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Strategic Advantage

A year ago.

It was a glorious achievement. It had bought him time on the order of two likely decades. It had bought Nekenalos a few generations even without further intervention. And yet he could not bring himself to celebrate the occasion, suffocated by all of its implications.

A band of tinted glass described the upper third of the transparent wall of the room they were in, allowing him to stare at Sol with subdued revulsion. His relative freedom felt like a physical presence around him, a fragile construct that was easily shattered with as much as the wrong motion. His mind felt cramped, as though he had left his mortal shell with more goals than he could readily comprehend - but he knew each one of them and how impossible they seemed to attain: Regain immortality. Disable The Weapon. And, as a firm whisper in the back of his mind: Save Evenatra at all costs.

Unfortunately for his mortal context, there was a certain order to their viability. Unfortunately for him, his options were limited by the company he kept.

"Karesejat," he opened, aware that even the sincerest tone of respect could only register as mockery to the weapon, but following the lowest common denominator he could, easing himself into a posture that was unquestioningly subservient.

"I will have you know," the Karesejat Terenyira remarked, skipping formalities with a tone of dry professionalism. "That this is the only and last time I allow you to delay my departure. Such behaviour is a privilege reserved for the Nayabaru, as with you I cannot be assured you are not squandering my time on purpose."

Valcen winced silently, aware that it was a fair assessment. No doubt she was fully aware that as long as he needed the Nayabaru, he could not risk being anything but loyal - but it was a highly subjective circumstance. When did he stop needing the Nayabaru? Terenyira could not read his mind - 'Yet,' he observed bitterly in the privacy of his thoughts.

"I believe this matter is of importance specifically to the Havhesh," he offered, dredging out the obsolete title that she had used in earlier narratives - highest guardian. "And while I acknowledge you have no reason to trust me, we still have much to gain from working together." He closed his eyes briefly, trying to rid himself of the tension that had crept into his posture. I don't want to kill you. I just want you disarmed. I want my life to have been the last you claimed. "And you need to know that they will come here."

"The Threadwielders?" Terenyira asked, unimpressed by the bland revelation.

Valcen flicked his muzzle upwards. "The humans," he suggested. "It will take some time, but they will come - unless... unless perhaps Jeneth holds them back, which he may try, though I dare not guess how successful he might be. I believe he cherishes them too much to do much other than delay the process. Regardless, they are a curious species. They will come."

Terenyira seemed to consider the possibility in private, her body language frustratingly opaque.

"I recall enough about their common, enduring cultural elements that I can prepare you for their arrival," Valcen offered.

"What precisely would you prepare me for?" Terenyira asked, sceptical, evidently still trying to discern whether Valcen was warning her about an existential threat or simply a curious circumstance that might have unexpected side-effects.

"An alliance," Valcen said.

A space-faring civilisation, allied with the Nayabaru. There were no obvious benefits other than a comparable level of technology, but that alone made the matter a pressing concern. If the Nayabaru did not manage to incline the humans neutrally toward the kavkema, the comfortable status quo on Nekenalos could find itself first subtly, then intolerably slanted.

It was a long moment later that Terenyira asked in a tone that made no secret of how little trust she was willing to invest in the answer: "When would you realistically anticipate their arrival?"

"No earlier than half of their orbit around the star," Valcen reasoned.

"You can expect me be back in Katal before then," Terenyira assured. "I ask you take note of what it is you think you know about these creatures. You have at least sixty days for the project, likely longer. If the knowledge proves valuable in practise, I will see how I can repay you. If it proves actively misleading or harmful-"

"I have no interest in sabotaging our relationship, Karesejat," Valcen reminded, gently, his alarm at the line of thought driving him to dare interrupt her narrative.

"Not now, perhaps," Terenyira observed. "I cherish your knowledge and creativity, Valcen - but it is that same respect for your ability that forbids me from granting you any easy trust."

"I understand that," Valcen acknowledged. "But you should also recognise that the probability that I might defect are minimal at the time being. I have no means to do you any harm and I do... require your infrastructure." Whether captive kavkema counted as 'infrastructure' was perhaps a matter of opinion.

"Perhaps," Terenyira commented, although with neither bitterness nor malice. "Regardless, if it were to prove actively misleading or harmful, I would ensure you are stripped of your current privileges and incarcerated."

"...and the middle ground?" Valcen asked, uncomfortable.

"I doubt my disappointment means anything to you," Terenyira mused. "As such, from your perspective, that scenario ought to be consequence-free."

Was the weapon's disappointment free of consequences? He didn't doubt that she wouldn't do anything to actively punish him for useless information, but it might erode that thin sliver of trust he was clamouring for.

I don't really understand.

"I understand," he said.

He would simply have to make the information count.