Hunt

2020-06-27 20:20:36

Valcen:

[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."

Nymphetamine:

[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.

Valcen:

[20:58] Their psychological training had absolutely included being able to deal with changes, with large amounts of unknowns and with sleep deprivation Рbut it was hard to be blas̩ 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."

Nymphetamine:

[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.

Valcen:

[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."

Nymphetamine:

[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.

Valcen:

[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.

Nymphetamine:

[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.

Valcen:

[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.

Nymphetamine:

[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.

Valcen:

[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?

Nymphetamine:

[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.

Valcen:

[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.

Nymphetamine:

[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.

Valcen:

[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.

Nymphetamine:

[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.

Valcen:

[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.

Nymphetamine:

[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.

Valcen:

[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.

Nymphetamine:

[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.

Valcen:

[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?"

Nymphetamine:

[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.

Valcen:

[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.

Nymphetamine:

[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..."

Valcen:

[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.

Nymphetamine:

[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.

Valcen:

[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.