonging to Wisewoman Ward and Wisewoman Sandole; they will be dealt with. Eva makes an appointment the next morning with the Council, to give the Creekian stuff from Far Ways to. Anya enquires about Pyotr, and, failing that, Wisewoman Greta Estelle. Ah. She's at Fernwash. Anya sends them a message saying she's here, (Vela is well), and that if it's not terribly inconvenient she'd like to see them. Kith recalls something about Fernwash - the Grandmothers threw everyone out a short while before Kith left, and now almost nobody who goes there leaves again. Kith gives people a tour of the college. There's a very nice herbarium, and several arboretums. The Tinoori think it's great, and go shopping.
The next morning is Eva's appointment. There's a pair of Wisewomen, Sandra and Mylla. Mylla is younger, and does the talking, while Sandra mostly seems to listen. Everyone is introduced, and the Far Ways antiques are presented. Why was there an outworlds embassy on Craterrock? Well, it might have once been Ridena. Ah. Anya notices that Sandra is assessing her in particular; Kith notices that Sandra has a crystal pendant like Sandole's.
Lunchtime. Kith is terribly nervous, and won't even drink tea, just in case she spills it on herself. Jayla finally gives her a pile of napkins, and Eva gives her a reassuring pep talk. Then, it's time for the exam. The first portion is a written exam, making sure she hasn't forgotten the things she learned originally. Then, it's an oral exam. There are about five Wisewoman, arrayed behind a high desk. They don't say anything, waiting for her to start. Kith puts up a sense emotion, and gets that they are disappointed, grouchy, sad, displeased, that sort of thing. Uh oh. She starts with an accounting of her journey. When she comes to the Deciders, she notices that Sandra (the Wisewoman with the pendant like Sandole's) isn't surprised that they're called Decider and not Tarn. Finally, they ask what she learned. She's learned that it's harder to influence people who aren't on Creek. Wisewoman Ward taught her that there are some things that she can't fix. She's learned about specific inworlds and outworlds... but they probably don't want to hear about that, she amends. There's a frown. She should tell them what she thinks is important. That's what she's trying to do! There's a faint twinkle - ahah, she does have some backbone. She's learned about nanotechnology and Tinoori alchemy. They ask specific questions about what this planet taught her, what she learned there.
Finally, the questions come to an end. To Kith's emotion senses, they are very disappointed and grumpy. One acts as spokesman, and says that normally, she would be required to have more training, here on Creek. However, things are changing faster than they have in the past, so they must treat things differently. A wisewoman's robe and stole are taken out. Kith asks if she's failed. There's a hint of a smile, and the spokesman responds no, perhaps they had not been clear. Then another takes over, and ties two complicated knots in the end of the stole - a wisewoman stole, but with Grandmother knots. The aura of grumpiness suddenly dissipates, and it is revealed that they weren't actually upset after all. "Your special gifts are but one tool in your arsenal, and can be fooled." The stole is explained: it may be necessary in the future, where she is, that someone may need to speak for Creek, so that something may be agreed to immediately rather than with two months' lag. If that is necessary, she may speak for Creek, and the Council of Wisewomen will consider themselves spoken for. She must endeavor to speak wisely.
Anya makes a short appointment to see Grandmother Sandra. Kith reports back to the party, including the part about Grandmother Sandra. Hmm. Kye wonders whether they should just go to Fernwash. Kith points out the Grandmothers said to keep out. Kye says well, no, not on purpose, but maybe they could accidentally wander there when they get lost. ("We have a tea for people like you.") Kith gets official permission to alter the Wisewoman uniform to include pants. If the group is going to confront Grandmother Sandra about Deciders, perhaps the appointment should be a long one instead of a short one.
The meeting with Grandmother Sandra happens the next morning. The pants issue is quickly resolved. Eva takes point. She already knew about the Deciders calling themselves Deciders? She raises an eyebrow. And? How did she know? Well, how did they know? They asked one. Really? They tell about the chase and capture outside Sparta. Ah, they captured and interrogated one (she makes that a visible distinction from "asking one"). Anya asks her about her ability to know so much about the Deciders. That's privileged information. However, given that they seem to already know this much, perhaps she can arrange for them to talk to some of the people at Fernwash. Pyotr will be there. Finally, Kith asks about hospital volunteers. She will need to talk to the wisewomen at the hospital about that.
Should the party bring some of their Decider corpses to Fernwash? Jayla theorizes that if Fernwash is where one, nobody goes, and two, where the people who know about Deciders are, maybe there are Deciders there, and maybe in that case bringing a bunch of mutilated Decider bodies isn't the brightest of ideas.
There's about a day of stalling, during which Kith visits the hospital. There are some volunteers. The first subject is an old man with serious terminal cancer. The nanites do eat the tumor, but he dies of the subsequent shock.
Permission to visit Fernwash arrives, and with it a map. They can take the shuttle to the nearest larger town, but after that it's an overland trek. As they get closer to Fernwash, they get to a fork in the path which isn't on the map. Also not on the map is the carnivorous lizard, and its brothers and sisters, and its enormous mother. Blood iguanas, as Kith identifies them, are poisonous and tough-skinned. Anya gets very chomped, Katya throws some throwing stars (Winterfair presents), Mirris shoots a little one in the head, Kith actually pounds an iguana into unconsciousness herself, and Eva demonstrates a new shtick in party coordination.
Jayla and Anya skin the lizards, which takes a while, while others look at the paths. The right path is older and wider, the left path newer. The left path has had more traffic recently. The speculation is that a Bad Thing set up residence along the old path, and the new path is more recent and goes around it. Jayla recommends the new path. So they take the new path, and do in the end get to Fernwash.
Fernwash itself is a small village, looking peaceful and not very inhabited at all. A journeywoman is spotted entering a building, also wearing a similar amulet. Dr. Kye notices in great excitement that that particular building was NOT BUILT BY HUMANS. He drags them towards that building, where everyone else insists on knocking on the door, as opposed to just going in and excavating. The journeywoman opens the door. Eva quickly interjects that they have permission from Grandmother Sandra to be here, and to leave again. She comes out to take them to Grandmother Estelle. Everyone tries to peek past her shoulder while she tries to shut the door - it looks like a waiting area, except that to Dr. Kye it looks like a waiting area NOT BUILT BY HUMANS.
They head to what looks like a larger meeting building. Pyotr opens the door, and is briefly astonished. What are all these people doing here? What is Anya doing on this planet? Are they here to sign up? No, they're here to talk to Grandmother Estelle. They even have permission to leave. Pyotr appears to find this somewhat novel. Katya reads him - he's thinking "We're really going to let them all leave? Surely just only the trustworthy ones?" Grandmother Estelle comes in, and everyone settles down for a chat.
The party fills Grandmother Estelle in on the redliner and their briefly captive Decider. They talked to it in Standard. They speak Standard? Dr. Kye discourses about the phoneme descent tree and has to be hushed. What about Grandmother Estelle's half of the briefing? First, none of this information is for disclosure. Eva says they're good at that. Anya wants to know why not? That should become more clear. They did have some Deciders here, but they are currently not on Creek. They should be back in several months.
Deciders are somewhat difficult to understand for people who aren't Deciders, until you get to know them fairly well. They have several... political parties? They call them Decisions. One Decision is hell-bent on silencing the outworlds, while another is looking for another path. The latter group made contact quietly and have been trying to figure something out.
The Deciders think something bad is about to happen. They have a ... plan? ... to prevent it, but some parts of their plan are not functioning correctly, because of several decisions that can no longer be made. They are preparing to perform some sort of large psionic effect to avert whatever the bad thing is, but they have lost some relevant abilities. Thus, they are susceptible to interference, and there is a great deal of interference coming from the outworlds in the dust nebula. (Just the outworlds? Yes. Hmm. Maybe the party won't tell the inworlds that.)
Eva says that there's a phenomenon coming that will wipe out all sentience unless it's stopped, but that maybe a large psychic effect can shield people. They fill in some details. The Farseer forsaw no future for Pierogi or All People. Both the Omphalos Dust Wyrm and some research they have done have been cryptic, but there's a suggestion that while a single person can't hold all the psychic energy necessary to do this, three bloodlines can. They know where all three bloodlines are, but not what they have to do. Red, green, and blue get mentioned ("There's a Green Hegemon?" "That was the old Hegemony..."), and that the race that the Omphalos Dust Wyrm is part of separated the Deciders and the humans after the Alliance.
Grandmother Estelle takes it all in; one thing she is surprised about is that the Bad Thing will affect humans too. The Deciders don't seem to have mentioned that; they may not believe that it does. There's some argument as to how often the Bad Things occur, but nobody is really sure. In any event, the Decider ambassador - well, he wouldn't call himself that, but that's close - will be back in several months, if they want to speak to him then.
Jayla considers going to Rupert's Hole versus puttering around more in the outworlds. If they go to Rupert's Hole, they may learn more, whereas if they go to the outworlds, they may get more done. Neither way seems to lead to the destruction of All People, which is somewhat reassuring.
Kith mentions that she noticed that someone in the redliner was wistful. But she's never met a Decider, Grandmother Estelle asks? No. Normally you can only interact with them if you've been prepared. Kith points out that she had Sandole's necklace. Greta doesn't think it's the necklace; that's part of the ceremony, but the ritual is the important thing. Anya tries to ask how Decider psi is different, but Greta mostly just understands that it is different, not specifically how.
Dr. Kye asks if he can look at Greta's necklace. (The Deciders brought it, he's told). He concentrates for a few moments. "You realize the ritual is nothing, the stone is the important part?" No, she hadn't realized that. Kye says it's a psychic resonator, very old. Greta is a bit surprised.
At this point, it's too late to walk back to where the shuttle was left tonight; they're welcome to stay in Fernwash. Kye wants to know about the non-human house. The delegation lives there. Can he see it? Please please? Greta is sorry, it's private. Can he see the outside, then? That's okay.
Camp is made in tents; there's a men's tent and a women's tent, despite the 7 / 2 ratio. The party tries to interrogate the journeywoman about Fernwash security. How do the Deciders get in and out? They have a human ship now; there was trouble with a supply ship having been destroyed. She doesn't want to give exact details about where they land and how they travel. Greta says the old path got infested by a nest of blood iguanas.
It's bedtime. Kith is a little suspicious that Dr. Kye won't behave himself.
"Dr. Kye, you won't be trying to get into that embassy, will you?"Max and Voriig get up in the middle of the night to go prowl around the Decider house. The architecture is a little different than standard Creek houses, but not vastly alien to Max's eyes. Max's scanner says much the same thing about the building's internals. There are things like Japanese paper walls instead of proper wood or stone, but again, nothing spectacular. Except for that bit that Max can't scan at all. Well, that's tempting to try and find out more about. But Max isn't convinced that permission to look around outside includes climbing on the roof.
In the morning, the party trades some lessons in "speak decider" for "read decider", before heading back to the city. Max is talked out of planting a bug on the outside of the Decider house, and Voriig is unable to examine three amulets, as there aren't three in Fernwash at the moment.
Then, it's time for the last nanite experiment. The unfixable people include a guy with a lot of liver damage due to various poisons, and an old guy with heart disease. The liver guy is more likely to survive, so he's the first candidate, but Kith talks him out of it by playing up the risks. The old heart patient seems likely to die if anything goes too wrong, because he's pretty old and frail. They manage to round up a younger heart patient, who's not quite as terminal; Jayla talks him into it.
Jayla: "I need something more inspiring to say to help."The nanites are tweaked, and go to work on his heart. He suffers a heart attack as all the muscles in his heart kick in at once, but Kith keeps him from dying. Now it's all done except the number crunching!