[23:08] The climb had been gruelling – while the humans were fit, the near-constant need to balance themselves on two legs as they did so was a definite drain to their energy. The kavkema faired better, but 'up' was still not the best direction, even for them.
It wasn't even local midnight when they had to stop to rest for an extended time – a time of night that the humans knew by now was usually peak kavkem migratory activity.
The place they chose to settle was a kind of crevice blessed with a roof, just wide enough to move somewhat comfortably within. Baishar and Edaaj settled near the deepest, tapering end of it. There would be no setting up tents here, so Greg and Samanta simply sat down and leant against the rock walls.
Athechelt settled a little closer to the mouth of the narrow cavern, ostensibly in some gesture of protection that was completed negated by that he nodded off before the humans did. But as Evenatra had announced that she would patrol the area, they were, perhaps, as safe as they were likely to get on this world.
Greg fell asleep hugging his backpack. Samanta had set hers beside her and hugged her knees, a posture that did not lend itself to rest but eventually yielded to it, anyway.
Eventually, the foreign impressions at her fading peripheral senses gave way to a dream.
It was a nearly smooth continuation. She woke up with Greg missing, the daytime sun outside, and the three kavkema that had settled down to rest with her still asleep, and indeed resistent to any attempt of hers to rouse them. Perhaps that was to be expected – they always tried to sleep during the day, after all. But where was Greg?
The dream endowed her with a sense of the whole world around her, the way they had seen it in their approach – a dangerously fragile marble like the one they'd come from. There was no sense of permanence to her surroundings, none of the soothing familiarity the similar ecology and climate should have yielded.
There was no sign of Evenatra, although her patrol route might be a way's out.
[23:41] That was... curious. How did Greg manage to get out of the crevice without waking her? And why would he? Why would Evenatra leave, and leave all her followers behind, save one of the two aliens?
[23:42] She climbed out of the crevice. The air was crisp, thin, strangely tasteless and scentless. The whole sky looked a bit too thin, a bit too empty, as if barely painted on the emptiness, glowing through as if the sun was hiding just behind it.
An unnatural stillness reigned all around. The grass, clumsily scattered on the dirt, crumpled without sound or resistence beneath her feet. Samanta stood up on the rim of the crevice and craned her neck, trying to see or hear any trace of Greg and Evenatra in the green smudge that hid the horizon in all directions.
None came. She considered calling out, but the quivering vegetation and even the trembling boulders looked as if any sound louder than a whisper would mar them and cast them out of place, into a much uglier and less welcoming arrangement. So she kept her quiet, as did, apparently, the whole world.
[00:08] A little way down the slope they'd climbed up the night before, she started to see the hints of distant movement amongst the assortment of boulders and rocks, silent but unmistakable.
Gradually, the motion coalesced as Greg between the boulders – they must have fallen somehow, perhaps tipped at an inopportune moment, as he was caged in by them, trying to wiggle out between them with only little success. Judging by his motions, he had not been hurt in the landscape's oddly silent disruption, only caught.
[00:27] Greg, yes, and no trace of Evenatra yet. Samanta climbed down the slope — or rather walked down, balancing without effort, her own body feeling as light as foam — until Greg's features resolved and set on his face.
Then she was crouching on the crown of boulders around him, offering him a hand to climb out. "What happened?" she said in a whisper, though she wasn't sure whether her tongue and lips were actually moving. "Why are you out here? Where's Evenatra?"
[00:38] Greg smiled up at her in a wordless assurance that he was fine, but quickly brought a hand up to his visor, extended a finger, and gestured for silence. Then he accepted her proffered hand and began to wiggle upwards, feet awkwardly posed to find their purchase against the rocks. Despite the suit, Samanta could distinctly hear him breathing.
Sudden arms wrapped around Samanta's torso, trying to tug her back in an unbalanced tumble, the motion accompanied by the softest, playful chuckle – distinctly human, like the arms around her. Yet unlike Greg's, these were bare.
[00:51] She turned her head back, or at least she felt her neck turn, probably more than it should have, yet she couldn't quite see who or what was pulling at her. She did see a figure, an unfocused thing at the very edge of her vision, but Greg's face and visor remained the only things in front of her, the only she could see clearly.
Greg did not react to this turn of events, he gave no acknowledgment that anything was happening at all. He just looked at her, his eyes slightly magnified by the glass, not quite the right color. (Had she ever paid attention to his eye color? How did she know it wasn't this?)
"Who's this?" she hissed. "Saira? Jason? Evenatra?"
[01:09] As she fell back and lost her grip on Greg, Jason became apparent to her, climbing up the rocks to where she was standing. He too was only wearing his uniform. It seemed likely that it was Saira that had her tugged her away from Greg, although this did not answer either why she had chosen to do so, nor why neither her nor Jason were in their suits.
Samanta landed softly, given Saira was breaking her fall; Saira in turn fell against the boulders to the sound of paper crumpling beneath her, the landscape evidently buckling from the stress of its inhabitants moving this much.
In the shallow, small valley their fall had created amongst the rocks, probably-Saira reached forward, trying to wrap her arms around Samanta's upper arms to pin them to her torso.
[01:26] "You shouldn't... you shouln't take the suit off..." said Samanta feebly, overtaken by a tremendous fatigue. Bound as she was, every breath and eyeblink was terribly tiring. "... What are you... doing? Why... are you here?"
Jason and Saira gave no hint they had even heard her. Saira seemed perfectly content to restrain her, as if it was the obvious and inevitable course of action, as natural as a stone falling to the ground. Samanta tried to free herself, but Saira's arms were absolutely immovable: she doubted that even Saira herself could have unlocked them, at that point.
[01:27] Jason was gone, most probably into the circle of rocks, to restrain Greg in the same way.
A horrific thought sparked through Samanta's mind for a fraction of a second, and died out. Then she tried to reconstruct it, to bring it back in a form she could actually understand. Jason and Saira had been with the Nayabaru... and Valcen had been with them, telling them fantastic lies...
... and remolding their brains with that spider-machine...
[01:45] "You're lost," Saira whispered to her, somehow carrying a tone of startled amusement, as though the question Samanta had asked were strange, its answer self-evident. It was clear she meant 'out here in the wilderness, amongst kavkema who cannot protect you'.
It was equally clear she meant 'and confused', as though it were Samanta who had been so dangerously misled.
At the edge of the scenery, transparent to Samanta's perception despite the rocks between her and the occurrence, metallic limbs stepped from the fringe of the forest, following an alien motion halfway between the cautious advance of a spider and the rolling gait of an octopus.
It was much larger than what they had encountered in the forest's depths. One of its many limbs reached forward prematurely and eagerly, pressing itself between the rocks beneath her, curving upward and wiggling through the nooks and cracks between papery boulders that gave slight way, aiming for one of her legs.
[02:15] We *are* lost... but... The thing was slow enough that Samanta could see distinctly every position it took as it walked, and fast enough that it had crept on her before she could draw one breath. We *are* confused... but... It was small enough to fit into her mouth or eyes, and large enough to crush her between its legs.
It was on her, with a plausible, coherent size and position, climbing onto her with shimmering metal fingers, reaching for her face. She tried to turn hear head away, as if that would change anything, but even that movement was opposed, she was plunged in tar, rubberbands were pulling her face toward the advancing thing.
She squeezed her eyes shut, as if that would change anything, but the thing reached through her eyelids, a black-glowing patch burned into her retinae. The thing was moving toward its final point, and she was in that point as well, and no force could dislodge her from there. She desperately wished she — rather than it — was elsewhere, in any place. Yet she was there, and she could be nowhere else.