[18:47] Saira was finishing the last of her minor adjustments to her gear. They had what supplies they could carry, which would hopefully see them all the way through this uncertain venture. More could be packed on the rover, but it would take a couple of trips to and from the lander to get it supplied. Settling the helmet of her spacesuit in place, she heard the click and the woosh of air as it created a seal between the two pieces. The oxygen began to flow and she released a pent up sigh of relief that at least these things were functioning properly. Collecting what she could carry, she made her way to the first of the two airlocks, stepping into it and sealing the door behind her. Shouldering her burdens, she keyed in the passcode that would unlock the outer door, bringing in a flood of sunlight and revealing Valcen's waiting party.
[19:09] Jason had sent his message. It was perhaps the oddest message he had ever composed with any seriousness, although predated by enough other odd messages corroborating the story that it was clearly not fiction. A message that boiled down to 'We're going on an excursion with dinosaurs to find the rest of the crew,' was weird enough without 'We have an English guide,' thrown into the mix.
In any case, he was well-prepared to linger a few steps behind Saira at all times, ready to put a hole into anyone that became a threat to them. Time would tell whether that made him a credible threat or just a laughable gesture.
The Nayabaru had parked two of the gazelle-limbed ceratopsians before the lander. A bit further away, three of them were shuffling about the dust plains together, chatting about something in their still-opaque tongue.
Valcen rose from a sit, having evidently chosen to wait for them just outside the lander, himself, turning from a ball of feathers into something bearing greater resemblance to a textbook dinosaur. "Wonderful," he said, in a tone suggesting he meant it. "You look well-prepared; but if you need anything, just ask," he encouraged, stepping back a bit to let the humans disembark.
"So," Jason asked, his tone light-humoured – quite contrary to how he felt about the whole thing. "How does this work? Do we just play pathfinders and trail them like young scouts?"
"Something like that," Valcen confirmed, tipping his muzzle into a very human nod. "These mounts are for you," he gestured to the ceratopsians. "They're probably more comfortable to ride on than if we walk the entire time." And a little faster, what with their gait being wider.
[19:16] As she had been making ready the rover for their venture, she was a little surprised when Valcen suggested that they mount up. "We've got our own set of wheels," she said to him then, trying to form a smile. Saira was determined to take this in as much stride as she could given the somewhat hostile nature of one race against the others. Dino-guides were a new frontier as far as she was concerned. Maybe this was what Lewis and Clark felt like when they traversed North America. Not the greatest comparison, all things considered. Though, she did have to admit that riding a ceratops was probably the biggest highlight of her life. Young Saira would have been over the moon at the opportunity she was attempting to turn down in the name of self sufficiency.
[19:22] "Ah, yes," Valcen conceded, glancing at the dutifully assembled rover. "It'll still be useful if— when we head to Katal, it's a fine vehicle, but it's a bit broadly built for the forests we'll likely be combing through, I'm afraid." His voice was heavy with apology, as though he had meant to say something about it sooner and forgotten.
[19:34] That drew a frown, thoughtful but pensive at this news. She had temporarily forgotten that they were supposed to go retrieve the rest of the crew before they headed onto this city that Valcen promised her. Looking at the ceratops-like beast, she couldn't help but grin at the thought. The inner child was ecstatic at the prospect. "Alright, alright, lemme just redistribute gear." With some finangling, she managed to get a good portion of their supplies attached to the dinosaurs' harnesses. Their food, recording gear, and all of that would be helpful to have, even if they were just taking a stroll through the forest to find their compatriots. "Bet you didn't think we'd be riding around on ceratops on this mission, huh, Jason?" It was very exciting, and she couldn't hide the edge of delight in her voice. It was a child's dream come true.
[19:50] Jason couldn't help but crack a grin at Saira's enthusiasm, despite all his effort to keep a professional air about himself. He hadn't had the pleasure of riding one yet; in truth it made him a little uneasy, he couldn't imagine what the creature's motions would do to his aim if it became necessary, but the pleasant surreality was not lost to him.
"As long as we don't need to dig through the dung when these things get sick, like in that one movie, I'm up for it," he commented, hefting himself onto the nearest mount with the help of one of the Nayabaru standing by.
He judged it to be somewhat horse-like in the way it felt to sit on it – slanted a bit differently, an effect only emphasised by the saddle being clearly optimised for other occupants, but following the same general idea.
Valcen did not seem to be planning to join them on one of the mounts, however. That made sense – he didn't seem to have the right shape to ride one. Instead, he was nuzzling at the silent kavkem companion he had come with and whispering unintelligible words to him, as the humans were getting ready to move.
[19:54] Despite the fact that they had already utilized these mounts before, she was still rather excited about the prospect of doing so again. Once she was content with the arrangement of their gear and supplies, she pulled herself into the saddle contraption, a feat that was more remarkable for the heft of their suits. She seated herself in place, adjusted her position a little in what she hope would be easier for the dinosaur. Saira couldn't help the soft laugh that escaped her at Jason's remark. "At least we would be protected from the smell of it, if we had to." She still had her misgivings about what they were about to do. Basically hunt down their compatriots, and then trek to this city of Valcen's. Holding fast to the pommel, or if their were leads or reins, she was as ready as she possibly could be. "Alright. I think I'm good now. You good, Jase?"
[20:14] "Small mercies," Jason nodded in amusement. The tension from before was evaporating – he was still alert, but now that they were about to move, the sense of intrigue was evaporating into one of potential adventure. He knew to be wary of the emotional change, but he had no interest in fighting it – he could stay valiant all the same.
"All right, yeah, I think I'm settled," he acknowledged, glancing down at their unlikely translator. What is your story? he found himself wondering. Even if one believed everything Valcen had said so far, there was still so much he hadn't said.
Maybe he could tell them more on the way.
Valcen looked up, then across to Saira, then gave an acknowledging flick of his muzzle. "The Nayabaru will lead the way and do most of the tracking for us. It won't get interesting for a few hours yet, I imagine," he commented. "But as mentioned, I feel better knowing you can supervise this whole expedition if need arises, given cultural differences."
It seemed as though they wouldn't be too numerous – over half of the Nayabaru that had been around the landing site evidently wouldn't be following them. Some of them would no doubt return to the Nayabaru settlement they'd already seen, with or without mounts to help them on the trip; perhaps the others would wait here.
There were two Nayabaru on mounts ahead of them, letting their steeds trot at a leisurely pace and focussing their attention on the ground. Another trailed behind them as if to guard them from a rear attack, indeed glancing back over her shoulder occasionally.
Valcen and his companion followed beside them on foot, with Valcen shouldering his strange rucksack.
"...you got here in record time, didn't you?" he commented, conversationally, contemplative. What was the best case trajectory and speed for a human landing on Nekenalos? Two or three months transit time, backtracking in the wake of Earth's orbit, letting Nekenalos come closer to them?
[21:07] As they started moving, she swayed on the beast's back, looking like a toy boat in a child's bath tub. She steadied herself in place and attempted to ease her seat by following its movements, much like one would when they sat a horse. Due to the bulky helmet, she had to turn comically about to look at Valcen where he walked beside them. This gave her a good look at their full entourage. These Nayabaru weren't messing around, it seemed. "It's almost as if a planet suddenly appearing in our orbit was enough impetus to unite the world in a single venture." This mission was once in a lifetime, and she was thrilled to be included. As a largely outsider to the aeronautics and military, she had been tapped for her use in building a verbal bridge with whomever they might find here on Nekenalos. No one could have predicted Valcen's involvement and knowledge of English. That was a mystery she hoped they could solve, without anyone getting hurt.
[21:18] "Hah, yes, I suppose that might do it," Valcen mused, his tone suggesting he knew enough about human psychology to truly understand her point, like someone who might be reminiscing about their own youthful past. And he had said that, hadn't he? Three decades as a human, using some technology to implant his consciousness in one – not as an adult, but from gestation.
He had also implied he was stranded in this current body, although he had yet to explain why. Perhaps the technology was simply currently out of his reach.
"And such an obviously Earth-like planet even at first glance. I do wonder – what were you expecting to find?" he asked.
[21:28] Their plodding pace was not too uncomfortable, though she knew that her butt was going to be sore whenever they reached their destination. Hopefully, the rest of the crew was not too far, and they could locate them easily. She glanced back at Valcen again, remembering that she was in a suit that would not convey nonvocal communications very easily, she spoke. "They sent me along, so they must have thought that we would discover sentient life that we could communicate with." After a moment of consideration, Saira added, "I'm a linguist. I'm fluent in several Earth-languages and looking to add... Nayabaru-ish? to my skill set. It'll look great on my resumé." A joke, proving that she wasn't always so serious. There was little else they could do to pass the time but converse, so might as well do so. Valcen's prior knowledge of humanity was a boon, but still so strange that it nagged at the back of her mind over and over again.
[21:48] "Clearly they should have anticipated me," Valcen quipped with friendly sarcasm. "As television has repeatedly shown us, English is the universal language of aliens." Then, resuming serious conversation: "You might call the language 'Naya', that's closest to the way the Nayabaru pronounce it.
"Although 'naya' itself, as a word, stems from 'kinaya' from Kendaneivash, which means something much like 'nearby', or 'close'; but the Nayabaru largely don't know this any more these days."
At least Valcen seemed unconcerned about having a casual conversation with them; presumably now that they were moving and no longer holding the Nayabaru back from whatever precisely they wanted to achieve, there was less of a pressure for him to stick to some kind of narrative schedule.
[21:56] "Wait, wait... If we're going to have a language lesson, I'm gonna need my recorder." It would be too awkward in the suit and riding the ceratops to pull out her tablet computer where she was storing all of her notes. But at least if she recorded him, she could go back through and transcribe them into her working understanding of the language. Twisting about in her seat, she tried to reach for the pack she had tied to the saddle, but it was far too cumbersome in the suit to make these fine ranges of motion. Somewhat frustrated, a long, drawn out sigh escaped Saira's lips. "I will try to remember everything. You said there was a primer? That I assume you put together in anticipation of humans on your lovely world?"
[22:09] The question gave Valcen pause, as though she had hit on something more personal. He seemed to consider how to answer for a moment; when he did, he sounded a little more crinkled than before.
"Honestly, I wrote it down in anticipation of my own forgetfulness," he revealed. "I couldn't be absolutely sure you would come here, but I could be sure that if I didn't write things down, it would eventually be lost to the sands of time, displaced by newer thoughts.
"And as there aren't many people who can translate between all three languages fluently and reliably, that... would perhaps have been a loss." The way he said 'there aren't many people' heavily suggested that he knew all of them personally.
[22:30] As ever, Valcen said almost as much as he left unsaid. There were implications to his words, suggesting perhaps that there would be others that knew English. Or maybe he was the only one. Still, Saira chuckled softly at his admission, sympathiziing with him quite well. "I'm the same way, to be honest. I have all sorts of technology to make notations, but I still prefer pen and paper. Real drawback of having to wear these suits." Though, he had said the atmosphere was nontoxic, hadn't he? They might be able to do without them, but who knew what sort of interactions might prove unsavory for those humans involved in them. Allergies, disease carrying pests like mosquitos or even rats, though she hadn't seen much else in the way of fauna. Glancing around their surroundings, she had to admit that the world was beautiful in its untamed glory. There weren't a lot of wild places left on earth. Then her mind circled back around to the fact she was riding a ceratops-like dinosaur. "What's the other language? Naya and... Kenda..." Saira trailed off, not having the word down quite right and not wanting to butcher it.
[22:42] "Kendaneivash," Valcen repeated. "The kavkema use it."
Curiously, he had not said 'the kavkema invented it'. At least he wasn't shy of referring to them by their name now, not dancing around the mention as he had in the earlier context. "From 'kenda', meaning voice, and 'neivash', meaning memory – conceptually from a language giving voice to your memories, if you so will."
Of course, had Samantha been here, she would be reminding Saira that the reason they were wearing the suits was microbial life first and foremost. The planet was quite close to their own – the chance that a disease was sufficiently compatible with human physiology to kill them had been significant even before they had discovered dinosaurs.
Now there were a mere 65 million years of divergent evolution to threaten them with all kinds of diseases they didn't even have a name for.
And yet, Valcen had claimed that they weren't at much risk, that the Nayabaru could take of them. That was, of course, in the context of being brought to Katal. Assuming it held true in that context, did it hold true all the way out here? No doubt less so.
[22:51] Once again, she attempted to swivel about so she could get her recorder from the pack. As a last resort, she initialized the suit's functions. It was limited, and meant more for communication than to record her thoughts, but it would suffice for the time being. Saira repeated the word carefully, and made a few other notations on the subject of the languages that were spoken here. Once she was satisfied, she turned her attention back to Valcen. "Literal translations can be so telling, sometimes. Etymology is fascinating." Language nerd she most definitely was. "Is there a writing system? Are you familiar with any of the pictographs or hieroglyphics from Earth?" She could have gone on far more, but decided not to flood him with a bunch of terms he may or may not have encountered on his own.
[23:00] "Perhaps at some point, I was familiar with them, if they are reasonably common knowledge on your planet; but I made some very calculated cuts when I poured myself into this body, and now all that's in here," he gestured to his skull with two fingers from his left forepaw. "Is all there is to me, and it's not ringing any bells.
"The kavkema and Nayabaru both have vaguely similar alphabets – each have one for consonants closely aligned with their numeric system and a separate one for vowels; they don't combine as I believe some of your languages do, though I suppose they could be made to and still be understood.
"No pictographs, except in individual cases. Nothing global. Tell me about those in use on Earth?"
[23:24] "Hieroglyphs aren't really used anymore, unless you want to include emojis. But that poses a fascinating idea, that humans are reverting back to old methods of communication. At any rate, Egyptian hieroglyphs are the most famous on Earth. The word comes from the Greek, 'hiero', meaning 'holy', and 'glypho' meaning 'writing'. In ancient Egyptian, they called their writing system, 'medu netjer', which translates approximately to 'the gods' words'. So both languages believed at the time that hieroglyphs were sacred. I guess there's a lot of cultures from antiquity that believed writing was sacred or holy. Nordic runes are much the same. The earliest inscriptions, sixth century and earlier, found were the names of the owners, or creators, and are believed to be originally developed for charm making." Saira could gush on this all afternoon if he let her. Whether or not that really answered his question was probably on the 'not' side, given that she just went off on a tangent for no other reason than to perhaps hear herself talk. In her helmet, she turned her head to one of the foodpack tubes. They were still on the 'good' rations at the moment, so the taste wasn't quite as bad as it could be.
[23:30] "The kavkema don't consider writing sacred, but they consider language sacred, in a way," Valcen revealed, exploring the complementary notion. "Or rather, the things people say with them. Their culture values stories for their own sake, you might say. A good story is worth a lot to the kavkema.
"The ones travelling with the rest of your crew probably consider themselves fortunate, assuming they can communicate even rudimentarily with them – it's not every day you hear the stories of extraplanetary visitors, after all."
[23:44] Valcen's revelatory comments were very enlighting. A culture that valued stories was very interesting, in an anthropological sort of way. Not that Saira considered herself such, though to an extent, she supposed she was. "Much of Earth is literate in at least their native tongues, if not others. It seems from sheer colonialism that English is the most wide spread language and used for such things. Imagine if we came here, and you didn't know Japanese, or whatever we might have been using." She had a chuckle at that, because this really hit home Valcen's strangeness. Underneath the pleasant facade, albeit worried for their guards' opinions on anything, was a mystery that was worth unravelling if they were going to uncover anything about this planet.
[23:47] "Precisely," he said. "I chose to live in an English-speaking culture quite deliberately when I visited Earth and I chose to remember it quite deliberately when I had to pick what to 'take along'. But I was a little worried CNSA might send a mission; I would have struggled with Chinese, and with 'struggled' I mean 'not at all known what to do'."
[23:56] "ESA sent us, but I think we were just the ones who were ready first. I wouldn't be surprised if the Americans or the Chinese also deploy their own teams." Though so far, at least as she knew it, neither were close to launching. The trajectories had be to calculated. ESA just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Musing on the various space programs for a moment, she fell silent. It was brief, because she was back on the subject of language in a heart beat. "Do you have examples of the Ken-da-nei-vash writing? Like a Rosetta Stone but it's your primer?" She said the name of the language very carefully, making sure that she was getting the pronounciation correct.
[00:12] "Kendaneivash is glyph-agnostic, it's informational and doesn't care too much how you depict it, but I can show you the glyphs kavkema use for it when we're next settled. Remind me," he prompted.
And just like that, he'd revealed that perhaps, the language was in use by more than just the kavkema. Perhaps it had just been a poor choice of words, but so far he'd proven himself to be quite skilled in English subtext, so that seemed unlikely.
[00:21] "Oh, I most definitely will," she promised him. Getting a chance to look at alien writing was the new Holy Grail. It was exciting, despite being cloaked in danger and secrets they couldn't fathom just then. Saira had to wonder about his choice of words and if he had misspoke earlier. Mulling on this for a few quiet minutes, she did not voice her concerns about the subject. Still felt like they were walking into a giant trap.
[00:40] "Would you be willing to tell me a bit about the others?" Valcen asked. "The ones we're hoping to find, I mean, of your crew. Anything you're comfortable sharing; names, personalities?
"If not, make no mistake, I do understand. You've only known me a few hours, and if I tell you that the only thing I intend to do with the information is make sure I can greet them by their names and perhaps avoid scaring them on accident, you have only my word that I'm telling the truth."
Then something seemed to occur to him. "Although I should go first," he remarked, in the tone of 'I knew I forgot something'. He gestured with his left paw to his travel companion, fully aware that she likely couldn't see the gesture right at that moment, but knowing no reasonably substitute for it. "My travel companion's name is Baishar," he said.
"He's been a very large help to me and great psychological support; as I mentioned before, the Nayabaru do not trust kavkema, and the form I currently wear burdens me with the consequences of their preconceptions. Baishar has helped me keep my sanity while living with the Nayabaru these past months."
[19:49] She shot a look at Jason, who most definitely was the only other person in their little group that understood the conversation unfolding. While she had some misgivings about detailing out the full mission crew, she realized that names and maybe personality quirks were unlikely to be much trouble. "We're looking for Samanta and Greg, our biologist and pilot," she said after a moment of thought. "Samanta was with me when we received your very odd and curious message at the village. I reconvened with Jason, and she went off with Greg to explore." Not necessarily the whole truth, but Valcen wasn't the only one that could speak cautiously in half truths.
[20:45] "Saman-ta," Valcen echoed, by the sound of it taking care not to use the more common name 'Samantha'. "And Greg." It was a minimalist acknowledgement of what Saira had said as he mulled on the rest of the narrative. "What are they like?" he asked, still conversationally.
Jason was bristling invisibly under his suit. It wasn't that their personalities were a secret worth keeping, it was that this was all a bit too... chummy for his liking. It reeked of low-level manipulation, as though Valcen were deliberately setting them up to have emotional ties to him and the kavkem he had identified as Baishar.
As much as he appreciated being able to speak to someone without a translator on this planet, he was acutely aware that Valcen was likely the only of that description; they would be hearing everything from his perspective. There would be no others. That meant it was of greater importance not to be sucked in.
"Samanta," Jason said, deflecting gently from his own mood. "Is quite conversational and full of energy. She's been very concerned for our continued health, as you would expect a biologist to be. It's too bad she wasn't here to speak to you about the situation with the suits; she'd be best-equipped to know whether we could indeed take them off."
"I imagine she'd love to speak to the Seklushia of Katal if she could," Valcen mused affirmatively. "I'm about six decades out of date with biotechnology on Earth, but I imagine she could learn a lot."
"Right, you've mentioned that before," Jason commented, his tone cool, betraying none of his scepticism, his straight-spined sit on his mount superficially suggesting he knew what he was doing. "Being human. But you're neither human nor kavkem, is that right? If you don't mind our curiosity, what are you? And what brought you to Earth or, for that matter, to this planet?"
[20:46] "I definitely don't mind your curiosity," Valcen commented, warmly. "I've been somewhat starved of contacts who have that trait, forgive me for not simply pursuing those tangents of my own accord. The Nayabaru don't tend to ask those kinds of questions." He raised his right forepaw to scratch claws at the back of his skull. "I was once of my people, Kejia, which is not very useful to you. A descriptive word might be 'Threadwielders'."
"Was?" Jason asked. "You are, somehow, not any more?"
"Quite right," Valcen revealed, his tone betraying a grimace that his muzzle couldn't quite twist into. "Normally what you see would be a kind of... interface with the electromagnetic universe. In this case, the interface is all that's left of the Threadwielder Valcen."
[20:55] Jason was definitely more of the tactical-minded individual than she was. His military background would definitely serve them well on these unknown and strange waters that they seemed to be finding themselves in. She was quiet while Jason and Valcen conversed, taking in what they were saying. Saira knew as a matter of fact that Jason was definitely concerned about their continued safety on this strange world. Which she was thankful for, but her curiosity was far more overwhelming than any real concerns about safety. "Threadwielders? What's the etymology on that word?" she asked, trying to piece together this strange narrative that Valcen was spinning for them. Strange world strangely appearing in their orbit, strangely inhabitated by dinosaurs that could talk and had language, and somehow, their guide was the more subservient of the two races and also knew English. It pinged off her sense of oddity anumber of times, the unexpected no way planned for. At least not this thoroughly.
[21:15] "Oh boy," Valcen said. "This is going to be a bit of a headache. So, you know about the curvature of spacetime and how it affects the trajectories of objects both in space and time. You could say the entire universe runs on an infinitely large lattice of something called Thread. There are finite, loose equivalents. We use it those affect the universe in the small and the large.
"Thread is how this planet came here. Thread lets you knit distant parts of space together in a fourth spatial dimension. In other situations, Thread behaves a bit like... a universal reactant, I suppose you might say. A uniform slab of matter is trivial to convert into a different substance if you know which rules to apply. I believe you might call that 'alchemy' – or 'programming', if you prefer.
"There are other species that use Thread in this day and age, if often in a rudimentary fashion, not being fundamentally built to interact with it, but the Threadwielders were the first, essentially by definition. They designed this place." A pause. "I mean this entire place; the universe as a whole. Not I, don't get me wrong, I can't claim any such grand achievements; I was merely created within it.
"But the Elders made the universe, put a copy of themselves into it, and those Elders created me and the other younger Threadwielders. Not all too many in sum; but enough that we do outnumber the Elders. If you were to meet a random Threadwielder, you would have, I think, a one-in-five chance of it being one of the progenitors."
[21:21] The reply Valcen gave them was dizzying in its scope. Something so massive and grand, and he was basically claiming that his race, or at least the ancients of his race, had built the universe. Which was... Her eyes were as large as saucers as she stared at him, dumbfounded. She swallowed against the rising lump in the back of her throught, unsure of what she should say in light of this revelation. It sounded like they were some sort of gods, but to call them that defied humanity's faith in the divine. "That is... That sure is something," she said in a quiet mumble, maybe already regretting having asked Valcen the question at hand. Looking at him, she was silent again, still trying to absorb everything that was said.
[21:35] "It's still just physics," Valcen dismissed it. "You'll eventually learn it yourselves. Threadwielders have the somewhat unfair benefit of understanding the universe as it was designed, not having to explore it to determine the underlying rules. Explore it they do, mind you, but mostly to see emergent phenomena.
"The example I like to give are black holes – as simple a concept as they are, the initial Threadwielders had assumed the forces in the universe could in practise never get strong enough to damage it to that degree, so those were a surprise. But then, so was the... viability of electromagnetic interactions, which were assumed to be too hostile to host life.
"And yet now here we are, speaking to each other in baryonic bodies, evolved of their own accord," he mused.
So we are, Jason thought. What was the implication, then? Were they creatures made of pure information? Dark matter? Energies?
In any case, the more pressing question was a different one. What had happened to the Threadwielder Valcen? If Valcen was to be believed – still questionable and growing more questionable with each bizarre purported fact – he was only an 'interface', no longer bound to anything that might be using said interface.
[21:44] While Jason's skeptical mind processed what was being said, Saira was still locked in the surprise. If what Valcen said was true, if any of this was possible and from her understanding of physics, which wasn't great, seemed outlandishly impossible. Frowning, she looked at the raptorial creature, the body that Valcen said wasn't his, but just some sort of shell he was stuck in. He was no more awesome than anything else, but he still claimed bizarre and fantastical powers. If he wasn't stuck as this dino-bird. "So what happened? Why aren't you in your 'real?' body? Or the Threadwielder body?" That seemed the most pertinent information at the moment. She shared a look with Jason, her own doubt colouring her features, but she did not voice them. There was no way to speak to Jason alone at the moment.
[22:11] Valcen's steady stride faltered for just a moment; he quickened his pace to make up for it, feathers bristling ever so slightly as he did. "Well," he said. "Honestly, there is a lot of potential to leave you with wrong impressions about the event, so forgive me if I choose my words very carefully. Please feel free to pry, but understand I will be very cautious about answering.
"I have no wish to conceal any of it, make no mistake, but I don't want to... bias you against any other players in what I referred to earlier as 'politics', shall we say." A deep breath, like a sigh. "And with that out of the way with, the short version is that in my Threadwielder-self's attempt to rescue others from a lethal threat, while to my credit I partially succeeded, I myself ended up... well, dead."
Jason's attention, of course, was now focussed on the conversation even more than before. A lethal threat. He narrowed his eyes, silent for a moment, before taking Valcen up on his invitation. "What lethal threat?"
"You asked me earlier what brought me to Earth and this planet," Valcen observed, a bit haltingly. "This planet holds the Threadwielder equivalent of a nuke – a weapon capable of destroying a Threadwielder specifically, designed as a deterrent, dissuading Threadwielders from ever setting foot on this planet. I came here in an effort to disarm it and I did a rather poor job of that.
"I went to Earth to recruit some help for the mission before coming here. My Threadwielder travel companion, at least, is still alive and, presumably, well, but my Threadwielder self fared rather badly."
[23:12] The story this 'Threadwielder' was spinning was rather a rather tangled yarn. She didn't know what to make of it, what to say, or how best to unwind humanity from these convoluted and largely unknown politics. Nothing that Valcen said was reassuring in the least. There were thousands of unvoiced questions begging to be spoken, but she didn't know where to start first. So she lept on the most obvious. "What's so important about this planet that someone, I'm guessing another Threadwielder? would want to deter others from coming?" There were those back home that were already keen on mining missions and harvesting the rich, lush resources that Nekenalos had to offer. They would end up in a war with whomever had built this 'nuke' and they would probably lose.
[23:47] Valcen's forepaws traced through the feathers of his mane, his muzzle ajar, tongue lolling out a little like that of a panting dog or yawning feline. It took him a moment to find the right words – though given his earlier disclaimer, that was perhaps to be expected. "Nothing you would likely consider quite valuable enough to protect in a comparable fashion.
"Importance is subjective. To the creator of the weapon, the culture of the Nayabaru is worth protecting. Understand, said culture is not at any particular threat these days, but it was once... designed... and its designer specifically did not want any other Threadwielder tampering with it.
"This has had mixed success. It has effectively scared away my travel companion, for example, although ve was temporarily a much greater threat for it – imagine what Thread can do to a star if programmed correctly. It put an untimely end to its own creator. It ended me.
"On the other hand, its existence also brought me here in the first place, though I hope I was the last to make that mistake. And—" And here he stopped himself quite audibly. "It's worth stressing that it targets Threadwielders. As much as this all may alarm you, you are not at any particular risk of sharing my Threadwielder self's fate.
"Indeed, as you can see, this part of me is still alive. And while I may rant about it, as I already have, I nonetheless am integrated in Nayabaru society and my individual skills are quite appreciated. I just had to... cease being a Threadwielder." Possibly some other things besides.
[23:52] Despite his assurances, the fact that there was a weapon described as a 'nuke' designed to take down these awesome creatures, it did not settle her mind. The creator of such a thing would only have to turn those resources towards targetting humans, or Earth itself, and it seemed like child's play to do so. It was not at all reassuring, but she did not comment to that effect. If Valcen had spent as much time amongst humanity as he claimed, he might have understood that. "This is all so bizarre, like I'm only looking at the tiniest segment of a pointillism painting. It just looks like random dots of paint up close, and you have to step way back to see the actual picture or design." Whether or not they were too close to it, or that they were such small insignificant creatures compared to those that could tamper and warp the universe didn't matter. The effect was still the same.
[00:10] "It is a bit much, isn't it?" Valcen said, echoing the phrasing used in his very first conversation with Saira. It had seemed like much then, like the tip of an iceberg – but now that he had unearthed the iceberg, it seemed like the mere tip of yet another, like they would have to look down from dizzying heights once all of it was revealed.
Jason was beginning to hope it was all made up. In truth, he believed that the weapon was no threat to them – the way Valcen spoke of it made it consistently sound as though it meant to target only Threadwielders, he had yet to slip up and paint it as a device with a broader target. If they were not baryonic, it made sense. In his mind's eye, dark matter projectiles struck dark matter bodies.
Aware of the uncountable mass of neutrinos harmlessly passing through him without any interaction right this moment, Jason could imagine the same projectiles passing through his body without that he would even be aware that it had been fired, leaving no trace, causing no damage at all.
"Threadwielders live a very long time," Valcen added, meaning it as some kind of explanation. "Even given that they tend to take things very slowly by human standards, given a few million years they can generate a lot of... complexity. This is a fairly simple scenario by comparison of some others. It only reaches back to when this planet was first... forked from yours, I believe you might say."
[00:52] It was nearly unfathomable, it was so large and massive that she was like an ant observing a human, unable to see anything but the broadest of movements. Whatever nuance there was to these dealings and history, and she sure there was plenty that he was not covering in his brief recollection, it was lost on her. Again, she had to wonder if this was what all explorers felt when they made contact with an alien race, metaphorically. Saira was plenty aware of the fact these were technically actual honest to goodness aliens that she was dealing with, and not simply more foreign humans. It made her head spin at the very thought whenever she bent her imagination to the task. "More like microbes to the dealings in global human affairs, I guess." The comparison was inevitable. His suggested that those of his kind live for millennia upon millennia was already so far out of her scope that she was dazzled by the merest of implications. So vast and so beyond her ken. However humanized Valcen might seem, he was painting a picture of these awesome, 'god' like figures of his race. Such as the human mind framed by the strictures of its own religion could compare him, at any rate.
[01:08] "Don't underestimate your own importance," Valcen chastised, his tone friendly. "As I mentioned, none of the 'players' in this scenario want to do your species any harm. That's remarkable; it is something neither Nayabaru, kavkem or Threadwielder can claim of their own kin. But we all recognise that you're intelligent and, if I may be so frank, valuable allies.
"My formal task is to try to ensure that it is the Nayabaru you choose to support, naturally. Yet I hope I can present a slightly more... nuanced picture than that. That said, I have no interest in dissuading you from that, either; there are plenty of reasons why I'm convinced it would be in your own strategic interest," he mused.
[01:23] He sounded like a first time father trying to cheer up their pouting child after they've failed a task too large for their little hands. Oddly benevolent and totally without the arrogance one of his position might have towards a gnat. Still, she would take it at face value for the time being. "Your formal task. Set to you by who? Do the Nayabaru have a monarch or head of state?" There was no reason to suggest that there was hiearchy like that, but everything he suggested was that there was some ruling body that oversaw Nayabaru operations, otherwise who could set him to that task? She wasn't sure how confident she was in the grander scheme of it all. Diplomat was not necessarily on her skill list, at least not very high up there. Still, she had been chosen for this mission due to her various accomplishments in her field, and had been deemed of suitable personality. "I guess it doesn't matter. I'll see when we get to your settlement. City? Not sure which is more applicable."
[01:33] "The Nayabaru have a very decentralised political system," Valcen responded. "The various settlements are almost entirely autonomous, although Nayabaru are very happy to assist visitors from other settlements. Hierarchies don't exist globally, but some global coordinating roles exists for some professions.
"The Hesha – who fill the roles of guards, policemen, soldiers, patrolmen or other security functions – all answer to the Karesejat, who is responsible for globally coordinated strategy. You will meet her eventually, likely before we go to Katal. She is who sends me.
"Indeed, I have the great luxury of bearing her protection and blessing," he said, sweeping his forepaws in under the ends of his vivid 'scarf' to raise them up from their dangle. Presumably, the garment thus denoted that he was the Karesejat's ambassador.
[21:24] She searched his tone for any undercurrents of sarcasm or applied pressure. Definitely curious about his arrangement with this 'Karesejat'. It was obvious why the head of security would want to meet with the foreigners that landed in their back yard uninvited. But the hints of doubt she was feeling were surely natural. It was natural to be concerned for her personal safety, and that of the rest of the crew. Saira could only wonder at what Jason thought of all of this. He was being rather quiet, but perhaps that was only because he was observing what Valcen was willingly revealing. "That sounds rather prestigious," she said after a moment. She hoped he wouldn't detect any sarcasm in her tone. There was none, but she regretted the way she said it immediately after saying it. Frowning to herself, she looked over at Valcen again, swiveling her head in its domed helmet. "I mean, it sounds as though she is the only real central governmental figure, so that kinda makes her the boss in human reckoning."
[22:12] Of course, much as his command of language made it easy to mistake him as a human merely in a different guise, this creature was not a human being.
The inherent body language was different, that much they knew from the other kavkema, and he was deliberately modulating it to be as understandable as possible, using human conventions of nodding for affirmation, the shrug of shoulders for indifference, using familiar gestures of hands that simply made him so much more intuitively understandable.
But at the end of the day, he was not human, he was simply deliberately modelling himself after one. If she was hoping to find traces of duress or sarcasm, he certainly would have to want to consciously put them there in the first place, much as it was mind-boggling to think of it that way, given how supposedly casually he had spoken so far.
"She does hold a lot of sway, but it would be easy to overestimate it, as well. She would have a very hard time telling the Baskaata what to mine or farm, if she thought it suddenly relevant to her interests," Valcen explained.
[20:51] Naturally, Saira had to wonder how much was being downplayed, and how much was being propped up, if anything at all. While the governmental 'system', if it could be called such, was different from the modern human systems, it was difficult to determine what was important, and what was being filtered through a lens of self importance. Better to just nod and smile, and store away any such thoughts for the time being until she could convene with the others. "It sounds as though the technology level here is a bit... mmm... skewed? I guess? You can create these Threadwielder-deadly 'nukes', as you called it, but everything else seems rather pastoral. Though, I understand that's an observation without having actually seen Katal or anything else."
[21:00] Valcen seemed to consider his answer for a moment, before adding: "Well, there are a few things you can't see yet." One of them is the Karesejat, of course. But he didn't say that. "One is that the major settlements are indeed very different. The Nayabaru are quite content with a very basic lifestyle if the community they are a part of does not require advancements, as it does once it reaches a certain size.
"Another is that the Nayabaru have different strengths than humans. On an abstract level, you've innovated quite broadly, whereas the Nayabaru optimise for reliability in a way that would put human society to shame. On a practical level, as already mentioned, the Nayabaru almost sure know more about biochemistry than humans."
A pause. "...although I suppose you could call that skewed. But I imagine if anyone came to your world, they would assume, from all they can see and learn, that yours is skewed in favour of computer science." Another pause. "...unless that's changed in the past decades. I'm a bit behind the times."
[22:30] "Hmm." It was a thoughtful sound that she made in response to what he was saying. He was right, about not being able to see anything just yet from these encounters so far. But she couldn't help but to wonder if that was all there was to it. These Threadwielders sounded awfully advanced in terms of their understanding of physics and the universe at large. At least insofar as what Valcen had told them. Still, it was hard to believe, and there was the distinct impression that the humans were just scratching the surface of the Nayabaru culture and the Threadwielders that protected them? Shepherded them?
[23:27] The procession continued through the dust flats in silence for a while longer. One of the Nayabaru eventually leant down to lend Valcen a flask of water, then briefly looked toward the humans as though trying to judge whether it made any sense to do the same to them. Valcen spoke some words to the Nayabaru, which seemed to resolve the matter in favour of 'no'.
Jason eventually launched into a soft-spoken conversation, making general observations about the landscape, their distance to the landing site, sharing his estimates for how long it would take them to get to the scattered vegetation that was beginning to be apparent, along with the slope of the mountain that it was leading up to.
The planet, he observed redundantly, was big. In fact, they knew from the early observations that while it had a strictly comparable gravity to Earth (deviating enough that of course it was relevant for orbital mechanics, but not enough that Jason or Samanta noticed a subjective difference to Earth gravity), it was a little larger than Earth in circumference.
[23:28] Valcen and Baishar spoke quietly for a while as well, in one of the languages opaque to Saira – Kendaneivash. Occasionally, she gently interrupted them to ask about a particular intriguing set of syllables, which Valcen tried his best to translate. They were, apparently, talking about what might be expected of them if they came across the other kavkema.
"We have a benefit of speed over the Nayabaru; in the long-term, they have the better endurance, having evolved from migratory animals, but they cannot sustain a run. A kavkem can sustain a run, at some cost. As such, kavkem tactics in regards to the Nayabaru often tend to involve literal running away."
Of course, Saira had seen as much back when their initial kavkem contacts fled from the landing site when the Nayabaru appeared, but Valcen had not been witness to that exchange.
"So it's possible Baishar and I will be asked to do some running. It depends a bit on what the Nayabaru want to achieve. There's a chance they will be happy with simply driving them away and leaving the humans of your crew behind," Valcen mused. "Which we would prefer."
The lead Nayabaru gave a signal to everyone behind its mount, then stepped down from it. For a moment, the Nayabaru meandered about ahead, looking at the ground between what was, by now, low, bristly shrubland. Then it rumbled a few deep words at Valcen.
Valcen glanced up at Saira: "The Nayabaru is asking if you and your travel companion would appreciate an hour's rest. They're not sure about your endurance; they are measuring it by what they know of kavkema – indeed, Baishar and I are starting to wear a little, this has been a long trek. Of course, you've been sitting the whole way so far, but that isn't necessarily comfortable."