§ 2021-01-03 03:43:45
[03:44] It was the sound of the grate being moved that woke them more than any other commotion. Some Hesh boomed Valcen's name down into the pit, insisting that he clamber out, shooting Edaaj a look as though considering leaving her in it, but then instead simply leaving the grating slid aside for her to follow her alleged master.
Climbing out wasn't too difficult, even without any help given – the walls were rough, slightly soft, muddy in patches, just yielding enough to accept their paws and firm enough to be any use in propelling a kavkem upwards. A kavkem caught here would still struggle to escape, though; it was one thing to reach the top and another to stay there steadily and move the grating.
"[How's our guest?]" Valcen asked, brushing off some dirt from his feathers.
"[Alive]," a Nayabaru declared, dispassionately. The trait that mattered. "[We followed Katal's initial instructions, but they want you to call back.]" The word 'you' was delivered with palpable distaste.
"[On it]," Valcen acknowledged, evidently schooled in not rising to such barbs – or making haste with things, given that instead of running toward where the Nayabaru had stashed the humans for the rest of night on their arrival, he glanced toward Edaaj to see if she needed any help getting out of the pit.
[04:00] Edaaj had frozen in place as Valcen began to climb up, cowering as the light of morning streamed down around her. Every inclination ground into her by her upbringing screamed at her to hide.
[04:06] But ther was nowhere to hide. She did not even know if she would be allowed to cover herself with a blanket, and prudence told her it was unwise to try. She shuddered and scrabbled up the side of the pit, hindered slightly by the fact that her eyes were squeezed partly shut, silently but fervently trying to remind herself that the Nayabaru were much more certain to hurt her than the light was.
[04:08] "[Sorry,]" she said – she spoke to Valcen, but took care that the Nayabaru could hear it – "[I am not used to the daytime.]"
[04:23] If Tarnish was real, with everything she'd witnessed on the contrary these past weeks some clever ruse, it was in the process of eating her whole. According to the mythology of it, she would likely never even know – it would simply change her irreversibly while she was convinced that nothing had happened. There were variants of the belief where the effect was very obvious to a victim, but the lack of reported errant sensations given split-second exposures was considered evidence for the former.
But most strikingly, Valcen's very existence as a threat to the kavkema was strong evidence that Tarnish didn't exist. If all it took to turn a kavkem against their own kind was to hang them out in the sun for a while, the Nayabaru surely would have done this with all of their captives.
"[No worries]," the godshatter commented, a mundane, casual remark. "[You'll get used to it eventually, to some degree.]"
And then he started walking toward the glorified hut that was holding the humans. Presumably, they were not quite captives, but merely being strongly advised not to leave. The Hesha must have been feeling out of their depth; they were used to catching and trapping creatures, they were not champions at accommodating them as they would a Nayabaru guest.
[04:43] Edaaj followed, not quite managing to shed either her cringing posture, though she forced her eyes to open a bit wider – as much as she could without feeling like they were being stabbed, anyway. On the rest of her... she didn't know what she had expected. She had never given much credence to the more sensational effects some adherents of Nitish Ynas might have ascribed to it, but somehow some sort of burning sensation would have seemed appropriate, unlikely as it was.
[04:45] All she experienced was a warm but insubstantial caress, still weak at this hour of the day.
[04:55] As they came to the door of the hut, she muttered, "[Eventually. Do you know the belief of Ni-]" She stopped herself before using the Kendaneivash term, but struggled to find a suitable translation in Naya. "[...it might be called... Bad... Compelling? No...]" She sighed. "[No doubt it doesn't matter.]"
§ 2021-01-09 22:41:35
[22:42] Valcen stopped walking, glancing back at her for a moment, part confusion, part empathy. Then it clicked. He crinkled slightly – an oddly deferrent look on someone who could clearly have her for breakfast. "[Oh, is that—? Do you believe in Tarnish?]" he asked, glancing about as though for good shade, then gesturing to the shadow cast by the nearest roof's overhang. "[If it helps, against the anxiety?]"
He clearly was not expecting her to have a deep belief, lest he would have reacted more quickly, with greater alarm and with some acknowledgement that he himself didn't seem bothered. A true adherent of Nitish Ynas would have wailed and thrashed in terror and identified him as a vile demon – which, to be fair, by objective measure he was.
§ 2021-01-12 01:56:08
[01:56] "[Tarnish, yes,]" Edaaj replied gratefully. She eyed the overhang with a certain amount of longing; it was tempting to hide under it, but she felt reluctant to give in to the urge, as if flinching away from the light would shatter whatever delicate balance was keeping her calm in the midst of everything else she was doing. "[I am... managing. For now.]"
[02:01] In some ways, it was worse that she couldn't feel anything wrong. Her skin crawled about from the lack of it. Corruption shouldn't feel like that, surely, even though they said it did... "[I believed in it,]" she continued, "[though there were things I wondered about. But then I met the humans, who had no fear of the day, and yet did not seem Tarnished, and it all made less sense. I don't think I believe anymore, but the... feelings, are difficult to leave behind.]"
[02:08] While speaking, she had unconsciously drawn closer, as if for protection. Though there were good reasons for her to find him objectively terrifying, she nonetheless found him reassuring, or at least more so than everything else around her.
"[You have come across Tarnish before?]" She asked, eyeing the Nayabaru buildings with faint curiosity.
[02:16] Edaaj's discomfort was crisply apparent in her body language. Valcen considered what to do about it – if her rational mind wasn't quite able to banish the demons of the cosmology she'd been raised on, he doubted there was any argument he could give that would sway her emotions. If they were home, perhaps—
"[I have passing familiarity with a selection of kavkem beliefs, although Nitish Ynas is not the one I had the greatest exposure to]," he explained, evidently less concerned about using the Kendaneivash term for a religion, an isolated word in a longer sentence. It did net him a dirty look, but it subsided quickly.
"[You might say I was raised on Asara]," he mused, recalling Sanathi's mild beliefs and the more pronounced ones of the ryrhakenem she had consulted. The irony of the world view was not lost to him, although it was perhaps best not to elaborate on it in Edaaj's presence unless she asked.
Gently he bumped his muzzle against her shoulder, a light encouragement not to fear the sun. Then he slowly began to walk again, keeping his focus largely on her, as one might watch a packmate who had hurt themselves, ready to offer immediate assistance if they faltered.
[02:25] Edaaj kept alongside him, trying to take the silent encouragement to heart. She continued to fight off the lurking sense of panic, but it occurred to her that, at least at this time of the morning, the sunlight even felt, in the purely physical sense... good. That was, in its way, the most terrifying thing of all.
[02:35] She had to remind herself that, god-fragment though he was, Valcen had lived as a kavkem – of course he would have been exposed to one faith or another. "[Asara... I haven't encountered that,]" she managed, quite happy to try to concentrate on a conversation instead of everything else. "[Though I am not knowledgeable of the other faiths in any case – mostly just the names of those followed by groups we came across.]"
[02:48] "[The Asara mythology considers the world we live in to be balanced on a kind of... metaphysical edge, representing a certain state of affairs]," Valcen explained. "[At any point, an event might occur to jostle it down, necessarily forcing the state of the world to change fundamentally. In the Asara cosmology, there are several of these, hmm.]" He searched for a better word. "[Narrow plateaus, maybe?
"[...several of these plateaus, arranged in order, with major events forcing a transition to the next, like a falling stone. The time of first conflict with the Nayabaru is generally referred to as Hechitaleq – during this phase, the conflict itself had not been decided yet.
"[But when the Karesejat first appeared, that event that pushed the world onto Raacheltaleq and the kavkema lost the conflict and were forced into perpetual retreat. That is how Asara would frame the story and it would claim the event, in abstract, was inevitable, although most adherents don't believe the events themselves are set in stone – only their consequences.]"
They neared the building that held the humans and Valcen's attention anchored itself on the entrance, his interest in her state of mind evidently only of secondary concern for the time being.
[03:05] Edaaj contemplated this. Like a ball perched on a rocky slope, she thought. Once the ball started going, it was going down – one didn't know which path it would take to get there, it might bounce around, it might go sideways or even slightly back, but ultimately, down it would go. She was no stranger to fatalistic worldviews, but there was a qualitative difference between things will probably never get better, which Tarnish at least seemed to allow for, and things were always going to get worse than it were before, which was what she thought she was hearing.
[03:16] Some of the terror, if not the tension, eased out of Edaaj's posture as they approached the entrance. For all that it might have artificial lights inside, at least she could try to pretend that the building was a nice dark cave. "[I admit,]" she replied carefully, "[that to me, that seems...]" She fumbled for a polite word, though she had to assume, considering what Valcen sounded like he was trying to do, that he was not himself a firm believer. "[...discouraging.]"
[03:25] Did the plateaus and edges go further down? She thought about asking, but decided, for the moment, not to, for the sake of her own mental health, which was precarious enough as it was. But the insistence of Valcen's mother that her young be sterilized was, in this context, clearly not merely a philosophical position, but a religious one.
[03:43] "[In a way]," Valcen acknowledged. "[Although this progression of states leads into death and oblivion, so some Asara adherents consider it prudent to hasten the inevitable fall. It's usually a question of where in the chain they believe the world to be – is this peak kavkem misery or can things still get worse?]" He shrugged lightly. "[But it is a rather bleak religion in sum, I agree.]" Like all the others.
Said, he tugged awkwardly at the door of the building to get it to open, poorly proportioned to get a good grip on it, but evidently used to having to do so anyway. A moment later, he was pulling it ajar, adding: "[Let's see how our patient is doing]," as though to change the subject.
[03:59] Edaaj gave an eager nod and followed Valcen through the door as quickly as decency allowed; though the inside was indeed lit, the feeling of being enclosed allowed her to say to herself: It's out of the sun. This light isn't real. It's safe. She looked around curiously. "[I hope he's all right. I like him.]"
§ 2021-01-12 23:46:49
[00:02] The interior of the building was arranged in a rather basic manner, with only the lavatory properly separated from the rest of the living quarters. The humans had been placed in one of two 'bedrooms', from view of the door into the far left corner of the building, visible behind a loosely fitted room divider that swallowed some sound but gave little overall privacy.
Greg had evidently been fully stripped off his suit by now and was lying either asleep or unconscious on the softened surface that made up a Nayabaru's bed – resembling much more a human bed (not that Edaaj had ever seen one) than a kavkem nest. Evidently, the Nayabaru hosts had graciously ceded control of half of the household to the aliens.
One of them was near the central pillar of the building, herself bearing Baskaat markings, agitatedly out of her depth, no doubt relayed through the telecommunication network all the way to Katal. When one of her agitated motions turned her to face the opening door and she spotted Valcen, she gestured for him to come.
Saira and Jason seemed far less agitated, but also draped into a sack of beans or rice as though exhaustion had taken them. Perhaps they'd been up all night. Perhaps the Baskaat Nayabaru had been up all night, unhappily trying to go through the motions of being a Yereso at the instruction of equally sleep-deprived Katal Yeresoa.
On the other hand, it was a few hours past dawn; it was more likely they'd done emergency-handling once, then postponed the rest until dawn, and summonned Valcen only after the Baskaat-Yereso language barrier had become thoroughly insurmountable.
Valcen steeled himself, wandered over to the receiver, grasped it and said: "[Valcen here]."
While the Nayabaru eyed her critically, Edaaj was evidently left to move as she pleased, including toward the humans to check more closely on Greg, herself.
He looked strange without his suit, that much was clear even given the blanket that had been hefted across him. An arm that lay outside the blanket showed only traces fur across a smooth skin, further heightening the sense that this was some hideous almalgam of amphibian and mammal, as the face she had seen through the face plate had suggested.
But even the face was strange now that one could see it unobscured – unnaturally flat, with only part of the snout protruding forward, the one that held the nostrils. The eyes were framed along their tops with fur, which made an arbitrary aesthetic impression. The jaws looked weak, completely unlike a predator's.
[01:18] Edaaj glanced at Valcen, then crossed the floor of the dwelling toward the loosely-defined area where the humans were resting. She approached Greg slowly, casting occasional glances at the others as if to be reassuring about her intentions, and contemplated his alien features.
[01:27] Still and asleep – or unconscious, whichever he was – and, on top of that, unfamiliarly bared to her sight, she had no good metric to tell how well he looked; those few signs of illness that she had seen had mostly been changes in behavior. About all she could say was that he did not seem to be breathing irregularly at the moment, which she supposed had to be counted as a good sign.
[01:34] If he was indeed a mammal, he was one of the more hairless ones she'd ever seen. She wondered how such creatures could keep warm, and whether they wore such suits as these on their own world for that purpose. She also wondered, if they ate meat at all, how they could possibly catch it and eat it. Weak jaws, pitiful claws on the hands. A tiny muzzle probably meant they could barely smell anything.
[01:36] To the kavkem eye, ugly, and indeed even grotesque, though at least in the case of Greg, and possibly also Samanta, it evidently had no connection to their personalities.
[01:38] Edaaj briefly extended her neck, as if about to nudge him with her muzzle, but stopped and pulled back, thinking better of it. If his condition was due to an illness caught from the environment, then a local component of the environment purposely touching him was probably not the best idea. She stood and stared at him, feeling helpless.
§ 2021-01-17 00:35:28
[00:35] "[No, there isn't one here]," Valcen was muttering into the receiver.
One of the two fit humans – the one that had taken note of her hours before – had risen to glance her way. As he was dressed in the suit, it would have been somewhat difficult to read him even if she fully grasped human facial expressions, but as it were, the expression was opaque. Was he suspicious of her? (Was he pretending to be suspicious of her?)
But staring quietly at her was all he was doing.
"[Um]," Valcen remarked, the syllable hanging in the middle of the room, clearly audibly by everyone, but addressed to no one. He sighed. "[Two days, I think?]" He glanced at the nearest Nayabaru and asked: "[How long from here to Katal?]"
"[A bit more than two days]," the Nayabaru responded, listlessly.
"[A bit more than two days]," Valcen echoed.
...apparently, moving the human to Katal was being discussed. That might not be anxiety-inducing if circumstances didn't heavily suggest that Edaaj was going to be brought along.
[00:49] Edaaj's feathers puffed out briefly; her eyes slid shut.
[00:54] It wasn't a surprise. She hadn't put a huge amount of forward planning into any of this, but it would have taken a severe lapse in thought to expect that she could simply wander around the landscape with Valcen indefinitely. He himself was based there; he'd already said that Greg would likely need to go there. And if she ever wanted to be able to build anything, she needed to be in a place where the capability existed.
[00:58] It wasn't a surprise. But it also didn't make it any better to hear the name said, and to know that her path was taking her toward it. Regardless of how well things went, once she was there, there was very likely to be no leaving.
[01:05] She opened her eyes, and regarded Greg for a moment. She wished, not for the first time, that she could talk to him, a prospect that itself seemed like it would never come to pass. If only-
[01:10] Her tool necklace still remained with her. Making a sudden decision, she opened up a small but heavy bag attached to the front of it, rummaged around, and withdrew a small but vividly pink piece of rose quartz. She stared at it for a moment, then turned a mournful gaze on the human watching her – Jay-son? – and held it out to him.
[01:11] Tapping it twice with a claw and then pointing to the sleeping human, she said quietly, "[For Ghregg.]"
[01:46] If Jay-son knew what to do with the gift, he certainly didn't show it. He took it with the caution of obvious ignorance. A glance to Ghregg revealed that he had at least identified the fellow alien's name correctly and likely discerned that it should be a gift, but maybe he had not expected to get one from Edaaj.
He turned to the other waking human and asked something.
Valcen briefly glanced up from the receiver, a trace of nervousness in his posture evaporating almost as soon as it made contact with reality, mumbled deferentially for pause into the receiver, then called something across in the aliens' language.
Jay-son glanced back to Valcen, then moved his head up and down a few times. Then he turned back to Edaaj, crouching down beside the bed. Holding the quartz in his right hand and resting that hand on his thigh, he reached out his left hand to pet Edaaj's head, perhaps as a gesture of appreciation.
His attention back on the receiver, Valcen was saying: "[Yes, the alien is currently sleeping.]" Followed by: "[I don't know what the status of the fever is, sorry – I only just got in.]" And: "[Yes, I can check.]"
[01:59] Edaaj calmly allowed Jay-son to pet her head; it was fortunate that Ghregg had already done the same thing before, so that she knew what to expect, though her mood at the moment was such that, had Jay-son decided instead to bash her head against a wall, she felt she would have accepted it with about the same reaction. A bit of unconsciousness wouldn't have come amiss.
[02:00] She also wondered if this was how humans did all their grooming. She supposed that, with muzzles like that, preening with them would've been horrifbly inefficient.
[02:11] She had to assume, given this reaction, that her intentions had been put across, at least ina general way. And maybe, barring disaster, Ghregg would go back to his world someday and have something to remember her by; and she, perhaps, would have at least one small piece of herself that would see a place beyond Nekenalos.
[02:12] Hearing the turn of the phone conversation, she sighed, gently disengaged from Jay-son's petting, and stood aside from the bed so that Valcen could approach if he needed to.
[02:37] Valcen handed the receiver to the irritated Baskaat Nayabaru for safe-keeping, then wandered over to the bed and addressed the third human, evidently unwilling to interrupt what Jay-son and Edaaj had going. She pushed herself to her feet and joined Valcen in fussing about Ghregg, talking with him about the chore, then peeling back to sift through one of the aliens' bags.
Jay-son walked up past the bed, briefly resting a gloved hand on Ghregg's shoulder, then set down the gem beside the pillow, at enough of a distance that it ran little risk of being flicked off if Ghregg tossed and turned, much less getting crushed into, and close enough that it wouldn't simply fall off the edge of the bed.
To Valcen, he said something in a stern tone of voice.
Valcen's attention snapped across to him, briefly looking curious. Then he responded something in a gentle, patient tone of voice. Edaaj could hear the syllables 'Nayabaru' stand out clearly.
Jay-son hissed something, two syllables that sounded like he was swearing. Maybe that was exactly what he was doing.
Valcen briefly closed his eyes. While he did, the other human slid up beside him with another tiny device and held it lightly to Ghregg's forehead. Valcen shifted to the side and back, giving her a little more space, then opened his eyes again. Three sentences into a response, he raised his voice a little, although only temporarily. Another two sentences followed as Valcen stared at Jay-son with a serious expression.
Jay-son grimaced so clearly that even Edaaj could tell he was somehow... displeased.
[02:47] Edaaj felt herself cringing away. She had never liked being around arguments, but this one was all the more unnerving for being in a language she couldn't understand. ...Were the Nayabaru going to do something? Or... Jay-son had started speaking just after setting the stone down. Was it related to her gift? Had she done something wrong? What trouble could handing out a stone cause? Everyone liked pretty stones, didn't they?
§ 2021-01-20 23:51:21
[23:51] Catching Edaaj's unease, Valcen said something to Jay-son, then addressed Edaaj in a softer voice – but still in Naya, given the presence of the Nayabaru: "[Jay-son is upset]," he began to elaborate. "[Because Ghregg is out of his suit entirely.
"[Jay-son thinks it is something I orchestrated; I'm trying to explain to him that this isn't my area of expertise and so I wouldn't have much of a chance to orchestrate anything, even if I wanted to – that I, too, defer to the Nayabaru. This might yet continue – he accused me of telling a convenient lie. I am trying to make my involvement – chiefly the lack thereof – a little clearer.]"
§ 2021-01-22 22:49:03
[22:49] Edaaj relaxed – somewhat – as Valcen spoke. At least the resentment wasn't related to her actions; it was a little embarrassing to have mistaken it so, but then, how could she know? Aliens, speaking an alien language...
[22:59] "[One has to wonder,]" she murmured, "[what advantage one could possibly get from that kind of deception.]" Of course, despite her present circumstances, Edaaj was not herself overly familiar with the strategic use of deception, except perhaps in the form of physical traps; would she recognize such an advantage, even were it to exist?
[00:03] Edaaj's scepticism made Valcen grin a little sheepishly, as though she were perhaps missing an obvious problem. "[Their suits are protecting them from various pathogens in our atmosphere]," he reminded. "[I wouldn't have recommended taking it off. Even the Yeresoa wouldn't have recommended taking it off if there wasn't an important reason to do so]," he added with conviction.
"[But Jay-son thinks that I in particular, more than the Nayabaru, want to make them dependent on the Nayabaru. Because that's what they now are with certainty, rather than merely with a high probability.
"[Jay-son doesn't understand that this is not how Nayabaru think, that the Yeresoa care far too much about doing their jobs correctly to sacrifice proper conduct to strategy, which for that matter is entirely Hesha domain... and he certainly doesn't understand that this is not how I think, either.
"[Neither of our visitors trusts me. I don't even hold it against them – they are upset at the Imitorunyemaa. I refused to conceal those from them.]"
He glanced back to the telecommunication device, then flicked his muzzle lightly as though to casually and lightly dismiss the conversation, and started to head back over to it.
[00:18] Edaaj considered asking Valcen another question, but decided not to interrupt him; she considered what he'd said in silence.
[00:35] Upset at the Imitorunyemaa... well, that was understandable, of course. She was upset at them (and she tried not to think about the likelihood that the remaining one would be applied to Athechelt). And it was odd, perhaps, that this did not make her trust Valcen less; but she reflected that there was a difference between morality and consistency when judging one's actions.
[00:45] Take the Nayabaru. She certainly didn't like the Nayabaru. But she trusted them, in a sense, because they were consistent, at least toward kavkema; one had at least a general idea of what they would do in a given situation. In a similar way, she thought she understood, or at least was beginning to understand, the rules governing Valcen's behavior. Horrible things might result from his actions, but, knowing how he was, this was not a matter of untrustworthiness. He'd made it pretty clear himself that he was dangerous.
[00:55] As for the idea of deliberately making the humans dependent on the Nayabaru... she still struggled with why they thought he in particular would want to do that. To place someone in dependency on himself, she could see that; or even, had the Nayabaru commanded him to do so, to make one dependent on them. But what would it accomplish to do that on one's own initiative?
[00:57] Of course... if his intention was, as he'd said, to have the humans make at least the semblance of an alliance with the Nayabaru... but then, if that was the case, this seemed to be a counterproductive way to go about it.
§ 2021-01-23 21:58:51
[21:58] Greg writhed in his bed, gulped and shuddered. What came out of his slumber was not quite Greg yet, but only a centerless jumble of sensations. Creased clothes glued to the skin, musty air being forced through an aching throat, a cruel heat pulsing in all his limbs and especially his head, as if Greg's heart had relocated into his skull.
The light filtering through his eyelids shifted and waxed until his eyes finally cracked open, staring into a bubbling, cloudy ceiling. He expected to be out there, in the forest, or in a rocky crevice; but there was shade, a soft shade totally unlike the dark of the night in which they had to march; and he was lying on a bed, a real bed and not a clump of sharp grass or a folded tarp. All the discomfort of their hike had moved from the outer environment into his own body, it seemed.
He dimly heard voices dying away: non-human voices, he would think, though he was hardly in the state to judge. And his pupils shifted toward two shadows creeping at his side. They towered over him like kavkema never could; were those Nayabaru that had come to take him away, like a child taken by the boogeyman? A jolt of panic ran through him, and he distinctly felt adrenalin being squeezed into his bloodstream. That, at least, brought him to some sort of consciousness.
And he recognized Saira and Jason.
[22:21] The new motion jolted through Jason, tense as he was. He did not reflexively call Greg's name, although by the way his face twitched, he had no doubt considered it.
He crouched a little – the edge of the bed was fairly high by human standards, although if measured in proportion to Nayabaru height, it was fairly low – and rested his lower arms on the surface, peering at Greg. "Hey," he greeted, softly, and tried for an encouraging: "Your fever's gone down a little bit from last night." The question How are you feeling? stuck in his throat, unspoken.
Valcen had returned to talking with Katal, the fragments opaque to the humans, but perfectly intelligible to Edaaj. "[Better]," he reported. "[But he's—]" A pause, taking note of Greg's shift to reluctant lucidity. "[—been out like a light more than I might expect. It might just be exhaustion, but— I'm no expert, but I'm worried about toxin build-up.]"
The Nayabaru at the other end of the line admonished him – a vapid disclaimer like 'I'm no expert' was no excuse to try and offer one's opinion on topics one knew little about. Valcen grimaced mutely, keeping his attention loosely on Greg while he filed the interaction away as yet another reason to burn down everything eventually.
"[Sorry]," he said, with zero inflection, and tried to wrench the conversation back on track: "[So what now?]"
[22:46] If that's what lower fever felt like, Hell knew what the previous night would have been. Thankfully, he recalled nothing of it, except drifting, rumbling shadows.
He looked around the room. He found he couldn't quite focus his attention on anything, and even the low light stagnated painfully behind his eyes. Still, he noticed, beyond his human companions, a kavkem, talking to the half-visible, hulking figure of a Nayabaru. Here I am, then. The kavkem, whom he couldn't quite recognize right now, was speaking rather fluently to the Nayabaru, and it seemed to Greg that they turned to look at him for a moment.
Greg closed his eyes again, as if too squeeze that offensive light out of them. "How are..." he mouthed, though no sound left him. He forced a feeble smile, and tried again. "How are... you... guys?"
[23:05] "We're fine," Jason assured. His aggravation was obvious in his tone, as was that his attention was all on Greg for the time being. The question was, what precisely was he aggravated about? How fine was 'fine'? Were they perhaps in good health but still felt threatened – and Greg was now part of the what was being threatened?
Or perhaps Greg was a strange kind of hostage. It was very obvious to Greg that he was out of his suit, after all, putting him at the mercy of their hosts.
It was equally obvious to him that he felt incredibly thirsty.
[23:25] He would have liked to look around, to study what was hidden into the shadows, to pace about their room or infirmary or cell, to call to the kavkema or the Nayabaru to see if any of them could communicate in English, or even just to stretch his limbs; but even imagining doing any of that was unbearably painful. The thought of standing up, in particular, turned his injured leg to fire.
Jason and Saira stood quite a bit away. Were they afraid of catching anything from him? A rather ludicrous concern, for people wearing a spacesuit. Or did they resent him, for having been such a damn idiot and getting hurt on a trail that any boy scout would have passed without a sweat, or for making himself a prisoner of the Nayabaru when the two of them must have bee rooting for him and Samanta to stay as far away as possible?
"... Samanta?" He immediately regretted the question; obviously Samanta wasn't here, and they couldn't know about her. "... Nev'mind. Been... here long? Got... water?"
[23:37] "I think it's been less than a day," Jason speculated, using a loose definition of 'here': "You were brought here by a— kavkem." How did one describe Edaaj? She wasn't a brainwashed minion, but she pretended to be, to fit in. It had been eerie to watch her; while kavkem body language still largely remained opaque to Jason, she had so far seemed rather too at ease with it.
"Valcen and the Nayabaru brought you here, to, I guess, the nearest settlement." A simplification, if he was honest. Valcen had described it as a compromise between convenience and ease of access – as far as they dared to take Greg and as far as they had to, at minimum, to be somewhere useful. Whether Valcen was to be believed, on the other hand...
Although there was little reason to lie about that in particular and this settlement obviously had telecommunication; whether it was common for settlements to have that, neither Saira nor Jason knew.
Jason was tempted to reach forward enough to grasp one of Greg's hands, but it felt a little too familiar for someone who was perhaps not on his death bed just yet. He stayed tucked against the edge of the bed at an awkward distance, not quite far, not quite near.
He could offer Greg water, of course, but he still baulked at the idea of just taking it from the environment. It felt like shackling Greg to his fate, even though it probably made no difference. "I'll get you some water," he promised, although he only poorly managed to mask his reluctance about it.
[00:43] "Th— thanks... Jason". How strange, to pronounce that name after what felt like such a long time. Less than a day, really? If Jason had told him he'd been in a coma for ten years, it would have been easier to believe him. His thirst would have been compelling evidence for it. Can one lose so much water as sweat alone?
And how much stranger to be here in the nest of the dreaded enemy, and to actually be safer for it. Maybe. He shuffled uncomfortably, trying to dislodge his soaked clothes from his spine, and slowly dragged his arms to rest together on his chest. The light was hurting a bit less, but now he was starting to be aware of the background noise. That was worse, wasn't it? He heard orders. He couldn't have remotely guessed at their content, or even if they were actually in Naya, but there was no question that they were orders. He could only hope that, for a while more, they wouldn't concern him. Unless they were about bringing him water, or dimming the lights.
"Valcen... how's... 'ow's he?"
[01:13] Jason was pulling himself away from the edge of the bed just as Greg's question tugged him back. The silence was more awkward for that he was clearly trying to say something that was on his mind. Instead, his breath spoke for him, forcing strangled emotions through a regular routine in an effort likely obvious even to Greg's struggling perception.
Then, finally, he settled on: "Honest but untrustworthy." It was all he could bring himself to say – everything else would have required more words than he could possibly keep calm for. 'A potentially brilliant strategist who isn't interested in our well-being except where it incidentally serves his goals' was one way of putting it. 'A soft-spoken and deceptively courteous sadist' was another.
Before Greg had been brought to them, Jason might have felt a need to see Valcen's part in this whole political game in a vaguely charitable light, just enough to be able to interact with him without constantly questioning his motives. Now that Greg was here, that had changed.
Greg felt like a hostage; nothing Valcen could say would likely change that. Jason felt outmanoeuvred, all options other than to meekly yield to the Nayabaru stripped from him – trying to escape was a death sentence for Greg if they took him along and a promise of untold misery for him if they left him behind.
But how could Jason possibly convey all of that with none of the backstory? Had Greg even witnessed the Imitorunyemaa? Did he even know? He certainly hadn't spoken to Valcen before, not like Jason and Saira had, the casual chit-chat that was offensive in hindsight—
"Can I interrupt?"
Speak of the devil. Jason glared daggers across to Valcen, the rest of his body not moving. "I'll get that water," he said, ignoring the twinge of regret at leaving Greg with one pair of human eyes fewer to watch over him for the moment.
Were Greg any less lucid, the sight would have been an obvious hallucination: Valcen had the shape of a kavkem, but had adopted the body language of humans along with his most strikingly alien feature... the bizarre, flawless English trilling from his throat:
"The Nayabaru would like to move you to Katal," Valcen was explaining, his body encoding an unvoiced sigh of aggravation. It was surreal to see a kavkem body radiate that so clearly. "Has anyone told you about Katal?"
[01:40] "Don't... think so..." Greg breathed, hoping Valcen's English was good enough to understand half-whispered sentence fragments. So here he was, this sort of mastermind hidden behind the events of this planet, starting from its relocation around the Sun. (Though on his mastermind status, Evenatra had been nuanced enough.) How much creepier than Evenatra, with his half-human countenance, and his apparent comfort in a place that all kavkem-like beings abhorred, and — oh, right — his mind-warping machines and alliance with torturous prison camps. Like the one Greg was in right now, for example.
"Are... you... Valcen?" Greg tried to lift himself up by propping himself on his elbows, and talk to his visitor with some semblance of dignity. The mattress was too soft, and he too weak, and he slumped back into the bed. "What is... Katal?" The way Valcen had mentioned it, it sounded like moving Greg to this Katal was either a considerable annoyance to Valcen, or a terrible threat to Greg. Or both, most likely.
Images of razorwire cages, medieval torture dungeons, and blood-splattered operating rooms poked up in his mind, but really, the thoght that worried him the most was being having to stand up from the bed. Valcen didn't sound particularly monstrous, not enough to do something that wicked. But what monster does?
[02:00] "I am indeed Valcen," Valcen introduced himself, head bobbing a little, betraying that he was not made exclusively of human postures and gestures. "Pleased to meet you, although the circumstances, I grant, could be better.
"I hope we can patch you up. The necessary medicine is unfortunately not my strength, so I'm of limited use here, but I did instruct the Katal Yeresoa – the veterenarians of this world, if you so will – to research mammalian physiology soon after we brought this planet here, rightly assuming that you humans would come to visit at some point and unfortunately-rightly assuming you might need some medical help at some point.
"It looks like they did a fine job of tele-diagnosing you to the degree they could; it's a relief to see you lucid again." He definitely did not talk like a monster, soft-spoken and encouraging in his tone. What had Jason said? 'Honest but untrustworthy.' Something that could mean anything at all, now that Greg was confronted with picking at it.
"Which brings me to Katal, of course. Katal is a large city about two days industrialised travel away from here," Valcen explained. "The kavkema are terrified of it because it's by far the most unforgiving place for them. It is, for example, the place the Nayabaru usually keep me, and I am quite a threat to the kavkema." ...definitely honest.
"But as I keep stressing, no one wants to harm the alien visitors – that's you – so you're actually quite safe there. Almost all advanced technology is bundled into Katal; that's especially true for medical science.
"I am extremely confident they can reliably fix whatever infection you've gotten and stop you from getting any others." A pause. "A statement that, had I spoken it in the kavkem native tongue, would incidentally terrify any kavkem in earshot." The inflection was one of black humour. Over the course of the next sentence, his voice gentled back to its encouraging baseline: "They don't like being kept alive; no surprise, it tends to mean something very different to them than it does to you."
[05:04] Edaaj could not follow nearly any of the conversations, of course; but she was more interested in the fact that Ghregg was awake and, after a fashion, talking, though Valcen's mentions of Katal suggested that what was being discussed was in no way cheerful.
[05:06] She peered at the human from behind Valcen, watching him carefully, not feeling that she would be able to contribute much in any other way.
§ 2021-01-31 00:22:41
[00:22] That... made plenty of sense, actually. From what Greg had gathered of kavkema culture, a place with the technology to keep people alive against all odds was exactly what a kavkem would be most afraid of; and it was also exactly the place he should be. He could have great respect for the kavkema's light attachment to earthly life, but he'd rather keep breathing as long as possible, and hopefully breathing the air of Earth.
Then again, there were reasons to fear an overextended life — especially on this planet, where an imitorunyema was a thing, and Hell knew what else.
"Would go... alone?" Was he hoping for a yes or a no? He didn't like the idea of separating again from Saira and Jason after speaking a grand total of eighteen words to them, but, as reasonable as Valcen's explanation sounded, he still wasn't sold on Katal.
[00:44] Valcen was opening his muzzle to respond when Jason cut across with: "No."
The kavkem-bodied creature licked at his teeth for a moment, then offered the closest thing to a visible shrug his body could embody.
"It would be hard to justify taking only you along," he said to Greg, diplomatically – it was hard to tell whether 'no' had been his original idea or if he was just remarkably good at running with it now that it had been spoken. "Ever since you landed, all of you have had a standing invitation to come to Katal together.
"For all intents and purposes, you're my guests – mine and the Karesejat's." It was spoken in perfect innocence, but 'Karesejat' rang through Greg's memory: Evenatra had given that name to the 'weapon' she had spoken of. There had been many uncertainties as to how this creature would treat humans, ranging from alliance proposals to being a 'fierce enemy'.
But she had also said that Valcen would not harm them.
[01:24] Then what about — Greg stopped himself short of even thinking of Samanta's name, as if Valcen weren't already aware of her still being around in the wilderness, and naming would somehow draw any more unwanted attention on her.
"It's emer... 'mergency". Perhaps he could have special needs during the transport, which would impede bringing the others along? Good luck making a coherent argument for that, and Valcen would effortlessly knock it down in any case. It would be just like the discussion about sending him to the Nayabaru in the first place: there had never really been a choice about that, either. Greg was so tired of that, of countless arguments that only ever end like they were always supposed to. Everyone's going to Katal, alright; no matter what he said now. He was so tired.
It was time to do something constructive about it.
Gather information, for one. "Where would... we stay... there? Separate or... together?" One good thing about Valcen, Greg had surmises from all he'd heard about him, was that he didn't lie without good reason, and he usually didn't have a good reason to lie, as he could get people to do what he wanted by telling the truth. Maybe Greg could get him to tell all the truth — bit by bit, without him noticing.
Good luck with that.
[01:48] Valcen tilted his head with what registered as introspective curiosity. Finally: "I honestly don't know." Perhaps not the best answer from either perspective. "I would expect you'll all be housed together, the Nayabaru are big on fostering community and likely expect you to think the same way. But I haven't seen your accommodations."
He paused for a moment, during which Jason made as though he were gearing up to protest something, but before the human got a word in, Valcen continued: "And while the Nayabaru and I don't always see eye to eye, they've made Katal comfortable even for me. So — I may not know much, but! I'm already certain I'll be jealous."
[02:39] A frank admission of ignorance was, of course, the one answer Greg hadn't expected. From one such as Evenatra yes, but not from Valcen. Damn him! Why couldn't he just be a straightforward conniving, cackling liar?
Greg squeezed his eyes shut once again. His head was still pulsing with volcanic heat, but the pain in his eyes, at least, had faded a bit. He still felt feeble, and vulnerable, and useless. How much of it was a cold-headed assessment, and how much was fever? As soon as he got better, he and the others could break out of Katal, and... and...
And then what, exactly?
For that matter, wha was Valcen going to do with them, in the end, whenever that was? Were they meant to be "guests" forever, even if well treated? Greg turned his head to face the alien."How... long? To... end?", he forced out. Hopefully, all implications would come through.
[02:56] Again, Jason's response cut right through whatever Valcen was planning to say: "Until you're healthy enough to leave."
In response, Valcen gestured so-so apologetically. "As long as is in any way polite, presumably," he mused, revealing another blindspot. "Not long enough to alienate you, but surely the maximum amount of time before that point, during which I'm almost surely expected to try and convince you to be our friends." A wry smile was difficult to pull off on a kavkem face, but Valcen was somehow managing.
§ 2021-02-07 01:41:27
[01:41] So there was a time limit; and apparently not an impossibly distant one, though that one limit was still frustratingly vague. At what point would the Nayabaru consider them a lost cause? And when that happened, what would the end of their stay actually entail? Would they give up on humans being their friends — or just on convincing them?
Surely Valcen did not expect Greg, even in this rather sorry state, not to see that possibility? He couldn't have articulated it well, certainly not enough to resist refutation. But he did see it; and what a lot of good it did him. Perhaps when the imitorunyema was strapped around his head and burrowing into his cortex, he'd be able to think to himself "Ha-ha, I saw this coming!"
But then, if the Nayabaru had a limited timespan to befriend their group, maybe they would put a lot more effort in the actual befriending. Who knows? Maybe the little primate guests would actually be able to ask for concessions — ask them to be nicer to their kavkema friends. OK, now he was definitely being delirious.
What if he didn't get better? Then keeping him in Katal would surely qualify as the polite course of actions. And if he wasn't going to stay so sick... who's to say they wouldn't make him? It's not like they didn't have the technology to give him a very long-lasting headache.
Greg sank deeper into the mattress. Too many possibilities, and nowhere remotely enough energy to steer into one. He said just: "Convince... how?"
[04:21] Valcen stared at Greg for a moment, body language opaque. Then, in a tone that suggested he wasn't even sure what the alternative was meant to be, he said: "By talking to you." And as though finally realising that perhaps more could be said on the matter, he continued after a briefer pause with: "Sorry to leave you wanting of details, but if I already knew how I was going to convince you, presumably I'd have done it already."
Jason snorted lightly, having picked up on what Greg meant with his question and not at all convinced that Valcen had not. "We can talk here," he said, as though that were a refutation of what Valcen had just said.
"Of course!" Valcen said, his tone enthusiastic and in agreement. "But we can't heal Greg here, according to the experts."
§ 2021-02-13 00:03:12
[00:03] Greg stirred in his miserable bed. With the magma churning in his skull, he couldn't muster more than one rational thought every while, and certainly not two to connect. Maybe... maybe he could weaponize that. The most impressive scams and frauds relied on their target as accomplice — giving up their own intelligence for the fraudster, thinking themselves into ruin. Why not avoid that?
"Then let's... go". The sooner we start, the sooner we're done. And now I really want to see what you can do with words. And I bet that so does Jason. Let Valcen bring his best tongue-twisting game; no amount of rhetorics could defeat a stubborn blockhead who refused to be convinced, and by god Greg was going to be a blockhead if he needed to.
[00:15] Edaaj thought she understood Ghregg's last statement, which she had heard once or twice before. "[I take it,]" she said, "[that he is indicating a willingness to be treated in Katal?]" Assuming, of course, that she'd correctly guessed the trajectory of the rest of the conversation. The thought motivated her to add, in frustration, "[I wish I had been able to learn more of their words.]"
[00:27] "Soon," Valcen was promising Greg as Edaaj began speaking. "I first need to organise a means for Baishar to return. You should rest in the interim."
Having said that to his human acquaintances, he allowed his attention to be tugged aside, settling on Edaaj. Exhaling his own frustration, he summarised: "[He is very reluctant, but yes. It's better this way, of course – there really isn't any alternative.]" Beyond the obvious medical observation, the subtext rang with 'the Nayabaru would hardly take "no" for an answer'.
Turning his attention to the Nayabaru in the room, Valcen straightened his posture out into something the Nayabaru would interpret as (misplaced) authority. "[We will need to travel to Katal. May I leave my banners with you, so you can give them to my assistant? He will arrive here with some delay, potentially with recruits, and need safe passage to Katal.]"
[01:00] You should rest. Greg didn't need to be told twice. He threw a side glance to Jason and Saira, as if to check whether they were still there. Saira, in particular, had been awfully quiet this whole time.
Then he closed his eyes once more, trying his best to drop out of consciousness for a while more. After all, whatever Valcen had in store for him could only take place while he was awake and conscious, and surely he could count on his fellow humans, or Edaaj, to rouse him if necessary. The low light pulsed red through his eyelids, and a thin, merciful air draft cooled slightly a tiny region of his forehead.