[21:50] When they had signed up for the mission, Greg would never have guessed that they would spend days in the wilderness, learning to be patient about twigs smacking into their visors, carrying tents, first distilling and then adding minerals to rain water in light-weight contraptions designed for this purpose.
He'd lost track of how far away from the landing site they were. For a while, that would have been cause for anxiety – but he understood by now that these creatures were awkwardly concerned for their health. He had observed that much of their social interaction involved close body contact, but that they were nervously careful to impart it on the visitors, keeping claws and teeth away from the suits.
He also knew by now that they were extremely intelligent, although they seemed to optimise almost entirely for flight. They were clearly terrified of the other sophonts – these 'Nayabaru'. They were sufficiently terrified that they weren't settling anywhere, weren't even stopping anywhere long enough to smelt metals.
The one called Evenatra seemed the strangest of the lot. Her grasp of English was increasing at an alarming rate – while tenses and sentence structure still occasionally eluded her, and her vocabulary was necessarily basic, she could easily make herself understood.
[21:51] Would Saira, had she travelled with them, have picked up on the kavkem tongue this quickly?
The other saurians weren't making similar leaps in language; indeed, only the one called 'Edaaj' seemed to have made any effort at it so far, clearly driven by her deep curiosity of their technology. It astonished him that she was able to grasp them in principle... at least from what he could tell.
How long could they keep this up? How long could they flee together with these kavkema, who seemed to do nothing other than flee, constantly?
He ducked into the tent they'd set up for their unusual daytime sleep, sighing. "I'm not getting the impression we are heading anywhere in particular," he said to Samanta. "Evenatra is evasive about it; adamant about that we can't risk to be found, but I don't see any real... end game. What do you make of it?"
[22:46] "We might not be heading anywhere," she agreed, "But we definitely are heading away from somewhere. These, uh, these people look like they spend their whole existence hiding and running away. They're almost — almost literally — afraid of their own shadow. I mean, if you're nocturnal, it's alright to dislike sunlight. It's their fear of the naba... the other dinosaurs that worries me. It sounds like their whole species is like that, which means — if their fear is really biological, that means they probably have a really good reason. And worse, it means that reason is not going away anytime soon."
[22:47] Or not. Evolution is the smartest idiot in the universe. Maybe they were really afraid of some prehistoric predator that didn't exist anymore and perfectly nice, inoffensive ornithopods just happened to trigger some fear-related brain circuit. Or maybe fear was a time-specific behavior to scatter kavkema groups around and spread their genes farther. Or maybe —
Oh, who was she kidding. Nothing about this place made sense. She was desperately fishing for something she could understand with her skills — she expected to come to an alien planet, hopefully with some neat alien bacterium to play with in a petri dish, and that she could understand very well. "Plants" and "animals" she could deal with, it was just more of the same. If there was any life at all here, it had to follow the same evolutionary logic.
Intelligence, though, human-level intelligence, changed everything. Plants don't lie. You don't have to take a bacterium's word on anything. You don't have to worry about barnacles conspiring to kill you. If the Nayabaru had jumped onto them drooling and snarling, that would have been one thing. If the Nayabaru took them in their house and pretended to be nice, now that was concerning.
Oh, dammit. You don't get anywhere if you don't admit you're not there yet.
So she said: "Forget that. We know there's already one fluent English speaker; if anything finding two is less surprising. Given how much better both of them are with English than everyone else, I don't think we can blame all our ignorance on the language barrier. If there were an end game, would we know?"
[22:57] Greg shrugged very slightly; he hadn't heard the recording directly, but from what he understood, it had been fluent, whereas Evenatra was still learning, bit by bit. Still, that detail did nothing to diminish Samanta's observation, so he kept his complaint about this 'Valcen' and Evenatra being comparable to himself. There was a chance Samanta was onto something.
He digested her question. Would they know? If the answer was 'no' and the language barrier was not the cause of their ignorance, that suggested deliberate deception.
"Maybe we wouldn't," Greg conceded, reluctantly. "But surely we would be able to help them with whatever they're afraid of better if we knew where this was going? Unless the end game is to eat us or desperately sacrifice us to some deity, which doesn't seem likely."
With the touch of so uncharacteristic seeming nervousness that had infected him a few times since the landing: "...it doesn't seem likely, right?" He was clearly hoping the biologist with her knowledge of evolutionary psychology would concur. Surely if this was a trap, they'd had plenty of time to take their visitors apart already.
[23:32] "When you bring culture in the mix, you never now. Maybe it's really important to their horrific gods that the sacrifices know nothing until their gruesome end. But you're right, it's not especially likely. When everything and its opposite is equally possible, there's not much point worrying about it. That they don't have killed us yet is pretty good evidence that they don't want to kill us, I guess. It's just... we thought the same about the nabayaru and yet here we are, running as far away from them as we can."
She glanced out of the tent, at the fellow travelers resting under the tarps. Did they really spend their whole existence like that? If what she'd gleamed from Evenatra's telling was true, it did seem rather unfair to add unjust suspicion to their tribulations.
[23:33] "Mind you," she added, "If we can, I'm absolutely on board with the idea of helping them with whatever they need. They seem... warmer, friendlier than the other species? They tried to protect us from the, uh, sunlight when they could have let us be. Maybe these used to hunt in family packs, and those used to graze in huge impersonal herds, so the carnivores might have more care for their neighbor than the herbivores. They could be pretending, but the nabayaru didn't even bother to, so there's that."
A part of her thought that she was trying more to reassure Greg and herself, rather than finding out the truth; but it seemed the only way to find out the truth was to go with the flow of things, so, they might as well get used to it.
[23:45] The Nayabaru, of course, had Valcen. Greg didn't think it was entirely unlikely that they had also received orders to behave as neutrally as possible until the translator arrived, for fear of triggering a culture clash, but he was certainly, thus far, more warmly inclined toward these carnivores, despite his initial reservations.
The fine detail that they had run away as soon as the Nayabaru had appeared had endeared them to Greg. That was nothing at all like the carnivore stereotype. And the social behaviour these creatures were showing certainly meant that he was constantly drawing associations to wolves and, by proxy, dogs, lulling him into a sense of familiarity that was perhaps not appropriate.
But the lack of an obvious goal bothered him, feeding into his doubts.
[23:46] He pressed his lips to a thin line, then exhaled a sigh. "How do we help creatures that so far haven't even really volunteered information about what we could help them with?" But even as he asked it, the answer seemed obvious. It didn't need stating, it was obvious in their every action: Help in dealing with the Nayabaru.
The better question, then, was this: "...on reflection, I grant they've been asking for help this entire time, but how do we help these creatures against a species we don't understand? And should we, given every sign of advanced civilisation we've seen so far belongs to this other species?"
Again, as he asked it, an obvious answer occurred to him: No, not without checking with ESA mission control. And checking with ESA mission control now was a large number of kilometres and an approximate hour message roundtrip out of reach.
[00:11] "How? Short of teaching them to build parasols, it's hard to say. My vote is still for 'learn as much as we can before doing anything'. I wonder if there's some part of the planet where they could live without the other species? Maybe we could check better the satellite maps and see if there's a continent with no buildings. If the recording device didn't belong to the herbivores, we might still have the technological upper ground. And —"
As she said this, an awful thought crashed on top of her. They were humankind's representatives. They were the only human beings that had as yet set foot on this planet, and their whole species might very well be judged according to their behavior. But who... oh, hell. Something had moved a planet into the Solar System. What if this was an experiment or a game from some unimaginably powerful being that wanted to see how they'd react? What if—
[00:12] Okay, no. No. No. Scratch that thought. That was a "what if I'm a brain in a jar?" type of question. It didn't lead to anything useful. It made everything possible and thus nothing likely.
She caught herself. "... Aaaaand as for the 'should', I think at the very least we'd need Saira and Jason's input. After all, they're still with the nabayaru, and if we do something silly they might be in danger. In greater danger. Maybe. Yes."
[00:27] "So... less running away, more rescue mission?" Greg postulated, but there was no conviction in his voice. He sounded as though he were entirely at a loss. But if they were going to acknowledge the Nayabaru as a threat not only to these kavkema but also to their fellow crew, then surely the logical next step was to think about how they could be helped?
But there was a reason they had split up – Saira had found it important to speak to Valcen and find out more about the situation on this planet. Everyone was aware of the dangers; Saira was an adult. She hadn't chosen her position blindly. If she was going to come to harm due to her curiosity, it was a trade she had been willing to make.
He hoped she had the opportunity to tell ESA about her findings; he hoped, equally, that he would see her again.
Evenatra had suggested the humans that had chosen to go with the Nayabaru were in for a truly terrible fate – Greg hadn't witnessed that conversation, but Samanta had spoken about the rough outline with him. Whether it was an exaggeration or a description of how the Nayabaru usually treated strangers was anyone's guess; but given this culture of fear, it seemed likely true.
Yes, maybe they ought to be scheming a rescue mission. "How would we go about a rescue mission? We're not exactly brimming with military superiority." Even if Jason were here, one well-trained soldier did not an army make.
[01:00] Samanta sighed. "We wouldn't, I suppose. Unless the kav... kema's stealth rubs on us, and the nabayaru forget about our existence. Which, thinking about it, loops back to plan A: go with the very nice theropods as they trek through the woods. If I were to make a random evo-psych guess, and if anyone asks I haven't, I suspect herbivores are much more likely to care about present dangers than distant ones. Maybe they really will forget about us if we stay out of sight long enough. Then again, it's they who are the technological civilization, which suggests that they are, in fact, much more intelligent than cows. But 'stay out of sight' seems our hosts' plan, right now, and they know their enemies better than we do, so..."
[01:01] It was frustrating to speculate blindly like that, like trying to stand on the bottom of a pool that's just a bit too deep. Greg sounded equally frustrated. The four of them had signed up for a mission that would make history, a milestone of the story of humankind, and this was still more than they'd signed up for.
"I suppose it depends a lot from this Valcen fellow. If Saira and Jason are with... him?, they might very well found a way to communicate with us directly. And with ESA, too. Actually, you know what? We really ought to ask Evenatra what she knows about this person."
[22:43] Greg was tempted to muse 'Do you think she'll tell us about it?' aloud, but it wasn't productive. They could pick whatever the English language aspirant told them apart later, glean from it whatever they could. "Let's do that," he confirmed, although he sighed across the words, revealing his tension better than anything he had said so far.
For a moment, he lingered in his current posture, then he twisted himself back to push the flaps of the tent aside again, glancing out into the hesitant light of dawn that barely penetrated the trees. His left hand kneaded against his shoulder through his suit, then he stood up in the same motion as he pushed himself out of their little home.
It was hard to tell the kavkema apart, really, but fortunately, Evenatra made it easy to recognise her by way of two traits – one, she was often nearby, and two, she looked toward the humans whenever they made a sound, regardless of the time of day. She seemed to be a curiously light sleeper.
And so Greg waved across to her – or what he presumed was her, trying to beckon her to the tent. It was best if she didn't actually enter it, if the three of them headed to a bit of a distance to speak, but it was the quickest way to gesture that they wished to speak.
And so, a few minutes later, the three of them were just barely within view of the camping spot, the underbrush hiding most of it from even a few metres distance, and could speak their minds as freely as they dared.
[23:09] Samanta straightened up and did her best to look at Evenatra squarely in the eyes. She wanted her vision to be as clear and unambiguous as possible to shut up all the parts of her brain that kept screaming how impossible everything was. And it had struck her, earlier, that the kavkema didn't seem to mind, like many humans, but unlike most animals; these beings really did take their interpersonal communication seriously. It hadn't struck her until then just how prominent a kavkem muzzle is, compared to the round flatness of a human face, especially from that distance.
"Well, uh..." Bad start. She turned the words on her tongue a few more times. "... We are, as mentioned, extremely grateful for all the trouble you're going through for our sake, and we are... we would be more than willing to reciprocate, as far as we can. But in our position of ignorance we'd be bound to do more harm than good. It... seems to us that this individual Valcen is the single biggest blank space in our understanding — the one that fits the least with everything else." Evenatra had no visible reaction (none visible to Samanta, that is), and apparently simply waited for her to proceed. "So I believe it would be extremely kind of you if you, as knowledgeable as you clearly are..." Stop dancing around it. "if you had any information to share about them."
[23:18] Kavkem body language was comparatively opaque – not quite as badly so as in the saurian heirs on Earth, the birds, but still encoded more into the puff of feathers, the posture of arms, and the tone of voice than through any feature of a kavkem's face. That made it tricky to decide whether or not Evenatra expected the narrative to continue or whether she was considering the words when she was silent.
"I am happy to help. What do you want to know?" she asked, finally. Her accent was fading the more they interacted with each other, though her choice of words still remained quite simple. Inasmuch as the humans could judge, her tone seemed perfectly neutral, ready to answer whatever question they had – but for all they knew, that could be a mere facade.
[23:39] "Well, the most glaring question is... what are they, exactly? I don't mean any rudeness, but the recorded message said they are 'neither human, nor kavkema, nor... nayabaru', so what, then? Are they another alien visitor, like us, or another species of this planet, like you? If they wanted us to stay with the nayabaru, does that mean they wish us harm? Are they... your enemy in some way?" And they must be a dangerous enemy, if they have technology so beyond the reach of the other species. An advantage that humans could share. "If that's the case, perhaps we, uh..." Come on, if you want her to offer something, you've got to have something to offer back. "If you told us what he can do, perhaps we can try to get you some way to defend yourselves?" Oh man, that's going to be one fun call to ESA.
[00:01] Again that opaque silence, broken only by the tilting of her head.
Then: "You honour us with your offer." Apparently Samanta had spoken some magic words that required immediate acknowledgement before all the others. "But it is not Valcen that we need help against. Valcen is clever," she tapped a claw against her skull. "But he is only one person.
"The danger from Valcen is in that he speaks to you and convinces you that we are bad people or that it is a bad idea to help us. He will say this because the Nayabaru ask him to say this. It is not true."
She glanced across to the camp site, concealed as it was, as if to take note of the other sleeping kavkema, then looked back toward the humans, and with an openly intoned reluctance continued: "Valcen is a person, but a different thing than a kavkem or a Nayabaru, as he says, and as I said before."
A pause, an awkward fidgeting. Finally: "He is what I am and we are not what we look like. It is not to mislead you, it is to be a part of the people here. Understand, I wish for that these people are safe; I wish for that you are safe, also. The Nayabaru have hurt these people, the kavkema, a lot. They will hurt you as well if you are not careful."
[00:35] That was... something. Samanta was not sure on which part of that reply to focus the most. First of all, Valcen turned out to be a dangerously skilled liar. That extremely concerning if true; and if it wasn't, that meant the only person with whom she and Greg could communicate was a dangerously skilled liar, which was also extremely concerning.
Second, these Nayabaru. If they really were responsible for the kavkema's state of terror, then they had to be capable of truly terrible things. It sounded like the kavkema's fear was amplified by their particular beliefs but, even so, the idea of humans, and her companions in particular, being subjected to the same was... well, extremely concerning, too.
Third. 'He is what I am and we are not what we look like.' Not the most enlightening explanation, and that seemed spoken with reluctance, if Samanta had to guess. Apparently, whatever it was, if that was true, could look like something else — maybe a different species. And given that both Valcen and Evenatra had some knowledge of human languages — the implications could be, no surprise, extremely concerning.
But whatever the real answer was, clearly Evenatra wouldn't give it. Best to ignore theory and focus on application. Samanta threw a glance at Greg as if to see whether he was standing any better against this barrage of confusion, and dared: "Then... we should be concerned about him deceiving our friends? Turning them against you, and maybe, if we stand with you, against us?"
[00:58] "I am not sure if he understands what he is doing," Evenatra added, hesitantly. She did not seem willing to ascribe direct ill intent to this 'Valcen', as much as she was wary of his effect on the situation. "I do not know why he is with the Nayabaru. I cannot speak to him. He does not answer. He may have chosen it or they are forcing him, or some of both.
"I think it is best we assume he has chosen it, that he is a great danger to us and a great danger to you."
Greg seemed a little less easy to placate, though. "Can we take a step back for a moment? You say you're whatever Valcen is and you look like a kavkem because... you want to be integrated into kavkem society? Can you just... choose to look like anything at all?"
Evenatra scratched at the underside of her muzzle for a moment, then swerved her muzzle. "Me? Yes, almost anything at all, if it has the same amount of substance. Valcen? I don't know what he looks like. I don't know what form he has, but probably a Nayabaru; then he will be a Nayabaru until he chooses to be something else."
A sound of clear frustration, the puffing of feathers. The language was aggravating her. "Wait," she said. "Please wait. I will show you the difference." Said, she stretched out her right forepaw, turning its palm downward, and let them observe as the short feathers of the back of her hand slowly withdrew into her dimpling skin.
"The change is slow but this is something that I can do that Valcen cannot do," she said. "But if he wants to be a human, he can take one of you, and he will become that person. He will not actually do that! You are intelligent, he knows it is bad behaviour. But he can if he wants to."
[01:42] Apparently, all those extremely concerning things hadn't concerned her enough. Evenatra and Valcen were shapeshifters that could imitate any other being and they could take over bodies too. And by that point, it seemed pretty likely something even worse would come up. Arbitrarily worse, given that these beings functionally had magical powers. They were wizards, or gods, or... or they might as well be.
[01:43] That, both personally and professionally, would have been a good place to ask whether that was a natural capacity or a technology, and in either case how it worked, and whether it could be applied to humans as well. And of course where she and Valcen had come from, and what else they could do, and how many of them were on this world, and elsewhere.
But Samanta discovered that she had jumped back during the demonstration, as a non-biologist would have when seeing a giant centipede slither into their tent, even before body-stealing was mentioned; and now she was staring so hard and unblinkingly at that impossible hand, as the feathers quietly returned to their place, that her eyes felt about to burst. This is so unfair.
So the words that came out of her mouth were: "Did you move the planet? Did he? What do you want from us?"
[17:02] sets mode: +nt
[17:03] sets mode: +o Concavenator
[17:20] "...I cannot say what moved the planet," Evenatra apologised. "It was not me. Perhaps it was Valcen, but I do not know for sure. He would know how to do this, but it concerns me that I cannot speak with him. It is possible he cannot speak the way I expect him to; he may be... damaged."
Or dead, leaving behind another Neivat'va, perhaps this time better-equipped with knowledge. Unease knotted through her. It would certainly explain the radio silence.
"And want? I want you to be safe. Valcen will not harm you, but I cannot say the Nayabaru will not, as I explained before," Evenatra insisted. "The kavkema will try to protect you. I will help them. Perhaps it is enough."
The narrative seemed sincere enough, but it was clear it was on a different level than what Samanta or Greg had been fishing for. These were aliens – Evenatra more alien than the kavkema, as just revealed – and there had to be a long-term goal to their friendliness, and if it was just a game theoretic tit-for-tat algorithm. Although perhaps that was precisely what it was.
[17:57] If Evenatra had meant any kind of threat with her display (or for that matter, with casually admitting that Valcen moving a whole planet between solar systems was a realistic possibility), she was really doing her best do downplay it. And, if she was trying to get and exploit trust, why be so open about her kind's powers in the first place? If there was any dishonesty, her behavior made no sense. Saying 'well, she's an alien' could justify any course of actions and therefore none. If she was being sincere, on the other hand...
Alright. No matter how Samanta cut it, either she had chosen the way of true cooperation, or a strategy indistinguishable from that. Whatever alien objective she was pursuing, everything suggested she was getting there doing her best to communicate honestly. Sometimes that is the best way to get what you want — where would honesty come from, otherwise?
"Thank you. I see. I apologize for... my reaction. If you offer us help, I... trust it will be good". Or I'm going to behave as if I did, so whatever. And she briefly glanced at Greg as if to ask whether he did as well. "What sort of damage are you concerned about? Is there anything we can do about it?"
[18:14] It was hard to read Evenatra's expression in response to Samanta's question, although her head bobbed back a little and her feathers puffed gently, betraying that some emotion had struck her, or a simulacrum of one. Whatever biochemistry underlay that outward appearance, it was clearly not the avian physiology the kavkema had.
Yet her mannerisms seemed superficially indistinguishable from the kavkema. Perhaps she had spent so much time imitating them that it had become almost unthinkable to behave and express herself any other way, emulating all instincts that drove the feathered saurians.
She dipped her muzzle, finally revealing the emotion as one with some form of subjective weight – apology, sadness, or perhaps regret? With hesitance: "I do not know if it makes sense to tell you of this, I am not yet good with your language. I will try.
"There is a... weapon? On this planet. It was made to keep us away – Valcen, me, the others that are like us. It thinks and it hunts. It helps the Nayabaru. It is a threat to me but I have... moved enough, constantly, to avoid it. Valcen wanted to help but I do not know... perhaps it has hurt him."
Inasmuch as her tone could be trusted to convey human-adjacent emotion, she seemed distressed by the concept, as though despite her narrative its punchline were unthinkable.
[18:43] /It thinks and it hunts.// Oh, man. Another kind of intelligent beings on this planet, then. That brought the count to... five? Possibly six, depending on how one interpreted that 'made to keep us away'. And the fifth was one that seemed to scare a definitely shape-shifting, allegedly mind-stealing, plausibly planet-moving being in the way the Nayabaru scared the kavkema.
Samanta carefully considered what to say next. This seemed to be a sensitive matter. As it damn well should. A 'weapon' — that 'thinks' — to 'keep us away'. Nevertheless, it raised at least four obvious, and potentially very urgent, questions — who did that, how, why, and who else could be hunted.
Best to be diplomatic, and go with the fifth. "Is there a way to check on him? Without exposing ourselves too much?" It sounded foolish. Outclassed as they were, anything humans could do to restore contacts, the aliens could certainly do better. But who knows? Maybe something could be easy for humans and impossible for others. And maybe Evenatra would, at least, appreciate the offer.
[19:06] The bristling of feathers was more obvious this time – unmistakable aversion. "I do not think that is a good idea," Evenatra said, a bit of alarm in her soft voice. "I do not know why he is with the Nayabaru," she repeated. "They may be forcing him, but I do not know. I want you to be safe, not... taking this risk." A bit of pleading.
Greg was still digesting the news. The idea of 'checking on' Valcen did not sit right with him – the very idea of a sentient weapon inspired a large amount of caution in him, especially if they were being asked to confront it for the chance of running into trouble with someone who could just... bodysnatch them.
They were not getting paid enough for any of that.
But also – less running away, more rescue mission. "Realistically, you can't keep us safe forever, right?" Greg interjected, carefully, reluctantly. "We're doing... what? Just running away? We can't keep doing that, there is, as far as we understand, nowhere we are running away to, is there? This is an unstable status quo. There has to be something we can... do?"
He glanced at Samanta, hoping for more inspiration.
[19:44] "... Well, yes — yes. If we, as in we humans, are to be safe on the long term, we need a way to get all back to our vessel and then to Earth. I realize you don't have that option, they at least, the kavkema, I mean. Is there, at least, some actually safe place where we can stop and gather strength?"
[19:45] And here she was in a bind. Greg clearly wanted to act decisively, and was already tiring of their flight, whereas Evenatra had just sounded actually terrified by the idea of moving more openly. One could think the weapon's threat had to be proportional to the fear it elicited from such a being. But the weapon was so powerful and malicious, and it worked with the Nayabaru... and yet there were free kavkema still. Evenatra had hinted before that the fear of the kavkema was amplified by their particular beliefs. What if Evenatra's own fear was also amplified? Wasn't it possible for them to be in less danger than they thought?
Then again, wasn't it better to assume too much danger than too little? Gah, if only Jason was there. Now there a military mind would have been at its most useful.
"Excuse me, and I hope this isn't too forthright, but... what can this weapon do, exactly?"
[20:01] Evenatra visibly dithered. The silence stretched on as she composed her thoughts, subtle motions assuring that she hadn't abandoned the train of thought. Finally: "...I do not know, actually. I know it can kill us. And... there are not many of us, so that is very bad."
Then she seemed to pick up on something, adopting an energy. "But that is what it can do to me and perhaps to Valcen – but to you? To you it is maybe the same threat it is to the kavkema. It will hide in the landscape, camouflaging itself, and then it will strike and catch you with overwhelming strength and never let you go.
"But it is cunning and dangerous even outside of the hunt. It has... convinced people to betray their kindred and it does this easily; at least I do not know of any... effort, the last time it did such a thing." Something much like bewilderment passed through her. "It has killed one of— at least— at least one of my kind," she faltered a little, perhaps unhappy with the implication that there might be more.
"I must assume it is a lethal threat to me. I do not know what it is to you, but I can tell you that you will not harm it with your guns even if you choose to use them. It is best if you avoid it. The Nayabaru call it the Karesejat, she who sees, and it guides their Hesha all across Nekenalos. The Hesha are the..." She trailed off for a moment, grappling for an equivalent word. "Police? Soldier? I am not sure how to translate."