[20:22] The shrubbery gradually morphed into forest. The forest thickened. They rested occasionally, at one occasion for four hours of sleep – not quite enough for the humans to feel fully rested, but enough to keep going, from just after midnight to a little before the first hints of dawn.
The Nayabaru were getting a little more abrasive in their air; Valcen explained that they, too, were not used to this little sleep.
In the afternoon of the second day of the expedition, a little over twenty-four hours after they had left, the Nayabaru leading them through the bushes abruptly turned, gesturing with both arms, layering them into a loose 'x'. The creatures they were riding on stopped off their own accord, as though at the Nayabaru's gesture had been something they had been taught during their domestication.
Valcen raised his muzzle as though standing at attention, then glanced at the humans, before stretching himself to whisper: "We might be closing in on them." The whisper, more than anything else he had said so far, revealed the alien body the words emanated from; it sounded as though someone were speaking English through a flute.
Jason took the opportunity to gently ease himself off his steed, not willing to be saddled with it – pun not intended – if something happened and he needed to defend Saira from some kind of ambush or attack.
And then Valcen did something very strange – he brought up one claw to his left eye and pushed it into the only narrowly visible sclera. Before either of his visitors could be alarmed at the purported self-mutilation, a silver sheen covered his iris and the globe of his eye as a whole. He took a few cautious steps forward, striding toward the Nayabaru whose attention was now twisting back forward with the silence and grace of a cat.
As he brushed against the Nayabaru deliberately, the creature snapped its attention down to him, an aborted gesture in its arm suggesting that its instinct had been to skewer him with its thumb-spike. Valcen ducked a little in a mirrored instinct, then whispered something that Saira couldn't even make out in theory. The Nayabaru snorted softly, then crouched to speak to Valcen, low sounds equally opaque.
Jason slid quietly across to Saira's side. Subdued, a promise: "I'm here." It was his equivalent of what the fuck did we just see?; after all, he wasn't allowed to flinch, he had to be the one to act, so the right way to express that he was alarmed was to promise that he was alert and ready. "Tell me what you need."
[20:36] It was a hard trek, but at least mitigated by sitting atop a beast of burden. Her rear was beginning to get sore after the first day. Saira shouldered on with determination and bit back her complaints. On the second day, an air of tension seemed to flood their surroundings. They were caught up in this anxious waiting. Valcen's warning that they were likely nearing the rest of the mission team was one full of trepidation. Hopefully, they could reunite with their colleagues without too much trouble or danger. The self mutilation, or whatever it was that Valcen had done to his eye, sent a wave of nausea through her. She didn't understand what he did, but the visuals looked gruesome enough. Caught between wanting to ask about it, and the 'hunt' that seemd to be almost on its quarry, her concentration was divided. Following Jason's lead, she slipped off her triceratops-like mount and stood beside it, eyes focused on their Nayabaru party. Glancing at her teammate, she studied him and nodded. His solid presence was a balm to the flood of worry that kept threatening to overtake her. "Just be ready and on your guard. With any luck, it'll all be for naught." But judging from the tone of her voice, Saira wasn't confident in that.
[20:58] Their psychological training had absolutely included being able to deal with changes, with large amounts of unknowns and with sleep deprivation – but it was hard to be blasé when all of it came together. Jason knew better than to be on a hair trigger, but he was clearly not at ease, and his rational assessment could only do so much to rein in his emotions.
Valcen was in a near-silent dispute with the Nayabaru leading the party, the tension visible more in their body language than it was audible. Then it seemed to resolve and he straightened himself back out as if to stand at a very human form of attention, casting his gaze out front, slowly sweeping his attention through tall ferns, as though he might be able to see something the Nayabaru might not.
The Nayabaru said something, a curt, single syllable by the sound of things; then Valcen crouched back down and quietly and eeriely swiftly slipped through the branches and leaves, returning to the humans and his assistant.
In what looked like a practised motion, he shrugged off his rucksack, sliding it down his right arm until it nestled against the moist ground. "Baishar," he prompted. His assistant crept up to him and nuzzled at his chin, nibbling at the sparse feathers of Valcen's mane. A Kendaneivash conversation was held between the two, even as Valcen began to open his bag.
Jason was watching the two with a palpable tension. It was hard to guess what was going on in his head – did he perhaps assume Valcen was some kind of android and the eye was only one symptom of his nature as a flawless imitation of a kavkem? In any case, the Nayabaru had not taken their weapons, and he was ready to draw his if it became necessary, although none of the scene's tension seemed bundled on the humans.
And then Valcen took something from the depths of his bag that looked more like some kind of mechanical octopus than anything else, made of sleek black segments, disconcertingly artificial in its contrast to the lush green landscape they were moving through. He passed the item to Baishar, rubbing his muzzle against his chest.
Jason's teeth silently set against each other as he resisted breaking the alien silence with an obvious question, though there was likely nothing in the world but for an immediate personal threat that would have made him look anywhere else.
Finally, Valcen's attention veered back to the humans as he began to close and shoulder his bag again, the motions slow and purposeful. "Looks like I'll be staying with you," he whispered across to them softly, still in the sound of that alien flute, tugging the bag into shape as if there were nothing at all mysterious about what he'd taken from it. Its weight implied there was, perhaps, at least one more of the items in there. "The Nayabaru don't trust me enough to send me ahead."
[21:36] Every second was an enduring anxious agony. It just built upon itself, this tension that drew out now that they were perhaps in sight of those they were searching for. Saira was not a religious person, but she was still hoping with all of her might that the others will be safe. The possibilities were endless for how this might erupt into sudden dramatic violence. The animosity between the two races that appeared dominant on this planet was still unknown, despite whatever enlightening biased comments Valcen had made. Her eyes drifted to the movement near by as Valcen rustled through his rucksack. His search yielded nothing that she could even guess at its purpose. It was a distracting unknown but she tried to focus on the potential for danger or harm of not only the rest of the team, but any of the kavkema they might be with. "Jason, should one of us go with them? One of us should go with them," she said, her concern bleeding through each word with a painful reinforcement of this tension. Saira juggled whether it was safer to go with the Nayabaru or to remain with Valcen. Her curiousity burned to know what the dark octopus contrapation was for.
[21:59] Valcen's eye was, mercifully, back to normal, suggesting that perhaps it had simply been a visual illusion all along – not likely, but it made for a dangerously seductive fantasy in a situation where so many uncertainties were breathing down their necks.
"The Nayabaru would prefer if you don't," Valcen whispered, with just enough volume that a stern undercurrent was audible. "They're a little skittish; they're worried we'll all just collectively... elope with the rest of your crew," he commented, a very slight hint of an eye-roll suggesting he knew precisely what 'elope' meant and the sarcasm was real.
"No one will harm your kind," he assured. "If it were otherwise, the Nayabaru would not have let you come along at all."
Despite the friendly words, Jason found himself briefly pondering whether they had been brought out here, well out of range of signalling ESA with any information, precisely so they could be neatly eviscerated without repercussion. It made no sense – ESA would eventually notice they were out of contact and send another team – but there were so many things that made no sense that it wouldn't necessarily feel out of character of the world to throw them such a curveball.
The lead Nayabaru and Valcen's feathered assistant were moving ahead now, slowly but surely disappearing between the trees.
Jason ignored Valcen, testing his luck. "Which one of us would you prefer go, Saira?" he asked, politely keeping his voice down, staring down at Valcen as though to accuse him of withholding important information. In truth, he had answered all of their questions so far and even Jason had little reason to believe they had been vapid non-answers, but the appearance of the strange technology rubbed him the wrong way.
[22:00] Jason quietly and subtly held out his portable railgun to Saira, giving her the option of simply taking it if she wanted to move ahead. Arguably, the right answer was to send Jason, armed and trained as he was, and he felt a strong responsibility to protect Saira, but they were all adults. If Saira preferred to go ahead herself, he would accept it and deal with the Nayabaru here – and with Valcen.
He cut off Valcen as he opened his muzzle to complain, feathers bristling. "What of those 'supervisory rights' you mentioned?" Jason asked, coolly, though his tone betrayed no venom.
Valcen bristled. "You're here," he pleaded in a whisper. "You will immediately know if something goes awry, please don't push it."
[22:27] It was a paralyzing decision to make. She could feel the icy claws of indecision and trepidation scratch at her mind. Swallowing against the rising lump of dread in her throat, she took a deep breath, loud enough to be audible over comms. "I'll go. They might take your accessories amiss." Saira spoke of his weapons mostly, not wanting him to accidentally draw or be the one to set the spark to the powder keg. Glancing at Valcen, she considered him for a minute. "You said we won't be harmed," she remarked. It wasn't sarcasm in the same way Jason had delivered his barb, but it was clearly intent on testing that assurance to the limit. Steeling her resolve, she plunged into the underbrush, her passage without stealth and quite noisily announcing her approach.
[22:43] Jason grimaced quietly as she didn't take his bait, leaving him with the gun and no one to protect with it. But there was no use running after her – his attention was still dutifully rivetted to Valcen, whose agitation had become more than obvious as Saira decided to follow the hunters.
Perhaps the Nayabaru wouldn't like that she was making a noise.
But even a few bounding steps further along the landscape made it clear that she wasn't altogether sure where the hunters had gone. Behind her, she could still see the ceratopsians by merit of their height and a colouration that didn't lend itself to forest camouflage and one of the Nayabaru left behind to tend to them, but the hunting Nayabaru was crouched – she had seen him do so – and had moved away before the discussion had resolved.
For a brief moment, it seemed like it was simply going to be a maze that would swallow her whole – then she caught a glimpse of the Nayabaru up ahead, who had righted himself a little and was glancing her way, perhaps unsure whether he was being circled by kavkema.
[22:44] Then, again, the gesture she had seen before – the silent 'x' with his arms, this time extended by his gun. Valcen had told them they were tranquilliser guns – they looked the part, wide-barrelled as they were – but it still inspired some unease to see a Nayabaru that was evidently this tense armed in such a recognisable fashion.
[23:07] It wasn't that her noise was intentional, just maneuvering through the bushes and brush in her bulky suit was difficult. For a few seconds there, she feared that she might be lost, and made wild turns around to see if she could spot the way she had come. The plantlife seemed to have recovered from her passage. But there, just ahead, the Nayabaru lifted his head. Wading through the greenery like it was thick as mud, she tried to catch up to the hunters, despite whatever welcome she might have if she caught up to them.
[23:17] The trouble with having charged ahead was, of course, that she was running into a world of opaque language. The 'x' gesture clearly meant something like 'stop' or 'be quiet', but if they had to communicate anything more amongst themselves, it might prove troublesome to get right.
The Nayabaru hunter had crouched down, his facial expression a grimace – it was hard to say what precisely he was trying to convey, but no doubt it was some form of annoyance. He held the gun vertical with his right hand and thrust out his left toward Saira, palm facing her way, as though to physically stop her from getting any closer.
A soft, deep rumble emanated from his chest – perhaps he was asking her to go back to the others? At least he didn't train the gun on her to sedate her; there was no telling what that would do to her body, being intended for saurians rather than her own mammalian physique, nevermind that it would have to puncture her suit.
The kavkem was continuing on past the Nayabaru, sleek and quiet, disappearing out of sight far more quickly than any Nayabaru by merit of being much shorter.
If there were signs of the others, she couldn't yet make them out.
[23:21] The palm was pretty universal it would seem. She stopped in her tracks and hunkered down, trying to keep an eye on the kavkem that was making its peaceful, non-threatening way past them. It obviously hadn't heard the human tromping about in the forest, which at least wasn't another point to get her into more trouble than she was already in. Saira took a deep breath, trying to get enough air like somehow her gear wasn't working properly or supplying enough oxygen. Was this just the trailing end of a procession that hopefully contained the others? It should be obvious that she had no intention of leaving now that she had caught up.
[23:27] Or maybe they were hunting ghosts. Maybe the Nayabaru's implication that they were close to the others had been premature. Alternatively, it had been dangerously on point and they knew at which point it was best to switch to a stealth approach. To what degree she might have put an end to that with her rustling was a different question. At least Valcen's assistant hadn't seemed to mind.
The Nayabaru was eyeing her in a manner that seemed unambiguously sceptical. He rested the gun against one shoulder, then brought both of his hands around to usher at her, not touching her but gesturing as if to scoop her up as a liquid and siphon her back to where she had come from.
Then, without waiting to see if she would listen, he eased himself back up a little and began to trail after Valcen's assistant again.
Somewhere ahead of them, if the Nayabaru were to be believed, was a whole reservoir of teeth and claws, perhaps ready to defend the humans from any incursions. But what of that gadget? What advantage would it give them?
[23:31] The Nayabaru was really testing her resolve here. Every fiber of her being screamed about how she was in danger and that she should return to the others. Even the Nayabaru was trying to usher her away, supposedly for her own safety. Maybe she'd end up dead if she kept following them, but the idea of an unfolding violence between the two conflicting races and catching up the humans in the middle compelled her defiance.
[23:45] Somewhere behind her, a second Nayabaru had apparently broken away from the trailing party and was joining her colleague. Her attention only briefly lingered on Saira – she seemed less interested in raising a fuss than her colleague, or perhaps had simply pre-emptively given up on communicating without Valcen to translate.
Maybe she even thought something like Saira is an adult of her species, she can make her own decisions. Would she ever know?
But after the initial tension, it seemed as though the hunters progressed only slowly, allowing even Saira to move with a respectful quiet in the underbrush.
Then a sudden sharp sound up ahead, like a bird's shout, cut through the silence. The Nayabaru that was further ahead in the procession straightened abruptly but gracefully and brought the rifle to aim while commotion stirred in the ferns up ahead. It was almost impossible to see from where she was, but she could imagine a hissing kerfluffle between Baishar and the tail end of the other group.
A shot went off. Something large was as if writhing in the underbrush, undeterred by the dart, suggesting that it had missed its mark. Then it split, revealing that there were at least two others – briefly Saira could see a flash of feathers trying to escape – then the same form seemed to rear up or otherwise baulk, twisting almost unnaturally as though having encountered a serpent.
Another shot rang through the forest; again its target was mercifully missed.
The split rustling converged again and something she was sure was Baishar followed as a hunter. An exchange of primal sounds – a kind of shrieking, high-pitched, accusatory – broke against the sound of another shot. This one was matched by a squeal, but whatever had been struck by it instead disengaged and ran.
The Nayabaru bellowed something to his colleague, who began hurrying past him, perhaps hoping to trail after the struck creature.
[23:50] Each shot sent an electrical shock through her, instantly dialing up the anxiety to an eleven. None of these shots were fired at -her-, so she was at least spared that, but it meant that they were near some of the kavkema. Why must they be tranquilized them? The gaping maw of knowledge withheld stretched out then, the lack of understanding over the dispute between the races reared its ugly head and nearly snapped her half. Trailing behind them, she tried to keep them in sight, despite whatever perhaps grisly sights might be ahead of her.
[00:02] For an anxiety-inducing eternity, she could see nothing but more forest ahead of her, though they couldn't have been too far away from it.
Then she saw it – a miserable cousin of a clearing had been torn into the underbrush from the tussle. Baishar was there, clutched against a different kavkem in a way that first looked as though he were grieving – then as though he were devouring prey – then simply as though he had no interest in letting go. The other kavkem seemed immobile, for a harrowing moment appearing as though death had struck it down; then it became clear it was still breathing.
The Nayabaru in pursuit of their partially escaped prey thundered past Baishar and the fallen kavkem.
And then Saira saw that the strange, segmented device that Valcen had passed on to Baishar had wrapped its eerie tentacles around the still kavkem's skull. The creature's eyes were half open, but it had clearly lost its ability to see anything with them, or at least to interact with the world. It was panting lowly; occasionally a twitch travelled through it, partially concealed by Baishar's presence.
[00:09] Her pace slowed as she neared the tangle of bodies. She didn't know what to make of what was going on. It was like she was staring at a painting with no context of how it had been made. The tableau was foreign, so many undercurrents of politics and intertwining fates that were unknown to her. Baishar appeared as if in mourning, his death grip fastened tight to the other kavkem. She didn't even notice the octopus on the captive's head. Thinking it hit by a tranquilizer, she then noticed the device. Its serpentine arms gave her the creeps, and the way that it clung to the kavkem's head seemed... predatory. Frowning, her mind struggled to connect all the dots, to make it make sense. Saira's brain flat out refused the possibilities that maybe tranquilizers hadn't been used. Willfully trying to make the scene less existentially horrible. No one could answer her, even if her tongue could put voice to the words. "What happened? What is that thing?" she whispered to herself, unheard. Maybe Jason heard her over comms if they were close enough.
[00:26] A hundred metres back through the underbrush, enough of the communication made it through for Jason to perk up. What happ—? What— that thing? He glanced back down at Valcen, briefly considering simply keeping the communication to himself, but it drove his curiosity in a way he was sure he would regret. "The device you gave your assistant," he said, his voice much calmer than he felt. "What was that?"
Valcen bristled but adopted an apologetic posture. "Don't ask. Please don't ask. It's better if you don't." His tone was one of deep, sincere apology.
"But I am asking," Jason pointed out, non-combatively, keeping his voice steady and soft, but no less assertive for it.
"I don't get to live with the Nayabaru for free," Valcen said, his tone ever so slightly defensive, pleading gently to be heard. "It's not a threat to you, it only targets the kavkema."
Jason's expression darkened, although he knew fine well that alone out here, it would be reckless to antagonise his hosts. With effort, he swallowed his first impression of Valcen's apology, gathered his thoughts. To Saira, loudly and clearly: "Saira, it won't hurt you. Stay calm." Meanwhile, he glared quiet daggers down at Valcen. Softly: "Mind entertaining some theories as to why it is spooking Saira so much?"
Back in Saira's impromptu clearing, Baishar was still wrapped against his unlikely prey. It was hard to interpret his body language – he seemed to be preening the kavkem's feathers in a gentle, affectionate attention, not inherently pinning it down or doing it any harm.
[00:33] Baishar was behaving almost as though he were paternal and trying to soothe it. But there was something distinctively off putting by its vacant, glassy eyes and the way it simply did not resist. Were the tranquilizers so — Then Jason's steadying words came over the comms. She had forgotten that he was within distance. His one sided conversation did not illuminate her as much as Jason, but his reassurances did not do anything to quell the sickening feeling in her stomach. Something about all of this was -very- wrong. Saira regretted going now, if only for witnessing whatever it was she was seeing. Baishar's tender fawning did not sit right either.
[01:03] The Nayabaru that had not run off ahead was now looming beside the bundle of kavkema. A few curt, lowly barked phrases in Naya rained down on Baishar, making him glance up with a certain reluctance. He said something in Naya, then brought his forepaws to clasp at the eerie contraption.
A moment later, its crushing grip abruptly relented and Baishar began to rise, his teeth absent-mindedly nibbling at the edges of one of the tentacles, tongue rolling against it. The kavkem beneath him was blinking slowly, as though the dislodged device allowed it some clearer thoughts again. Then it made almost as if to rise, but instead simply repositioned itself, muzzle deferentially pressed against the moist ground.
The Nayabaru snorted, gestured back toward where Jason and Valcen still lingered, now addressing the kavkem that had been immobile a moment earlier. It snorted softly, drawing itself back almost cautiously, its gaze clearly anchored to the Nayabaru. Then, in hesitant motions, it obeyed the instructions, licking nervously at its lips.
Meanwhile, Valcen said: "Remember— remember what I told you while we were on the way here? How what you are talking to is a... vessel of mine? How do you think I put myself in here?" He gestured at his skull. "That's some very specific knowledge and the Nayabaru have asked me to put it to use for them. Neural manipulation. It's painless, it gets results, everyone is better off."
Jason wasn't entirely sure he had parsed that correctly, with how matter-of-factly Valcen had presented it. Instead of indulging himself in his own ignorance by asking for clarification, he deflected: "And you were going to tell us about this...?"
"Whenever you asked," Valcen commented, flustered. "It's not a threat to you! There are a million things I haven't told you yet, for lack of opportunity to bring them up."
Jason made a noncommital, pseudo-affirmative noise, still running the description through his head. It was, unfortunately, beginning to make sense to him; he dearly hoped he was wrong about it. Valcen's comment from when they had been travelling together rang in his skill: 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. To himself, he thought, bitterly: Part lack of opportunity and part strategic decision.
[01:04] Perhaps he was being unfair. This moment in time hardly seemed like the strategically correct time to reveal that Valcen could rewire what kavkema thought. Perhaps Valcen had indeed not meant to conceal it from them. In favour of that interpretation was also that he had made no effort to prevent them from seeing the device.
Did he not know what it would make the human visitors think? Had he, whenever he had allegedly been human, never consumed a single work of fiction, even by mere osmosis?
Jason had no interest in being fair or charitable about it, but he recognised, at least, that it was in his interest to feign it.
[01:11] Intentionally trying to get a hold on her breathing, she took a few long, drawn out inhales. The somatic response would attempt to sooth the adrenaline rush but at the moment, it seemed a distant and unobtainable goal. Saira watched helplessly as the kavkem seemed to reawaken as soon as the thing was detached from its head. Baishar's longing kiss of the thing struck the wrong chord in her as well, but it was as if there were so many pieces to a puzzle scattered across her thoughts and no clear picture of what it would be. "I don't know if I want to watch this if this is what they're gonna do to the rest of them," she said, forcing out the words in a soft tone, not wanting to be overheard by her erstwhile companions. Wouldn't matter, they couldn't understand her anyway. Thankfully spared Valcen's pitiful attempts to explain away his duplicity by omission, she just stared on in horror.
[01:22] Baishar, meanwhile, was thawing out of his intoxicated state – because that was, so it seemed, what it had been, now that she'd been given more context to appreciate it in – and headed forward at instruction of the Nayabaru, the device cradled to his chest.
There was a brief pause in his motion as the other Nayabaru visibly dragged the kavkem their darts had subdued through the ferns, revealing the degree of casual disregard the Nayabaru had for these creatures. No wonder they were at odds with each other. This was clearly far, far more than just a culture clash.
Jason interrupted any thoughts Saira might have had by speaking deliberately into the comm again: "Saira, are you all right?"
[01:33] Saira was at a loss of words. She wasn't even sure of what she had just seen. "It's.. I'm alright. I just... I don't know what's going on here, but that thing, that creepy thing just... took all the fight out of their target. It was on its head, its eyes all vacant. There is something seriously wrong about it. Really wrong. I don't know how to describe it other than that, Jase, it's..." He could hear the sound of her teeth clicking together as she abruptly shut her jaw. She hadn't heard Valcen, but even without the dire explanation that fully encompassed the horror of what she had seen, she judged it abnormal and something to be feared.
[01:41] Enough of the communication made it through to Jason that he was soothed to believe no harm had come to Saira. But what had he honestly expected? If they had stayed true to one assurance above all others so far, it was that the humans would not be harmed.
The kavkema had frankly been given no such promise.
And so they ran away, as they had when the Nayabaru had first arrived. No doubt they were running away even now. No doubt they thought they had to protect their human visitors from precisely this. It wasn't an unreasonable assumption; it was certainly a better assumption than one resting a blind faith on that they would somehow be treated differently.
The Nayabaru that had interacted with Baishar was slinking after him quietly, clearly hoping to capture more prey, leaving Saira behind in the vacant clearing to decide whether, against all odds, she wanted to press on ahead or return to Jason, perhaps even to confront Valcen. Perhaps to speak to the... subdued kavkem. To understand, if no doubt at best flimsily.
[01:59] "Christ. No wonder why they run away, Jase," she said finally. "The dynamics between the Nayabaru and these kavkema is not as equally sided as we might have been lead to believe." That was a no brainer given what appeared to be a technological superiority on the part of the Nayabaru. But seeing it so shockingly played out before her, the loss of autonomy that the poor kavkem had suffered.
"It's like, it's like that thing compelled it. Without resistance. And so quickly! I think they sent it onto you. Oh, god, I don't want to keep going. But I'm afraid that if I don't, the rest of the team is not going to understand and put up a fight..."
[02:20] Only fragments of the communication drifted through to Jason. "Christ. No won— run away— dynam— the Nayaba— these kav— equally— have— to believe— like, it's— compelled— Without resis— so quickly! —think they sent— don't want— keep going— I don't— rest of— team— going to— put up a fight."
He tried to untangle it, his body language and facial expression betraying his unease about it, glancing toward the forest where Saira had ran off to, then back at Valcen, then back to the forest, himself looking a bit as though he wanted to follow her lead, but by act of raw volition firmly stayed put.
"Saira," he said, hoping the comms-link was clear enough. "Come back, all right? Let's not split up, okay?" Of course, it was technically too late for that, but things had changed since that had seemed like a good idea.
[02:28] The static cluttered conversation was fragmented at best. She should listen to Jason, he was the security officer, it was his job to keep them safe, and if he didn't think it was a great idea that she keep going, then maybe she shouldn't. But her concern for the rest of the team, and even for the poor kavkema these Nayabaru were hunting down so ruthlessly kept her rooted in the spot. More indecision froze her to the core. But in the end, she couldn't make her feet move on ahead with the rest of the hunters. Chilled by the horrifying implications of Valcen's downplayed device, she turned to follow the compelled kavkem back to Jason and Valcen. Not the religious sort, but she still sent up a word less prayer that their team would survive the incipient encounter.
[02:39] Trailing the kavkem would have been impossible if it hadn't stopped to consider the landscape on the way, evidently tracking where the Nayabaru had come from carefully. She caught up with it after only a little bit of searching through the ferns, then followed its careful return to 'base', reasoning that it was better than she was at finding the way.
Jason still felt a bit as though his skin were crawling with ants. He'd witnessed none of what Saira had seen, but he had heard her distress, and Valcen's platitudes didn't sit right with him. There were questions on the tip of his tongue, but they could wait until Saira was back with them.
It didn't take long. After only a few minutes, Saira and the kavkem stranger resurfaced from the ferns. The kavkem almost immediately settled into a sit, tucking its limbs under its body, panting very slightly as it looked across at Valcen with some confusion, perhaps not having expected another like herself here, perhaps not sure what to make of it.
The ceratopsians seemed entirely unfazed by the bustle, tugging lazily at some of the leaves, dutifully staying put. A Nayabaru that had stayed behind was running a hand soothingly along their flanks, but it hardly seemed necessary – for something so narrow-limbed and optimised for flight, these creatures seemed quite unflappable; firmly domesticated, knowing better than to worry around their guardians.
[19:52] As they broke into the clearing where Jason and Valcen and the mounts were waiting, Saira took a deep, shuddering breath that was heard all too clearly over comms. She stalked up to where they stood by and straight over to Valcen. It was a human impulse and gesture that played out, attempting to shove Valcen back as a means to release some of this pent up frustration. "What is that thing? What did it do to it?" she demanded, referring to the poor kavkem that had lead her back to the clearing. Her eyes were fiery and her cheeks flushed with anger and fear that she was desperately trying to hide in the wake of the implications of what she had witnessed. She twisted to look at the kavkem as it sat, its body seemingly relaxed but its eyes still vacant.
[20:15] Predictably, the breach of personal space to shove him resulted in Valcen pulling his lips back into a silent snarl, feathers puffing up in an instinctive threat display. He backed away from the light physical assault, his eyes narrowing. For that brief moment, it was unmistakable that he wasn't human – the careful, practise human body language had disappeared.
It didn't take long for it to return. The feathers smoothed back out and his posture became less defensive as he spoke: "It is called 'Imitorunyema', which tells you nothing. As already stated, it's not a threat to you, though I understand why you'd think so on instinct alone." There was some tension his voice, but no rage at being addressed in such a fashion, nor remorse or regret.
But some snark crept into his tone as he asked: "Given I likely do in fact have all day, would you like the long version or the short version?"
As they spoke, the Nayabaru that had been dragging the sedated kavkem through the underbrush returned with its prize, seemingly not sparing the two humans and Valcen another glance as it hefted the body up beside one of the ceratopsians and lay the body across the back of it, draped mostly on its side.
[20:19] Saira didn't pursue any further violence on Valcen. The thoughts of his supposed great cosmic weight that he could throw around, if only he weren't stuck in his mortal dino flesh did not even rise to her mind in the encounter. She continued to glare at him has he settled himself, and even took a step away as if to indicate that she was through with the shoving impulses. In fact, she even retreated somewhat by joining Jason at his side. No reply was given to Valcen, but Saira made an adjustment to the comms and turned off the external speaker that allowed her to speak with Valcen. Looking to Jason, she stared at him with wide eyes and a twisted mouth. She wasn't on the verge of tears, but she was frightened by what he saw. "Do you believe him? That it doesn't work on humans? It looked like it had to have physical contact and our helmets should... Oh, Jason, it was awful. They deployed the thing, and it went straight for that kavkema over there, and it struggled for a couple of minutes. Then that vacant look over took its eyes and it settled down. It was like all the life had been sucked from it. All its fright and fight, just dampened into docility." Now that she had explained what she had seen, maybe Jason had better thoughts of what they should do.
[20:56] Jason seemed torn for a moment whether to follow suite; after all, it was plainly apparent to Valcen that they were speaking and likely no great surprise what about. Were they proving anything other than that they could and, as of now, would? He stared down at Valcen for a moment, reining in his own adrenaline, keeping his outward calm meticulously maintained.
He fought the urge to join Saira on a private channel, raising his left hand to press his palm against the back of his neck – a slightly awkward gesture through the suit, but thankfully pressure was one thing that translated through the layers.
[20:57] "The long version," he said to Valcen. Then he glanced to Saira. "I believe it, for sheer... practicality. But I'd like to better understand what you saw and if it leaves me with any doubts I'm sure our hosts will be so kind as to keep these devices very, very far away from us, given that would be such an easy gesture of goodwill."
Valcen's feathers puffed a little for an instant. Then, with a stern tone that neither of them had heard before, not at all like the nervous flutter that had been his almost constant companion, he said: "Before I address the content of what you said said, know that I will give you the benefit of doubt this once.
"If you speak to me with passive aggressive language, you might as well tell me to my face that you intend to defect in this game theory exchange. It's not subtle. It's not clever. It's quite transparent and I hope this is a sign of your shock and confusion and not of an outright abandonment of charity."
He paused to let his message sink in. If it did, Jason gave no immediate indication of it – he did not apologise or change his calm demeanour, though it was easy to imagine his heart briefly skipping a beat. What did it mean if they defected? That hadn't been discussed. Valcen had been adamant that no one meant the humans harm, but there had to be a limit to that – at the very least if the humans decided to attack the Nayabaru, something bad would happen, that went without saying, which was certainly 'defection'. To what degree Jason's did words revealed he was already on that path?
But just narrowly before Valcen could continue, Jason found a few carefully constructed words to say: "It is probably best if you assume that's just me, personally. My background is in security and we're naturally paranoid." His attempt at defusing the situation, evidently.
Valcen's muzzle flicked to the side in an ambiguous gesture. "It is what it is," he said, less tension in his voice, but none of the earlier amicable tone, either. "But yes, I can arrange that there is always sufficient distance between the Imitorunyemaa and you. But I hope you can also understand that they're no threat to you at all – they're no threat to even the Nayabaru and mammalian neurology is far more alien than that."
That confirmed what had previously only been implicit, that it was some kind of neurological tampering. Jason felt a budding headache from what felt like too much pressure in his skull. Still, he could probably keep his steady air as long as nothing snuck up on him now.
"Now, I do believe I owe you the long version," Valcen echoed, then, his voice lightening a little, slowly letting his guard down again. "Ready?"
[21:05] It was plain that all of the diplomacy that had reigned over Saira's demeanor and actions was totally evaporated after the sight of the 'Imitorunyemaa' in action. She did not act out further aggression on Valcen, and at the moment, did not feel sorry for the action in the first place. But his tone was chilling, as if to hint at the cold calculation beneath all of his outward personality. Frowning, she said nothing to either of them, still shaken by what she had seen and all of its myriad implacations. This was the supposedly humane method of subduing a target. Though why would the kavkema need to be subdued? Frowning, her lovely chestnut coloured eyes were hard with fear and distrust of everything the landing party had gotten into since arriving. She allowed Jason to take over for the moment. "I don't trust myself not to be hysterical," she confessed to Jason over their private comms, but relinquished them by flipping on the outward speaker with another toggle of a switch. Her long, steadying inhalation could be heard.
[21:53] Valcen waited for a little longer for a potential objection to be voiced, evidently not interested in rolling over his visitors with whatever he had to say.
Then, when the two humans stayed silent, he began: "I believe you've seen enough of how the Nayabaru treat the kavkema to know that the kavkema are quite right in their attitude of running from them."
As if to underline his point, the Nayabaru a bit further away that had draped the sedated body over the ceratopsian's back busied itself with tying the hapless creature's arms and legs together, pulling a basic metal muzzle over its snout.
"As alien as it may be to you, kavkem culture glorifies death. Between ritual suicide and philosophical antinatalism, they are... admirably close to completely wiping themselves out, which is a very sad state for what was once a rich culture. The Nayabaru are not... mentally flexible enough to learn that the kavkema that still remain are no threat to them.
"Make no mistake, they used to be a threat, thousands of years ago. You can imagine it, I'm sure – packs of these little feathered balls of teeth and claws taking down Nayabaru after Nayabaru.
[21:54] "And the kavkema are more intelligent on just about every axis you might choose to measure. But they've been denied any right to be sessile and by proxy they've been denied any right to make even as much as metals. If they want to fell a tree, they do it by wearing through several stone axes in the process. Crude leather-covered catamarans are the best naval work they can produce.
"So this is a ghastly, asymmetric situation, the very tail end of a conflict you haven't witnessed the brunt of at all," Valcen commented, exhaling in a manner that made it clear he found the situation rather distasteful altogether. "Now, I cannot tell you what my own end game is, because anyone but me knowing about it would be a supreme threat to it.
"I can tell you that I have an end game that is... not Nayabaru-friendly, because the Nayabaru know I do. It's an open secret. But they are trying to, in the interim, milk our incident alliance for all it's worth – I get access to the tools I need to stay alive long enough to see my plans through and in exchange, I design things."
As he spoke, the earlier victim of the Imitorunyema crept over to them, bumping a quizzical, shy muzzle against his shoulder. He brought one forepaw around to run the back of one hand across her head in a friendly gesture.
"The Imitorunyema is a weapon more crude than it may appear to you. I would not object if you likened it to an axe and its effects to the victim losing a limb. I've told you before, I have no interest in concealing anything from you. I have no interest in calling what the Imitorunyema does anything other than gross mutilation.
"But I would like you to see it in context. This woman," he said, gesturing with his snout at the kavkem beside him, then whispering something in Kendaneivash. There was a three-syllabled whispered response. He nodded slowly, the motion for the benefit of his visitors. "Nadani. Her name is Nadani," he told them, an odd reverence in his voice, as though he could possibly have individual respect for her given what he had said so far.
"Nadani is a little confused at the moment, but her life henceforth is going to have much, much more joy than she would have ever felt in the wild, constantly on the run from the Nayabaru. That's bound to deeply disturb you given your own moral values, but I hope you're conscious enough of the situation to know that it's true."
He glanced straight at his visitors, his mediated body language implying some authority, although not overbearingly so. "I have, essentially, literally changed her mind. Make no mistake, I would rather a world where I hadn't, but I nonetheless strongly prefer this world to the one where I'm robbed of any ability to influence the long-term situation."
He exhaled. "And this is part of why you're so important. You're appalled? Good. You can stop this, if you smile, at least pretend to be my friend, and we never speak of this again – I expect that soon I won't be the only one who understands English and this kind of talk will rapidly put an end to my freedoms, as, of course, the 'correct' narrative is that you ally yourselves to the Nayabaru, not their feathery, English-speaking representative." There was an undercurrent of a different, frantic nervousness at the very edge of his tone, as though there were a chance someone were perhaps listening right now, dangerously close, as if this were a grand verbal gamble.
Then, bitterly: "That said, there's a time and place for every revelation; this one has come much too early. You will, naturally, want nothing to do with either of those options. I hope you'll reconsider, but time will tell. I really, truly require you to pretend that you are friends with the Nayabaru. I was hoping you'd even believe you were quite a bit before I told you all of this.
"But let me be as frank as I dare, at risk of destroying this careful construct completely and preventing it from ever becoming a reality: I want to break this rotten status quo from the inside. I would like to do it with your help."
[22:07] Saira's gritted and ground her teeth so much she was sure the noise could be heard over comms. Everything that he said was anathema to her morality. This conflict, this 'humane treatment' of the kavkema were both abhorrant to her. But now that she was calming down from the shock of seeing the device in action and the after effects, she was able to think of this more rationally. Make the best of a bad situation. Interfering in the politics of this planet could have devastating results for humanity, and she should tread carefully. Shoving Valcen around was a bad choice, and maybe she regretted it, but she wasn't going to apologize for it when it seemed like he was seeking one out of her. Continuing to frown, she remained in a stony silence, but her gaze shifted to Nadani and her poor state. Her sympathy flooded from her like a river too full for its banks towards the kavkem. They had no common language, and maybe her sympathy would mean nothing. Turning her attention to Valcen, her frown still in place, she tried to collect her thoughts. "If what you say is true, that everything you've said is true, we are indeed stuck between the hammer and the anvil of the politics of this place." It seemed a reasonable assessment as one wrong step could damn everyone involved except for whomever held the strings for the Naybaru.
[22:37] "You see why I wanted to ease you into it," Valcen said, softly. "But my gracious hosts..." — the 'gracious', though barely differently intoned, was clearly sarcastic — "...wanted early results, and so I was compelled to provide." A pause. "Well, Baishar, I suppose, but let's not kid ourselves, he's not... behind this." There was a tinge of sadness to his voice, even as his attention wandered to Nadani and he nuzzled her affectionately, nipping at her feathers in a brief, aborted preening motion.
A few words in Kendaneivash were exchanged – by tone, gentle and friendly. Eerie. If they didn't know any better, it would be as though there were watching good friends reunited after a long absence, perhaps even a couple – it was hard to say at this point in time to what degree this physical closeness implied an emotional connection.
Then Nadani reluctantly peeled herself away from Valcen, dipped her muzzle in a respectful gesture as her gaze drifted across the humans, then carefully approaching the Nayabaru tending to the other captive kavkem.
Valcen's posture lost a hint of tension that had been invisible until the moment he chose to let it go. "I wish I could say I'm done, but I'm not. Would you like me to continue speed-running you through this... unpleasant bog?
"Perhaps I can interest you in the puzzle of why someone like me can be compelled to do anything at all by a culture who can't even stop him from a traitorous conversation with the humans? Unless, of course, the Nayabaru strike you as intelligent enough to contain me entirely on their own."
[23:10] Her gaze narrowed at him as he continued to spoon feed the reality to her, hinting at things unsaid as if he was concerned about being spied upon. The history, the present of this place were terribly jumbled and they only had the one guide who could be adding or omitting details as to fit his narrative. It was dangerous to trust anything he said at face value. She couldn't help the slight roll to her eyes as she tore her attention away from the two kavkema, noting their body language but as it was bent upon an animalistic display, she wasn't exactly sure what to make of the gesture. Looking then to Jason, she wanted to hear his opinion but she had the thought that it would be similar to her own. The light dawned, the realization of his revelation that there was a 'nuke' capable of harming only Threadwielders. Pinning Valcen with her stare again, she said in very hard words. "There are others of your kind here, aren't there? Pulling the strings? Using the -tools- at their disposal. That's why you need that weapon against your kind, isn't it?"
[23:33] Valcen's snout drew back, his maw opening a few inches, perhaps trying to distort into a friendly smile, physically impossible facial expression as that was for him. With sadness, he said: "Almost; so near but yet so far. You're right about the puppeteering if ghosts could pull strings. But I don't want to wield the weapon and indeed, I couldn't." Inhale, exhale. "The weapon, you see, is sentient.
"The weapon is what is pulling my strings. It killed my true self and left this shadow you see of me behind. And so, by definition, this shadow woke into its autonomy... in the weapon's immediate vicinity, obviously, because where else would it have been immediately after my true self's death?" The grimace was obvious even in his kavkem body language.
"I had a brief advantage of unlikely authority while I laboured together with the weapon to save this planet from getting burnt to a crisp, which was... both our immediate concerns, seeing as my travel companion was a bit... upset over my death." Privately, Valcen appended: And vis own close brush with it, no doubt.
"...but really, it was quite clear that if I wanted to do anything at all with my fleeting life, I had to barter quite a lot of my soul away for the sheer privilege of as much as free movement." He gestured to Nadani. "And so I bartered my soul away. Not my shining moment, but it's done.
"I fight for the privilege of relative freedom every day. I've come close to losing it several times, sometimes just for predictable setbacks such as the accidental death of a... test subject.
"The Nayabaru in their infinite ignorance seem to think I do such things on purpose, not quite realising how fucking terrified I am of simply getting locked away and living to the end of my natural life in a tiny cell..." He trailed off. "Right, about that speed-run: However bad you think the Nayabaru are, they are worse. It's not that they particularly want to be worse, they just are.
"As alluded to, they can't seem to get it into their thick heads that they've won, and they're still going through all the traditions of hunting the kavkema as though they were an actual threat. If you think I'm bad — and I rather forgive you for thinking so, given it's certainly true — if you think I'm bad, allow me to say: The Nayabaru, left to their own accounts, are worse.
"Would you like to know how, or is the abstract statement sufficient?"
[23:45] She exchanged a look with Jason, or would have if he had thought to look her way. This was souring her stomach, the politics and schemes of beings supposedly far greater than she was, and pulling all the strings of this violent genocide of what was intelligent enough to have developed language. It sickened her, and she felt very much like the fly in the spider's web. Valcen's condemnation to this body and whatever, whomever was holding those strings above his head were scary enough. She blanched at his offer to describe more of the horrors that the Nayabaru were perpetuating. Shaking her head hastily, she declined. "Not necessary, thank you." It was much food for thought and once again made her worry about the rest of the crew, currently being hunted by the Nayabaru who were worse than already previously decided upon.
[00:07] Again, some tension seemed to escape him – it was as though it continually accrued, then had to be exhaled in bouts of mental waste. "Sorry," he said. "I wish I had better news. I really do. But there is one more thing you need to know before we consign this conversation to a figment of our imagination: I alluded to that someone might be listening.
"This 'someone' is the Karesejat. She is quite eager to meet you, but I have advised she keep her distance, because her appearance would bias you quite strongly against her. Indeed, as much as I despise the Nayabaru and the Karesejat is their guardian, understand that she is the most reasonable creature on this planet.
"But she is not Nayabaru. She is not a kavkem. Her designer decided it would be a fantastic idea to give her the guise of something approximating a spider. It's very effective in terrifying the kavkema and I anticipate it will be very effective in terrifying you when you first meet her." A pause, although not nearly enough for the statement to be fully digested.
"She has learnt English because I have taught it to her. You can expect her to be as fluent in it as I am. I implore you to be incredibly careful when you speak with her. Her appearance may disturb you, but she's a greater memetic hazard."
Then he bowed. "I think that's all of the speed run. ...I hope that's all of the speed run, I don't want to tax my luck or your emotions any further."
Would he know if the Karesejat was listening? No doubt if she were in hearing range, she would take amused note of the conversation as it was unfolding, then come in, sweetly inform him that his privileges were revoked, strike the witnessing humans dead, ascribe their deaths to the kavkema, and moved on with a supreme indifference.
In any case, he would never know until it was too late.
[20:53] At this dire warning and the revelation that the Karesejat had been given some horrific spider-like body that was preprogrammed into human evolution to illicit danger signals in the primal part of the brain did not sound great. Valcen had, in his own words, been given little choice in the matter of teaching the Karesejat English, so now, as they would soon be meeting with this person and whatever forces were at their command. There was no safety in their own foreignness unless they chose another common language among the team. Saira flipped through the mental catalogue of what languages she knew and tried to compare them to what the rest of the team knew. But it was a brief distraction before her attention came to bear on Valcen again. "Did you learn or teach any other human languages?" American Sign Language in their gloves might be challenging, but maybe that was a safe bet? But again, did the others know it? Even hers was rather rusty, but there were a few universal human gestures. Like the middle finger.
[21:15] To Jason's perspective, the conversation had lost only its most superficial tension. The right answer to their problems seemed to him to be to leave Valcen and the Nayabaru, find the others of their crew, head back to the lander and contact ESA, then sit tight for instructions. And with 'sit tight' he largely meant collecting the fuel drops that had come down in the immediate vicinity of the lander and assembling the return voyage launcher, pronto.
It was one thing to know little about the world they'd landed on – that had been expected. But it was rapidly becoming apparent to Jason that they knew even less than that. Even now, after Valcen had told them more, even if they assumed it was all true, it seemed obvious there was so much more amiss.
It was a dangerous situation to be in. They had almost no means to verify any of it. Valcen had promised not to conceal anything from them, yet Jason could imagine him concealing more unpleasant surprises if it suited the narrative – he had, after all, essentially admitted to it: There is a time and palce for every revelation.
And this was someone who had decided it was right to manipulate kavkem minds. What other manipulation was he up to?
But he kept all of this to himself. Saira and he would have opportunity to speak in private, quietly, sometime later. For now he would continue to nod along.
"I only remember English," Valcen was saying. "It's really a luxury that I know it at all. When I made this version of myself, I had to choose what to keep and what to discard, and English was a contentious choice. Naya and Kendaneivash are obvious languages to hold onto when one is stranded on this world, but no one here speaks English. You might say I had a hunch it might get useful. I'm glad I had it."
[21:21] Everything sat uneasily on Saira as she took in what Valcen had said. There was still the possibility, even likelihood that Valcen was lying about any one of the details he had so far divulged. Frowning, she just nodded and did not reply immediately. Her mind was running along similar tracks as Jason's, especially after all she'd witnessed and been told. New worry bloomed fresh for the other members of their mission crew, wherever they were, being hunted by the Nayabaru by merit of the fact they were with some kavkema. It was a no win situation, and just sitting here waiting for the hunt to finish was maddening. "Is there anything else we should know before we are most definitely overheard?" she wondered aloud, though she didn't expect any meaty answer to come from it. Valcen's modus operandi seemed to be along the lines of conceal and reveal only when pushed into it.
[21:39] A bit further away, a barked verbalisation drew their attention – the Nayabaru tending to the other captive stood in a tense posture, glaring down at Nadani. It was impossible to see what she might have attempted, but given her mannerisms, at most she'd wanted to tend to the captive's feathers a bit rather than interfere. Clearly the Nayabaru was not convinced.
Nadani was cowering, but not running away.
Valcen's attention had snapped across to the scene, shoulders and torso rising a little as though he was tempted to storm forward and interfere – but as the situation did not threaten to escalate any further, his ruffled air faded and he glanced back to the humans.
Tiredly: "I don't know. There probably is. I'm used to things being as they are, it's... hard to think of and prioritise what others don't know about it."
Months and months ago, given the same situation, he would have felt an urge to append something like 'the Nayabaru aren't all bad, please don't forget that, they're merely a culture steeped in traditions', but it was beyond him now, as much as it would no doubt help his case.
Instead, he used the opportunity to make a soft, tired enquiry: "Can you just tell me when you want to backstab me? I much prefer conversation to... sudden death or mauling. I'm not going to stop you if you try to leave, you know. The Karesejat might, but I won't. So I'd like it – I'd like it very much if you kept me updated, somehow."
[21:46] The sound of shouting pulled her gaze towards the scene between Nadani, the Nayabaru and the other captive. She couldn't interpret it other than the vague broad strokes. What history lay between the two races and how the Nayabaru behaved towards the kavkema had been scattered by a careless hand forced into the admission. It was sickening, and harkened back to the worst of human history. As Valcen began to speak, she looked back to him, but she kept stealing sidelong glances towards Nadani. "We'll try," she said blandly to his request for prior conversation to a backstab. Saira wasn't even sure how the humans could betray him, other than to report his perfidy to the Karesejat, but that didn't seem likely if they were responsible for the disgusting status quo for the poor kavkema. "I'm sure we'll have something more definite when we're reunited with the others. After we have a chance to debrief each other." It was vague, but at the moment, she could promise nothing more than that. It was the best she could do without talking to the others.