§ 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.

§ 2022-11-11 22:32:26


[22:51] Athechelt looked at Samanta with curiosity. If there was any fear in him, she couldn't tell from his body language. For a few long seconds it looked as though he might not even understand the prompt; then he reached both forepaws forward to touch her hand carefully, holding it very lightly, letting her pull back whenever she pleased.

Was it progress? It seemed hard to tell without having much insight into what he was thinking.


[23:21] Nice, if nothing else — one of very few interspecies handshakes. Samanta briefly brushed her other hand against the back of Athechelt's and then broke the contact. She gestured at her palm and said "Safe", then again her faceplate. "Safe". If that worked, the kavkema would at least get one more English word, and a pretty useful one, all considered.

Now... perhaps to reach at Akuned in the same way? Very slowly — see if Athechelt approved. Just because he'd been willing to take the risk himself, it didn't mean he'd be willing to let someone else do the same.


[23:32] "Sinun ka reshat?" Akuned huffed, but made no effort to stop Samanta's appoach.

"Lukias'va," Athechelt responded, following Samanta's gestures with his own attention. No. Neither of them sounded like they really understood what Samanta was doing, to the degree that she could interpret their tones. But she'd been around these creatures for long enough that the tones were understandable.

Maybe it made more sense to get in touch with mission control and update them on the situation – there were some people who were guaranteed to know what she was saying, even if it would take nearly an hour for them to respond.


[00:19] This had taken long enough. Samanta turned on the transmitter; recording a message seemed the safer bet. In fact, the frustration of interspecies communication still fresh in her mind, she considered letting the kavkema do their part of recording, and let Earth-side linguists, with more resources than Saira, deal with it. Nevermind, how would that even work.

If she was going to take the rover, or at least some supplies from it, surely she should notify mission control about it. And of the apparent intrusion, as well — maybe ask them to run a distance diagnostic on the lander, to check from their side if anything was damaged or missing. And tell them how long it would be before the next message, but how could she know that?


[00:31] Of course, she could try to precommit to sending messages from the rover at regular intervals, if indeed she chose to travel with it. There was a small chance that some of the locals might mistake the rover as a threat. Travelling alone, advertising oneself so ambiguously, had its risks – but the payoff of finding the rest of her crew faster was a formidable pay-off.

If she wanted an opinion, she could wait for a message roundtrip, of course. But the opinion would reach her regardless, even if she chose to walk away from the lander on foot. She wouldn't clear the desert fast enough to miss it even with just the receiver in her suit.


[01:26] So be it, then. She'd take the rover — at least it would make the travel a bit less painful. She could even offer some of her fellow travelers time on it; they were light-weighted enough. As for stealth, hopefully their experience would extend to small-sized vehicles. (She idly wondered if kavkema had ever taken control of the more advanced Nayabaru transportation vehicles. Surely it had to have happened a few times over history?)

She gave the transmitter a terse description of her situation, and concluded with: "... Saira, Greg, and Jason still currently out of reach. Good cooperation with kavkema helpers despite limited mutual intelligibility. Will send updates through the rover as frequently as possible." Then repeated the whole message again, one more reason for terseness.


[01:51] Akuned watched her interact with the electronics with obvious interest, as though perhaps wondering if she could make the lights and colours on the console pop up in the same way if she memorised the sequence of actions precisely.

Athechelt and Serademar were having a soft conversation of their own as Samanta gave her report, trading anxieties about the well-being of the others that would have been opaque to Samanta even if she'd been listening, as well as thoughts about the nature of Tarnish.

A thought was weighing heavy on Athechelt again. Should it come down to either protecting one's people or oneself, to carry such a story on with the detail it deserves, what would the ryrhakenema of your faith do? He was raising it with Serademar, the increasing sense of wrongness, the location they were in now, helplessly exposed to the sun's Tarnish when it was out.

Maybe Tarnish was wrong. It wasn't a new thought, he'd had it several times already, given what they'd been through, but it was still so hard to shake the fundamentals he'd lived by for this long. Of course, there was something more, something deeper, but he wasn't ready to share it with the others just yet.

Meanwhile, the lander confirmed having sent Samanta's message, freeing her to leave and get the rover.


[02:30] In a flash it... it was done. The people at ESA now knew — well, they would know soon — the madness they'd been plunged into. She'd striven for the driest, most direct description she could; no reason making her message more dramatic that it strictly had to be. Even so, from their point of view it must have been... Too much to imagine. Let people on Earth worry about their own reaction; she had practical work to do.

As foreseen, taking a hold of the rover was easy enough. All it took was loosening a couple clamps, disengaging the brakes, and checking the internal batteries. Radioisotope thermal batteries with backup solar generators: this thing was never going to run out of power, at least. (Right?) The vehicle slid off the ramp into the grass outside, marvellously light for its size, like everything that went into a spacecraft, with the unfortunate exception of human bodies.

She rolled it with her own power in front of the kavkema, half parading her shiny toy in front of her friends, and half showing them that it was quite safely within her control.


[02:51] Outside, the very first promises of a coming dawn were scratching at the horizon, promising another two hours or so of the starlit darkness that Athechelt and Serademar so preferred to the scorching sun.

Akuned's boldness continued to show as she approached the rover as soon as a physical opportunity arose, eyes going wide a few times with a kind of impressed delight.

"Sazo-geb ne jaket bata yilun," Athechelt chided gently, but Akuned paid him no heed.

The rover had comfortable seats for two, and a decently sized cargo hold that could easily house two more people, maybe three. It would do for three kavkema, assuming they wanted to come with her. It was remarkably sturdy, too, although it would get tossed about by anything giving it as much as a nudge – but with good interior padding and airbags for the worst case, they'd be all right.


[03:40] Perhaps they could tie down most of their stuff in a lateral position to make the whole thing more stable, if that didn't impede too much their passage in sheltered ground; and it helped that kavkema had a much lower center of mass than bipedal apes. Pauses during the day would actually be good to recharge the solar batteries.

... For an instant Samanta was glad that she was unable to explain to them the concept of ionizing radiations, such as a radioisotope thermoelectric generator would involve, as it would have made their apparent fear of sunlight much more justified. But the shielding was thick, considerably thicker than it needed to be just for once, and all the spationauts had slept quite comfortably next to the generator on the ship.

For now that was enough, she supposed; while leaning over the driver's seat, she gestured at the remaining empty places, inviting all to climb aboard.

§ 2022-11-18 23:24:43


[23:48] The gesture was apparently universal enough that her feathered companions clambered in without much hesitation. The kavkema didn't have vehicles themselves that Samanta knew of, but the concept was evidently not witchcraft to them. No doubt the Nayabaru had various kinds that they'd seen or at least heard of before.

And then they were moving across the dusty pan the lander had come down on. There was no map of the planet that Samanta could use, but there were copies of satellite imagery at the highest resolution available and educated interpretations from the AI assistant as to which patch of pixels might be worth treating as a plaza or road for the rover, equipping her with decent foresight as to a realistic route.

There were several breaks in the mountain ranges. While the signals from the others' transponders had popped up erratically equatorwards of the mountains, the best route for the rover would be to follow those same mountains on the opposite flank, through the desert biome. It would also maximise conversation time with ESA, with no overhead foliage interfering with electromagnetic transmissions.

As such, it came as no surprise that about two hours into the trip, the Orbiter relayed a fresh message to her:

"Hello, Dr. Landvik, we received your previous report. If we understand it correctly, the Lander is currently unstaffed. Could you expand on your reasons for ignoring the issued instructions to keep it manned? You mentioned the rest of the crew being out of your reach. Do you need tactical advice?"

They didn't sound angry about the ignored commands, which didn't surprise Samanta. She and her crew were trained to act autonomously and mission control back home trusted them to make reasonable decisions – otherwise they would have sent someone else. She hadn't explained why she wasn't staying at the Lander, though, so it was unsurprising they wanted in on her thought processes.


[00:35] She was almost relieved that the response from Earth had been so mundane; she had to wonder how long it had taken them to collect themselves enough to send it. Well, her turn now.

"I apologize for the— protocol violation, but we thought it necessary to collect the crew in person, in addition— in addition with local helpers who cannot use our communication system. Advice of any sort would be welcome, but the local situation is— highly divergent from Earth's. We have been forced into..." she swallowed and licked her lips, forcing herself to utter that frightening, but unavoidable word. "Improvisation".

Quite a change of scenery from the forests they had hiked through earlier, she mused after entrusting her response to the ether. The trees were sparser and sparser, bare dirt and clumps of stunted grass taking their place. Soon there would be hardly any trace of green left; much better, at least, to drive through.


[00:52] Dutifully, the rover transmitted the message back up to the Orbiter. It would take nearly another hour for Earth to receive the message, respond and the message to reach her, assuming they didn't first deliberate on it, as they evidently had on her last message.

There was no reason she couldn't send more information, of course. The Orbiter could queue up as many messages as she could conceivably send in her life time, and the relays would be happy to forward all of them. The limit was in sending messages when the Orbiter was overhead to hear them, although the rover's messaging system could use atmospheric refracting to increase its reach rather beyond the range of, say, her suit's comms system. A small limit was imposed by the planet itself occasionally occluding the nearest relay from the Orbiter's perspective, but that was a brief window and the Orbiter knew to retransmit.

Akuned, who was sitting in the back, had poked her muzzle forward to take in the conversation in its alien language, looking very much like she might want to puzzle out what was said, or possibly take the device apart that had made the noise to see how it was doing so.

Maybe she wouldn't put it back together, though.

Athechelt was sitting on the passenger seat beside Samanta, pressed into the seat as though he were cosplaying a very large, fluffy pillow. He gave a soft, but not overly threatening growl at Akuned's antics, which seemed to suffice to keep her from pawing at things that didn't belong to her.


[02:48] Now that they were on open ground, with the rover just self-reliant enough to avoid the most obvious obstacles on its own, Samanta finally found some time to reflect on her — their — situation. The group of ESA had just made one of the most significant discoveries in human history; several of the most important discoveries, in fact, if one can claim to "discover" something that already involves at least three distinct sapient species already.

If — and this was not a welcome thought, but one who braves the cosmic void had to consider it in full — if they did not come back to tell their story... Well, presumably ESA would send someone else, and again and again, and so on would all the other agencies public and private. But it would be so much better for the first team, whether they made a safe return or not, to leave behind as much information as possible. In her mind, she started building an outline of a planetary encyclopedia for Silvanus, a summary of the things they had learned in those weeks, and that they would hopefully learn later.

Of her own field she had plenty to say already. She could make some speculations about the kinship of kavkema and Nayabaru, some educated guess about how they had adapted to their environment here; and then she hit a snag upon remembering Evenatra, and the impossible things she had shown them.

Akuned and Athechelt looked quite relaxed, for once. They didn't seem to expect much more danger in the open, after all. Perhaps she should record some of their speech? But surely Saira would have done it better. The landscape went by.


[03:04] Eventually, the driver's seat became uncomfortable as the sun started to creep up toward its zenith. There was enough shade in the rover as not to upset the travelling kavkema, though they were fairly quick to doze off in the light spilling in from outside.

The terrain made for as good a parking location as any other spot she'd driven through so far, and a nap was a good idea in any case while the batteries gradually charged. She'd wake up well before the last light disappeared even if she tried for sleep now. The desert at day was too hot for a sleeping bag, but leaving the rover to stretch one's legs for a bit was quite endurable. With how efficient the solar panel roof was, there was very little waste heat creeping into the rover itself.

She was still making her recordings, though, trying to wrap them up into a coherent first information package, when a response came in from ESA.

"Hello, Dr. Landvik, Astrauskas here, the, ah, local xenopsychology expert. ESOC seems to think I have something to contribute to this conversation, I— yes, I suppose I'll cut the chatter, sorry. You've mentioned several sophonts and there are people here who are interpreting your words as implying some form of coercion. If you're able to talk freely, I'd appreciate a quick run-down of the cultural idiosyncrasies you've observed so far, and how, if you can say, they tie into your missing crew mates. It goes without saying that we ask you not to initiate any showing of force, should that have been part of your, ah, 'improvisation' plans, no offence intended with the implication. I am happy to help you assess whether any of the species you have encountered are hostile, if you are at all in doubt."


[03:36] That was quite a surprise, and a very welcome one.

"Hello, Dr. Astrauskas; Samanta Landvik here. I am not under coercion, thankfully: locals travelling with me seem to be sleeping. I don't plan or need to use force..." Perhaps not, but was she excluding it? This world was not much kinder than Earth. "In fact, they are rather friendly, despite— Ah, I should be less laconic, shouldn't I? Sorry, I'm trying to stay as focused and objective as I can and here, here it's not so easy. There's plenty to take in. I am faily sure I'm under no threat by the kavkema who are with me; they haven't shown any hostility to me, and..." And they don't look much of a threat in the first place. But that felt so rude to say, even if the kavkema were sleeping, and wouldn't have understood her anyway.

"... Key points. All urban civilization on this planet seems to belong to one of the two species: the Nayabaru, some sort of ornithopod with grasping hands, very imposing and adept with technology, but I haven't seen so much of them. I am travelling with the others, the kavkema, apparently feathered theropods, 'raptors' if you will. These kavkema are nomadic, have fairly basic technology, and seem to live at the margins, or outside the Nayabaru civilizations. In fact, they are terribly afraid of the Nayabaru, who are both stronger and better armed. They move by night to evade capture, though I think they might actually be naturally nocturnal. They seem... gloomy, and distrustful of new things, at least the older ones, but they have been kind to us. One... respected figure vouched for us. I think they have some deeply established religious beliefs; I couldn't say much about them, but I've seen some taboos, mostly about avoiding detection. No loud noises, no standing in direct sunlight. It is possible that we will meet Nayabaru on our way; the kavkema here would really wish to avoid that eventuality."

§ 2022-11-27 00:27:03


[00:27] Off the message went, up to the Orbiter at next opportunity, then to one relay, the next, and finally Earth. A bit more time spent on the information package let her transmit that as a batch back home.

It wasn't complete, but it included an account of the Imitorunyema. For now, she had omitted detailed information on who had disintegrated it, still deliberating on whether or not Evenatra was a credible source of information, but she had seen the Imitorunyema with her own eyes and from everyone's actions Evenatra's explanation of that in particular seemed true enough.

Then she took the opportunity to nap while the sun beat down on the desert ground around her. While the rover gradually warmed up, it never reached anything even vaguely describable as 'baking' levels, unlike the dustpan outside; coupled with not moving as she dozed, it remained comfortable throughout.

When the rover crackled receipt of another message, it jolted her out of deep sleep amidst the afternoon sun – it had been about five hours since her message had gone out. Some possibly equally sleep-deprived people – what time was it at home and who's shift was it? – had evidently sifted through her data.

It was Astrauskas on the line again. "Dr. Landvik, thank you for all the data you sent our way. I feel it is important to advise you that your crew and you may be considered terrorists through no fault of your own. These... Nayabaru clearly have about that much tolerance for the kavkemas, which is to say, none, and you and the others have been travelling with them to the one or other degree.

"ESA says that if you want to abort the mission and come home, you can do that. From the situation you have described, although you may feel safe at this moment, you likely are not.

"They— we respect your decision in this. We also respect your decision to stay with these kavkemas — thank you for the photos, by the way, they are very, ah, fluffy. We respect that decision, if you choose to make it, but I need to tell you that my honest suggestion is that, should you care for your personal wellbeing and encounter Nayabaru, you turn over your current travel companions. S-sort of like a tribute? To show them that this was a misunderstanding and you're on their side.

"To be clear, I'd rather not be saying this, but going over the information you've sent, the, uh, the machine in particular, the one you encountered, that seems very, ah, crass. It paints a picture of a culture that isn't used to viewing its enemies as people, or at least nothing with inherent rights, so it's likely you have none, either, and are at whim of their good graces.

"That's a mine field in any situation. ESA— we, want you to be safe. But I understand that you have an emotional connection to your travel companions by now. I just want you to understand that the decision may be between them and your own safety."

At this point, a different voice said: "In case Mr. Astrauskas left any doubt about it, we trust your judgement, Dr. Landvik. We will give you military and covert ops advice if you choose to stay with them. Just let us know what you intend to do, we'll advise by context."


[01:44] At each new sentence streaming from the speaker, another jolt of adrenaline wrung away the sleep from Samanta. They were right, of course. She, while being 25% of the representation of the human species on this planet, had gone out of her way to antagonize what was by any practical standard its dominant species, who had technological capabilities oughly on par with humans and absolutely superior in some fields, and who apparently were unbothered by treating another sapient species with the same regard as humans had for chickens.

A part of her cried out to damn Astrauskas (or whomever stood behind him) to Hell for even considering turning her travel companions over to who-knows-what atrocity awaited them. He was right, though. Every minute she spent not doing that made the general position of humanity in the Solar System just a little bit worse. Terrorists. Sheer lunacy, and also practically correct. She had, in fact, worked against the foremost powers of this planet.

Or had she? There remained the question of Evenatra, with her impossible powers and her fondness for the kavkema, and who knew whether Samanta had gained her favor, at least. But was it this that she was doing? Was this the reason she was going through all this trouble in the wilderness — deciding whoever had the biggest stick on Nekenalos, and then sucking up to them?

What she actually planned on doing, of course, was to continue her rover trip with her feathered friends, possibly taking more naps along the way. Not because she had chosen to reject Astrauskas' proposal or to accept his final offer, or even decided to ignore his input altogether, but simply because that's what she'd been doing for the last several days; and the terror she now felt in regards to helping the kavkema work against the Nayabaru had not really spread to their actual physical actions yet. And then of course reconnect with the other humans on Nekenalos, as leaving the planet without them was certainly not a serious option.

You selfish coward; you're not doing your duty. You're not even betraying it. You're just avoiding making a choice. "Thank you for your input, doctors. I will be taking it into utmost consideration. For the time being, I intend to reconnect to the rest of the expedition as quickly as possible. Any advice useful for that would be especially welcome."


[02:02] ESA would already have the orbital snapshots of the planet – continually refining given more and more data as the Orbiter circled overhead, coming nearer and nearer to a map – and the sporadically last known coordinates of the travelling humans. It might help them to know where she thought the others had gone or been taken, whether, given the context both of her experience and the analysis she received, they had gone or been taken, and what her inventory was, along with the inventory of her feathered friends.

If she didn't send it, they would surely ask it of her the next time a message came in. It would, to be fair, buy her more time not to have to make much of a decision.

At least her own position on the map would be obvious, given the rover gave a strong signal. Whereas the others would be popping up somewhat at random points along their travel path, the rover was drawing a smooth curve across desert ground.

Athechelt had stirred, making a slightly groggy expression, poking his muzzle very carefully forward. Curious eyes latched onto her, as though perhaps he were hoping to finally decipher the words she was speaking. Maybe it hadn't escaped him that there had been a conversation the past hours.

Maybe it hadn't escaped him that the last incoming one had sounded quite stressed.


[03:32] Certainly unable to sleep for a long while, Samanta had decided to dedicate the following hours to compiling information to be sent. Who knew it wouldn't be useful? She had, after all, protectors watching over her from the heavens.

At least they still trusted her to take her own decision; she hadn't fallen so far out of good sense. Or did they simply know that they had no way to enforce an order? Was some kind of court-martial (first of its kind!) awaiting for her on Earth? No, no, surely in that case they would at least have given her definitive instructions.

Most treasonous of all it seemed being unable to inform her kavkema companions of the conversation that had taken place; perhaps allow them to decide she couldn't be trusted, which, at least, would make her conscience a bit lighter. She opted for the next best thing, and showed Athechelt the piece of information she was working on — a rough map of that part of Nekenalos labeled with the path of their past travel, and the plausible location of the other humans. Perhaps he'd recognize that, at least?

§ 2023-05-13 23:03:49


[23:33] Athechelt looked at the screen she was working with and the high-definition satellite imagery it was using with transparent surprise. It stood to reason that he wasn't used to seeing the world from the top, but he seemed to understand the principle – so maybe kavkema sometimes made maps of their own based on surveys from the ground.

He was in the middle of yawning with the exquisite exaggeration of a feline when either something caught his eye or an interpretation clicked into place and he jerked back. "Jatuima?" he asked. "Juna njoty akyt udu. Cheltus'va benis sin Katal. ...sepirin taab? Syninaye'va." A pause, then, tapping on the screen further along the coast from where the dots of her companions were, a word it took her a moment to realise was English: "No."


[00:40] Had Athechelt learned that word from Valcen, or Evenatra — or somehow by listening to Samanta and the other humans? And who was it meant for — the other kavkema, who had no need of English? Samanta, who could not possibly understand its context? Was Athechelt objecting to the mapping itself? It would make sense for a species that lived on stealth and secrecy to be wary of maps, but then why wait until now, why tap on that particular point?

All she could do to answer was to point at the same spot, and repeat "No?"


[00:48] Athechelt looked down on the map again, as though to verify something. Then, with only some hesitance, he tapped toward the eastern coast again. "Katal," he said. "No." He didn't sound very stressed about it – in as much as Samanta could gauge the avian tone, it was quite neutral, maybe their equivalent of matter-of-fact. He blinked at her expectantly. Maybe he didn't know what the word meant?


[01:34] "Katal". A place? It could mean anything, but since Athechelt was trying to be as clear as possible, uttering a word when pointing at a map strongly suggested a place name. Not, apparently, a place that he found too objectionable. Marked in the wrong place? How was that possible, with the map coming straight from satellite pictures? Did Athechelt mistakenly believe it was elsewhere? Or that it should? (If a planet could move within hours, why not parts of it?) Or... the dots? Was one of Samanta's companions at this Katal, and was this unexpected, or concerning — though, at least, not terrifying?

Worth a try. She pointed there again, and said: "Greg? Jason? Saira? In Katal? No?"


[02:00] Athechelt was looking back at the map, trying to match her phonemes to something in his head, when Akuned joined to poke her muzzle into the situation with characteristic curiosity. They spoke for a moment, in the soft tones of kavkem conversation, then Athechelt uttered the syllables 'Katal' and Akuned laughed. Though more chitter and chirp, it was clearly a laugh. And just as clearly caused Athechelt offense, his feathers bristling.

It looked as though Athechelt might be about to try another hand at communicating with Samanta when the radio crackled to life. It was not Mr. Astrauskas this time, just mission control itself: "Dr. Landvik, we've reviewed your data, thank you for your diligence.

"By our estimations, the trajectories of the others of your crew and your own will potentially intersect in another two days' travel, at the rate either of you are going. We understand you're currently travelling through a desert, with limited interaction opportunities. We ask you remember that the flat terrain also makes you very visible, but you may proceed.

"Please send us a listing of your current inventory, as well as the inventory of your travel companions to the degree you can discern it. We would like to focus on strategic advice in the coming days and understanding what tools are at your disposal will be useful. Please also keep us updated about any changes."

Akuned muttered: "...akysis ava suromak," prompting Athechelt to snap at the air beside her in irritation – but it didn't seem to bother her, outside of a small token gesture of shifting to the side.

With ESA's message finished, Athechelt tapped on the screen again. "No," he repeated. He touched at his chest and pointed at Samanta, then placed digits onto the screen onto that place at the coast that wasn't yet marked by anything but he seemed so adamant about, and then pulled them over the screen, away from it, while looking Samanta into the eyes.


[02:56] Aha. We are approaching Katal and this is bad... Or it would be bad if not for the fact that they were on track to meet the other humans. By passing through a place a kavkem didn't want them to pass through. Lovely. Try explaining that to ESA now.

First, the response. "Fairly limited, I'm afraid. I have my suit with its communication system and a backpack with the basic supplies from the lander. Navigation tools, essential first aid, firestarters, some electronic components. The kavkema I'm travelling with have handcrafted tools, mostly what you could call hiking gear. We are not especially short on food and water. Thanks for the position check." The visibility issue was more worrying, but surely her guides would know better how to deal with it.

[02:57] Then she turned back her attention onto Athechelt. Hs gesture almost certainly meant "we should get away from there", and if so he was probably right. Samanta pointed at the dots marking her own position, and dragged her finger along the map in a circuitous way toward the dots that indicated the other humans. Whatever this is, can we go around it?


[03:05] It wasn't in the way, not yet. Both the others' trajectories and her own were pointing in that general direction, though, and so it was possible they had to avoid the area.

Unless that was exactly where the others were going.

It would help to know why Athechelt was concerned about the area. After all, if it was precisely because it was an important Nayabaru city – and it looked like candidate for exactly that, since there was an obvious settlement on the satellite imagery, and it easily looked to be the largest on its half of the expansive continent – then that was almost surely their destination.

Athechelt did his best to mimic a gesture he had seen humans do a few times by now: Shrugging.

§ 2023-05-21 01:23:57


[01:23] So Samanta didn't know much more than she did before. Given that Athechelt did not appear completely terrified of the possibility, the risk may not have been so great after all; they could stil travel by night, skim the suburbs away from the population center, and so on. But that was hoping that the kavkema's rather cavalier attitude about self-preservation did not extend to their human guests. Still, pass by unseen was a kavkema speciality, something she could trust them to do thoroughly and well.

She awkwardly patted Athechelt's shoulder, in a gesture that she hoped would communicate trust. Do as you believe best; I will follow you.

But perhaps there was another road. What was the resolution limit of ESA's satellites? And how long would it take to orient them properly after a request? With some luck, they could peer deeper into Katal's secrets... if the Nayabaru had the decency to keep them in open sunlight.


[01:38] The closest of ESA's equipment, of course, was the orbiter, the source of most of the photographic sweeps of the planet's surface so far. In theory every time it rounded the planet, it added more detail to the maps by inference of the differences between snapshots, as long as clouds did not obscure things.

In practise all near-equatorial snapshots were already very detailed and the desert had so few clouds obscuring it that it was a finely mapped area by now.

'Katal', on the other hand, not quite as much – it was rather further from the equator than the orbiter's path ever took it, but zooming in as much as resolution allowed showed just enough detail to make an educated guess at some kind of five-point-star layout embedded in a perimeter, but the nature of the perimeter or even the spokes of the star was pure guesswork.

Athechelt seemed to be shifting uneasily at the visual investigation. If he had been certain of what 'No' meant, he would have used it again, more firmly, but he was beginning to wonder if he had somehow gotten it backwards...


[02:50] Katal's architectural plan seemed immensely interesting; something to see and relate, maybe, if possible. And if it was really built on atrocities, well, that too was something to relate and describe. Taking part in such would have been, of course, completely unacceptable, but there was little danger of letting a kavkem-lead group do that.

Come, at least some pictures of personnel, some broken roof revealing the interior of a mansion, some open-air equipment storage. But no. What were they hiding? And what was that, which needed to be hidden from the Nayabaru at large?

Samanta crouched down. Pobably best to stay in place until the new scans were complete, the scans that apparently Athechelt did not want to see. So he was expecting some gruesome view in the satellite pictures? Having found no way to communicate this question, Samanta simply spoke to him in plain English: "Let's wait a little more. I just want to know what we will find there. There in Katal, with... with the others".

§ 2024-02-17 23:46:23


[00:09] As they waited for the resolution to improve, the sun was gradually setting. Night time meant further delay to communication with ESA – her messages had to bounce up to the Orbiter, then it needed to get most of the way out of the planet's shadow before it could send it to a relay, pick up the response from the relay while it was out of the shadow, and then find her again – but whether she had to wait forty or an approximate sixty minutes for a response didn't make much practical difference. Some added delay due to the Orbiter was always in there.

It was good that kavkema were a lot like cats – perfectly content in mostly sleeping. Akuned seemed less inclined to passivity, increasingly bothering Samanta for interaction opportunities with the technology, but if Athechelt had been human, she would have assumed him to be gravely ill and dying with how much rest he was indulging in.

The sun disappeared behind the horizon and her two feathered friends spilt out of the standing rover to play with each other outside. Finally, another message from ESA came. "Dr. Landvik, we would feel better if you could find a means to arm yourself. Assuming there is nothing left in the Lander for you to use, is there some kind of friendly settlement you can interact with to obtain some assistance? We understand these kavkema are nomadic, but perhaps they have temporary encampments?"

With the message came the latest map data. Unfortunately, even with explicit instructions to map the Katal area, the Orbiter's focus was too blurred by distance to improve her insights much, and the encroaching night hadn't helped. Artificial intelligence was sharpening the output by inferring information from the different lower-quality shots, but several aspects of the resulting image were marked low-confidence. The perimeter was definitely there. It looked like roads or bridges might be leading into it, the main structure giving it its five-spoked appearance. There was at least one area that obviously seemed to be for livestock – given everything she knew about the Nayabaru, they would be beasts of burden and not much else – but nothing else easy to identify.


[01:31] "I will try. Thank you". Nothing visible from the photos was excessively concerning; the structure could have easily contained anything from an innocent food-processing plant to atrocities that would stain red the pages of a history book. Asking for another sweep would not be of any use.

Arm herself? The Lander had contained some basic tools — a drill, a rock hammer, scalpels, an air compressor — that could do some damage, but nothing that would help against properly armed and trained personnel, certainly not for anyone not much more comfortable with violence than Samanta was. She had slipped the rock hammer and a couple clean scalpels in the pockets of her suit. In practice she was sure she'd get searched within minutes of coming near the outer perimeter, but for now having something sharp in a pocket, with the blessing of mission control, made her feel a little less at the mercy of events.

Unfortunately, given the social structure of the kavkema, they were unlikely to be able to make much more effective weapons. Perhaps they had some chance of taking them from the Nayabaru... but that wouldn't come without retaliation. It would still be worth to check but how? Making violent gestures in front of Athechelt and Akuned seemed a bad idea, but maybe she could draw one. What sort of pre-gun weapons could they even make? Throwing spears and probably bows depended on humans having uncommonly flexible shoulders. Perhaps blowguns, or some sort of foot-operated crossbow.

For now, she simply called the two kavkema over, and showed them the photographs. She said: "Here, Katal".


[01:41] Athechelt made some whimpering noises, prompting Akuned to protest at him: "Akyt yri pena Nayabaru kemi, ta juna Nayabaru suromak'ioch. Aky genun'ar." It made the other kavkem hiss, feathers puffing out. "Akyt'va nuna!" he snarled at her. "Cheltu benis, beniie! Se? Akys-va khalei."

Apparently the place was still contentuous. Could she somehow communicate with them to find out more about what made it so? Better yet, could she maybe get them to explain what she was seeing and what to expect?


[02:58] That was not quite reassuring, but not unexpected enough to be disappointing, either. For that matter, Athechelt's apparent fear could be anything from insubstantial superstition to perfectly reasonable expectations of harm. She would ask "Why?" or "What is it?", but no sentence could be stripped bare enough to be understandable to someone who simply didn't know its words, and unfortunately "why?" is not a concept that can be easily pictured or gestured at. Perhaps she could get her friends to describe what went on inside Katal, hoping that wouldn't upset them too much.

She went back to the good old stratagem of dirt-drawing. With some patience, and erasing many failed attempts, she got the silhouette of a Nayabaru on the ground, with its four-footed stance, poderous tail, vaguely equine head, and one hand lifted off the ground. In front of it, she placed a kavkem, comparatively tiny, stringy, with a slender tail and jagged feathers bristling all over. Hopefully Akuned and Athechelt would take this as a request for more detail, and equip the two figures with what she could expect from Katal.


[03:05] The two kavkema had obligingly stepped back to make space on the dusty ground. In the last scattered breath of dusk, it was hard for her to even draw what she envisioned, but it wasn't anything a flashlight couldn't help with, and as it were, her suit happened to have one conveniently attached. Athechelt shifted in some agitation as the Nayabaru drawing took form, then once she was done tapped on it with some urgency and said "Katal." Well, that wasn't as insightful as she'd hoped. That Katal was a place belonging to the Nayabaru was quite obvious, after all, and not very— Athechelt's fingers touched at the dust around the kavkem form and drew a tight rectangle around it, then two curved lines onto its neck, where one might expect a collar, and a line from the same to an anchor on the ground.

§ 2024-03-17 00:00:00


[01:14] Ah. Not informative, perhaps, but clear at least. Apparently nothing could be expected of Katal but utter subjugation of any kavkema by the Nayabaru, and that was it. How long had that been going on? How long had that dreadful place stood? If the Nayabaru, with their imposing size and unrivalled social power, were so completely dominant, any physical fight was lost from the beginning. A wave of despair briefly washed over Samanta, and sent up some sprays of annoyance — how could the kavkema, who were not cattle or chicken but fellow sapients, have let this be done to them?, she thought for a second. No, if she wanted to brave Katal, she and any companion of hers would have to be careful and — Work with the system, like Valcen is doing.

Samanta knelt by the figurines in the dirt, traced with her fingers the line binding the captive kavkem to the ground, and then delicately erased it, and opened gaps in the box. Athechelt and Akuned were not in a cage, not right at that moment. If you could move freely, what would you do then?


[01:26] Athechelt's eyes widened enough to reveal a sigificant arc of white in them. It was hard to guess what he was thinking, but maybe he thought she was suggesting they go to Katal and break out whoever was held captive there. He flicked his muzzle upwards with a certain urgency.

"Nuus kai ryr," Akuned was saying, in a tone that even to Samanta sounded like grudging respect.

If they were going to draw into the sand, though, neither of them made a motion for it. If they had something to contribute to the interpretation of escape, it was either too obvious for them to mention – their teeth, maybe, and their claws – or there simply was nothing.


[02:58] Either nothing would be necessary, or nothing would suffice, then. But at least they had reacted with something other than terror or despair, as far as she could tell. Maybe some enthusiasm, either; that was a good first step. She gave some consideration to the problem of breaking people out of an immense and sophisticated prison camp (without the benefit of having ESA bomb the place from orbit for a variety of obvious reasons, including impossibility). A number of exciting movie plots suggested themselves, but it remained to be seen how many of them ended with her and her two companions alive and free. Or, for that matter, how exactly they were to be put into practice.

She made one more addition to the drawing: in the hands of the kavkem she put a kind of stick, a staff, a sort of spear, or rather a perfectly generic object; and then some more equal sticks at the figure's feet. Finally, she gestured at the distance, as if to say: we'll go and do this.