§ 2020-12-29 02:30:07
[02:30] The only accommodations Estedat had for kavkema was a pit in the ground, covered by a grating. The inhabitants were unwilling to make an exception and let the kavkema in and the Nayabaru Hesha that were travelling with the group were evidently unwilling to simply let the kavkema sleep under open air, out of some misguided instinct that they might try to escape.
The Nayabaru made a laudable effort at making the usually dismal accommodation passably pleasant, at least. Old blankets were tossed into the pit and some kind of sturdy outdoor rug was pulled over the grating.
Before the kavkema retired to it (or were retired to it, to some degree), Valcen explained to the humans that it was quite all right. No one present was going to have flashbacks to being a Nayabaru captive and with the adjustments it would be quite cosy.
It was indeed quite cosy. Unnerving, psychologically unpleasant, but cosy. If it started raining torrentially, it would get a lot less pleasant, but the skies were clear and the air not so damp as to suggest this was going to change any time soon.
The best part about it was that the setup granted Valcen some privacy. It came at the cost of being literally trapped, but if he was used to anything by now, it was living in a generously refurbished cell.
He clambered down after Edaaj, watching the Hesha close the grating above him with some curiosity, as though expecting them to get it wrong in some subtle, laughable way. He remained staring up at it for a while as the Hesha left, his posture remaining one of alert curiosity.
Then his attention swerved to Edaaj. "Comfortable?" he asked with a tinge of bitter sarcasm, but kept shy of coming across as intentionally scathing. He was, perhaps, simply highlighting the irony of their particular situation.
[02:39] Edaaj found herself repeatedly glancing up at the grate. Unlike Valcen, she had never been in a cell of any sort, and for all that it had been 'improved' for their use, the security of the arrangements made her skin crawl. She tried, very hard, to pretend that it was just a funny-looking cave or burrow.
[02:52] She sank to the ground and, without really thinking about it, pulled one of the blankets over herself like a shawl and lurked in it. "Of all the treatment I might have expected from Naybaru," she murmured, not quite managing to hide the quavering in her voice, "I admit that blankets did not figure in my imaginings." She took a long, slow breath. For all that Valcen was almost certainly more valuable to the Nayabaru than she was, the fact that they were in here together suggested that they were going to get similar treatment; she could tell herself that she shouldn't be worried if Valcen wasn't.
[02:54] She pulled her gaze down from the rug-covered grate, her eyes glinting dimly at Valcen from under the edge of the blanket. "No doubt you think me an idiot," she said.
[03:07] Valcen's expression turned into a slight glare. "No idiot would make this kind of mistake," he observed, settling himself down into a sit at some distance to her, anchoring his gaze on her. "Allow me to make one thing unmistakably clear, so you're not labouring under any misconceptions about it:
"If you slip up, if the Nayabaru catch on that you're only pretending to be one of my minions, I will, at next opportunity, ensure that you stop pretending and am unabashedly going to insist that you had me fooled, too, because that's much, much less dangerous than admitting that I knowingly let you travel with us uninhibited.
"Should you try to sabotage what I'm doing at any point, I will stop being friendly to you. Should you become a burden for any other reason, I will stop being friendly to you. As you may have noticed, I only have about this much leeway," he gestured with his forepaws, bringing them close together. "I don't intend to use it for you."
[03:15] Edaaj pulled her head back as Valcen spoke, until she was huddled even further than she already had been. It all made sense, of course – Valcen hadn't asked to have an unconverted kavkem loitering around and risking his plans – but here, in the midst of a Nayabaru pen in a Naybaru settlement, being skewered by both his words and his glare were difficult to take calmly.
[03:19] The blanket had slipped over her muzzle as it retracted, and muffled the faint "Understood..." that issued from behind it. This was followed by an equally faint "Not here to sabotage, only want to learn."
[03:32] That mellowed him out considerably, his tension evaporating. He glanced elsewhere only to close his eyes for long moments of silence. Then he opened them again, settling them on Edaaj, his air far friendlier than before. "I was going to say you could have had that easier if you'd stayed with Evenatra, but I grant she's not easy to stay with, for good reason.
"Which brings me to an important question: What do you think I am?" It was asked with curiosity, not contempt. Baishar had clearly told her part of the truth, but their ability to speak about Edaaj's 'recruitment' at length had been severely limited.
[03:53] The head extended forward, very cautiously, and Edaaj pulled the blanket off her face, though her fear was still visible there. "I have listened to the things that Evenatra and Baishar have said. My understanding is that although you have the body of a kavkem, you once were a god..."
[03:56] She hesitated, and amended, "...you were once of the same kind as the beings we call gods. When Asraaban found us and spoke to Evenatra, he referred to you as her 'brother' – I did not get any sense of how metaphorical that was intended to be."
[04:21] The notion amused Valcen even though he'd been on the receiving end of its counter-part during his conversation with Asraaban. "That's surely one way to piss her off," he mused. "But you're right, some of my people have regrettably found their way into your cultural pantheon.
"I was refreshingly absent for a while, but it appears I've become a recent addition despite my crippled state – I'm not quite flattered, but it's certainly more acknowledgement than I've had in a few billion years."
Despite the jocular choice of words, he sounded bitter – as though he would have preferred staying incognito until the stars burnt out. Edaaj had not heard of any recent additions to the pantheon, but it was easy to imagine it, given the very particular technology he had brought to this world.
"In any case, I hope you don't think I'm a god, or a demi-god, or some metaphysical spirit. I'm just the part of a very old person going by the name of Valcen that the Karesejat did not kill on instinct."
The word just stood out as absurd, deliberately brushing aside the experience of a lifetime longer than any kavkem could ever hope to achieve, deliberately diminishing the impact he was having on this world, pretending to be forgettable, when the only way that was likely to happen was if he forcibly removed her memories.
[04:32] Edaaj slowly uncovered her head. She found his attitude toward the subject difficult to parse, but she wondered – recalling what Evenatra had said about the circumstances under which her ancestors had been taken from the humans' world, and Jeneth's preference for non-interference – if that meant that most of these ancient beings preferred not to be known to their creations.
[04:38] "If it helps," she replied uncertainly, "the faith in which I was raised considers the gods to be... personifications, forces, rather than people. For Evenatra to appear and identify herself has caused some... rearrangement of my worldview..." She hesitated, struggling to coherently continue the thought. "In any case," she pushed on, "no, I am quite content to accept your explanation; our group had not heard of you until quite recently.
[04:40] "But Baishar had showed me his eye, and told me that you were responsible for building a number of other things. And as I have said, I am... was... a builder among my group. Such things interest me. And interest might have been all it was, except..." She trailed off, eyeing Valcen. Would he understand? Would it make a difference if he did?
[04:51] In a smaller, more tired voice, she continued, "For me, devices more advanced than stone or bone or leather were Nayabaru things. They existed, but they were... not for me. Some fortunate kavkema might have better, if they stole them or had the right materials, but even then they were a rarity, irreplaceable. It never occurred to me that it might be otherwise. But then..." she waved a hand vaguely. "...all this happened. Humans with flying vessels and wayfinding devices and other things. And I thought: if they could make these things, why not us? I am good with my hands; I have pondered the workings of nature; if the world had not been the way it is, couldn't I have made wonders like they have?
[04:57] "But out of us, only Evenatra knew their language. There was neither time nor opportunity to learn from them. And Baishar... he showed me his eye, you see, and told me about some of the other things you had made, and the qidravema... he suggested that I come with him to see you..." She trailed off. It really did sound silly, even sad, saying all of it now. "I suppose his main concern was to return to you," she mumbled. "But I didn't see any other way forward. The idea of going back to what I'd been doing, even if our group were to come together again, feels like trying to squeeze back into the egg."
[05:07] She took a deep breath, and added, "And... Evenatra... she means well, I know. She wants to help us. But I do not think she has a way to do more than keep a space for us. We are surrounded, boxed in, and that will not change unless something else does. Baishar seemed to think you were working on something, and it sounded like maybe it might be to our benefit, of not precisely for it..."
[05:10] She trailed off again, her gaze slipping away from him, and this time did not immediately resume speaking. It was clear that, however mortal she accepted Valcen to be, a significant portion of hope – or whatever passed for it, for a kavkem – had been attached to him.
[05:50] Throughout all this, Valcen listened patiently. In a way, Edaaj had the opposite problem of Valcen's godshatter; whereas Valcen had lost access to a vast swath of knowledge he could only guess at now, Edaaj had her world and mind opened to new possibilities.
Despite the opposite imagery, the agonies were comparable. They were both aware of the fragility of their current situation. They both wanted to transcend it. They were both taking extreme risks to do so.
When she revealed that she was hoping he had a plan, his stare intensified a little, though the change was subtle. "I am," he confirmed, softly. "But you can see the price I pay for pursuing those goals," he said, gesturing about himself, then once to his head to stress that he did not purely mean that his personal freedom was being curtailed.
"From the kavkem perspective, it's a strange little race. Will Valcen manage to reach his nebulously communicated goals or will he destroy the kavkema? What happens first? You might prefer that it weren't simply my gamble that I succeed with the former before I succeed with the latter."
He neglected to mention option C: Valcen succeeds at neither of these things, cut short prematurely; the Nayabaru have his technology and everything stays horrible forever.
[06:14] Edaaj continued to stare at the ground. It was hard to tell, merely from looking, whether she was considering his words or if her mind had simply begun to wander, lost in the situation in which it had found itself. It was a tall order, surely, for someone whose world had been so small for so long to grapple with issues so big.
[06:34] At last, she gave a weak shrug. "I might not," she said, "but the gamble is being made regardless of what I do, isn't it? I'm only stumbling into it all." She raised her head to look at him. "Here and now, I cannot imagine I am able to tilt the odds one way or the other. But I don't think, one way or the other, that I will be returning to my old life, regardless of the difficulties. I don't think I'm needed anymore, and in any case-" Her voice betrayed a moment of bitter humor. "-I would not want to face Evenatra, who rather explicitly intended that we not deliver any humans into your hands."
[06:40] Her expression turned sober, and she added, "I would like to learn as much from you as your forbearance allows, and thereby maybe – someday – I might be able to help with a desirable outcome. Or, if you would prefer not..." She hesitated, then shrugged resignedly. "I don't know."
§ 2020-12-31 00:36:19
[00:36] "No," he said, but in a gentle tone. "It's a risk assessment question. Baishar would also like to help, but he cannot and you cannot.
"I have a productive arrangement with the Nayabaru and they kindly don't try to torture my plans out of me, largely in the knowledge that there is nothing more valuable to me than that, but they would certainly do that to my—" He paused, tripping over an imagined word, before continuing with a forced smoothness: "—assistants."
All in all, he seemed to be mellowing out a little now that they could talk with some privacy. It was the opposite behaviour of what one might expect of a formiddable predator that had been locked into a room with his prey.
He chuckled softly, drawing his mind back onto something else Edaaj had said. "Evenatra probably thinks that if she lets the humans talk to me, they will side with the Nayabaru. I don't blame her for thinking that. They likely will, if they take my advice to heart, but it won't be because I'm not telling your side of the story. They'd do it for the same reason I have – because it's the only way forward."
With an almost imperceptible hesitance, as though needing to first verify with himself whether the analogy was apt: "They'd do it for the same reason you are, to about equal degree of sincerity."
[00:47] Though Edaaj felt unable to argue with Valcen's reasoning, it still stung to be excluded from the possibility of... well, of making some kind of difference. Or at least knowingly making some kind of difference.
[00:54] She was distracted from further thoughts along these lines by what he said next. She looked alarmed for a moment, until he finished speaking and she'd had a chance to think about what he said. "You think, then," she said slowly, "that they will have to at least feign a preference for the Nayabaru, lest they become their victims? ...Baishar had said that the Nayabaru had orders to treat them well. Would that change, then, under the right conditions?"
[01:02] "Well, they can't very well side with the kavkema without choosing to antagonise the Nayabaru. The Karesejat wouldn't tolerate that and by proxy, none of the Hesha would tolerate it.
"Our visitors and their home planet would rapidly learn just how quickly the Nayabaru can innovate to become a terrible threat to them when the pressure is on, as long as the Karesejat is there to guide them. These mammals have an advantage in numbers, but a disadvantage, to put it bluntly, in not having a Karesejat."
He appended a deceptively simple summary: "It wouldn't be good for them."
[01:17] The look of horror on Edaaj's face was all too clear. Space travel, she'd thought, sounded like a marvelous enough thing in the hands of humans, or kavkema, but it was hard for her not to feel her sense of wonder horribly inverted at the thought of the Nayabaru using it to do to another world something like what they'd done to this one.
[01:26] Her hunger for knowledge seemed such a paltry thing in the face of that. What good was she going to do with it? What could she accomplish? If she was disallowed from assisting in Valcen's schemes and unlikely to manage anything on her own, what then?
[01:28] If Edaaj had intended to find a more reassuring conversation than the one she'd had with Evenatra, she hadn't found it here.
[01:32] "...and," she asked hollowly, "if they manage to return to their world having given the impression of supporting the Nayabaru – or at least of neutrality – what do you think will happen then?"
[01:43] "Then I hope they'll keep the Nayabaru occupied with their new superficial alliance for long enough that they almost forget about me," Valcen said, faux-sweetly. "The less closely they look, the more I can advance with what I want to do." It left the actual question unanswered – what would happen to the kavkema? What of her kin? But perhaps that was quite intentional.
[01:58] The omission was not lost on Edaaj, and it smoldered in her brain. She was beginning to despair again – and she was tired, and, increasingly, hungry as well – and this did not predispose her, however she might have felt under other circumstances, to politely stay away from a point that was not otherwise being brought up. "And the kavkema? What will happen to us? Is there anything for us to do but... wait, for an outcome?"
[02:12] Valcen shrugged lightly and it seemed as though he might say something fundamentally disheartening. Instead, he made an off-hand comment that made Edaaj realise that as much as she knew that she was lacking knowledge of the universe her world was embedded in, she was unaware how much of her own world was a mystery to her:
"The best tactic would be to try migrating to Tabraan and wait it out there. For the time being, the Karesejat is treating Tabraan as sovereign kavkem territory, even though the kavkema only claim half of it to date and I have reason to believe this won't change unless the Tabraan kavkema attempt a military strike against another continent, which I expect they won't be equipped to do for another century or two."
[02:14] Edaaj blinked.
[02:18] Tabraan? Kavkem sovereignty? Future military strikes? What?
[02:23] "I..." her tongue seemed to tangle, and she tried again. "I've never heard of Tabraan and haven't the faintest idea of where it is, but I have to tell you that, coming from almost anyone else, that would sound like a fever dream. Why would the Karesejat just... allow a place to exist where kavkema are free to act? Why didn't Evenatra mention it?" It damn well might've made me behave much more differently over the past day or two!
[02:38] Valcen was uncharacteristically quiet for a moment, looking as though the questions might have surprised him slightly. His gaze dropped down for a moment's inward consideration, making no secret of that he was reassessing something. Then he gradually shrugged out of his near-empty rucksack, tugged it infront of him, and began rummaging through it.
"I suppose that explains why there has yet to be a mass exodus," he mused, tone one of friendly curiosity, his attention still on his bag. He fished out a narrow, perfectly rectangular block of something, sniffed at it, then let his free paw disappear back into the bag.
"I shouldn't be surprised, really. Evenatra probably still mistrusts the sovereignty; to her perception it's likely that, if she were to send kavkema there, she might as well be sending them into an elaborate trap, meant to ensnare the kavkema as a whole. Well, no use lamenting it, I suppose, but I do hope she changes her mind soon."
Said, he smiled across at Edaaj, pulling his other paw out of the bag and extending another geometrically cut block to her. "Hungry?" he asked.
The block had approximately scent and (by the looks of it) consistency of dried meat – not easy to bite through, but if it tasted anything like how it smelled, likely delicious. Given this was clearly created by the Nayabaru, it was no doubt not, in fact, made of meat, but of other protein sources and some clever flavouring.
[03:00] Despite the rather clear indications that there were no further Imitorunyemaa to be found in the rucksack, Edaaj found herself leaning away apprehensively when he reached inside, but subsided when realizing it was food – of some kind, at least. "Yes, thank you." She took the block and curiosity won out over hunger for a grand total of five seconds, spent sniffing and examining the substance from several angles, before she ravenously started gnawing off a piece with her teeth.
[03:08] This occupied her mouth, for the most part, but after a few moments, she made a somewhat muffled reply: "It sort of sounds like a trap, though Nayabaru traps do not usually make a pretense of leniency."
[03:14] "Quite right," Valcen commented. "The Karesejat might think on such scales, but it turns out she has no actual interest..." – he gnawed at his own meal for a few seconds, before resuming his sentence – "...in the kavkema by themselves. She wants two things: Threadwielders, like me,..." – gnaw, gnaw – "...or Evenatra, and that the Nayabaru are not harmed. Moving all kavkema to Tabraan would really..." – gnaw, gnaw – "...help with that. Easy trade to make, from her perspective."
[03:36] Edaaj had spent her entire life wandering the landscape to avoid detection and capture by the Nayabaru; it was a way of life. Other kavkem groups were sometimes met, but out of necessity were scattered thinly. She could barely imagine a place where the Nayabaru just weren't around, where no one had to move around to avoid them. Would the results be something like the 'very settled' human world?
[03:43] As she hungrily tore apart her strange, if unexpectedly satisfying, meal, she wished she'd heard about this sooner, that she'd had the choice of going to this Tabraan. It might not have presented the learning opportunities she'd been more recently looking for, but it might have resulted in a nicer quality of life.
[03:45] Aloud, she mused, "It is a small comfort to think that at least some kavkema are already there, and safe for the time being, even if the rest of us aren't."
[04:01] Valcen managed to tear a chunk off his own ersatz-meat bar, then paused to ponder for a moment, perhaps looking for the right words for something. "From what I understand, some previous, even more incomplete version of me arranged the Tabraan trade. I'll be honest, it's... not something I would have done – the price was a bit steep. But the damage is done and your culture might as well enjoy the benefits."
[04:11] Edaaj managed to get another chunk free, but paused. She wasn't sure if the matter was really any of her business, but she wouldn't be who she was if she wasn't curious. She held the morsel in her other hand before trying to eat it.
[04:14] "Another version of you? Was this, er, another fragment left behind from your death? ...And what kind of price would be worth a continent?" Possibly, she thought, he wouldn't answer; but he had been accommodating so far, and she felt it most likely that he wouldn't be offended by the questions.
[04:33] Valcen briefly opened his muzzle, then sighed soundlessly and closed it again. Apparently, it was complicated.
But he was willing to try. "I first came to Nekenalos about a century ago. I was already thinking about how I might try to... survive an encounter with the Karesejat back then and got a bit closer to my goal than I assumed. I didn't think I was ready, so I ran – ditched my kavkem body and disappeared into space.
"That was supposed to be the end of that, but my body turned out to be just barely but unmistakably autonomous. I imagine she must have been very confused; not even sure whether to identify as 'Valcen' or not, I doubt there was enough of me in her to assert itself to that degree.
"The Karesejat thought there was enough of me left that it was worth trading a small continent away to get her cooperation. And she did get her cooperation. The end result was that the Karesejat is many times better armed to hunt my kind now than she was a century ago.
"The spiderlings, for example, are such a recent affliction, tirelessly trying to spot Evenatra and track her path. The other weapons, however, are not ones you can see with your own eyes.
"That said, we managed to repurpose one of those weapons – a planetary net – to move the planet, by using it as a harness. Without that construct, this planet would be completely erased by now, sterilised by the violent radiation of a dying star."
§ 2020-12-31 23:31:27
[20:27] Every time Edaaj thought she was beginning to understand the sheer scale of the web her world was caught up in, it seemed, she was disabused of the notion.
[20:33] Though she had no way of independently verifying Valcen's account as truth, it held together, in its own way. The sky had indisputably changed. The world had moved. Something had moved it. This was as good an explanation as any; more than that, it was the only explanation that had been presented.
[20:35] The idea that the world had come very close to being ended made her want to burrow out of sight, but if everything Valcen was saying was true, it wasn't even the first existential threat to be brought up during the conversation. How many more were there?
[20:48] Still, she was not immune to the thrill of knowing what had been done. The power existed to move worlds. And the instrument of doing so had been provided by a mortal – a god-fragment, yes, but empowered only by additional knowledge. The same would have been true of Valcen and his role in its deployment.
[20:49] Perhaps the Karesejat might have played a vital role, but it left open the question: could any mortal do such things, properly equipped?
[20:53] A piece of the faux-meat had been held absently in Edaaj's mouth during this chain of thought, and she finally swallowed it. The image of worlds being scattered like stones across the sky at her whim lingered in her mind's eye, but faded as something else tugged at her attention. It took her some time to determine what it was.
[20:57] "Evenatra said," she said, peering at him, "that the humans' world was the one that our ancestors were brought from – the one belonging to Tkanetar – to Jeneth. Was there a reason that we were brought so close to it that the humans could come here? And is Jeneth still there?"
[01:55] "Convenience," Valcen said, minimalistically, effectively saying nothing at all. Fortunately, he moved on to elaborate: "I can't guarantee Jeneth is still alive, let alone where ve is, but I think so. Ve has a fairly strong attachment to their civilisation.
"When ve came to Nekenalos with me, we lost fifty years to travelling. Ve didn't want to lose another fifty years that way, so while we were travelling, we set up an Anchor line – a short cut through space, if you will – back to the world of Jeneth's pet civilsation.
"It was meant to let ver return home quicker. Instead, the Karesejat and I abused it to swing the planet around it, which meant there was only one place for it to go – near our visitors' home planet."
[02:23] It seemed a strange thing, to be taken from a world so far in the past, only to be returned to the vicinity of that same world. But then, perhaps, even in terms of the unimaginable distances between the stars, Jeneth's world had simply been closest. Evenatra and Ysikary had brought life to Nekenalos because it was nearby; Valcen had brought Jeneth here because ve was nearby.
[02:27] Edaaj bore a look of weary perplexity. She said, "Apparently, in seeking to learn as much about everything as possible, I have very much underestimated the extent of 'everything'."
[02:39] Valcen snorted an amused chuckle. "You can't learn everything," he said, with a crushing finality. His gentle, encouraging tone made it worse. "Your mind isn't laid out to retain information perfectly in the first place, but even if it were, there's just not enough of it – not enough space for all there is to know.
"You can either pick and choose, or, if you reject that, you can clone yourself into an upgraded body – as I've done, with," he gestured at himself, perhaps resolving the mystery of why he looked so young, "and then live with that only your clone is going to learn more."
"Sorry, I— ah, I prefer being honest about such things." He stared at the remnant of his meal, presently clutched in his paws. "Honesty is not always pleasant, but sometimes I at least have the good sense to be polite about how to present it." He rolled his eyes lightly at himself. "Apparently, this was not one of those times."
He didn't seem to be embarrassed as much as mildly annoyed, like one might be at a suboptimal execution of a meticulous plan. He popped the rest of his meal bar into his mouth and settled his gaze back on his unlikely guest.
[03:04] "I understand." It was a somewhat disappointing statement, but it didn't sting quite as much as it could have. "Some things interest me more than others," she told him seriously. "Knowing the names and habits of every fish would be impressive, but not of immense use; but I could see the value in knowing how to make things that move and act in the way that your Imitorunyemaa can. But when I say 'everything', I mean more-" she struggled. The words 'physics' and 'chemistry' had not much featured in her life. "-I mean... principles. Laws. Phenomena. How things work, and why, and how they got that way. Generalities, more than specific examples."
[03:12] She hesitated, and added, "and... as I said, Baishar had told me about the qidravema, and that you had allowed him one; I assume that this body of yours has one as part of its... upgrade. And the thought had occurred to me that, if nothing else, such a thing would... would certainly allow..." She trailed off, looking embarrassed. "But a qidravem seemed to me the sort of rare thing one would have to earn, you see. That was at least part of why I offered my assistance earlier."
[04:17] Valcen stared at her with some suspicion. For just a moment, it seemed as though she had touched on something forbidden, perhaps, as though qidravema were not given to anyone who had the gall to ask for one.
His words, fortunately, suggested otherwise. "Allow me to be blunt: If you acquire a qidravem, for all intents and purposes, you will deny yourself death. Even assuming you have faith in some bright kavkem future, that future in turn will not last forever.
"Should you be able to retain control of your qidravem, you may be able to turn it off indefinitely at some point and simulate an end. But if you don't? If another culture with sensibilities like the Nayabaru gets a hold of you? Old age won't save you."
[04:27] Edaaj hesitated, but only briefly. "I understand. But it seems to me to be worth the risk."
[04:31] And, after all, a bright future for the kavkema was worth having, if only for a while. And a future of torment, surely, would not last forever, any more than any bright future would (though possibly Edaaj did not appreciate how long something like that could continue).
[04:38] But although Valcen's concern did not seem to be about anyt presumption on Edaaj's part, she felt moved to add, "But I know it's something of a... a presumption, to ask this from you. Or anything else, really. clearly you have quite enough else to deal with – more, I suppose, than I understood at first.
[05:15] The statement seemed to bewilder Valcen, either as though he were so used to his miserable status quo that it didn't occur to him to think of it as she'd just defined it, or because he wasn't used to having anyone acknowledge it.
Given his tense interaction with all four sophont cultures – the kavkema first and foremost given what he was doing to them, the Nayabaru that seemed to resent him, the humans that seemed to mistrust him and Evenatra who had effectively warned people not to cooperate with Valcen – it was likely the latter.
"It may not be up to me," Valcen gestured nebulously into the direction the Nayabaru had retired into. "Although so far, the whole 'lack of death' tends to sell them on it." He glanced into the direction he'd just pointed, as though looking for something, as though one could look through rock at wherever the Nayabaru were currently sleeping.
"I also can't make any promises I'd handle your request expediently, either, although to be perfectly honest with you, it's a desirable distraction." Was he saying that it would distract him or the Nayabaru?
§ 2021-01-02 01:30:54
[01:30] Edaaj relaxed slightly. It sounded, one way or another, that he was at least favorable to the idea, which was as much as she could have hoped for – if the Nayabaru, for some reason, intervened to prevent it, there was likely nothing that could be done. "I can't complain about timeframes, so long as I'm not dead yet," she replied, sounding a little relieved.
[01:38] She looked down at the remainder of the block of faux-meat in her hands – she hadn't gnawed off a piece in quite a few minutes now – and, before continuing with it, she asked, "May I ask... how did Baishar..." She hesitated. There were a number of ways she could phrase it, but most of them sounded more insulting than she really wanted. "...how did he become your, er, assistant?"
[02:05] Valcen's comparative good mood seemed to partially evaporate at the question, although not quite enough to suggest that he felt offence. He was steeped in introspection for a minute, evidently trying to sort his thoughts.
"Baishar," he began. "Once was a voluntary recruit. It turns out if you offer kavkema trapped in Katal the option of remaining in their standard captivity or joining a project that promises them some comforts, they sometimes consider it." Not nearly often enough, though.
For a moment, he considered skipping over why he had even tried to recruit Baishar, but it seemed so much like an obvious next question for a kavkem to ask who, by her own claims, wanted to make herself useful, that he elaborated: "My first kavkem avatar, the one that survived its interaction with the Karesejat, hatched from a wild-laid egg by a surrogate mother.
"We had convinced her it was perhaps of cosmological importance to help us out and she correctly presumed it wouldn't worsen the situation for the kavkema, so she suspended her staunch antinatalism to yield to our request, but was not quite so accommodating as not to sterilise both me and my bother."
...a brother? This clearly wasn't getting any less complicated. Maybe a question to get back to.
"When the Nayabaru accepted me as a tentative, grudging ally and allowed me some autonomy within Katal, I needed a source of bodies for myself, like this one," he gestured at himself. "And I rather preferred not getting those from the Seklushia, so I tried to find two voluntary kavkem parents for my eggs. Baishar was the father.
"He was also – and indeed remains – a very eager student of science, much like you," Valcen commented, clearly with some fondness. "So I kept him in the loop with my work. Regrettably at one point he convinced himself that it would be merciful to me if he delayed my work and tried to damage the Torunyema." The original. The bigger one.
"As you already know, when I set out to work together with someone, I set up some ground rules, and one of those rules is that you don't sabotage my work. He went against that, so I corrected him." Twice, technically. Valcen smiled lightly, as though he were talking about a small detail in the narrative.
[02:17] It was entirely with what Valcen had said near the beginning of their conversation: Should you try to sabotage what I'm doing at any point, I will stop being friendly to you. Still, it was hard not to be chilled by the casualness of it.
[02:22] Then again, she thought, hadn't there been a period, however brief, when she'd been, fairly casually, in favor of killing Baishar? And although this was far different than death, killing Baishar would not have been allowed within the confines of Katal, even had Valcen wanted to (and she got the impression that he preferred not to), and if the alternative had been simply returning him to normal captivity...
[02:25] She could see the reasons, in the same way that she thought she was starting to see the reasons for many of the things Valcen appeared to have done, though she did not like the taste of many of them. It did not make it any better, as such, but perhaps they had been necessary. On the other hand...
[02:30] "What..." Edaaj's somewhat spooked expression had begun to give way to something like outrage or affront, though it quickly became clear that it wasn't particularly aimed at Valcen. "...what good was delay supposed to do? What would it have bought him time to do? Why would it be merciful?"
[02:52] Surprisingly, Valcen reacted to the question with amusement evident in his body language, as though she'd just inadvertently stumbled across an in-joke. Instead of answering, he spent some moments arranging his rucksack as though for a pillow, then indeed settled down a bit more into their strange, hybrid abode.
"As you may have noticed," Valcen mused. "The work I do for the Nayabaru is not particularly savoury. It was quite fine as long as it was restricted to reading, but it didn't stay that way. It couldn't, of course.
"I was about... ninety percent done tuning the Torunyema for writing when they brought Gazhil to me." A pause across a displaced light smile. "That's my brother," he added. "Was," he corrected, his gaze vacant for a moment, but his mood no more sombre for it.
"On some level, he was the kavkem I was least inclined to protect, but, well," he shrugged lightly. "Honestly, it could have been anybody else they brought to me, and I think Baishar understood that." He reeled his gaze back in from where it had wandered off to, then settled it squarely on Edaaj. "I erased him."
For an eerie moment, the contrast of what he was speaking about clashed awfully with his calm exterior. Then he said: "I had my first emotional breakdown back then. When I had my second big one, I realised it was my greatest enemy. I realised it had to stop – I didn't need saboteurs if I was going to undo my careful plans myself.
"So I asked Baishar to inoculate me against it – this searing empathy, the one that blinds the mind. I owe him my sanity." There was real affection in Valcen's voice, a deep appreciation; somehow, that didn't translate into making the tale any more palatable.
[03:03] What Valcen was saying sank in slowly, hindered slightly by a use of 'read' and 'write' that she had not previously encountered, but as he continued on, Edaaj's feathers puffed out involuntarily, her head pulling back.
[03:19] Erased. Erased. She'd had no idea that the Torunyemaa were capable of that, and it terrified her far more even than the idea of having her mind changed. Faced with that, she'd rather lose a limb. All her limbs. Nearly anything else. And he'd done it to his own brother – had had to do it to his own brother, almost certainly, but still – and to make someone gone but still there, like some walking corpse...
[03:23] And it had understandably been traumatic... and Valcen had wanted to make it be not traumatic anymore.
[03:24] She was horrified. Very, very obviously horrified. And when she next tried to speak, it came out as an indistinct noise before another try resolved itself into, "But... until he was corrected... he wanted to stop you from going through with it." It was more of a statement than a question.
[03:31] "Quite right," Valcen said. "He was in an adjacent room when I erased Gazhil, cowering, hearing more than he wanted to. I went to him when I broke down. It was all a bit much for him at the time."
[03:34] "Yes," came the reply, a quavering whisper, "I think I can imagine that."
[03:41] If she had been placed in an equivalent situation to Valcen's, what would she had done? Gone mad, possibly? Certainly many others would have – or been scarred forever. That was... understandable, if not desirable. But if what Valcen was doing was that important – which, if he was right, it was – he couldn't afford to go mad, could he? Couldn't afford to have scars reopened. Not if it prevented him from doing things that needed to be done. So his solution had been to have it fixed.
[03:47] Edaaj was honest enough with herself to admit that, on some level, it made sense to her. She liked the idea of fixing problems. That was a large part of what she'd spent her life doing, albeit in a much more physical fashion. And hadn't she already considered that a Torunyema could be used as a tool to soothe damaged minds?... But what she'd imagined had been, well, different; to ease the pain, to shrink the wound, not to take away, so to speak, the ability to feel pain or to bleed.
[03:52] And yet pain and blood would have interfered. The solution, having been available, must have been obvious. It was a fix. It had just never occurred to Edaaj to consider something like empathy as something that needed fixing, any more than... well, a healthy eye-
[03:53] And yet Baishar had one replaced, she told herself.
[04:04] She had always thought of herself as a good builder, a good problem-solver, but now she had the deep and terrifying sense, not felt since she'd been quite young, of being a hatchling in the presence of a veteran master. His capacity to accomplish surpassed hers not merely in what he could do, but in what he was willing to do. If there was an end to be achieved, significant obstacles had to be reduced or removed.
[04:06] Valcen might have only been a fragment of a god, but nothing in Edaaj's time with Evenatra had inspired quite as much terror. Or awe.
[04:15] And as for Baishar... Edaaj found it hard to imagine what she would have done in his place. Damaging the Torunyema, however, wouldn't have been it. The idea of intentionally ruining any tool scraped across her nerves; there were times when it might be necessary to buy time, but that only made sense if time was a factor. If he had hoped to use that time to convince Valcen not to have himself altered, then all she could think, based on what she now thought she understood about Valcen's nature, was that Baishar had deluded himself badly.
[04:21] "Whatever needs to be done... that's it, isn't it?" she asked quietly, as if looking for confirmation.
[04:34] "There's only one way to go and that's forward," Valcen responded, as casually as though he were remarking on the weather, as though they had not just discussed him asking his assistant to carve out a chunk of his brain, as though they had not discussed him carving out a chunk of Baishar's brain.
"The decisions we make aren't always easy, nor, in fact, are they always right. Indeed, while I try to take great care with my decisions, if I were to finally fail at what I'm trying, every decision I've made since the planet was moved will have been wrong. The future decides."
[05:02] Edaaj gnawed a chunk from her bar with a sort of somber contemplation. After swallowing, she said, "It's strange. I am used to thinking that the future decides; but before everything changed, it only meant that long-term plans were fancies. I dreamed of better tools, but dreams were all they were. Our stories and our faith were the best guide, or so we thought; and sometimes they failed in the face of the future, but they seemed to serve well enough.
[05:07] "But the humans came. The faith in which I was raised has proved... inaccurate, at best. The stories reflect some aspects of what once happened, but provide few examples. The future is all there is. In such a time, I guess, all that can be done is to try to affect its decision."
[05:38] Valcen looked at her with some appreciation, silent for a moment more, settling himself further. After a pause of nearly a minute, he observed: "You're remarkably level-headed for a kavkem." By tone of voice, it wasn't meant to be an admonition of her species, but purely a praise for her.
He tilted his muzzle contemplatively, then patted the space beside him twice. "I offer my warmth to you. I won't take offence if the feeling is not reciprocal." It was a respectful offer of the tentative, cautious beginnings of friendship – sleeping flank-to-flank, sharing body heat while their bodies were more shy to produce it.
It was not necessary even with the Nayabaru effectively forcing them to sleep at night, not at these heights, but it was a traditional gesture, universally understood by anyone who possessed even a basic grasp of language.
[06:11] Edaaj looked, if not exactly skeptical, then at least uncertain. Under the circumstances, the idea of sleeping next to Valcen had something of the same aura as that of sleeping next to a sharpkin; it might mean well, but it wouldn't mean you wouldn't get hurt.
[06:17] But then, if she intended to associate with him, that danger wasn't going to go away, not really. Under those circumstances, a personal connection, though not a protection, might at least be a comfort. And if she was wrong even about that... well, the future decides.
[06:29] She got up, crept over to Valcen, and settled down next to him. In terms of sharing warmth, Edaaj was, at least while awake, essentially a net exporter – touching flanks involved sinking several inches into her feathers, which trapped heat rather effectively – but she was grateful for the feeling anyway. Laying her head down, she murmured, "Thank you."
[06:35] It was nighttime; she was locked up with a being that no one trusted and was almost certainly as dangerous as anything she could have ever expected to encounter, and who might yet be the cause of a horrible fate for her personally or her people as a whole; her entire worldview had been broken and rearranged. And yet, whether from mental exhaustion or some strange sense of security, when she fell asleep, she slept more deeply than she had in days.