§ 2022-03-26 23:18:42


[23:54] It proved remarkably tricky to communicate what she wanted to her maniraptoran friends. Thankfully, she wasn't altogether dependent on them, as they were still on the slopes of the vast mountain range, and 'down' was a natural direction to go. Once they hit the desert plateau, or even the savanna stretching out before it, she might have been able to pick up a signal from the lander and find her way to it autonomously.

But it wasn't necessary. Her companions were endowed with a phenomenal sense of direction, and Serademar knew precisely where to go. Even Athechelt had some idea of the direction. Only Akuned was wholly ignorant of the location.

It was clear even past the language barrier that her companions would have preferred a more meandering, less direct route than the one she wanted to take, but they let her choose their pace.

They rested only rarely, walking for much of a bright day that Athechelt and Serademar would have preferred to hide under a rock for. Interestingly enough, it was now unmistakably clear that Akuned had no such interest, suggesting she was of a different culture or religion.

With all precautions of shade and due diligence in watching for Nayabaru, it took them more than twenty-four hours before the lander began to appear at the horizon as a black block against the night sky, and another three hours to cross the dusty plains to it.

[23:55] With neither sun nor moon as illumination and only crisp starlight to guide them, occasionally blotted out by thin cirrus clouds, the cluster of otherworldly provisions looked like a stout settlement of its own. The parachutes of the various modules had long since been gathered and put aside, leaving only the stark angles of sleek metal.

Neither the lander nor the fuel canisters had been damaged or stolen. Here, in the middle of the desert, they looked as they might on any barren world – hardy little shells in which life might be possible.

Athechelt mildly but increasingly fell behind as they approached the lander, making no secret of that he was intimidated by it, even with Samanta's clear and purposeful stride toward it and Serademar showing no fear.

What wouldn't Samanta give to have Saira with her right now and better speak to these creatures – find out what had Athechelt so ambivalent, find out why Akuned was evidently not bothered either by the sun or the lander by comparison.

That Serademar had been here before was becoming clear, although Samanta couldn't claim to recognise him as an individual, only gradually having come to be able to tell her companions apart.

Then she stood before the lander. It was in flawless shape. Neither kavkem nor Nayabaru had attempted to breach it in their absence – or, if they had, they'd done such a fine job of it that there was no evidence either way.

Getting it would be easy, but she had to decide whether to take any of her companions along, or lock them out. Formally, the right decision was the latter, maintaining as strict a separation of biospheres as possible.

But the absolute risk was low enough, both she and her companions had general purpose immune systems; but whether it was a higher risk than it was rude to leave them outside was a more nuanced question.

Normally, if she'd had the opportunity to proceed on this mission as planned, she would already know the answer to that question, but so far, nothing had gone as planned.

Either way, being able to get out of her damn suit would be a godsend. She was overdue for a rinse and for some unmediated haptic feedback.


[00:43] For a few seconds, Samanta was gripped by a fierce nostalgia, almost believing that the door of the lander was a portal through which she could have stepped through to find herself on Earth, and possibly back several months, with Silvanus relegated to a mildly disturbing dream, to be blissfully forgotten in the morning. How unfair, she felt immediately later, to her kind new companions, to wish to wipe them away like that, after all the trouble they'd been through for her sake.

And yet, a the same time, she also felt her hands jolt up as to unlatch her helmet and fling the door open, her legs tense to jump through and hopefully land in some fresh pool in the summer countryside, welcoming on her skin everything from the flutter of reeds in the wind to the sharp unevenness of the bottom. Hell, she'd welcome mosquitoes by this point.

Finally her rational faculties reasserted themselves. She opened the outer door with a trembling hand. It really probably wasn't worth the trouble keeping the internal air fully sterile from the old environment; regarding protocol violations in that mission, that one would barely enter the top ten (about eight positions of which would have been filled by splitting the exploration party, anyway).

And there she was, the horribly cramped quarters of her life in outer space, so strangely familiar now. She stepped back once, allowing her kavkem companions to gander at the interior.


[01:04] Of course, if anything on this planet was low on contaminants, it was this desert air. It was the safest place they could have set down and the safest place she could have chosen to violate the strict rules. A trace of strangeness remained, knowing that she'd been the champion of those rules at the start of the mission.

It was Akuned who took the greatest interest in the invitation, clambering through the hatch with no fear at all, but bold curiosity, like a self-confident cat. The scent of the filtered, stale air as it roiled out of the interior of vessel clearly gave her a little pause – she wasn't used to the smell of air changing from one moment to the next.

Athechelt sat outside, allowing himself to feel exhausted. Serademar lingered with him for a few drawn out moments of commiseration, before joining Akuned in her curiosity.

Aside from trace sounds of a breeze swirling past the edges of the hatch, the area was perfectly quiet. For the first time in days, Samanta felt safe.


[01:44] Slowly, carefully, as if dipping in freezing water, she let herself sink into a padded chair, too precisely molded along the contours of a human body to sit on it in any way but the one prescribed. It did not vanish. She was supposed to be there. She was back to the original plan, somehow, to what had already been decided, to what she had set out to do in the first place.

[01:45] Samanta finally opened the latches of her helmet, and breathed in the air of the lander directly, before it all escaped into the twilight. Plasticky and aseptic, the kind of air that congeals around things that are not novel or exciting but are exactly where they are supposed to be, and now scattering away into the shifting desert wind. She made a tired gesture to Athechelt, inviting him closer, if so he wished.

Four people had left the lander. Four had come back. Most of them just happened to be the wrong species.


[03:01] ESA had requested a full tactical update and inventory of goods. There was a limit to the information Samanta could supply, given that she herself was quite out of touch with the others, but that, too, was part of a tactical update.

At the very least, ESA had asked it of her over twenty-four hours ago, likely quite a bit longer than that. She could check the lander for the actual timestamps, compare them to the current time on the clock, but the fact remained that ESA had been waiting for so long that there was no harm at all in first letting her arrive and maybe clean herself.

Depending on how nervous ESA had gotten, there might be another message waiting for her, but it was unlikely, because of the retransmission methodology. If she hadn't answered, she hadn't gotten around to it, or she couldn't answer; sending a message again wasn't likely to change the outcome.

Akuned was inspecting the console, clearly taken by the many buttons. Perhaps it was good there were so many of them; had there been any less, she might have felt compelled to press a few.

As Samanta's awareness began to fully arrive in the lander, she noticed a tiny white feather tuft in a corner where none of her companions had yet gone, and where the gentle exchange of air between the capsule and the desert would not have placed it.

Had a kavkem been in here before? Maybe that inventory was more necessary than outside appearance suggested.


[03:46] Could she compare the feather to those of her fellow travelers? Unlikely. The down of the kavkema didn't seem to vary very distinctively between individuals, at least not to the level of single feathers. The idea of inventing alien forensics was exciting, but not terribly practical at the moment. And even if she could communicate her curiosity to the others, then what? They weren't bloodhounds. If sauropsid biology from Earth was any indication, Samanta would have been better suited to follow scent tracks herself, scurrying mammal that she was.

Was that from a kavkem at all? Could it not have been a random feather stuck to her suit? How confident was she in her understanding of air current dynamics? After all, how could a kavkem find a way to open the lander unaided, with so limited a knowledge of human technology, and wouldn't the nayabaru simply take the whole thing away?

She stood up and gently rested a hand on the edge of the console, as if to say, thanks for your interest, but this is better left to me. She loosened the suit around her neck and started checking the supplies.

§ 2022-04-03 00:34:37


[01:08] Akuned seemed to accept the gesture, albeit with a trace of reluctance – but she backed away fully, instead sitting down with her flank against a wall, gaze gradually and continually sweeping the interior.

The lander as a whole seemed to be in perfect working order. There was no equipment amiss that she wasn't expecting to be gone – the suits of her crewmates, for example – although it took some cross-checking with the official inventory to be absolutely sure that she hadn't forgotten something (she hadn't).

Another possible thing to check was the cabling in easily accessible maintenance boards, if she thought it at all necessary. But signs so far were good, the mysterious feather notwithstanding.

After five long minutes, Athechelt finally dared to creep inside, cautiously inspecting the interior of the metal vessel. Serademar and him exchanged some words; the former gestured to a monitor that had since flickered to life, talking about it in their opaque language, albeit unlike Akuned with an inherent respectful distance.

It seemed like her three companions were managed, so to speak – they weren't going to accidentally wreck anything. It went to show that they were definitely civilised; no naive fingering of equipment without at least first learning what it did.

That let Samanta either inspect those cables, check for new ESA messages, or compose that report ESA were fishing for.

Or, if she felt like it, see what the orbiter had to say about the position of her companions, assuming it had any fix on them at all, and what she might do about getting back to them.


[01:48] The cables, first of all. If anyone had entered the lander — but how would have they sealed it again? And wouldn't the air within have been replaced by that of Nekenalos? One of those horrid spider-machines, maybe? But the feather, the feather was the only reason to suspect anyone had broken in at all — the communication system would have probably been the most interesting part, whether for study or sabotage.

[01:49] And yet no other signs (a claw-mark on the polished walls? Fallen sand in a corner?) Somewhere in the documentation there was a full diagram of the cabling system, stripped to bare necessity, each cable thick, numbered, and clearly labeled with primary colors. She passed them one by one. No obvious breakage or tampering there, either, and power flowed through as always.

If all systems were connected to each other as they were supposed to, the orbiter must have recorded some position data, and with much luck they could have been useful. There should have been a reading each 24 hours, more often if movement nearby was detected. In principle, the detection range should have been a decent chunk of planet, but in practice nobody could predict how all various interference by cities, by air masses, by the planet's magnetic field would affect it. Indeed the records showed readings only in a disappointingly small range.

But as it turned out, someone had in fact been within a few kilometers north-west of the lander a bit over a week ago, and then several kilometers further away in the same direction, and then out of detection range altogether.


[02:32] Why would someone have been near the lander a week and change ago? For a moment as she brought up the data point's metadata, she struggled with the puzzle. Then Greg's name popped up and reality clicked into place: They had all been near the lander a week and change ago.

And Greg specifically had stayed behind to guard the lander while the rest of the crew had gone with the Nayabaru.

There was a surreality to the realisation that it had been so recent an event, but it made sense, of course. If it had been as long as it felt – two, three months of subjective time – her suit would have failed her quite some days ago.


[03:20] It felt at once impossible and necessarily true, much like realizing that 0.999(...) equals 1. She thought of the days and nights spent in the wilderness, trying to recollect as many as possible, but they all blurred together, and the mess they had made of her sleep cycle did not help in the slightest.

[03:21] Had the supposed intrusion occurred when they had just arrived, then? But how would Greg not have noticed? Or did he let some kavkema in, just as Samanta had done now? But surely at that time there would have been no reason — Hm. Those days had been so strange.

Had there been no other approach? It seemed that after the first departure the whole crew had mostly been out of detection range, except for a short window a little more than a day before, when the three dots of Greg, Saira, and Jason had appeared, all together, in the northwestern wilderness. Had the three of them been together, so recently, so close? Samanta was briefly seized by the wish to run after them. But she probably wouldn't get to visit the lander again in a long time. (Whatever "long time" meant in this situation — apparently a week and a half counted as such.) Re-establishing communication with ESA was — should have been a much higher priority.

§ 2022-04-17 23:56:35


[00:06] As long as she used a route that preferred plains and shrublands, she might be able to use their solar-powered rover for as long a trek as necessary, eventually catching up to wherever the rest of her crew was heading. It was more or less irrelevant when she started on trek, if indeed she chose to take it, as long as the orbiter kept occasionally updating her friends' coordinates.

If her hope was to speak to ESA, it was easiest to talk to the orbiter from here. The orbiter would then pass the message to the L4 relay, which would forward it to Earth.

But the compact, manoeuvrable rover would be a good substitute, much better equipped to catch and send signals than the suits they wore, necessarily flexible as those had to be.

The kavkema had by now clustered together, watching her with a strange, near-synchronised interest, canting their heads in what almost felt like unison, as though someone were orchestrating their motions, albeit quietly so.


[01:00] Of course it would not be so easy to move the rover, compact as it was, about the thick, rugged forest terrain they had hiked through lately. This was not the Moon or Mars, for better or worse. If she decided to go that road, they would have to stick to open ground and stay relatively exposed, or else slow down their pace by several times, which might have the same effect. Perhaps she could extract the communication system from the rover, put it in a backpack, and carry that around? She was very far from an expert in electronic systems, but space agencies tended to make everything as accessible, modular, and replaceable as posible. With some luck it could be as simple as loosing a couple screws.

The kavkema would know best what their chances would be. Was it time to try her hand at communication again? The safest thing to do right now was to wait for the orbiter. Any Plan B could wait after that, unless something very unpleasant came for them right at that moment. But it might be useful to start talking abour it, for a certain value of "talking".


[01:15] She could record a message for the lander to send the next time the orbiter was in range. Out here in the desert, 'next time the orbiter is in range' was measured in fractional hours, nothing blocking line of sight and electromagnetic communication.

As though sensing the silence that lingered in the lander could be filled, Akuned asked: "Seteh na ne matas-ne njuku?" She gestured to Samanta's suit.

"Zetu szamet va," Athechelt said, answering in Samanta's stead. "Taayisises vannama kael'is." He stuck out his tongue and mimed throwing up with his forepaws.

"Ta siigu tedato?" Akuned asked in a tone Samanta knew to identify as one of scepticism.


[01:42] That was... an interesting exchange. Akuned had been the most enthusiastic in exploring the human artifact. Athechelt's response definitely looked like a warning of some sort; did he realize that the purpose of the suit had to do with disease? If so, vomit was as good a signal as any, though the fact that he gestured at it so visibly suggested that he wanted Samanta to know about it, too. Or was he just asking for confirmation from her?

If that was the case, Samanta would have had to agree... Wait. The kavkema barring Akuned had been very wary of touching anything extraneous including sunlight. If Athechelt's supposed warning had to do with some kind of mystical impurity attached to alien products rather than Terran bacteria, agreeing with it would have been very misleading. Then again, how different were those things, in practice?

She made sure her face was covered by the plate once again, and gestured at it. "Safe, safe", she said; as long as I'm all suited up, there's no danger.


[01:59] "Manevash," Akuned grunted, making no secret of her frustration. "Ze͡i'resha araz senesem ke͡ivash?"

"Dako teve͡i-pranash!" Athechelt chided her sharply. "Ka pak gerenit'va-y." To Samanta, he dipped his muzzle in a posture that was unmistakably apologetic.

Maybe they hadn't understood. Or maybe Akuned hadn't understood. Or maybe Akuned just wasn't convinced. She certainly didn't sound like she had had an 'aha' moment.


[02:49] Unpleasant but not surprising. Judging from Athechelt's gesture, he probably wanted the discussion to be over, whatever it was about. Samanta considered reaching out to Akuned to reassure her that, in that setup, everything was perfectly safe... well, it was not, not quite, now that she had touched the interior of the lander and probably picked up a fresh supply of alien microbes. Anyway, Athechelt would not appreciate.

Perhaps winning over Athechelt first would help? She extended an arm toward him with her hand open, as inviting him to touch it. Hopefully, Athechelt would trust Samanta's judgment enough to believe she was not willingly coaxing him into harm, although of course this implied that Samanta did not trust his.