§ 2023-01-02 23:32:52
[23:45] It wasn't easy to decide what of the past days was a dream and what had actually happened. A dull headache had laced through everything. He hadn't been able to feel his leg for a while, although there were dim recollections of others of his crew claiming minimal necrosis. Maybe one of them had been Samanta.
Only he was pretty sure Samanta hadn't been with him at the time.
The world was still swimming, but he was starting to make sense of it. The deep tiredness that had been keeping him crippled had slipped off his chest, letting him breathe. The breathing was probably not new. His awareness of it was.
The room he was in was full of light, and everything was disporportionately large, if only slightly so. The whites and glint of metal felt like home for a moment, as though someone had managed to bring him back to Earth and patch him up there, but that was, of course, ludicrous. And something was feeling rather strange—
Oh. There was a tube pressing against the corner of his lips and sticking uncomfortably to the side of his esophagus. That would do it. His stomach rumbled with some degree of upset. A burp disturbed his throat.
Nothing was tying him down, at least. He could take the tube out and sit up if he liked, inspect himself, and maybe slowly return to the land of the living. Maybe he could even try to piece together what had happened in the past days and where exactly fate had placed him – and the rest of his crew, for that matter.
[00:30] Very old and very strong instincts were screaming at him to remove the foreign object from his throat, but then the ability to ignore very old and very strong instincts was what space training was for. Whatever the purpose of the tube, it probably was best not to remove it, at least not until he found out exactly what it did and where it went, until the consequences of keeping it there became dire enough..
As his eyesight slowly stabilized, he tried looking down at himself — bad idea, your neck isn't very flexible at the moment — he tried raising his hands. They were somewhat battered, but still usable. They were not hurting much, either, and they moved easily enough that heavy anesthesia was not probably involved. The rest of him was still blurry. The room was unpleasantly bright, and strangely sterile compared to the buildings he'd seen on Nekenalos up to then. The size of the room suggested Nayabaru work; the bed he was lying on seemed tall enough that if Greg sat on the edge he probably wouldn't reach the floor.
This he thought rather dispassionately at first, but his throat constricted around the tube as the facts sunk in. He was in a Nayabaru facility, and almost completely defenseless. Squinting in the ruthless light, and pulling the tube enough to let him turn his head sideways, he took a long look at the room's furnishings.
[00:48] For the moment, he was by all appearances alone. A thin blanket had been draped over him at some point in the past, but the 'bed' he was lying on was a simple aluminium table.
Judging by the collection of tinctures and tools in the cupboards nearby, as well as some furnishings that looked rather strongly as though they were intended to restrain kavkema, he was probably in a veterinarian facility.
It would certainly explain why he was stark naked, why his leg had been neatly bandaged up, and why there was a tube in his throat, by all appearances set up to periodically put a bit of water into him. Judging by his groin area, he hadn't yet been here long enough that the urge to piss had been overwhelming, but his bladder was certainly noting interest in some relief now.
There were a few tiny puncture marks on his left arm and left leg that had previously not been there – likely someone had taken some samples of his blood and possibly given him a solid dose of some antibiotic.
Evidently no one considered him a threat, given that no one was hovering nearby. Someone must have done a decent job at convincing the Nayabaru that he would behave himself if he awoke.
On the other hand, it wasn't altogether clear if he could just... leave the room if he so pleased. It was easy to see out – for some god-forsaken reason this place had no privacy whatsoever, every one of its walls transparent – but the doors were made for Nayabaru.
All things considered, he felt better than he had in— how long had it been, exactly? It felt like he'd hurt himself only yesterday, maybe the day before, but if he tried to track the number of nights in his head, there were enough that he wasn't sure of the right number. That suggested something closer to a week. No wonder his brain was slush.
[01:44] In his state, it was probably better not to move around too much, let alone try to flee. Having made sure that the tube was not connected to anything especially delicate — inside or outside — he slowly slid it out. It was a very unpleasant activity, and it made him very grateful that his stomach was almost certainly empty, but eventually it succeeded. He tied it into a knot to make sure the water wouldn't spill out, though there seemed to be a mechanism to make sure it only left at certain times.
He sat up on the bed and wrapped the blanket around himself as a makeshift coat. There wasn't much point in modesty when nobody likely to be present was even a mammal, but the table was uncomfortably cold where it hadn't absorbed his own body heat, and the room was too vast to have warmed up much.
He carefully slid down the bed. In the shape of the furniture he could almost see the hulking form of a Nayabaru bent over him like a veterinarian studying a sick dog; in a way, being lower down on the floor would be a relief. (Smooth fired tiles, easy to wash, with embedded drains.) It wasn't too tall to climb, and should he be too weak he could stack some boxes to come back. As soon as he was vertical again, gravity reasserted itself in his bladder. Just being the patient of a veterinarian was no reason to behave like a beast: an empty metal bin in a corner, probably meant for medical waste, served the purpose just fine.
All the most pressing necessities out of the way, he studied the hallways outside. Nobody he could see or even hear, unless this was some sort of devilish one-way glass that only showed the appearance of empty halls. Well, someone clearly cared enough to keep him alive, if nothing else; he knocked on the transparent wall, and called out.
[02:08] Unsurprisingly, nothing happened at first – if the sound carried, it reached someone who was far enough away that they couldn't immediately appear. If the sound hadn't carried, he would just have to wait until someone thought to check on him.
There was no window anywhere nearby, offering no indication what time of day it was. The Nayabaru, if he recalled correctly, were commonly diurnal, so it might easily be night for them right now. Alternatively, he remembered travelling with the kavkema, and it was quite possible the Nayabaru thought he shared their biorhythm.
Before he could think too much about what the likely state of affairs was, there was a motion outside. One of the Nayabaru – he couldn't tell them apart, even having gathered by now that there was a lot of individualisation in their tattoos – had emerged from a corridor and was looking toward him.
And then it disappeared again.
Bummer. But the more awake he was, the more it became clear that he was quite fine indeed, a bit of grogginess from the lack of exercise notwithstanding. His stomach seemed to want some nourishment, too – when was the last time he'd had solid food? Someone must have kept him fed at least partially; he'd lost a bit of weight by first impression, but wasn't feeling fundamentally famished.
A few minutes into his exploration, the same – or perhaps another – Nayabaru appeared once more outside of the infirmary, with a kavkem in tow.
A kavkem, in a Nayabaru facility. To his sluggishly coalescing memories, it made both no sense, and was completely expected. Someone had said something about this. What was it?
The giant opened the door for his unlikely feathered companion. "Greg!" the kavkem piped, for a brief moment making him wonder if he should recognise this particular creature – differentiating between kavkema was also not his strength, but he was pretty sure he hadn't travelled with this one. Then it continued: "You look much better than when they brought you in."
Oh. Valcen. He had technically travelled with him before. They'd even spoken. He looked much smaller than he'd last appeared to Greg, but it was definitely the same person. It was, however, interesting that the English-speaking kavkem hadn't be a crazy fever-dream.
[03:14] Greg tightened the blanket around himself — somehow being in front of an English-speaker made him feel a lot more self-aware — and slightly bowed, partly as greeting but mostly to get closer to Valcen's height. A surprising turn of affairs, in that cavernous place.
More surprising still is that Valcen had entered with... Greg couldn't call it authority, as the Nayabaru didn't really resemble a bodyguard let alone a servant of some kind, but at least with more confidence than he'd expect to see in a captive from a species perpetually on the run.
He was likely to be Greg's only link to the larger universe, and a more effective one than he'd hoped just a few minutes before. Greg briefly tried to articulate his questions well, to come up with something so courteous and clever that it would immediately throw light on everything. Instead, between excitement and fatigue, he started rather ineptly. "... Valcen, is that it?" he asked, "What has happened? What is this place? Where are the other humans?"
[03:25] "Sleeping," Valcen answered the last question first. "Unsurprisingly, your circadian rhythm is completely messed up. This place's perpetual simulated daylight probably won't help." He gestured to the strips of light in the infirmary's ceiling as a stand-in for the larger facility as a whole.
"We brought you to Katal, since it was the safest way to ensure you'd get patched up. Do you remember the conversation we had about it? About four days ago."
Here Valcen briefly paused, gesturing for Greg to be patient, and – by appearances – translated for the Nayabaru that had accompanied him.
§ 2023-02-05 00:37:28
[01:03] Very dimly, if at all. The events just before Greg's unconsciousness were half-hidden by a murky soup of confusion. Hopefully, little by little, lucidity would return in full. "Katal. Katal..." he rolled the name on his tongue a few times, both silently and out loud.
The Nayabaru would like to move you to Katal—
I did instruct the Katal Yeresoa – the veterenarians of this world, if you so will—
Katal is a large city about two days industrialised travel away from here. The kavkema are terrified of it because it's by far the most unforgiving place for them.
Until you're healthy enough to leave.
Brief visions of nightmare, burned into his poor aching head. He'd been in pain, feverish, barely able to speak. Jason and Saira — "Katal, yes, the... the hospital. So they're here? Close? Are they injured?" he asked. For that matter, "What injuries do I have? I don't feel in great pain anymore. Uh, thanks about that".
[01:19] "They're in the same building," Valcen confirmed. "But it is a fairly large one." He searched his memories for an analogy, then offered: "Smaller than a metropolitan university, larger than a suburban apartment block, I'd estimate."
That was, of course, the part of least concern, and so he continued: "They're not injured. As for you, just the cut in your leg, and the consequent infection. Sort of like tetanus, except with a different set of symptoms, and without that you'd been vaccinated against it. Fortunately, the Nayabaru are good at patching biological organisms back up."
He was nodding a little, a very human gesture, no doubt deliberate. "You should improve on your own from this point forward, but the Nayabaru would know best – they patched you up, I just kept my fingers crossed for you. I've no skills in this department, really. Or in finger-crossing, technically," he let his muzzle sway from side to side a little as he brought up a hand and scissored two digits awkwardly.
[02:07] Very obviously an alien idiom for him. Valcen seemed to be doing his best to be reassuring in his casual matter-of-factness, when a warmer soothing would have come off as insincere. Although there had been a strange edge to his comment about the Nayabaru patching up organisms. The news, at least, were good after all (remember, Valcen does not lie if he doesn't need to, and he generally doesn't need it), and if Greg's illness had indeed been like tetanus his doctors had truly done an excellent job.
If Jason and Saira were not hurt, there wasn't much point in waking them up (in what presumably was the dead of night) just for his peace of mind. Still, they couldn't stay separate forever. Valcen had not offered to reunite them all, which suggested he did not intend that to happen in the foreseeable future, and "smaller than a metropolitan university" still left plenty of space to cross, and plenty of obstacles to go through.
He said: "I see. Might I take a breath of fresh air, for now? I don't feel so weak anymore." It was worth trying to see whether they'd let him out of the room, at least, even under supervision. Perhaps start to learn the layout of this place.
[02:15] Valcen visibly bristled. It wasn't subtle, but also not so intense as to seem like Greg had just made some kind of unsalvageable blunder. "I'm afraid that's... really not my prerogative," he said, a little haltingly. "You should have more or less free access to the entire building, but we should definitely coordinate with the Nayabaru before you go outside."
It seemed like a weird thing for him to say, seeing as there was a Nayabaru right beside him – and while he did speak to his saurian companion an instant later, it was probably only to translate. But maybe Greg could request more.
[02:49] Free access to the entire building? That was far, far better than he'd hoped for. The answer he'd been expecting was along the lines of 'for your own safety, you should stay in this room until further notice'. Instead, not only it was foreseen for him to leave the room, but it was at least *possible* to negotiate leaving the building altogether. Ask for gold to "settle" for silver, indeed.
"Very well, then", he responded, as nonchalantly as he could. "Maybe later. A walk down the hallway would do me plenty of good already, really. Just to be sure, the Nayabaru don't speak English, do they? If we were to talk, would you kindly help me translate?"
[02:56] "Of course," Valcen confirmed. "That's the most useful I can make myself, after all." A curt nod, stepping back to give Greg a little more room.
Then the kavkem's attention flit along Greg's body, blanket and all. "Do you need any assistance?" Valcen asked. "The last time I saw you, you were very pale." He wasn't offering Greg clothes – although the reason might be as simple as that he had no idea where to find any, other than on the bodies of the other members of the ESA crew.
And again, a short translation for the Nayabaru beside them followed. The large creature grunted once, but it clearly wasn't even a word.
[03:37] "Thank you, then", Greg replied. "Since you mention it, I don't suppose there is solid food that humans may consume in our surroundings? Apart from that, I do believe I'm fine".
The Nayabaru had been remarkably uninterested in the alien patient; they certainly had no message for Valcen to translate, nor did they seem particularly captivated by the ones translated for their benefit. It was as if they were in the room simply as muscle, to prevent him and Valcen from doing anything foolish. Or for observation? But the Nayabaru had radios, so it was plausible they had cameras as well, or at least microphones.
§ 2023-02-19 00:52:41
[00:57] Valcen's mouth opened, only to close again without emitting a sound. It took another two seconds before he thawed out of it. "I don't think there's any properly solid food anywhere in Katal, even the better stuff I get is just... textured paste with different flavours, really.
"I'd feel better if the Yeresoa arranged your food, though – I have a decent understanding of the sort of things that might kill you, but I don't know what's in which... paste. It's designed to be consumed by saurians, after all," he said in the tone of apology – although as far as Greg knew and could tell so far, Valcen had no bearing on the food choices in Katal.
Valcen's Nayabaru companion had stepped to the door by now and was mutely holding it open. Free access to the building was apparently indeed in the books. Maybe the Nayabaru really weren't holding them prisoner – maybe when Valcen had mentioned wanting to speak to them about letting Greg outside, it was the communication that was important, the courtesy of not leaving them out of the loop.
Or maybe they were, but with all the affordances of high-ranking political prisoners, at least to whatever degree such could be arranged.
[01:35] "That's alright, then; whatever you think is safe", Greg answered, trying not to stare at the door to fixedly. He would really have preferred to advance his recovery with some nice, hearty meat, but as he recalled the Nayabaru were strictly herbivorous and would probably not appreciate that. Paste would still be an improvement over intravenous, and as far as he knew humans were fairly un-picky consumers.
He moved a couple cautious steps toward the door — or rather, toward the Nayabaru, looking up to them as if they were the main object of his interest, while focusing his actual attention of what lay behind them, in the hallway.
[01:46] While it wasn't the first time Greg was seeing a Nayabaru, having seen them both around their landing site and hovering over him in various forms later, this creature had a somewhat intimidating stature. Despite having no horns or natural armour, it looked every bit as trustworthy as a hippo as it looked down at Greg, tracking him with a narrow band of stereoscopic vision.
Whether it was trying to look intimidating or it just came with the job, or their particular set of genes, on the other hand, was hard to guess.
There was plenty of space for a human and kavkem to slip past, though, and the Nayabaru made no efforts to block Greg's path.
Walking was remarkably easy. His leg, bandaged up, stung a very slight bit, but whatever topical anaesthetic they'd slapped on it dulled any ache down to a manageable sense of fatigue. He'd lost some muscle mass to the Nayabaru fixing his leg up, making some motions much harder than others, but simple walking was at most barely affected.
Nothing toxic, it seemed, had crept up to his thigh.
"Well, I can try," Valcen mused aloud. "But if you start vomiting up toxins, it's back to the Yeresoa for you, and I probably won't be able to decide if I want to say 'I told you so' or apologise profusely." There was a bit of humour in his voice – he seemed to be loosening up a bit.
[02:34] Greg turned to look at Valcen and made a point to smile. Was there a point to that? That incomprehensible being seemed to understand human body language well enough, in addition to regular language. "I'll consider myself warned!", he said.
The shadow of the Nayabaru fell over Greg in full. From there, the being didn't even look hostile as much as terribly indifferent, like a mountain with loose flanks, or a frozen like whose crust could crumble at any moment. Only the slightest rumble came from their form, but it did not sound intentional; just the inevitable maintainance noise of such a large body, especially a herbivorous one.
With some effort of both mind and body, Greg stepped out of the massive shadow through its other side.
[02:44] Mercifully, it didn't take long for Valcen – and in some way, his now-trailing Nayabaru companion – to lead Greg to a room with some regular seating opportunities. They were a slight size too large for Greg, but less by height and more by sprawl, more meant to cradle the hips of Nayabaru than to hold human buttocks.
On the way there, Valcen had made something approaching small talk, mentioning that Edaaj, the kavkem who had watched over him together with Baishar way back when his symptoms had first started, was here as well now, pretending to be a minion.
While some translating for the Nayabaru's benefit happened in parallel, it was easy enough to assume that the 'pretending' part was being papered over.
Right now, Valcen was coordinating with the Nayabaru with some gestures. A part of a wall slid open, revealing several semi-transparent globes. Valcen studied them as though they were strikingly different – the contents all looked about the same, although at further inspection, fine lines of bizarre geometric shapes suggested they might be labelled.
[03:13] Valcen had made no comment about — whatever those things were, but he had made no effort to hide them either. Perhaps they were some of his technological marvels that a mere human would have had no hope of understanding without his explanation? No danger (probably) in asking. "Sorry, what are those?"
As for the rest, it was good to have around some of the other kavkema they'd met as well, though he had to wonder whether having Edaaj as an agent on their side was the truth. The fellow hadn't seemed likely at all to work for the Nayabaru of his own will, but this was probably not a place where a kavkem's will counted much. He sighed. How unjust. Samanta wouldn't be so cynical. But this was supposed to be a terrifying place, and yet everything since his awakening had gone quite well, so he was expecting a betrayal or a cruelty at any moment. Poor Edaaj had done nothing to earn mistrust — perhaps he should at least try and talk to him.
§ 2023-03-25 23:05:35
[23:05] Valcen paused in his motions, leaning his head to the side a little, looking nowhere in particular and considering the question. Settling on an answer, he said: "Snacks." His gaze slipped back down to one he'd only just been handling, giving it another muster, before nodding to himself in human gesture, and padding over to Greg with it. He held it out with both forepaws. "You can just pop the top off. Consider it finger food."
[23:55] "Finger food? For kavkema and Nayabaru, I guess? I must say it looks very different from human food". Well. It would have been suspicious not to try it, at this point. After all, he was indeed starving, and Valcen knew that well. And then, well, he was starving. If it had anything other than edible food, what was the use of pretending? The top did pop off quite easily. He looked inside, trying to see if he could recognize any ingredient.
[00:03] Judging by its consistency, it looked a little bit like mashed potatoes, although the colour was off, more like avocado. Also in the glass container were speckles of something harder and hazelnut-coloured – possibly indeed something like nuts, or maybe finely chopped root vegetables. Something elongated grains, vaguely rice-like, were clustered to one side, but picking up the bowl showed that there were more of them under the paste, possibly making up about a fourth of the overall volume.
"The Nayabaru eat it with..." Valcen trailed off. "Uh, hm. It's something like hard celery, anyway. They use it as cutlery of a sort, until they've finished the last of it. But I think the 'celery' might be too tough for your innards to digest, so I think it's best if you just eat it without that."
[00:53] Ah. He guessed Nayabaru were somewhat like ruminants, then? Made sense, if they were herbivores of that size. Ask Samanta later. The smell wasn't bad; and although he'd have liked something meatier and bloodier, at least he was not biologically dependant from it like kavkema were. With a spoon, perhaps, it would make a decent meal. The main volume looked starchy, and if the seeds and specks were too indigest he could always push them aside. He wondered if this dish contained all substances needed to keep a human alive — the engineers at ESA and other space agencies had worked quite hard to make human-complete diets as compact as possible.
"Thanks, Valcen. This will do. Do you mind if I eat as we walk?"
[01:06] "Not at all, but if you like, we can also just sit for a—" Valcen began, then cut himself off, gesturing for a conversational pause with one hand. "I'm sorry," he said. "You've been still for a very long, I imagine you'd rather walk. Let's walk. Would you like to see my office space?"
[03:03] Valcen's kindness kept filling Greg with unease. His expectations for Katal had been so terrible that every positive discovery felt like the blade of an axe lifting in wait to fall back down with greater force. Had the kavkem voices about the place just poisoned the well for him? How much had they actually known about the place? But of course, if nobody left Katal to spread knowledge of it, that was a very bad sign by itself. Were there different tiers of harshness, for different positions on the guest-to-prisoner spectrum?
"Yes, I would, thank you". He looked around and scooped out a bit of paste from the bowl with one finger. "I take you do very important work here?" He tasted nonchalantly the paste. It was actually quite good: oily and tangy, definitely packed with energy. That he could use.
[03:16] A single peal of laughter left Valcen somewhat explosively at Greg's innocent question. "I suppose you could say that. I make horrific weapons for the Nayabaru, after all, all for a little bit of freedom," he said, bluntly, even as he started leading Greg back out of the Nayabaru cafeteria and through the building, presumably in the direction of his office space... which his guest was perhaps a little less eager to see now. "No, you don't have to worry about them using the same logic for you and your crew. You get to be special." There was no resentment in the sentence, although from context it sounded as though maybe it was still best imagined that way.
§ 2023-06-17 23:41:05
[23:41] "What do you mean by 'special', exactly?" If Greg's pretension of nonchalance had ever had any use, it now crumbled utterly at Valcen's brutal directness; his brow creased, his eyes narrowed, and his voice hardened sensibly. Even so, he kept walking; running away would be both useless and probably impossible, and for good or for ill he really did want to see what sort of "horrific weapons" this mild-mannered feathery creature was working on. Not that he found it hard to believe that a mild-mannered fellow could also have hands dripping with blood, but most wouldn't be so candid about it. Nevertheless the second question, about the nature of these weapons, remained unasked.
[23:50] "I mean that the Nayabaru have a deep, vested interest in treating you well, which is rather the opposite attitude they've had toward the kavkema since as long as anyone can remember." It was perhaps an odd idiom for a fallen Threadwielder with the experience of billions of years to use, but accurate even on that timespan. The Nayabaru and kavkema had never been friends – and thanks to Ysikary's neural handiwork, they likely never could be.
"It doesn't come naturally to them. They see that you're not of their kind and no one has stopped to integrate you into Nayabaru society with any formality, so you are Foreign." The capitalisation was apparent in the stress of the word. "There really are no protocols to treat anyone this Foreign well. It's taken some... conversations. But you and yours are quite safe."
[00:49] Safe, but at someone else's mercy. Safe — as long as they stayed irrelevant. And wasn't that always the case, anywhere?
"Thank you, then", Greg replied; or whomever was responsible for those conversations. "Then are this Nayabaru society and the kavkema all there used to be, on this planet? Had nobody ever had to deal with, uh, visitors from elsewhere?" He chose to gloss over the fact that Valcen had only said there was no protocol to treat them well — for all he knew, non-kavkem outsiders were also frequent, and treated no better than kavkema. What he did know, though, was that being Foreign was rarely a good position to be, and if there was any way to change that situation, it was best to take it as soon as possible — or return outside.
[01:19] "As far as sophonts go, mostly yes," Valcen revealed. "A handful more sapients, but you're familiar with that, of course, from your own planet. And Threadwielders have been here, and there, but given our numbers, hardly worth noting." A pause, then: "Although I suppose we have always had disproportionate impact. But no matter, we are no exception – the Nayabaru do not treat Threadwielders well."
The building was quiet spacious, but its bland nature and the indistinguishable windowless rooms with their large, near-featureless seeming doors gave it a claustrophobic quality, regardless. His food tasted like wheat and starch soaked in a mild oil, mixed with crispy rice fragments even before the rice-like substrate had been reached. Only the barest trace of bitterness was in the meal, the gentle sweetness of the carbohydrates and the umami of the fats dominating the taste. It tasted like energy – the similarities to mashed potatoes was uncanny for the subtle differences that kept throwing his tongue and nose off.
The stairs they occasionally wandered along were almost so wide as to feel more like a sequence of platforms. The direction was always 'down', though. How far down was Valcen's office space, anyway? How many circles of hell did this place have?
[02:27] Greg was increasingly feeling like he was being misled on purpose, by the meandering stairs with deceiving proportions, by the forthright affable descriptions that only raised more questions than they answered, and apparently even by the food. Would he ever find his way back to the surface, let alone out of the compound? Would anyone else ever find him down there?
"That is, uh, good to know", he said. He looked around, trying to find some recognizable landmark to cling to, but everything looked the same, the walls, the fixtures, the stairsteps, the wires looping around. If they hadn't been talking all the time, he could just as easily be convinced that they had been walking like that for hours, or seconds.
Valcen had said we when he had spoken of Threadwielders. He didn't seem to be treated especially poorly there, but he could easily be an exception to a general rule. That sounded like an extremely delicate topic, and if he wanted to probe in that direction too, he decided he should be as specific as possible. "Did you start out like us? ... Rescued, yes, and recovering in this compound?"
[02:30] "Oh, no, not at all," Valcen said. "I started out dead."
§ 2023-07-02 00:00:00
[00:08] It took a few seconds for Greg to process that response. His mouth briefly twitched, it opened to speak, and then snapped shut again. Was this a joke? He had sounded so serious, and up to that moment he had mastered human expressions and inflections perfectly. Speaking metaphorically? Did he mean that he'd been so much more severely injured, or that his identity had been changed somehow? Or had he started to exist here — not so absurd after what they had seen? Was it a deliberate riddle? A trial of intelligence? A kind of Zen statement that was supposed to communicate truth while being impossible on its face?
Too much time had passed by — he had to give some response. Confessing ignorance would probably have been better than feigning understanding and then getting something wrong, but if he could ask for clarification more subtly... "I see," he replied, "By that, you mean that you owe your life to the people who run this place?"
[00:29] The curve of the stairs was tightening slightly now, leading into a floor of smaller diameter, dispelling the notion of perpetuity. Still, he didn't stop – it was maybe the fourth flight of stairs since they'd started walking, the wide steps drawing the journey out.
At Greg's question, Valcen chuckled softly. "No," he said, gently. "I mean the Threadwielder Valcen died. You're talking to a shadow of my former self.
"Though I suppose in a way I do owe my life to the Nayabaru – this particular body wouldn't exist without them. The technology used to make it... the kavkema have nothing like it. They can't clone, they can't copy minds, they can't mesh digital components..." – he tapped at his skull – "...together with biological machinery." He palmed gently at his chest.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I don't know what all you've been lucid of on the route to Katal and what you've missed. I guess you don't have a lot of context. To speed-run you through it: I used to travel between the stars. I came here to help out a fellow Threadwielder, but the Karesejat Terenyira, guardian of the Nayabaru and threat to my fellow Threadwielder, destroyed me first.
"I'd anticipated it, made my vessel strong enough to survive my death. But I became the Karesejat's prisoner and I didn't make the vessel strong enough to overcome its death – my body was still mortal, as is this one, and as will be the next. And since I'm not done here, since I have a promise to keep, I dance to her ugly tune until I am."
There was an amused, bitter sadness to his tone, as if it was a story wrapped in layers of irony that he was perhaps not very fond of telling, but obliged to tell again and again.
[01:24] So you used to be a god, and now you are a mortal, like the rest of us. Had someone asked in precedence, Greg would have said he would find it hard to muster all that much sympathy for a fate that amounted to being just like every other being in the universe, but then if Valcen had really been so diminished, so cut off from what he could have been, like a human that found themself crushed into the body and mind of a lobe-finned fish, then he really was worthy of pity.
"I am... sorry to hear that. But how is that... how is that possible? Is this Karesejat as powerful as you were? Are there other— other beings like that, on this planet?" A little spark, two thoughts colliding. "Did you move Silvanus — I mean, this planet — around our Sun? Or did the Karesejat do that?" He stopped, and looked closely at Valcen's reaction. Had he been too direct, too probing? Was it cruel, to remind him so of what he had lost?
[01:27] Valcen paused in his descent, adopting an odd posture – an elegance that couldn't decide if it was proud or humbled. It took a slow blink for him to thaw back out of the state and continue on. "I orchestrated the move," he said, his voice similarly undecided. "The Karesejat executed it, using limbs I no longer had."
[02:58] What a sight that must have been. At that point, with the spirals of the stairs tightening around Greg like a constricting stomach, there was no telling what fate he was going toward, or how Valcen, who had so scrupulously stuck to human etiquette while possibly being farther from a human than the average starfish, would react or behave. "Forgive me if I ask," he had to say, "But why would you 'orchestrate' such a thing against yourself?" He knew better than to ask 'how' as well; what response could he possibly receive to that?
[03:10] "Oh, the planet's move wasn't... against me. I was traveling with another Threadwielder when our first plan failed. My companion tried to destroy this planet; but since I was mortal at the time, not to mention had some principled objections to the obliteration of the cultures here, I didn't particularly want it to be burnt to a—"
He trailed off. From somewhere beyond the end of the current flight of stairs came dim fragments of conversation.
It was hard to tell the voices of kavkema apart for human ears, but it was clearly a conversation between kavkema.
"My predecessor is talking to Edaaj," Valcen revealed, pausing three steps from the bottom of the stairway. "She'll be glad to see you. Do we interrupt, or do you want a tour of the rest of this floor before we do?"
§ 2023-07-22 23:42:51
[23:42] Greg couldn't quite tell the tone of the conversation. The fact it could be heard from there suggested it was rather animate, but he wouldn't have been able to tell whether there was anger, fear, or some other kind of urgency in the voices. Quite possibly it was an important one if nothing else because of who was speaking. But he was looking forward to seeing Edaaj again, and he was curious to see what person or creature could have held the same position as Valcen; and to be honest he wasn't so invested in the good functioning on this facility that he would have refused on principle to ever interrupt a conversation. He briefly had to wonder whether he was being led into a trap, but — if he was, there was no reason for Valcen to give him a choice.
"If that's no problem", he said, "I'd just as well see them". Note to self: get Valcen to finish his account as soon as possible.
[00:03] A very human nod touched Valcen-sha's posture. "No problem at all," he confirmed, then continued down the last few steps.
There was nothing aesthetically remarkable about the corridor the stairs ended on, other than that it was orthogonal to the stairway and the curve of the stairs had been tighter than the others they'd walked down before. Similarly, the curve of the corridor was tighter. A smaller floor than all the others, perhaps, set into the floorplan as the innermost of a set of concentric circles.
The smooth wall gave way to a kind of open antechambre or lobby with three doors. One of them was partially open and clearly where the conversation was filtering out from. It petered out as they approached.
When Greg poked his head into a room that looked like a slightly oddly proportioned office, two kavkema were staring toward him. One Greg couldn't place, but the other was Edaaj, in all of her unmistakable, puffy glory.
[00:20] Edaaj turned at the sound of approaching feet, half-afraid that Tanak was coming back, though a moment's consideration would have told her that the treads were different from that of a Nayabaru. She was relieved to see Valcen-sha enter, and – for probably the first time since she'd come within sight of Katal – was positively delighted to see Greg peer in after him.
[00:22] "Greg!" she exclaimed, scrabbling for what little vocabulary she'd managed to scrounge together. "Y-you okeyh?"
[00:23] Whatever mess she might have gotten herself into by coming here, at least she'd accomplished one damn thing.
[01:12] On instict, he reacted quickly to the English: "Edaaj! How nice to see you, I—" Then he corrected himself, and scolded himself for not having learned to speak at least a few lines of kavkema. That was supposed to be Saira's job, damn it. "... Yes, I'm... I'm okay. You okay, Edaaj?" and awkwardly waved at her.
"And you— ?" He turned to the unknown kavkem and took one step in their direction, not quite sure about what to tell him or how. The odds this one would understand English or recognize a handshake or a salute were rather slight. (Then again, if he'd had the same position as Valcen, who knew?) He merely nodded in their direction, the most neutral gesture he could come up with: I acknowledge your existence.
One last glanced back to Valcen, who was now at his back (of the three, Edaaj was the only one Greg trusted enough to show his back to), as if to verify what he thought of this less-than-perfectly-skillful interaction. Then he turned his attention once more to the other two, and the stranger in particular.
[01:21] "Valcen-za," the unknown character said. For a moment, Greg was left to guess if it was a bland address to the person he had been guided down here by and some word he did not know, or something else.
Then the 'something else' hit hard. "It's good to see you've recovered. The place is not too disorienting, I hope?"
...Valcen had said 'predecessor'. All of a sudden that word meant something quite different to what Greg had assumed.
[01:28] "Yess," Edaaj confirmed to Greg. The answer glossed over a lot of internal turmoil, but given what could have happened to her, it wasn't a lie. Exactly.
[01:30] She listened as Valcen-za introduced himself. Though she could not grasp the entirely of the following sentence, her thoughts were rather similar, in that she had to wonder how Greg was dealing with the situation he'd woken up in – and the fact of another Valcen.
[02:30] Greg was stunned — and, he'd consider later, must have looked quite silly — for several seconds. He was in a room with two copies of the same person, and he doubted the reason was as mundane as a twin or an artificial body double or a very dedicated actor. If this being could get himself involved in schemed to move planets and potentially wipe out species, he could very well duplicate himself. He did mention, so casually, the perspective of having other bodies to come. The thought briefly crossed Greg' mind that this place could have been run almost entirely by Valcen copies, with the lumbering Naya serving as lackeys.
Having barely registered the answer from Edaaj, he addressed Valcen himself, either or both: "So... is this what your plan involved? Have you made more copies of yourself — are you — making more? Is — are these the vessels you were talking about? Are you — one person, in two places, or — are you really two — pardon me — What is this? How?"
§ 2023-10-29 00:13:54
[00:32] Valcen-za glanced to Valcen-sha, and one might have imagined the gesture to contain a question in his eyes, if kavkem eyes had been half as expressive as a human's. Or maybe they were, but humans weren't particularly well-attuned to the subtleties. It could have been a cold, judging stare just the same.
Then his attention swerved back to Greg. "My apologies for the confusion," he said. "I do intend to make more of myself, but only as necessary to replace me. There will always be one redundant copy. In this case, that's me – I'm older, so Valcen-sha here, with his younger mind and quicker reflexes, has authority when we disagree. It's not quite right, but for the sake of argument, you might consider us clones."
Then he turned his attention to Edaaj, to say, neutrally: "<Looks like no one explained to Greg that there were two of me.>"
Valcen-sha, being the only person that could have been expected to give that explanation without prompt, bristled briefly. "<I did say quite a few things about cloning and mind-copying on the way here,>" he defended himself, casting a slightly quizzical gaze up to Greg. Maybe he had been too vague – left the that it was about himself to implication. But it hadn't been intentional.
"<Nothing we can't fix,>" Valcen-za said.
[00:39] Edaaj gave Greg a sympathetic look, and mumbled, "<Welcome to the dreamscape, friend,>" though she did not expect that Greg would be able to understand either the look or the words.
[01:05] Greg closed his eyes and rubbed his temple. "Yes, I suppose I... uh... did not quite pick up what you meant". It felt unfair, in a way, bringing up cloning and mind alteration when he was still dealing with talking dinosaurs in space. This stuff was supposed to come one at a time, not all together like that. He also vaguely recalled Samanta explaining that real-life cloning is nothing like in movies, but that was true for Earth, not for the domain of a planet-moving demigod. "You speak of redundancy", he said later. Now that's something I know about. "It seems your, uh, current body is in good condition for now," he wondered if this counted as flirting. "So do you fear enemy action, even here?"
[01:17] "Death is always a game of chance. A blood vessel in one's brain might burst and end one's life at any moment. An obstruction in a key passage of blood around your heart can cause a heart attack. Bodies sometimes spontaneously develop allergies – admittedly not usually the sort that lead to anaphylaxis, but regardless, the trend is the same. I can die any time, so it was important I digitalise myself and make—" Valcen-za gestured to Valcen-sha, who bowed a little as though in exaggerated demonstration of himself.
"Valcen-sha won't entirely have the same issue; if he is the only extant copy and dies spontaneously, the Nayabaru can probably patch him up with another body, simply transplating his mind to another, but you might not want to rely on on the king's men to put Humpty Dumpty together again."
Valcen, then, was effectively unkillable. Jason might call that inconvenient, if he were nearby. ...nearby-er.
"Not that I don't trust Nayabaru engineering," Valcen-sha said. "They're very good engineers. They're better engineers than me, in fact. But depending on how things have progressed, by themselves they might decide that it's easier to leave me as an inert copy rather than resurrect me."
"So redundancy it is," Valcen-za concluded that thought for him.
[02:03] The sheer discrepancy in power between Valcen and his collaborators on one hand and the best of human technology on the other was, frankly, unnerving. He had done little to nothing to threaten the spationauts or their planet, but if he ever wanted to... Even if he didn't, what if one of his replacements went subtly wrong, had some neural circuit slightly miscopied... Greg could certainly think of quite a few characters, back on Earth, who would have rather carpet-nuked Katal 'just in case', lest it became any threat to humankind. Which would probably be a self-fulfilling prophecy, given that Valcen seemed effectively indestructible.
[02:04] On the other hand... "I see," he said, "But this technology is not so common on this planet, is it? I don't suppose you'd be willing to talk about the details with human scientists?" To figure out how we could kill you if we ever need to, said one part of his brain. So we can be unkillable as well, said a relatively pleasant one.
[02:12] "I'd be delighted," Valcen-za said. "Time permitting. While it looks like we're just idling around here, having a pleasant chat, and by some measure that's precisely true, I'm frequently on a tight schedule, and you're asking several lectures worth of material. But we can make it work. I'd certainly like to. It's tailored to kavkem neurologies at the moment, which are quite different from mammalian brains, but adapting it shouldn't be too troublesome."
Valcen-sha brightened visibly at the idea. "Edaaj," he prompted her excitedly, slipping past Greg and beginning to paw at her in some gesture part affection, part fussing. "<Greg wants his kind to learn about mind transfers and cloning. You could try to sit in on the sessions where he or someone else from his crew learns about it.>"
Apparently, knowledge transfer was one way to wipe the gloom from the situation and light Valcen up like a Christmas tree. A trick to keep in mind for the future, perhaps.
[02:19] "<Oh.>" Edaaj brightened up as well – perhaps not as much as Valcen had, but it was, after all, the first concrete invitation to learn something she'd received, and that was what she was here for, wasn't it? "<Well, yes, I'd like that.>"
[02:21] How much she would understand of it was open to question, of course. But even if it was beyond her at present, if she could just remember long enough to-
[02:22] "<Will there be something I can take notes with?>" she asked. "<I don't have any writing materials with me.>"
[02:47] Well. He hadn't refused, like Greg had expected at first, and while Greg couldn't understand his words to Edaaj, they didn't sound like he was contradicting his offer. So he was probably willing to share his abilities. And if he did... Oh boy. Greg briefly felt his head swimming. That would be an amazing boon to humankind. Justifying by a large margin all the expenses and risks of the expedition by itself, if it worked, even ignoring anything else. If it was offered sincerely. And if it worked.
"That would be excellent; I thank you in advance on behalf of our colleagues". He bowed slightly, and to Edaaj as well, since he gathered she was probably meant to help.
[02:57] Valcen-sha blinked at Edaaj's question – but of course, a non-digital mind wasn't going to have perfect recall even of topics it was deeply invested in. Not-perfect-recall had been an aberration in his own life; sometimes it was easy to forget. "<I don't actually know,>" he admitted to her. "<I think it should be fine? I can probably share my materials with you.>"
The whole thing was an emotional whiplash, for sure – all that scepticism and probing and interrogating from before, suddenly disappearing in a puff of excitement. Exactly what she had hoped for, but jarring in its disconnect from what had come before, regardless.
"You're quite welcome," Valcen-za was saying to Greg. "In a couple of months, once the Nayabaru have learnt to trust you, maybe they'll share some of their knowledge in medicine, that should be even more useful." ...probably a pipe dream, though.
§ 2023-11-12 00:33:09
[00:33] Edaaj's fingers very nearly twitched in anticipation. She rarely got to write things down, and when she did it was usually by drawing it in sand or dirt with a claw, where it could and would be quickly erased – her writings were not usually things to be preserved that way, as they would be on a story staff.
[00:35] But although she was a good learner when she was paying attention, she dimly suspected that learning about technology far in advance of her own was going to involve quite a lot to remember.
[01:19] Wonderful. Medicine was going to be more species-specific compared to advances in, say, physics or engineering, but you could never know what piece of information would turn out to be a lifesaver in the future. Perhaps literally. Now, though, it occurred to Greg that he might have to write down — he'd do well to recover his suit's recorder — concepts far in advance of any that humans had ever known. He, and possibly his fellow spationauts, were going to be medieval peasants being taught quantum mechanics. Samanta had once said something along the lines that it was not possible to skip ahead through advancements in science; that every discovery only made sense in the context of those that had been made previously. Therefore, if he was going to learn about technology 200 years ahead of humankind's, he would have to learn 200 years' worth of technological progress. The thought was staggering — for a short time. If he hadn't been willing to brave such odds, he would not be standing on another planet in the first place.
"That is wonderful," he said. "I suppose among us, Samanta Landvik would be best qualified to receive your knowledge. But I, or any other of us, will do our best to listen and study it." Maybe I should also ask for some Nayabaru lessons for Saira; she'd probably enjoy it, and who else will have the chance to study a non-human language?
[01:40] "Samanta," Valcen-za echoed. "I think she's still out there, a bit lost. I hope we find her soon, mostly for her sake, she's—"
"None of your business." Jason's voice cut across the conversation. It made all of Valcen-za's feathers rise at once, and some of Valcen-sha's, besides. Before the godshatter could protest at the human who now suddenly hung casually in a doorframe too large for the posture to be entirely comfortable, Jason grinned at Greg. "All patched up?"
Valcen-sha slunk over to Edaaj, his body language mildly disapproving, as one would if a story one was telling was talked across. "<Let the aliens talk,>" he dismissed the interruption in a subdued voice, leaving the problem to Valcen-za. "<What would you want to learn about first, if it were your choice?>"
'za gathered himself before Greg answered to say: "I just mean we're better-equipped to take care of you humans than the kavkema are. It's the sad truth. I too would rather it were otherwise."
Jason ignored him, not even trying to hide that he was looking Greg in his makeshift dress up and down as though to check if he still had all of his limbs, albeit expecting good news.
[01:56] As well, perhaps, to present a very young child with a box of delightful toys and ask it to pick just one to start with. An expression of agonized indecision scuttled briefly across Edaaj's face.
[02:02] "<I suppose,>" she responded hesitantly, trying to sort out the priorities in her head, "<That I would like to know how to make...>" What was the word? "<Machines that move. Robots?>" She almost added 'like the Imitorunyemaa', but managed, at the last moment, to stop herself. It seemed like a bad comparison to make; and, at any rate, if she ever got to make one, she would hope that in significant ways it would not be like the Imitorunyemaa.
[02:10] As she spoke, she glanced at Jason. It was one of the few times she'd seen him performing the human equivalent of a smile. Of the four humans, she had interacted with him the least, but he had been in a bad mood (so far as she could tell) for most of the time they'd been around each other, and she had very nearly gotten used to him just... well, being like that.
[03:08] Greg started to articulate an answer, then, caught between two quite different neural pathways firing at the same time, opened his arms and walked up to Jason, not quite going for a hug, but clapping his hands onto Jason's shoulder. A second later, he realized that Jason might have been injured and in pain; but he didn't even flinch. Greg didn't quite register Valcen's last statement, caught as he was in the excitement of seeing another human being, although by any objective measure they hadn't been apart all that long. "Jason, buddy", he said, "How're you holding up? What are you doing creeping around hallways like that? I'm all in one piece, thank goodness —" Only then Valcen's words took shape in Greg's mind, and he turned to face his host. How embarassing. He could only hope that Valcen was not expert enough in human etiquette to not find this unfathomably rude, but it was not a strong hope.
[03:25] Somehow, the mention of robotics sobered Valcen-sha up a little. Maybe the Nayabaru would have something to say about him teaching Edaaj robotics. Maybe the Nayabaru would have something to say about him teaching Edaaj any particularly advanced technology, even. Just because it made no sense was no guard against it, after all.
And it would indeed make no sense. If she somehow escaped Valcen's purported 'influence', she'd still have to escape Katal. If she managed to escape Katal, she'd have no access to the necessary tools. He was lingering on the thought when he let her gaze at Jason guide him, then kept his there, not caring too much that it made it look like they were talking about him.
"<And what would you do with that knowledge?>" he asked, conversationally, expecting no particular answer as he watched Greg's relieved friendliness unfold.
"Good, good," Jason said, by way of saying nothing at all. "Wasn't expecting you down here, or even up and about yet. Just doing my rounds." Not that anyone had asked him to do rounds. Not that they were likely to be all that welcome, for that matter. But he had plans, and they'd require he make himself a normal sight in these corners... "Kind of crowded down here," he joked. "Party I'm missing out on?"
"As a matter of fact, before you barged in here and interrupted, we were discussing maybe setting up a conference, with lectures on life extension," Valcen-za said, only slightly sarcastic in the details.
"Aha," Jason nodded, without actually looking Valcen's way. With feigned disappointment: "Not a party, I see."
"It's true, the snacks may be subpar," Valcen-za shrugged in faux-apology, tone dipping a few degrees.
"You don't know what the fuck a party is, do you?" Jason glanced at Valcen-za, a brow raised, clearly not done being jovially antagonistic.
"I know that you'd be an asset to one," Valcen-za retorted bitterly. "Maybe we can get back to the subject at hand when you're done being rude."
Jason grimaced slightly. "You really want to listen to this guy talk about his achievements?" he asked Greg, almost soft about the enquiry, although making no secret of his misgivings about the notion.
[03:57] "Well—" For all that Valcen's skill with English was useful, Greg wished he could speak to Jason in a language that wasn't shared by anyone else in the room. "— He does have accomplishments, even if we may not like them. You may have noticed there's two of him in the room, which is, well, does sound like a useful trick if we can learn it.
This is not my favorite place either — I wouldn't spend a vacation in here. But the people here really know stuff I'd like to know too." He wasn't sure if he was pulling Jason on his side in any way. What he was proposing might very well be interpreted as a proposal to cooperate with an horribly oppressive regime and their adorably feathered pet vivisectionists. "I'm not saying we have to help them with anything. Or that we have to actually believe what they say, if we cannot check by ourselves. But as long as we stay here, we might as well get some useful information out of it".
[04:04] Edaaj blinked at Valcen-sha's question. She was aware that 'Make robots with it' was, in this context, a woefully inadequate answer, but it was really the only one she'd felt necessary for her own purposes. "<I... I suppose I could find something useful to do with it,>" she replied vaguely.