§ 2021-04-28 22:09:45
[22:48] One benefit of Estedat had been that it was the first settlement attached to at least one broad road and certainly the first to have the equipment to make use of it: A kind of open carriage with a harness that slipped over large, bulky ceratopsians that were evidently willing to carry it at a steady pace.
Greg had been loaded onto the carriage wrapped into several layers of felt blankets, in consequence giving an almost comical appearance of some kind of pale-faced dummy in a move of furniture. But his state did not seem to be actively deteriorating, although he still slept more than he was awake.
Valcen had nestled himself beside Greg's torso like a ball of feathers; Edaaj nestled beside him in turn. Jason and Saira were on the other side of the carriage, with a good view of the kavkema and their sick friend.
The cart jittered in time with the uneven ground it was drawn across, but the road appeared to be remarkably well-maintained, so the jitters almost never turned to jumps, and it was easy to eventually let the rumble of wheels lull one to some semblance of sleep. The nimble-legged steeds they had been travelling on before followed in the wake of the carriage.
Only two Nayabaru did double-duty of guiding the animals and guarding the precious cargo. When a thin rain began to drizzle down, Valcen adjusted a pane of some kind of waxed fabric, pulling it over their heads. There was no dedicated frame to hold it, so it was occasionally pulled taut by Jason's head, whenever he decided to shift.
Eventually, in the middle of the night, the carriage parked somewhere while their beasts of burden caught some rest of their own. The sleepy haze morphed into true sleep – at awkward angles, more sitting than lying down, but better than nothing.
Saira's dreams were interrupted when Valcen disconnected the tarp from her end of the carriage to reveal dawn slowly rolling in. There was some lazy commotion at the front of the carriage, the heavyset ceratopsians clearly waking with the sun and ready to continue on their way.
Valcen meanwhile was sitting atop the carriage, behind her, and brought his muzzle down. "I need to steal you away for a while," he whispered; it was impossible to tell the exact tone from the softness of his voice, whether he was intoning it apologetically, and his body language was opaque to her in her groggy state, but he certainly did not sound demanding.
[23:20] It was frustrating that she couldn't actually rub the sleep from her eyes. The suit obstructed her from doing anything more than trying to work this kink out of her neck. She definitely slept on it wrong, but who could blame her, piled into the back of the cart like important offerings to some deity. Lamenting the lack of coffee, she was still a little bleary-eyed when Valcen approached her and murmured that he would like to speak to her. 'Stealing her away' sounded ominous but that may have been due to a willingness to attribute -anything- Valcen did as suspect and dangerous. She said nothing immediately and then glanced to Jason and then to Greg where he was laid out like a precious swaddled child. "This isn't going to take very long, is it?" Her tone was even, suggesting that she was trying to control herself, or at least give off an impression of alertness that she really did not feel.
[23:32] "...in all honesty, I don't know," Valcen admitted. In the thin light of dawn, he was little more than a collection of subjectively white and brown feathers, arranged in mysterious ways... but even so, he didn't seem to be in very good shape. For that matter, why was he sitting on the back of the carriage, behind her, rather than under the tarp he'd just started rolling back? He'd been sitting beside Greg for as long as Saira consciously remembered. It seemed unlikely he had clambered out purely to pull back the tarp.
[23:35] By now, Valcen should be used to the linguist's constant intense stares, but she favoured him with yet another as if she could peel back those feathers and uncover what was really driving him. It wasn't exactly safe to go off with him alone, and Jason would probably vehemently disapprove, but it might be a chance to work out more language and culture. Peering at him, she shrugged and threw caution to the wind. "Alright, I guess," she said, uncertainty clouding her voice. "Are you okay?" She glanced to where Jason presumably slept and Greg's still feverish slumber.
[23:40] The question bristled his feathers and did something to his body language. "I— I'm not sure, entirely." He raised his voice just enough that she could tell there was a tense, nervous edge in it, quite unlike any of the nervousness she'd heard in his voice before. "But does it really matter?" It sounded like the sort of question that should have been intoned much more bitterly, given their prior interactions so far, but he seemed capable of delivering it quite neutrally – and with it said, he began to clamber off the back of the cart and with a thud landed on the ground beside it, glancing back up at her from his new position with an attentive gaze.
[23:45] Following after him, she stretched her arms over her head to the suit's allowance once standing. She peered at him with obvious skepticism burning in her eyes, but she did not remark on it further. Valcen had proven himself to be a master at the half truth and was talented with the gift of providing just enough of a morsel to be left wanting more. "It kinda matters," she said at last, her gaze turned to the wrist panel as she checked the functionality and integrity of her suit. Finding nothing amiss, she looked up at him. Saira would not comment on his uncertainty, having nothing encouraging or even useful to say about it. However, it sat poorly with her, as this was some portent that she was on the cusp of deciphering, but could not put the last piece of the puzzle into place. With a sigh, she gestured for him to lead the way. As they departed, she looked over her shoulder at the cart where the others were.
[00:12] With them both out of the carriage, it was clear even in the dim beginnings of morning light that he was injured. It didn't seem to be a crippling one and the bleeding had stopped, but something had cut into his flank. Evidently, this wasn't something he couldn't be unsure about, so there was more to where it had come from than some accident or a fight amongst equals.
"While you were resting, a few things happened." — Of course, Saira could see that, if not exactly what. — "The long and short of it is that the Karesejat thinks I am conspiring with you. I don't exactly hold the impression against her, she's been injured..." — The Karesejat had been injured? That was worth noting? — "...but as it's patently false, one of you needs to talk to her, and I'm sure you agree it's best for Jason to stay with Greg to protect him."
The tone of his voice had finally resolved past the sleepy fog swimming through her head: He was miserable.
[00:18] Her eyes drifted towards the obvious injury; he didn't mention the cause, and was unlikely to expound on the subject should she ask. As he was explaining, she paid half attention to it until he mentioned the Karesejat. And -her- injury. She whipped around to face him with her whole body as the suit blocked much of her peripheral. "She's injured?" Though she doubted it, she wondered if this might put her at ease. That the weapon who was designed to be intimidating would be less so if she was nursing some wound. Glancing back to where the boys were still resting, she realized that in this, Valcen was at least speaking the truth. It was best for Jason to remain with the sick Greg. With Samanta still missing, Greg out of commission, and Jason needing to guard him and make recommendations, that left Saira. She rapidly processed this as best as she could and steeled her resolve to the only option before her. "Alright. I suppose there's no helping that. But if I die, I'm going to haunt you forever." It was the only threat the human could make and even then it was toothless. "Let me wake Jason so he doesn't panic when he finds I'm gone."
[00:22] Valcen seemed about to object to her plan, but then simply crinkled a little and waited for her to sync with Jason. He sat down on the road, tucking his limbs under his body, peering mostly toward the carriage to track Saira's progress, but occasionally cast a nervous look back along their strange procession – no doubt the Karesejat was there somewhere.
[00:29] She clambered back into the carriage to wake Jason so she could explain the situation to him. It was a risk, but then again, everything they did on Nekenalos was a risk at this point, so might as well embrace the danger and laugh in its terrifying face. Jason was predictably wary of the situation, and for that she could not blame him. She felt likewise, but there was nothing else that could be done. They were in accord that Jason ought to stay with Greg, and he wished her luck when facing down the Karesejat. Her features scrunched up into an expression that was more grimace than smile. Wishing him luck with getting treatment for Greg, she slipped back out of the carriage and returned to Valcen's side. "Let's get this party started, I guess?" Saira was not looking forward to another meal of protein goop, but it was what it was.
[00:37] "Thank you," Valcen said, in a tone of jarringly sincere gratitude. He peeled himself off the ground, turned and began to trot ahead of her, leading her away from their little caravan at a shallow angle. Perhaps that begged the question why the Karesejat had not simply come to the cart herself – but given that Valcen had described her as looking something like a spider, chances were it was simply meant as a courtesy. If one visually looked like a monster and knew as much, it stood to reason one might want to avoid shoving one's face into one's visitors' faces to wake them.
[00:41] Not knowing just how far back in the caravan the Karesejat was lurking, her still waking brain decided to just fling the most pressing questions at Valcen, rapid-fire style. "How did you get hurt? What hurt the Karesejat? Was it the same thing? What did you say to her to give her the impression that we're conspiring against her?" Naturally, Saira assumed that some report of Valcen's mislead the situation and now the Karesejat was debating what to do with her human guest-captives. He didn't have to look at her to hear the frown in her voice.
[00:59] At the barrage of questions, Valcen stopped walking, muzzle dropping, waiting for the list of questions to stop. It was hard to know precisely whether he'd managed to remember all of them, but he sighed softly, gathered himself into something resembling a dignified pose, and began to respond before he continued walking:
"Much as I know you don't care too much about my well-being, nor do I fault you for it, I know you have kneejerk reactions to violence, so please let me make this clear: Don't judge her for it. The Karesejat and I have a longer history or mistrusting each other and this is the equivalent of a slap in the face in the heat of the moment. It's specific to me. I deserved it."
Despite a vehement undercurrent, he didn't sound particularly as though he thought he deserved it; but he evidently thought it was what he ought to say, the best possible way of presenting the situation.
"Baishar is my responsibility," he elaborated, gradually resuming his stride. "I taught him almost everything he knows. He shares in some of my goals. We are supposed to be aligned and in all honesty, I think we are. And recently, Baishar made the judgement call to attack the Karesejat. The Karesejat rightly assumes I might have done the same in his position.
"Naturally, it casts me in a very bad light. I knew this could happen, but this is such an inopportune time – I want it to not have any impact on you, you have nothing to do with this, and that's easy to clear up." A pause. "...of course I want it to not have any impact on me, either, but as far as that's concerned, at most I can minimise the subsequent... damage." The more Saira listened, the more he sounded like someone who was grateful to still be alive at all.
Quite possibly, they had underestimated how terrified Valcen was of this Karesejat and how much of a hold she had over him.
[01:05] There was an unknown history between himself (a supposed 'god-like' figure in that he claimed responsibility for moving an entire planet into earth's orbit) and what she could only assume was some other deific figure. That did not bode well for the ants from earth. Their innocence of any conspiracy against the Karesejat would be their shield, and perhaps, ignorance was the better strategy. The less she knew about the goings on, the less she would have to feign or outright lie about in the face to face interview. "You'll recover, though, won't you?" It seemed only polite to ask him such. Few others seemed to know the human tongue and their twinned purposes of serving as translators was of paramount import. Then, she recalled that the Karesejat had been learning English from Valcen. It was a tangled up mess and they were like flies caught in the web of a spider. How true this was, she did not yet know or understand fully. "Alright, so what's a slap between friends?" Whatever precipitated Baishar's attack remained out of her ken, but perhaps it was for the best. This bravado was all a sham. A farce to see her through the confrontation with the Karesejat.
§ 2021-05-02 00:54:21
[01:18] The silence that came in response to Saira's question was in itself an answer – an unsettling one, that suggested that Valcen knew the answer to her first question was 'no'.
But what did that mean? He didn't look as though he were going to keel over from blood loss, or had any broken bones, or really had any ailments other than a single deep scratch in his flank. Presumably, he wasn't thinking about his physical well-being; the damage was not even pretending to be a mortal wound. Was his entire reputation with the Nayabaru on the line?
What had he said? 'I fight for the privilege of relative freedom every day.'
Was he in the process of losing that forever? It wasn't likely Saira was going to shed a tear, but if any of his claims that the Nayabaru were worse than what he was doing were true, perhaps there was more at stake than the pathetic fears of a second-class villain.
The caravan disappeared behind them and Valcen stopped in what seemed to be the middle of a clearing. "This is Saira," he said, the statement bizarre for the moment it took Saira to cognitively realise the Karesejat was here. Her eyes had yet to catch up to the fact. But even as they were searching for signs of the spider, the pattern of forest rippled into a sleek black guise, limbs longer than a human, body held about at height of Saira's shoulders, with a head that looked like someone had crossed a spider's with the aesthetics of a bull's, chelicerae and horns and more eyes than the customary two.
She was far, far too close. If Saira wanted, she could reach out an arm and just barely touch a spindly limb.
[01:26] The silence that descended between them was eerie enough. The lack of answer did not warm her up to the idea of meeting with the Karesejat, but she tried to marshall all of her bravery to the forefront. They didn't seem to get very far before Valcen stopped. Just as she was about to ask him what the pause was for, he made an introduction to the air around them. Eyes blinked in curiosity before scattering all about her to feverishly take in the scene around her. She saw nothing at first. She didn't even notice the rippling of the air where the form of the Karesejat sat waiting. But then everything materialized, bleeding back into their reality. True cloaking ability! Saira's mind whirled at the technological advantages of such things but only for a moment. The resolving shape was large, far larger than she had anticipated. She couldn't help the retreating step she took, her head tilting upwards to catch sight of the monstrous figure. At her wrist, her suit complained about her heightened heart beat, the quick breaths of air she almost gasped him. Valcen's warning that the Karesejat had built herself to be terrifying rang through her mind. She closed her eyes, took a couple of steadying deep breaths and looked back at the horrifying arachnid shape. "Hello." She managed to get the word out without her voice quavering too much. "My name is Saira Hoshino. I'm a member of the mission sent here from Earth." Any other pleasantries floated from her brain like rats abandoning a sinking ship.
[01:48] Three of the creature's dangerously thin limbs rose, their tips brushing Saira's peripheral vision, then withdrawing and easing down onto the ground in a slow, deliberate motion, tipping her torso downward slowly. One limb stayed struck into the ground before her. The head tilted – could spider heads tilt? – and then the creature held still.
In a voice that was clearly alien, thrumming from somewhere near the front of the arachnoid thorax, but far too smoothly recognisable, with no clichés of artifice in its flavour, the Karesejat said: "I am honoured to meet you, Saira Hoshino. I am the Karesejat Terenyira, which to best approximation is something of a supreme leader of the Nayabaru.
"I would like to apologise for my appearance. I have only limited control over it. Is there perhaps a colour I could take on that would make it less unpleasant?"
Like with Valcen, there appeared to be a faint trace of Indian English in the accent – an eerie effect. The Karesejat must have picked up the accent from Valcen, who in turn had no doubt picked it up from when he had been a human. But whatever the accent, the English was disconcertingly flawless, her manner courteous and her tone polite.
[01:55] Despite the rather upsetting form that the Karesejat took, Saira was struck with the folly of having sent her at all. No need for a linguist when the alien lifeforms spoke English. Holding tight to this irony, she steeled herself for whatever might fall out from this interview. An interview because the Karesejat had suspicions that Valcen was working with them against her. The accent was heard, sticking out like a sore thumb from her own, but crisp and clean, the words well enounciated, almost like a native speaker. Far closer than many have achieved on Earth. Saira pushed aside her thoughts on the words and continued to keep her eyes straight ahead. "Your colouring is fine..." She trailed off here, wondering if there was a way to style the address of the Karesejat, like one would with royalty on earth. "Forgive me, I should have prepared better; do I address you as Karesejat, ma'am?" The polite moniker seemed unworthy and not encompassing enough, but best to err on the side of caution. "I haven't even had my morning coffee," she said with something of a forced laugh to accompany it.
[02:06] "You may address me as you please," the Karesejat said, her voice far gentler than her appearance. "Karesejat is the title, Terenyira my name." A band of blue colour ran up from the tips of her limbs through her body, as though to explain, wordlessly, what she meant when she'd offered to take on a different colour, and she eased back up from her approximate kneel.
"No doubt you know that I summoned you here for a reason," the spider said in that deceptively pleasant tone, like someone apologising for disrupting someone's day. "Would you at all be willing to tell me what Valcen has been telling you about our situation? I don't mean to force the matter, but I felt it was time to hear such things from you, not from Valcen."
[02:30] Once again, her mind drifted to wondering about the technology of what appeared to be a cyborg body. The ability to change colour like that. The question was not out of place, at least not as Valcen had prepared her for. Nodding, she plastered a smile in place. "We spoke a lot about the languages used here, as you might well imagine. I might have been a little too focused on that, but language, even alien language is so... interesting. Valcen promised there was something like a primer on the Naya language that I could look at when we reached Katal. About your situation, and that of the kavkema, I confess to some confusion. As I understand it, the Nayabaru under your leadership are the dominant species and have created wonderous technology. My crewmates and I had split up before we received any message from Valcen. He explained to us somewhat about uh... Threadwielders? But that was... hard to swallow. I'm still working on resolving all that." Saira was wandering in her reply, not quite answering the question. How was she supposed to answer when she so fully disagreed with the mind altering device. "It's a lot to take in, and seems too fantastic for reality, but here we are, a new planet in Earth's orbit, so I guess I ought to be readjusting my worldview. As for the dynamics between the Nayabaru and the kavkema, I am not entirely sure I have a full grasp on what's going on. I saw the device that rendered a kavkem docile, which was for its own good, I was told... I just don't think I understand fully the politics and necessities." She was babbling, partially out of fear, and partially because she wasn't sure exactly would save their skins. "It's not our place to interfere," she said at last, like this was somehow useful.
[02:51] The worst part of the Karesejat's appearance was not so much the terrifying guise as the complete lack of body language clues. It wasn't even clear where she was looking, let alone whether she was doing so with any disdain, scepticism or friendly acknowledgement.
But when she spoke, the knot of uncertainty resolved: "Saira, you need to choose your words carefully neither for my nor your sake. It's a great boon to have an outside perspective on anything here. This planet has a tense history; I certainly don't expect you to enjoy the manifestations of that. Please, speak freely."
Something was wrong. This creature sounded reasonable. Had Valcen been lying about the Karesejat completely? Or was this the danger? Was the monstrous thing about her not her appearance, but instead her ability to speak her lies with flawless confidence and kindness?
[03:21] Terenyira was quite reasonable, smooth and flawless like the most successful politician. In many ways, she was nothing but that, despite whatever terrifying technology and abilities she might have hiding under that chrome carapace. Saira was not qualified to be representing Earth on these matters, but it was what it was. And all before she had breakfast. Valcen's timing was poor, if it could truly be blamed upon him. "I'm afraid the outside perspective is a bit uneducated." She was not making some great attempt to spare Valcen for his part in her education; she was trying to play as neutral as possible, her own attempts at politics. "I'm sure there is a vast history to speak of the current situation, and without some understanding of that, I fear I'm unable to comment on present events. I did witness that device in action," she added with a hint of distaste creeping through her voice despite her best attempts not to. "The Ino... Ino..." Glancing to Valcen for him to supply the word, one he had, she continued. "It seems harsh, but Humanity has done harsh things in the past, too, in the name of good. I suspect it can be no different here."
[03:26] "Imitorunyema," Valcen said, minimalistically, his own attention squarely on the Karesejat, feathers ever so slightly raised in tension.
There was no way for the spider to nod. Instead, she simply continued in tone as though she had: "And have you and Valcen been getting along? Is he treating you with due respect?"
[03:31] Saira hadn't even been close in naming the device that she had horrifically witnessed. Still, she repeated it as best she could before plowing on. The subject of Valcen's hospitality came up, and she wondered if this was not some sort of job review for him. He was injured somehow, for some attack against the Karesejet from an ally. She suspected the humans were a part of some conspiracy and it was Saira's job to disabuse the Karesejat of such a notion. "He has been very hospitible towards us. Polite, despite what fears we had regarding the lack of a language barrier. Which was somewhat disconcerting, as you can understand, I'm sure. He has answered our questions when they came up, which has been very helpful," she added.
[03:53] There was a significant pause; an unpleasant silence, given the absence of empathetic clues. Then the Karesejat said, tone still gentle: "Allow me to be entirely frank with you. Valcen and I are not friends – we tolerate each other and our major life goals are quite antithetical to each other.
"Regrettably, I have reason to believe he may be trying to poison your thoughts against me, since it's quite trivial to do and it serves his interest. Should that prove to be true, it is no fault of yours, and you are most welcome to continue to believe whatever it is you have come to believe – but I also have no interest in tolerating that behaviour from him.
"And so, as tedious and embarrassing as it is to have this line of conversation at all, as unpleasant it is for me to drag you into this display of petty personal conflict, I must ask you – and I beg of you that you please be honest as that we may resolve this with minimal friction – has Valcen made any attempts to form an alliance with you, specifically intended to be detrimental to me?"
Saira's best guess of Valcen's body language was that he was terrified.
[04:06] With only the most discipline as she could muster did she avoid glancing in Valcen's direction. To do so would seem a great misstep. "He has mentioned that there was some conflict and deeper undercurrents of understanding that we did not have, and I think has taken pains to be as neutral in the subject as possible. He repeatedly told us that he was attempting to make a fair accounting of the politics that rule this planet. He said he did not want us to prejudice us against you, and even warned us of your... unique but somewhat uncomfortable appearance. Without that, I might have run in fear." Because you're scary, Terenyira. "I don't know how much of this is accurate, if he concealed or embellished anything, but he seemed to have been desperate to be as fair as he could." Whether or not this would damn Valcen, she couldn't say. He had repeatedly spoke as she had described, not wanting to build up any resentment between the humans and the Karesejat.
§ 2021-05-23 22:49:48
[23:16] Something rippled through Valcen, the precursor of a motion, as though he had briefly thought to allow himself to collapse in relief. It had to be in reaction to what Saira had said – the Karesejat was as inscrutable as ever, after all, and it was impossible to see whether the words had gentled or enraged her.
She held still for some moments, prolonging the uncertainty, then spoke: "Thank you for your honest assessment. It would appear I've misjudged Valcen." There was a trace of bewilderment in the tone, as though the notion of misjudging something was entirely foreign to her.
"Now that you've done something for me," she said. "And I've imposed on you with my enquiry and my appearance, I must ask – is there something I may do for you?"
Presumably, there was no promise that it would be done and it was highly dependent on what she might think to ask, if anything – but it seemed like she was being given a generous offer, regardless. Appearance notwithstanding... this was the creature they were all so afraid of?
On the other hand, the cut along Valcen's flank was real. Shallow, barely bleeding, but real. The Karesejat was clearly a formiddable enemy to have, if indeed one made an enemy of her. But with the details of the animosities between Valcen and the Karesejat unknown, who was anyone to say Valcen didn't deserve it? He himself had claimed he did.
[23:26] Saira sighed in relief, not knowing how close she had come to damning Valcen. But she was as she had been bidden to be: completely honest in the face of the scary mechanical spider-woman-governor. She had no full accounting of what had brought Valcen to this pass with the Karesejat, and it seemed prudent to stay out of the way, despite any promises of protection and non-interaction. These beings had the ability to move planets across the universe. Knowing that they would soon be reunited with the rest of the research team, she did not think to ask after them. "All I can think of asking for is assistance in treating Greg. We don't know enough about the environment..." Saira trailed off, not knowing all of the particulars that could play factors in Greg's illness. It was rhetorical, because the Karesejat's people were already assisting in the matter. So she tacked on another request, "Valcen spoke of an English primer at one point. If at all possible, might I see it when we reach Katal?" If she was lucky, they could reproduce a copy for her to peruse at her ease.
[23:56] Valcen snapped his muzzle around to look up at Saira, then nodded rapidly. "Of course," he assured. "I wanted to show you anyway, there's no use in being dependent on translators forever, after all."
Terenyira raised a limb in a slow, deliberate motion, and set the tip of it down on Valcen's head. For a moment, that gesture remained wholly ambiguous, until a slight wiggle to the limb revealed that it was a – perhaps patronising – pat on the head. "Mere common courtesy," she remarked, voicing her agreement casually.
Valcen cautiously eased his head down, away from the attention, and said: "As for Greg, as odd as it may seem to you, the Nayabaru in Katal really are the foremost experts on this. They may at times seem... dull-witted and slow... but they are good at what they do." He paused, perhaps trying to construct an example in his head, but did not take long to find one:
"Think about how we had been tracking the kavkema, for example. Did you notice any hesitance? Any backtracking?" The questions were rhetorical. "No, of course not. The Hesha know how to track kavkema. And in a similar fashion, the Yeresoa of Katal know how to treat Greg's illness."
The Karesejat chuckled, the sound touched by a strange, wary fondness. "I see I can trust Valcen to explain our idiosyncrasies." Was there an 'As long as I'm watching' in her tone? She'd sounded perfectly pleasant saying it, but it was an eerie contrast to why they'd even started this conversation.
[00:05] What was the 'normal' body language of a mechanospider-person, anyhow? Valcen seemed eager to share the primer, and had already made pledges of doing so earlier, but she could think of nothing else that she might ask of the Karesejat. Her mind just drew a huge blank on any of their needs or wants. The 'patting' of Valcen's head seemed odd to her, but she did not know what to make of it. Patronizing an enemy seemed unwise, but Valcen was at a disadvantage as far as she could see. She glanced to him when he tried to shed light on the expertise of the doctor caste in Katal. "Of course," she said to him, agreeing without having much else to say on the subject. Hopefully, their medics would be able to assist Greg. Of the Karesejat's tone, Saira found it unreadable, devoid of the inflections in human voices that she had come to rely on for interpretation. She kept her expression even and looked between the two, unsure of the Karesejat's intentions now that it seemed like Valcen was cleared of conspiracy charges.
[00:27] The silence that followed wasn't quite long enough to be awkward, simply transitioning the conversation to a different topic altogether. What it turned out to be came as a surprise to Saira:
"I encountered the lost member of your crew a few hours ago," Terenyira said, gesturing one limb into a direction that likely marked where she had been spotted – although at what distance was anyone's guess without the Karesejat specifying.
"Unsurprisingly, she was wary of coming with me, so I did not press the matter at the time. That said, I can almost surely find her again and intend to do so, as I hope to persuade her to join the rest of you in Katal. If I do see her again, would you like me to pass her a message?"
[00:37] Her brows shot up at the mention of Samanta. Frankly, she did not blame Samanta for her wariness of the Karesejat. Terenyira was terriying to behold, and it was only after some buttressing of support and pledges of safety that she felt she could stand before the creature. "That would be very kind of you. Please, just tell her that we're going to Katal, and that Greg is ill." It was unfortunate that the crew hadn't thought of any passphrases or code words that would represent their interests. She probed her mind for something that she knew of the woman that would be impossible for the people of this planet to know. She mentioned a tidbit of Samanta's life back on Earth, something that would identify the information as terrestrial in nature. "Thank you. Hopefully, she'll come to Katal."
[00:48] "I concur," the Karesejat said. "It would benefit us all." Said, she seemed to raise her body a little further off the ground, emphasising her narrow limbs and alien proportions. "I will relay your message if I see your team mate again," she assured. "May I leave you in Valcen's capable hands?"
[00:54] She could only wonder at the adventurers Samanta was having alone on this strange planet. Wherever she was, Saira hoped that she was safe. Glancing back to Valcen, she nodded, and realized it was missed in the helmet of her suit. "Yes, that'll be fine, thank you." For a fleeting moment, she thought about asking to go with the Karesejat, but reasoned that all those legs and camouflaging technology would make that quite difficult on the poor human. Hopefully, Samanta could be rounded up and brought to them in Katal. "I hope the rest of your day goes well," she said in a banal attempt to make pleasant small talk. It did not seem polite to be the first to turn to go, and she looked to Valcen again for some sort of clue of how much ceremony and propriety one was supposed to show the Karesejat.
[01:09] Apparently, the answer was 'not very much', as, in keeping with an air of efficiency, the Karesejat simply echoed: "Likewise," and then began promptly clambering through the forest landscape with its many obstacles. Although the movement of her legs seemed complex, the overall motion was smooth – she was clearly used to navigating the foliage.
Valcen's gaze tracked her for as long as he was able, then snapped up to Samanta. "Thank you," he said. "I realise you were simply telling the truth and that may not mean much to you, but I happen to be acutely aware that you could have just as easily lied, had you wanted to get me in trouble. She might have realised you were lying, but she might not have cared, either."
[01:13] They stood there in silence, each watching as the complicated system of legs crawled over and around the various things in her path. Saira turned to look at Valcen when she could no longer see Terenyira. He spoke of his gratitude, and how she could've lied. It wasn't an altruistic gesture she had made. It certainly hadn't been calculated to save or not save him. "It seemed more prudent to tell the truth than to get you in trouble," she confessed to it and turned back the way they had come. She remembered the glassy eyed kavkema after they had been reprogrammed, and she squarely blamed that on him, at his own admission. But to deliberately cause problems for him in retaliation was not only short sighted, but could backfire. She did not dare to make things worse for the rest of her crew.
[01:24] Valcen glowered lightly, without any vehemence, perhaps suspecting that a different situation might have yielded a different pay-off matrix in Saira's head, that his well-being was indeed entirely optional to her. He trudged after her, his feathers rising and falling in some gesture of emotion opaque to her.
After a while, his feathers smoothed back down, and his tense breath began to ease up a little. Then question he asked next was jarringly sincere: "Are you all right?" He was clearly and unmistakably referring to the fact she had just met and spoken to a giant, quasi-immortal spider – one who had effectively promised to hunt down the last of her crew.
[01:28] They walked in silence for a time before he posed this question to her. It nearly undid her, and she could not help the slightly hysterical edge to her the sudden peal of nervous laughter. He could hear her suck air in through the comms speaker, not doing a thing to hide her misgivings. She reached for her head in a muscle memorized gesture of comfort to stroke her own hair. She could not and lowered her hand awkwardly. "I'll be alright. You were right. She's terrifying. I probably shit my pants." Saira knew very well that due to her suit, that was precisely what she was already doing, but the idiom rang true enough. "I guess she only confirms what you've been saying about being at odds." This was somehow not comforting. They had not caught Valcen in a lie.
[01:38] Valcen visibly crinkled as though to wordlessly apologise – as though this were somehow his fault. There was surely plenty one could hold against him, but the existence of the Karesejat was not one of them. "For what it's worth," he said, his voice lightly brushing up against a whine. "You can trust her. She's not in the business of lying. She means you no harm and there is honestly only little in your power that you could do to even change that. But if you," and here he faltered a little. "If you try to cross her, intentionally and with premeditation, that ruthless efficiency of hers will strike you down." Judging by his voice, by its subtle tremble, that wasn't a threat – it was simply the truth, one that he'd been on the receiving end of.
[01:44] Saira could not think of how the human contingency would attempt to cross her; but those back on Earth might have thoughts on the matter. Always present in her mind was the knowledge that Valcen initially claimed: there were beings on this world that could move it. That seemed far more complicated than simply destroying Earth in a fit of pique. "That tracks with everything I've just seen," she said in agreement, mostly intimating that they could survive in their relative outsider position if they did not seek to get involved. Or plot against the Karesejat at all. Even if the whole thing felt like a massive human/life's rights violation. This whole world seemed predicated on that subjugation. But what all did she know. "I can see no purpose in deliberately trying to cross her. Entirely too risky for little pay off." She glanced at him again, but was no judge of the kavkema body language. "We're here to observe in any rate. Establish contact. Not to start an unprovoked war with the creature at the helm of the planet's life."
[03:04] Valcen folded his forepaws against his chest, one of the few gestures he did that weren't pandering to human body language and habits and, as far as Saira knew, was a casual guarding posture, like loosely wrapping one's arms around oneself, signalling discomfort.
Perhaps that was no surprise. The slash down his side was likely still stinging. It needn't have anything to do with their conversation. But maybe it did; maybe it was worth remembering that this was a living creature with its own feelings and emotions, who had, by his own admission, been through a lot, and whose interaction with the humans so far had been one-sidedly antagonistic. Perhaps he deserved it, but that wasn't likely to change how he felt about it.
"And now you understand the status quo," Valcen said, softly.
The term rang against a recent memory. It felt like aeons ago that he had said to them: 'I want to break this rotten status quo from the inside. I would like to do it with your help.' But here he was, discouraging them from breaking the status quo with, it seemed, good reason.
The good reason – the Karesejat herself – also made a compelling case for why their help was even needed.
[03:12] She glanced at him where he continued to walk on at her side, his unhappiness and uncomfortableness written in every line of his body. The wound still oozed, or maybe it had dried, but it was exposed to the elements and ripe for infection, by human standards. Looking over her shoulder, she studied the way they had come, but she couldn't see anything that looked like foliage moving for the passage of a large creature. "Is there something I can do about your wound? Pack it with moss or something?" Saira knew nothing about the remedies of this planet, but now that she had seen the thing that had inflicted it, she felt a little bad for him. Caught in a poor place, he was trying his best to survive. To help. "I don't know if the stuff we brought with us will help..."
[03:26] "I should be fine," he said, albeit in a fairly small voice. The caravan appeared in their field of view; moments later, the forest spilled them out onto the road it was sitting on. It looked oddly mundane and like an antique method of transportation in contrast to the terrifying bioengineered marvel that she'd just encountered, familiar and only slightly strange, with Nayabaru instead of humans tending to ceratopsians instead of horses.
Valcen cleared his throat, then continued: "It's a fairly shallow wound – more of a scratch. If it gets nasty at all, which I don't think it will, I'm sure we'll reach Katal before then." He was shuffling toward their cart and clearly intended to clamber back onto it without much further discussion – or much energy, for that matter.
At least the Nayabaru didn't understand English. That was worth something.
[03:33] The scene before them at the rear of the caravan was practically bucolic by comparison to the metallic terror she had just confronted. "A nasty scratch," she muttered, and then remembered things about weird bacteria under cat claws that caused terrible infections, and she wondered if the Karesejat was any different. Before he got up onto the cart, she put her hand on his shoulder. "Thank you for your candidness, this whole time. Even when doing otherwise might have helped your cause more. Can you tell me more about the political dynamics here?"
[03:46] He looked at her in dumbfounded silence, as though stunned by the phrase 'thank you'. It took him a moment to thaw out of the expression, blinking to clear it. "I— sure," he said softly, lingering by the side of the cart. His question betrayed how disoriented he was: "What do you want to know?"
§ 2021-05-31 21:38:51
[21:38] It was such an open ended question. There were several ideas that floated to mind. Why was it this way? Who is it benefiting? (Though, that answer seemed obviously the Karesejat, but she did not voice such an opinion.) How long had it been going on? The rolled through her head like a thundrous wave after wave crashing upon the shore of her tongue. "How did the situation evolve to this point? Hunting the kavkema, the Karesejat's hold over the Nayabaru. Why can there be no peace between the two factions?" That seemed to be the heart of the matter.
[22:49] Valcen seemed to dither about whether to enter the cart or not. Jason was in there, and a sleeping Greg. If they were going to talk shop, maybe it was best done where there weren't sleeping humans. He gestured with a quizzical air, trying to suggest, wordlessly, that they walk beside the convoy at a slight distance for a while. It wasn't exactly going to go at a thunderous speed.
Himself staying in a neutral position, letting her choose, he whispered an explanation back to her: "A couple of thousand years ago, on the order of a bit over twenty-thousand years, the kavkema were a real threat to the Nayabaru. There was an actual war going once, for thousands of years before that, as well, always in small pieces, but fairly persistent overall.
"Finally, the Threadwielder that had made the Nayabaru in the first place created Terenyira. Terenyira frankly turned the tides – it was a remarkable feat, really, since she also destroyed her maker, thereby robbing herself and her people of an alliance with a Threadwielder." He couldn't remember how much of this he'd already told them in his previous attempts at summarising the situation – he felt so tired, so drained, and yet so very on edge despite it.
"In any reasonable situation, that would have been the end of it, really. There would have been some territorial changes, some treaties signed at gun point, but some form of peace. But the Nayabaru are an incredibly... slow and stubborn people. They do not change easily. They are very formulaic and circumstances had forced them to learn to handle kavkema as dangerous enemies.
"Now that they no longer pose any appreciable threat, they just... can't stop. The Hesha would be remiss in their duties if they treated kavkema any more lightly than they treat them now, and no Nayabaru will be remiss in their duties. It just isn't done."
[23:05] Saira's frown deepened the longer that Valcen talked. It wasn't as thought humans were also atrocious beings in their own ways in the past, but the goal was always to move away from that. While that human trait was what it was, the Nayabaru were locked in a fierce gilded cage of tradition and legacy. "Do the kavkema hold any real threat to the Nayabaru? In the state that they're in and the technological disadvantage?" It felt like a rhetorical question, but Saira was building up to something. "Wouldn't the Karesejat realize that? And has the ability to sway the Nayabaru away from the violence?"
[23:19] "The kavkema are like native Jungle tribes versus the Nayabaru's technology of the 21st century," Valcen shook his muzzle slightly, now daring to lead Saira to walk beside the carriage and away from it a little, gesturing to the Nayabaru to begin driving the cart forward. It gradually rumbled into motion, at no risk of running away from them. They could easily keep up with it, if they wanted.
"Terenyira doesn't care," Valcen continued. "She's been... programmed, you might say, to pursue only two things – the eradication of any Threadwielder she can get her proverbial hands on, and the protection of the Nayabaru. What the Nayabaru do is none of her business, unless they act in a way that threatens them harm. In essence, it is precisely because the kavkema don't matter that antagonising them continues.
"On her own, she's usually reasonable with them. She speaks to them as individual creatures with agency, inasmuch as I've witnessed her doing so, which, to be clear, has not been often."
[23:23] She had sussed out some of the situation from her interactions, and she had hypothesized to herself that the Karesejat might not care about disrupting the status quo. To have it confirmed just made her blood run a little cold. From what she could tell of the kavkema, they were no longer responsible for the crimes of their past. "Then why is she tolerating you if you are also one of these Threadwielders? I mean, other than your current mortal form." It was her best guess that Valcen was not threatening to Terenyira in his neutered state. She wondered if he might be able to regain a more powerful form if the right things were to happen. But this tread close to the scheming and plotting that the Karesejat had accused them of. She was easily directed in their walk, not wanting to wake Greg or Jason up. It wasn't hard to keep up with the wagon.
[23:43] "It's been hard to diagnose, but I think the Threadwielder animosity is some kind of... compulsion," Valcen so-so'ed. "Once I stopped being an actual identifiable Threadwielder, once 'Threadwielder' was just a name for my heritage, I was a creature she could reason with like any other. Like individual kavkema. The big difference that soured the mood was that I had planned to kill her which... seeded a lot of mistrust, as you can imagine. And it's that mistrust," he cleared his throat a little, awkwardly. "It's that mistrust which I had to make a steep offer to counter, to be able to move somewhat freely. But they do police almost my every move regardless, despite— well, you've seen what I do for them."
[23:49] "The steep offer..? Was that the brain-washing device we saw?" Saira had reacted quite poorly to the admission of such a thing, and had even gotten as physical as she ever would with another person. Looking to him, she did nothing to hide her frown. It was a high price to pay for one's continued existence, especially if one was concerned about the other people that lived on Nekenalos. She sighed then, unsure of what to make of all of this information. "Could you... is there a way to become a Threadwielder again?" she asked in a low voice.
[23:56] "Yes," Valcen confirmed her hunch about the Imitorunyema. He'd told them before, of course, but perhaps it had been lost in the heat of the moment. They had understandably reacted quite viscerally to it at the time.
To her question, he smiled wanly and shook his muzzle – again, a very human gesture, the kavkema did not have 'shake your head' coded quite the same way. "A Threadwielder could become me and destroy what's in my head, but there's no way to transfer what's in my head into a Threadwielder body. Even if there were, it would be very... empty. There's a lot that was lost."
[23:59] Not having the full understanding of his former race and its limitations, she just nodded. Perhaps it was safer this way. She didn't quite understand how a Threadwielder could become him, but that didn't seem too relevant. The answer was 'no' and that was good enough for her. "I see." Though she didn't really. "That sounds all very complicated and not at all condusive to the problem at hand." She looked at him again, spotting the 'scratch' again. "Are you sure that doesn't need to be treated with something?" she asked again.
[00:27] "Yeah," he said, softly. "The fright it gave me is going to last longer than the wound, I'm guessing," he added with some simulated mirth. The silence that followed was quite comfortable given the tense circumstances, like a soothing balm – but it only lasted a few moments. "If you've any plans, you might want to run them by me first. I have a list of failed ones in my wake."
[00:30] Her brows shot up at running plans by him. She forced a little laugh and shook her head within the suit's helmet. "No plans just yet. Trying to gather information. We need to make sure our team is alright before we can plan anything... If we plan anything," she added, as if he wasn't already aware that she was refusing to commit to joining forces, even temporarily. It was what it was. She had others to think of than just herself, otherwise she might have flung herself headlong into the kavkema's plight.
§ 2021-08-13 01:15:44
[01:56] Valcen wandered in silence for a while, digesting the subtext of their dialogue. His body language was remarkably transparent that he was worrying about something, clearly deliberately running through whatever mental algorithms he had kept for humans. It stood in contrast to the behaviour of the Nayabaru, of Baishar, of Nadani; behaviours that Samanta might have been easily able to decode from her experience with avians, but that would have been some degree of opaque to the rest of the crew. It suggested it was a conscious choice. Did that make it manipulative, or simply an effort in transparency?
In the short time that Saira had known Valcen, it had become frightfully clear that he was very intelligent. At the very least, if she were to ascribe nothing else to him, he clearly had the damnable skill to create the 'Imitorunyemaa', the monstrous autonomous weapons that bent kavkema to his will. She had reason to believe he was highly articulate in three languages – Naya, Kendaneivash and English.
How likely was it that he would be lacking in the strategy department? He'd directly revealed many things to the humans that would have best been kept quiet if he wanted their cooperation and made no effort to hide others. Yet he'd also directly revealed that the Karesejat had abused him. Was it an inexpert attempt at gaining her favour, or simply another piece in a narrative he was trying to reveal to them in full as opportunity allowed?
The conversation between them had felt honest, almost casual. But it was hard to shake the knowledge that she was talking to a monster; likely one that was driven by desperation to boot. Was he enough of one to play for empathy purely for personal gain?
...what was his personal gain? What was he trying to achieve? He'd spoken of retaining freedom, of fighting for it every day, but to what end? There'd been plenty heavy-handed implications that he wanted to do something about the Karesejat – and Saira had certainly seen that she needed to have something done about her, that much was clear even from the brief interaction – but Valcen had been shy about the details.
Perhaps if one was indeed fighting for freedom every day, one didn't share them so readily. It was true that Valcen had shaken the humans up quite a bit, but Saira had given him little reason to trust her. The current talk was mending some of that – an olive branch, possibly misguided, but certainly necessary if they were to work together. Was that what he was thinking about? Was he trying to gauge whether he could trust her gesture? How much was at stake for him?
"Do you remember what I told you about why I came here? To this planet?" he asked, finally disrupting the silence.
[02:14] Valcen could keep his secrets, she didn't know what to make of any of this. Her job when she signed onto the mission was to establish communication with the natives, and together with the crew, determine hostile intentions. Naturally, Valcen had blown this clear out of the water with his pristine knowledge of English, and his overly abundant forthcomingness. Responsibility that she was not prepared for had been thrusted into her hands, and now here she was, traveling with only part of the crew, and had somehow set a terrifying spider-monster-machine after their commander. But before all that, she had witnessed the horror of the Imitorunyemaa first hand, and could only credit such a horrifying spectacle to the kavkem beside her. Aligning themselves against the Karesejat seemed not only risky, but fraught with danger and little chance of proving to be beneficial. Of course, that is when the humanitarian concerns reared their ugly heads, and made simply ignoring the political situation on Nekanalos seem so very wrong. She didn't know what to make of it, she desperately wanted to talk to her crew about it, and she was hoping to somehow tred this tightrope she found herself walking between all the implications of trusting and aligning with him, versus everything she knew about him and the dreadful situation on this planet. When he asked her this question after such a long pause, she didn't know what to make of it. Still, Saira dredged up the memories. "That there was a deadly weapon here that could destroy a Threadwielder. You called it a nuke. And said it wasn't a threat to humans." But Earth too? Wouldn't that be included in the bit about the humans?
[02:21] "Yes, the Karesejat Terenyira," Valcen nodded a human nod, complete with listless energy. Conscious choices of body language – trustworthy or manipulative? Would she ever know? "As I said, she's not a threat to your kind, unless you put sincere effort into crossing her. But she is a threat to mine. ...to what used to be mine. Do you also remember that I said I came here on a rescue mission?"
[02:28] She looked his way, pondering ever his motives and realizing that this was the homunculus of some ancient origin with alien mores, motivations, and thoughts and that she might never understand any of it. But like ever, Valcen and his way of honing in on something that sparked the humanitarian in Saira, he had to remind her of this rescue mission he had claimed to be on. She attempted to keep her expression neutral, ever on the disadvantage of not understanding avian behaviour the way Samanta would. "Yes... I mean, not until you reminded me of it, but yes, now that you mention it, I recall you saying that," she said, wondering how she could have forgotten about that part when it seemed one of the most important parts. Oh, right, she knew how: terrifying devices and spider monster machines.
[02:33] "It's been... a rough few days on both of us. Did I say anything else about it?" he asked. There was a knot in his throat, by the sound of it – perhaps he wasn't used to potentially forgetting what he had already said. From what he'd insinuated about Threadwielder minds, perhaps memory loss wasn't one of the expected traits.
[02:39] She dredged her mind for an answer, but could come up empty. Either she had forgotten in the wake of everything else, or he hadn't said anything at all. Looking his way, she gave him an exaggerated shrug. "I honestly can't remember. It's been uh... it's been a real rollercoaster ride the last few days." He had already said that, but she was just agreeing with him. The last few days had sucked for so many reasons. All the spirit of adventure and mystery of an alien planet just vanished in a snap as the horrors of said planet said hello. Still. She had signed up for this, and she had a job to do. "I'm sorry. You might have, but if you did, I don't remember."
[03:05] Had he said anything about it? He couldn't remember. There was a very real chance that, in all of his eagerness to underline the danger presented by the Karesejat and his antagonism to her, he had neglected to mention precisely why he had bothered to antagonise her in the first place.
"Well," he said, and for a moment left an awkward pause in its wake, a soundless apology for the potential oversight. "There is another Threadwielder on this planet. The kavkema call ver Tamachelu, revering ver as a benevolent deity. ...I'd love to claim it has merely gotten to vis head, but the imagery is actually rather apt. Ve is a bit... stubborn." The subtext was heavy-handed and obvious: This 'Tamachelu' was fighting for the lives and health of the kavkema every passing day. "Ve has been holding on admirably for a few millennia, but if you and your opponent are effectively immortal, even a zero point zero one percent chance of an encounter on any one day that passes becomes a dangerous threat. Ve knows this. Indeed, all Threadwielders nearby that have had the chance to hear of the Karesejat know this. I just happened to be nearby-est, to some approximation."
So far, so good – still looking into the past, still revealing only the facts. He was teetering dangerously close to speaking about the future, but he first had to complete his tale of what had transpired so far, using the time in the interim to gauge whether or not it was safe to trust Saira with anything else.
On the one hand, he had no interest in sharing his plans. He had deliberately kept them from Baishar. He had deliberately kept them from Ryrha. Anything that only he knew could only be extracted from him, not from his followers, regardless how much they were twisted into subservience.
On the other, working alone, even with the resources he had at his disposal, was progressing at a glacial pace and constantly at threat of being cut short. By his own estimate as once shared with Baishar, it would take three kavkem generations before they came to fruition – a long time by anyone mortal measure.
Indeed, the best the humans could do for him was to simply play along; to enter into an alliance with the Nayabaru, to trade knowledge and, over time, resources with them. The better they did this, the more it would earn him slivers of trust with his masters. The more slivers of trust, the better.
For that simple purpose, they didn't need to know his plans at all. They just needed to think it was in their best interest – which it was even in absence of Valcen's involvement. But he remembered how fickle humans could be; they were sometimes bad at grasping what was in their best interest, forgoing it in the interest of 'nobility' or more base notions like 'stubborn defiance'. He might have to share his plans with them simply to dissuade them from that.
And indeed, if they somehow happened to come up with a good alternative in the process, who was he to object?
[03:19] Saira listened to what he said, wondering how she could have forgotten this if he had indeed told her. Tamachelu sounded like quite the figure for the kavkema, and she couldn't help but feel a bit of sympathy to their plight. From everything Valcen had said, and what she had seen, the kavkema needed someone benevolent to look out for them. "Do they even *want* to be rescued?" she asked. "And is it even possible to rescue them?" She had her doubts about Valcen's ability to fulfill his mysterious plans given the way that the Karesejat's very real threat towards him. He seemed quite neutered in his ability to accomplishing any real goals.
[03:33] "...ve does want to be rescued, yes," Valcen said. "Ve has made that quite clear over the centuries. 'Rescue' just doesn't mean whisking ver away from vis kavkem friends, no matter how sane that decision might have been – ve is quite capable of leaving them behind on vis own, after all.
"No, 'rescue' means doing something about the Weapon – about the Karesejat." Or displacing the kavkema to a new home, perhaps, so Evenatra no longer had to worry about them.
"And I think something can be done," Valcen confirmed, cautiously. For a moment, it seemed as though that were all he were willing to say – a mysterious nod toward plans he had previously alluded to having, no more. Then he took a deep breath and ventured forth a small step: "I have some very specific ideas of how it can be done." Implying that he was perhaps willing to talk about these ideas. "If I did not, I would hardly have done half the things I've done.
"Believe it or not, there are benefits to being dead. I am, you see, in the unusual position of having more and repeated exposure to the Karesejat than any Threadwielder. She watches me like a hawk..." – the scratch mark and the conversation Terenyira had had with Saira showed that she did indeed watch, and did so in a deeply distrustful manner – "...but I assure you, it's mutual."
[03:46] His loquaciousness was familiar enough at this point. The topic might be unsettling, but at least he was prepared to carry on much of the conversation. "What an uneasy existence you have." It was a stalling technique, if only because she was trying to process everything he was saying to her. "And despite telling the Karesejat that we are not making plans together, you want to make your plans include the human team?" This did not make her feel particularly confident or comfortable. "We're not... I don't know what our small team could do about any of this. We have a certain amount of autonomy, but this could all go so poorly for us, as a race." Always, always concerned with the possibilty of the Karesejat deciding the humans were a threat.
[04:08] "I have a great deal of respect for the human spirit, much as I admire kavkem resilience, but to soothe, I don't particularly mean to draft you into my machinations in any way that would put you at risk. The best way you can help me is to continue as you were – to become allies of the Nayabaru, as is in the best interest of your species, and as such what you, being representatives of your entire world, would be wisest to pursue.
"I acutely understand the prospect leaves a sour taste in your mouth; I've been unable to rinse the sourness of it out of mine for the past two years, after all. But the more you cooperate with the Nayabaru, the more I will be given slivers of trust that I can frankly use to my advantage in this... very long-term game of strategy."
He was, then, getting more frank about it. "What I am offering is to explain it to you. Understand, there is presently only one person who knows what I am planning: Myself. I've gone through great pains to ensure this is true. None of my assistants know, although some have asked.
"The Nayabaru know in abstract that I am 'up to something' and the Karesejat outright assumes I intend to murder her if given a chance, but the details are mercifully absent from this open secret.
"It may surprise you that at present, everything is going according to plan. It's a hard-won truth, each ounce of it weighed up in sweat and terror. I have zero leeway – every day is a risk of it all collapsing like a card house – but I have endured for two years under these circumstances, and I intend to endure several more decades under the same.
"Any wiggle room I can organise – any free trust I can gain from those who are frankly my captors, even if you may not necessarily see me in chains – is precious. If I can organise enough wiggle room, it might allow me to shave years off a painstakingly glacial plot to resolve this entire rotten circumstance."
It was a different tone than the one he had wielded so far. He had been deferrent, borderline submissive toward them, except when he had dressed Jason down after he had challenged Valcen on the Imitorunyemaa. There was a strange, purposeful authority to his air that frankly resonated uncomfortably with the technology he had designed. Yes, fate had perhaps twisted his arm to make it, but here was someone who was emotionally capable of dealing with the hand he had been dealt, who was orchestrating unspeakable horrors to circumvent the obstacles in his path, purely because he was capable of it.
Here was danger.
[04:19] The longer he spoke, the more she desperately wished he had been speaking to literally anyone else on the team. It was so far beyond her scope of authority that it was staggering in how frightening it was. A misstep could result in the direst of possibilities for the human race, not just the team. She felt a shiver run down her spine at the impossibly large Sword of Damocles hanging over her head. Frowning would help no one, but her lips were turned down and she wanted to wake Jason so the responsibility was not just hers. The path forward seemed to do as he requested, though she wasn't sure how she was going to convince the rest of the team. In no part whatsoever did Saira want to become Valcen's -advocate-, but it seemed that's what she would have to do. Assuming what he said was true. "I don't want to hear the details of your plan. For now... It might be wisest to do as you say. I don't know how the others will feel about it." But Valcen was an author of untold horrors, if everything he said was true. "It seems safest not to know. Protection through ignorance."
[04:31] A single nod, slow and deliberate. Still using human body language for her benefit, or for his, whichever it was. "And it would be better for me not to share it, for the same reason I've not shared it with, say, Baishar, but I need you to understand the offer is sincere. I am willing to, frankly, give you the power to destroy me – in the interest of making it very clear to you how essential your cooperation is. If the knowledge that I would tell you is a sufficient proxy for the same, I too would prefer simply keeping it to myself – but tell me honestly: Is it?"
[04:38] "We're not here to destroy you, Valcen," she said softly, still unsure if she was doing the right thing. The leverage over him might prove a useful tool but that wasn't the kind of person Saira was. The idea of running afoul of him also seemed a reasonable to deterrant. "It'll be sufficient for now. The others might decide otherwise, and want you to tell them. But for now. The effort's enough for me." It felt like it was its own risk. She hoped it left enough opening in case Samanta or Jason decided they wanted to pull that thread loose. For her, she didn't want that power over anyone. And if the Karesejat knew she knew something, or decided she knew something, who knew what her options were. Maybe this was just a self preservation move. Her motivations felt both selfish and a tiny bit pragmatic. She hoped she was doing the right thing.
[04:48] Accepting the promise that he had plans over the actual details meant hoping that he was not banking on her declining the purported privilege. He seemed sincere, but how much of that was carefully orchestrated?
There was a soft but good-natured chuckle at her claim that the humans had not come to destroy Valcen. But he waited for her to finish to explain his emotion: "Back when we spoke to the Karesejat, you could have claimed any number of conspiracies to get me excised from my current unflattering role. You must realise the kavkema would have thanked you for it. Are you sure it doesn't feel at least a little like a lost opportunity?" A pause. "You can be honest, I don't take offence in such things."
[05:01] "That's a bit macabre, even for you," she remarked over the idea of having lost an opportunity to end him. "I think you're telling the truth. I don't know why I think that, but I think that you've been as forthcoming as you plan to be, and part of that just includes the atrocities you've committed. In a way, you're the lesser of two evils, even if you're working for the other evil, which if you are telling the truth, is against your will. The power dynamic on this planet is impossibly skewed to the one side that seems the obvious choice to side with, regardless of the evils it's perpetrating. It seems the most prudent course of actions at this time. But in the end, Valcen, I'm just not the kind of person to sell someone out given the opportunity. Especially not when everything's this messy and complicated." She shrugged, a human gesture that he no doubt was able to understand.
[05:31] Another slow, purposeful nod.
Yet when he next spoke, he said: "'Atrocities'," echoing her with some amusement. "Maybe some day I'll have an opportunity to adequately explain how misguided that word is. But the term will work for now and I don't begrudge you using it. I might do the same in your place, knowing only what you do and having only the context of Earth cultures as a means of comparison."
The caravan was quite a few metres ahead of them by now, occasionally disappearing around a corner, only to slowly resurface as they caught up to its plane of view. Valcen slightly sped his gait as to begin reversing the trend.
"One last thing: As tempting as it may be to frame them that way, the Nayabaru are not evil. They are a distasteful culture in our eyes, but in truth, their crimes are mostly of ignorance and lack of innovation.
"Most of them never interact with the kavkema – and those that do simply do so because they haven't had the good sense to consider stopping. They're steeped in a useless tradition, a hold-over from the times when the kavkema were an actual threat."
He shrugged a little. "I despise them, make no mistake. Even the Karesejat, with her compulsion to care for them, readily admits they are... mentally challenged, if you were to ask her about it. But it would help your mental models if you considered them merely xenophobic. It breeds better advice."
[07:19] She nodded to the sentiment, finding it easy to frame the Nayabaru in such a fashion given everything she had seen. Ignorance and lack of innovation. It was easy to see how they could be as much a victim as everything else. "You're not wrong. I'll keep it in mind, framing them that way," she pledged as they hurried after the rest of the caravan.