§ 2020-12-20 22:27:31


[22:28] Asraaban and Evenatra had debated the latter's plan until she pulled rank, ending the conversation. It was an eerie sight – it was clear Asraaban was deeply concerned for her safety and she was ignoring his stern pleas. Whatever was driving her forward, whatever made her think it was worth the risk, had to be fueled by a strong emotion.

Did Threadwielders have inherent emotions? Was it only their avatars, in turn affecting how they thought? This formed one of many question that Samanta and Greg would not be able to ask anytime soon, now segregated from their translator and the only one who knew about Threadwielders.

They had never seen Athechelt this nervous before. He was leading them with a level of attention that would no doubt burn itself out a few hours in at the very latest, second-guessing what seemed like every step they took.

Somewhere in the landscape, as they were still heading back and out of the hypothetical dead end constructed to ensnare them, Greg fell.

It was an unspectacular fall – his knees simply gave in and his shins thudded painfully in part against a log, in part onto a mercifully flat stone. He clutched at the log, panting, swearing almost inaudibly.


[23:18] Oh God. *Oh God*. No! No. No. Stay calm. Panic helps nobody. By the time Samanta finished this scrap of a thought, of course, she was already crouching next to Greg, helping him turn and rest his back against the log, while Edaaj delicately supported him from the other side.

"Greg?" she whispered, "Greg? Are you — What happened?" His legs were bent under him in a way that would have looked uncomfortable even in the best circumstances. She unfolded them as softly as she could — careful not to touch the wound — and laid them on the stone. He was red, wet with sweat, and heavily breathing, but so was she, why wouldn't they be?

"It's alright, Greg, we just — need a minute. Eche, can we... wait a minute here?"


[23:29] "I'm okay," Greg lied, although it was very nearly a convincing lie, told with stubborn conviction. There were beads of sweat on his forehead, but he'd managed to help with straightening himself out – whatever his affliction, he wasn't made of putty yet. His left arm continued to clutch at the log even now that he was mostly facing away from it.

Athechelt returned with an alert bewilderment befitting a dog or cat. Humans were no doubt difficult to read even without being clad in suits, but the way those same suits obscured part of their heads no doubt worsened his ability to interpret the situation.

When he stood beside them and in good view of the panting, miserable mess that Greg was transitioning to, the feathers on his spine stood on end and his muzzle couldn't quite find it in itself to hold still, bobbing up and down, left and right, subtle but constant, sudden, birdlike motions.

Greg gritted his teeth for a moment, then said "I think— I think it's a fever," in as neutral a tone as he could muster. That was good, right? It meant his body was reacting to whatever had gotten into his blood stream, burning it out? That's how that worked, right?


[00:13] "Fever? Fever. Alright. That doesn't... We can deal with it. Does your leg hurt, now?" Apart from having crashed down onto rock, that is. "Let me look into the kit". She threw the backpack to the ground and rummaged into its deepest folds, where the aid kit had sunk. Antipyretics, painkillers, topical disinfectants: mostly, stuff that would keep symptoms at bay, but wouldn't fix deeper troubles, if there were any.

Now, keeping symptoms at bay would actually be useful to buy time, but if Greg was truly sick, then putting additional stress on his body would only make things worse, eventually. For all she knew, if his leg hadn't been badly hurt before, it could very well be now.<c>.

Anyway, what choice did they have? The plan was afoot, and going back or even stopping now was impossible. As long as his legs worked at all, there was really no better option that making his next hours a bit more bearable and run to (relative) safety.

... Speaking of that, how was one supposed to take a pill through the suit? Their training had assumed they would never venture far from the module, and return there for any emergency treatment. Maybe they could get one through the suit's arm by playing with the internal airlocks?


[00:23] "I'm okay," Greg repeated. It was less of a lie now – he'd crumpled somewhat inconveniently, but he hadn't scraped along anything. At most he now had some additional shallow bruises.

After some laboured deliberation, he added: "I think— the leg is hurting, but not much more than the other? I've been walking too long and not optimally at that." That didn't sound like a platitude, either. What did sound worrying was the way he was panting, breathing heavily from whatever it was he was diagnosing as 'a fever'.

Athechelt shoved his muzzle close, sniffing at Greg's face plate and shoulders as though to discern the scent of the disease. No luck, of course.


[01:24] Samanta briefly moved as if to check his pulse, and his breathing, but both gestures died. Even if she had better medical competence than their crummy first aid training, which she definitely didn't, how was she supposed to properly check any vitals through the suit? She'd have as much luck as Athechelt.

With a heroic but invisible effort, she prevented herself from biting through her own lips. Steel yourself, goddamnit, you're still in charge among the humans, sorta, somewhat, not really. The kit contained an infrared thermometer, theoretically able to work through the faceplate. "Stay still... there," she said. Hm. His temperature was somewhat high but not frighteningly so. Maybe it really was just fatigue?

"How does your head feel? Headache? Nausea? Blurred sight?" Please, say no to all.


[01:32] To Samanta's alarm, Greg did not respond immediately, but looked disorientedly at her as though answering the questions required some effort, as though it were perhaps not easy to discern. But the first words out of his mouth were a bit of a reassurance: " sight is fine," he started.

It didn't continue in that same vein. "Not sure about the headache. There's a pressure—" He gestured mutely with his right hand at his head, not meaning for it to be precise, just to spare him having to complete the sentence. "Nausea... might know when I try to get back up?" he offered, tentatively, evidently not willing to rule it out just yet.


[02:00] "...I see." She put her hands on his shoulders. "Close your eyes. Breathe deep in and out. I'm going to give you a mild anaesthetic and an electrolyte solution. We'll have to get in through your suit's arm. Can you operate the internal airlocks?"

The pauses in his speech were deeply, deeply worrying. What could she do, if this really turned out to be a myserious alien infection? It had taken thousands or millions of deaths to understand and push back each disease of Earth. Thousands to give it a name, thousands to record its effects, thousands to discover its mechanisms, thousands to understand its causes, thousands more to find a cure. But she didn't have thousands or millions of Gregs. She had only one.

As she considered the possibility of simply letting him rest well for a while, she suddenly recalled why that wasn't possible, and raised her head to look at the forest all around, as if expecing their enemies to pounce on them from all directions.


[02:04] Edaaj had not gotten as close to Greg as Athechelt had, feeling – probably correctly – that the less they were crowded around the fallen human, the better.

[02:11] She had been trying to pay close attention when the humans spoke, in the hope of latching on to the meanings of more words, but with only minimal success. Particular aptitude for learning other languages was not among her talents, and in any case there hadn't been much opportunity for the sort of context-establishing sessions that would have made it easier. As a result, she did not find it much easier to follow the conversation than Eche did, except possibly that she could recognize the repeated use of the word "head".

[02:17] "<A fever, possibly?>" she murmured, more or less to herself. <"If humans pant when they get hot. ...Eche, it might be worse to give them room."> She glanced at Baishar. <"I don't suppose you have any better an idea, do you?">


[02:31] "I think so," Greg panted, before tracking Samanta's gaze with some worry, as though expecting her to have spotted something in the foliage. Twin emotions battled for dominance – a primal fear of predators, spurred by his current suffering, and a tired urge to simply sit here and wait to be found, swap out one of his problems for another now that he wasn't sure he could still run...

Baishar shifted close to Edaaj, almost brushing her flank, his attention on the human. "<He's in bad shape,>" he agreed, whispering, staring toward the humans with obvious concern, an urge to help briefly gripping his shoulders in a visible start, but quietening back down. He had neither a plan nor likely a means to help. He had to hope—


He lowered his muzzle a little, thinking as the scene unfolded. Could Valcen...? But no, Valcen was hardly a medic. Unless they cracked open their skulls and needed surgical attention to their grey matter, Valcen was not the right person to ask – it was even questionable whether he was the right person to ask if they did, given their different biologies.

But Valcen was in contact with a culture that was frightfully efficient at curing all manner of physiological ailments.

...if only they'd discussed it more. Had Valcen asked the Nayabaru to learn about mammal physiology, much as he had prepared a message for the humans? Baishar hadn't known about Valcen's involvement in any plans relating to alien visitors at all until one day Valcen had come to take him along on this trip, he was maddeningly in the dark about such details.

"<This might be one of the rare situations where the Nayabaru would be more helpful,>" Baishar murmured, just barely loud enough for Edaaj to hear it.

Athechelt was shuffling away from Greg again, less out of direct reaction to Edaaj and more to make room for Samanta's motions and out of his own inability to do anything. A distant memory of a dream flickered through his mind: Will he bite? But Nadani wasn't here and he had long since lost track of any tangible parallels to his dream.


[03:03] Samanta turned her attention onto the group of kavkema. What wouldn't she give, right now, to be able to talk to them, or at least understand their speech. If you have something, anything to help with, please, by whatever gods you believe in, we need it now.

But something she did get, barely audible, probably just because she had set herself to listen to distant sounds in the wood. The word "Nayabaru", wasn't it? One effective emissary of whom was in their group. The Nayabaru, their terrifying, fantastically cruel enemies, who were hunting them down in that precise moment for unspeakable tortures. Who, combined with Valcen, boasted such advanced technology, to the point of being able to rewrite minds, whereas the perpetually running kavkema had to be content with sticks and pelts. The reason they now they had to keep being on the run forever.

Who were so interested in their potential human guests, and who frightened Evenatra and the kavkema so.

We must leave *now*. Before they too ended up in some sci-fi dungeon getting their brain hollowed out, turned into some nightmare puppets even if their bodies should be perfectly taken care of. Evenatra and their feathered hosts, and Saira and Jason, and Greg, and her. Unless someone here has a better idea.


[03:16] "<The Na->" Edaaj clamped her mouth shut. Her first instinct was to demand to know whether Baishar was insane – but she knew that, in a strict and literal sense, he had a point. The Nayabaru would surely not allow a being in their clutches to die. They were good at keeping things alive. Famed for it. The question, of course, was what else they'd do to you in the process.

[03:24] She started over again, whispering a bit harshly. "<I cannot imagine they would be happy with that idea, given their experiences so far, and I couldn't blame them. Even if... even if Eche and I successfully pretended to be converted->" She was dimly aware that this echoed Baishar's own earlier suggestion, and it unnerved her. "<-such that we could later leave, for them it would not likely be a reversible option. Even if they would be safe in the short term, what would happen if the Nayabaru dispensed with the need to spare them pain?>"


[03:36] "<They're not going to,>" Baishar said with conviction. "<They don't care what happens with our visitors as long as they're not a threat, but they know how to follow orders – and they happen to have strict orders to treat the visitors well.>" A pause, staring at Greg and Samanta with concern. "<That will change only if our new friends try to actively oppose them and for no other reason.>"

He turned his gaze partway to Edaaj, bringing his muzzle a little closer to hers conspiratorially: "<None of you would even need to be involved in this.>" Unspoken, but obvious: Samanta and I are enough to protect Greg and help him along. Just leave them. Abandon them, set me free, let us join with Valcen and forget you were ever involved in this mess in the first place...


[04:03] Edaaj wondered whether the humans would be inclined not to actively oppose the Nayabaru. Out of fear, maybe, if nothing else. But then again, these were beings who had left their home in order to explore a whole other world. Would they be afraid enough? It would be hard to know, even if she were in her best state of mind.

[04:15] There was something she did know, though. "<Plans must sometimes be changed,>" she replied, in the same conspiratorial tone, "<but I am not going to attempt to tell Evenatra later on that we deviated so far from the one agreed. Not unless there is no other way out, and not unless the humans can understand and agree to what is being done.>" She subsided a little, avoiding his gaze, and added, "<You will not be leaving that way.>"


[05:05] Baishar seemed unfazed by her verdict, the mild tension in his shoulders evaporating in favour of a more relaxed, indifferent posture. But what he whispered in return registered as a grave accusation: "<Fair. But remember, they value life far more than we do. If it comes down to it – don't throw Ghregg's away.>"

§ 2020-12-22 23:46:48


[23:46] As far as Samanta could tell, the kavkema were discussing very animately, for their quiet and gentle standards. For an instant, she thought she'd catched Greg's name among the last few words. (Or was it? Greg's a short, simple name, probably easy to conjure through pareidolia out of unfamiliar speech.) And for the rest, only a few clusters of sounds to which she couldn't connect any meaning.

A frightful thought trickled down her spine. The kavkema as a culture were a lot more comfortable with death, or at least mercy killing, then most humans would. Surely Greg's situation was not that dire, was it? She and he had talked about it with Evenatra, who was well aware of that particular point of disagreement. (Was that why the Nayabaru had been mentioned?) Surely they all had to know that their human guests wouldn't appreciate such a decision.

For the first time since many, many days, Samanta noticed how sharp their teeth and claws looked, how toned their muscles and tendons from a lifetime of hunting and being hunted. She shook her head as to throw out these thoughts. Surely she wasn't going to succumb to paranoia already, to turn so quickly against their friends, who had risked so much for their sake?

How she wished she could just speak to them. " 'Still with me?" she asked to the only one she could, "Rest, until they're done talking. We'll find a solution. We'll be fine".


[00:02] "Yeah," Greg panted softly. He didn't seem to be rapidly deteriorating, at least – his state must have gradually built up over the past hours and he'd simply pushed on stubbornly until his legs had buckled. Not delerious yet. Inhale, exhale. "Not my first choice, but you do know you can just leave me here, if you need to go," he urged, softly, acutely aware that he was slowing everyone down now.

What would happen if they did leave him here and moved on? There was a chance he would simply collapse and die of dehydration without anyone ever coming across his corpse until years later someone happened upon the putrid remains of an alien in a sealed suit – but the other option was that the Nayabaru would find him.

Greg wasn't sure what he thought about that. The Nayabaru had brought Samanta, Jason and Saira to their settlement unharmed and from all that Samanta had told him, the humans had been free to move. But they had been told to wait for Valcen – and Baishar had told them what Valcen was capable of and indeed doing to his kavkem victims.

His emotions were trapped between extremes – an exhausted desire to be returned to a semblance of civilisation, guided by the hope that the Nayabaru weren't as bad as the kavkema made them out to be, and a dull but persistent terror roiling in his gut about what might happen if he were found, mingling with the heat from his fever to burn away any rational objections.


[00:33] "That won't be— necessary..." You can't know that, of course. What if is necessary, after all? Yes, what if it was? Reality isn't obligated to give you convenient solution; what if she had to choose between letting her colleague and friend to (almost certainly) die, or both of them risking (almost certain) death? It was a rather obvious choice, and not thinking about it did not make that possibility go away, yet —

there was something other than fear and despair on his face, and something other than sheer resignation, too. He hadn't struck her as one who'd put too much trust in the afterlife. "What's that?" Samanta asked, "Have you thought of something?"


[00:48] "Just... feeling home sick," he admitted, trying to grasp his faltering emotions. "It feels like we're... just really far from civilisation. So... I don't know. Maybe— maybe it would be worth risking an encounter with the Nayabaru. Just me." He shook his head a bit too slowly to look like a normal gesture. "It's a stupid idea, just... compelling when you feel sick, it turns out."

The dread that he didn't even know what he was sick with welled up and squeezed his eyes shut. Did it matter if he died next to Samanta or Saira and Jason? The part of him that had been trained to stay calm sternly interjected the platitude 'you're not going to die'.

The rest reasoned that it did matter. Samanta and the kavkema were running and he was an millstone around their neck.

In stubborn defiance of both, he tried to struggle to his feet. It looked like it would certainly be successful. To equal degree, it looked like a bad idea for his health. "Let's keep moving," he huffed.


[01:14] An encounter with the Nayabaru. They already had had the four humans in her power, once (when was that? A year ago, or ten, or so?), and they hadn't been all that terrible, had they? Well, at the beginning, for the first few hours. Before the humans had apparently betrayed them and run away. Before they knew all that stuff about the two species.

Was it worth to entrust Greg to them, if the alternative was (almost certain) death? A very cold part of Samanta, which she didn't particularly enjoy and yet had been useful to her in her work, pointed out that leaving Greg on the track to meet the Nayabaru would also make everyone else much more likely to escape. Be quiet.

"Look, this is..." She looked for a rebuttal that wasn't obviously false. "We have reason to trust Evenatra, and she told her not to trust the Nayabaru". It wasn't a stupid idea, though, was it? At the very least, it was worth rebutting. "They could... put you in a worse state than this". A worse state than a corpse, even. Or was that kavkem thought rubbing off on her?


[01:20] Edaaj did not immediately respond to Baishar's admonition and stared sightlessly at the landscape. She wished she were able to just go out and collect rocks and not have to pay any attention to the world for a while, and she suspected that one way or another she wasn't going to have the chance.

[01:28] The tail end of the humans' conversation washed over her. She didn't understand most of it, but the mentions of the Nayabaru made her wonder if, maybe, they were already discussing the same possibility. It would not, perhaps, be all that surprising if they were. She expelled a long, faint sigh, and glanced back at Baishar. <"I very seriously hope you're right about their prospects in Nayabaru hands.>"

[01:34] She saw Greg, with difficulty, stand up, and her remaining resolve crumbled. With some ceremony and a solemn tone, spoke to the unfeeling world: "<This is a ridiculous damn idea,>" before approaching the humans. "Ghregg. Sa-man-taah." She pointed at a patch of dirt on the ground, and, leaning down over it, began to sketch into it with the tip of one of her claws.

[01:40] What was taking shape appeared to be two separate groups of beings. One included two upright figures apparently intended to be the humans in their suits, along with what were clearly kavkema. The other consisted of two similar human figures alongside the thick-tailed figures of Nayabaru.

[01:41] Edaaj looked up from her sketching, and said, "Ghregg..." she hesitated. She didn't know the words for "sick" or "injured". "...Ghregg aaargh?


[01:47] Greg's grin looked more pained than whatever he was going for – sardonic, perhaps – as he countered across a miserable wheeze: "I'm sure my state will get worse entirely on its own, no help required."

As Edaaj began to communicate with them, drawing pictures into a ground that was poorly fit to hold them, but evidently experienced enough in doing so that the images were unmistakable, Greg valiantly tried to pay attention across his urge to sit back down and maybe sleep for a couple of hours.

It worked. He couldn't guess at what she was asking, but it was remarkably clear that she was asking, something he dimly knew wasn't necessarily easy to convey across cultures and languages. He racked his brain, trying to interpret it through the haze of his fever – and failed.

"What is—?" he began asking, looking to Samanta both weakly and quizzically. "What does it mean?"


[02:27] Samanta licked her lips nervously. "I— I'm not sure —" Skittish kavkema and ponderous Nayabaru, certainly, two upright aliens with the former and two with the latter. Was... Edaaj raising the same idea as Greg? Or was she warning them against it? No, Edaaj seemed to be gesturing for one or both of the human figures in the kavkema camp to move toward the Nayabaru, tracing furrows in the dust that went from the lithe carnivores to the heavy herbivores.

"I can't quite tell..." Oh, yes you can. "... She... agrees? Maybe we should — she says — I think — see the Nayabaru?" As much as the thought repelled her, she was starting to feel a desperate hope about that. She knelt before the figures drawn by Edaaj; very carefully and deliberately she erased the two figures standing with the kavkema, and traced them anew near the Nayabaru. Then she looked at Edaaj, probably staring more directly than she'd have wanted, to gauge her reaction.


[02:30] Edaaj looked down. Well, clearly they understood the possibility. She looked back at Samanta, and, the tension clear in her voice, replied, "Dunno. Dunno."

[02:36] She pointed back down at the drawing of the kavkema, now missing the humans, and added, "Kavkema... kavkema waahnt... good. Nebe kavkema no Ghregg no-aaargh." She tried to emphasize the last sound as one of anguish, not sure if they'd understood that the first time. (She wasn't sure if they would understand any of this.)

[02:42] She pointed, then, to the drawing with the Nayabaru. "Nayabaru... no-good. Nebe Nayabaru Ghregg no-aaargh." She hoped this was enough to convey her meaning: that there was a choice here between well-intentioned but largely helpless kavkema, and Nayabaru who could treat Greg but whose behavior toward the humans could not be vouched for. Edaaj tried to emphasize that there was a need for a choice: "Nayabaru. No-Nayabaru. Dunno."


[02:54] It would have been useful to have Evenatra's translation skills at hand. Of course, those came attached to Evenatra, and as much as she had been a great help, it took no genius to guess what she would think about this plan. The conversation would likely have been over quickly.

Athechelt had come up beside Edaaj quietly, his feathers bristling. "<What are you doing?>" he asked, setting his forepaws down on the ground near the pictures on the ground, as though restraining his urge to wipe them away.

Greg felt a chill – part physiological, part psychological. His shoulders shivered a little; his body was certainly unhappy with the temperature in his suit. He stared down at the pictures. Was Edaaj encouraging the idea or convinced they had had the idea and trying to dissuade them from it?

Baishar raised his voice a little more than was customary amongst kavkema and addressed Athechelt with an authority he didn't feel, bolstered only by his knowledge that the humans were in no danger of it: "<Let her finish. Let our guests decide.>"

Athechelt whirled his muzzle around to Baishar and narrowed his eyes. "<Is this your idea?>" he whispered in a sharp tone of accusation.

The agitation was obvious even to the humans. Greg grimaced. All this because of some stupid mistake while climbing, some planet-native bacterium disagreeing with his own biology. He felt guilty. Arguably, it could have happened to anyone, but it had happened to him.


[03:16] Samanta withdrew from the drawings and set down against the log, right next to Greg, who looked utterly miserable. She let his side rest against hers, providing him mechanical support in another direction, if nothing else. Was he disappointed by his own misfortune? Did he think she was disappointed by him?

So Athechelt, leader of the group by what was arguably divine right, definitely did not approve of the plan (was she already thinking of it as "the plan"?). She observed she should have felt relief at that, and yet she didn't, not in the slightest. And while she had no idea what Baishar had actually said, everything in his stance and voice told of defiance.

"If we get to choose —" Samanta whispered, and stopped. She was about to tell Greg that the choice was his, but all of a sudden that had felt cowardly. She was still the closest thing to a human mission leader here, wasn't she? The last thing Greg needed now was to curse himself for something else. Let Greg have the deciding vote on his own fate, but let herself be the speaker, and take a bit of blame from him, and hopefully give him back a bit of peace of mind.


[03:23] Edaaj steeled herself. She was not a leader, either in her own estimation or, so far as she knew, in anyone else's. She preferred to have others tell her where to go and what needed to be done, so that she could concentrate on trying to go there and do it. Athechelt had been, for some time now, the ultimate court of appeal; she had sometimes offered advice to him, but not argued, never really argued, with him.

[03:33] "<I am->" she began, her voice cracking, and tried again. "<I am not particularly happy with the idea, believe me. But Ghregg's condition does not appear to be good and shows no immediate signs of getting better. If he were a kavkem, the question would not arise – the possibility of death would be preferable to the Nayabaru, and we would know it. But Ghregg is not a kavkem, and there is no guarantee the Nayabaru would treat him as one. Making a choice about his life for him is... it does not sit well with me. They should know what the possibilities are.>"

[03:34] She avoided the question of whose idea the whole thing was. Answering, she felt, would not help.


[03:53] Athechelt's glare briefly cut through Edaaj's soul like a blade, before withdrawing to settle on Baishar again. The feathers of Eche's spine stood on end, as though he had convinced himself that Baishar's condition was somehow contagious, that Edaaj had been similarly affected, that they were all at risk of gradual conversion.

Making a choice about his death for him is totally fine, though? The objection caught in Athechelt's throat – their visitors could indeed decide for themselves. He simply doubted they knew what they were getting into. The memory of the Imitorunyema sent a vivid pang of terror through his gut – but they had seen it. They knew, surely. Evenatra had explained it to them.

But it was plainly obvious that they would be greatly slowed down if they insisted on taking Greg along. The longer they delayed a decision, the greater their peril. The Nayabaru had to be nearby by now – they had almost been walking toward them these past hours, this was likely the riskiest place anyone could possibly falter.

"<We've lost—>" Athechelt began, his own voice failing him for a moment. Desperation and confusion saturated his body language. "<We've lost Nadani by protecting these people. Our group is scattered and at grave risk of getting caught if Evenatra cannot reach them. And now you just want to... deliver these people to the Nayabaru?>"

Athechelt's disapproval was perhaps not the worst of it. Edaaj had never seen him this terrified.

Baishar, sitting at a bit of a distance to the bustle, had shrunk in on himself a little, not at all enjoying the strife. "<It's not all in vain,>" he said tensely, hoping to soothe Athechelt's anguish, but wary of the backlash. "<They know you now. You were kind to them. They won't forget that.>" Probably.

"<What does it matter if they can do nothing and suffer for the rest of their lives!>" Athechelt whirled to face Baishar, his feathers puffed out.

"<They won't,>" Baishar said, his posture crinkling a little as though he were bracing for a strike, though his voice was steady.

"<How do you know that? How do you know anything?!>" Athechelt hissed, the subtle beginnings of tears lining his eyes. "<You've literally lost your mind to the Nayabaru, what do you know?>"


[04:08] Edaaj stared at him as if seeing him for the first time. And yet – hadn't she herself struggled with the difficulties of their situation? Weren't they all being tested by it?

[04:13] The thought caused some of the tension to drain out of her; her thick plumage, which had itself begun to puff out, settled heistantly back down. "<Athechelt,>" she said softly, "<No choice we make will bring Nadani back to us now. But I cannot think of any choice here – any – that is not a bad one. If you know of one, please share it and I will try to communicate it to the humans.>"


[04:38] At Athechelt's accusation, Baishar's expression darkened. It wasn't that the idea was foreign to him, that he considered it rationally unfounded, but for that moment, it struck a negative chord with his emotions. Here was a ryrhakenem, dissolving into panic, no doubt clinging to scraps of his cosmological misconceptions even now – and he had the gall to call Baishar ignorant.

Though he would never dream of bragging with it, there was a moment of clarity: Of all the kavkema present, Baishar was the most educated by far. Valcen had made it so. Valcen, whom everyone seemed terrified of – in part for good reason, given the Imitorunyemaa, but in part out of sheer paranoia.

"<Counterpoint,>" Baishar said, icily. "<What do you know about the Nayabaru? Have you ever lived amongst them?>" It was a rhetorical question. "<I didn't think so.>"

Athechelt's attention was flicking between Baishar and Edaaj, clearly distressed, his breath huffing out of him with high frequency. He drew his lips back from his teeth as he next settled his look on Baishar, then glanced more softly to Edaaj. "<But if they harm him, Edaaj? And why would they not?>"

"<Because,>" Baishar raised his voice a little. "<They have orders not to and they are, if certainly nothing else, good at following orders.>"

It struck Athechelt silent. He was plainly miserable, but between Baishar's confident remark and Edaaj's gentle admonition, he was out of narrative leeway and they were running out of time. The axiom rang in his skull: Protect your people. It crushed his lungs with every heartbeat. He had no idea how to protect his people. There was no protecting his people.

The right thing to do, perhaps, would have been to break down and cry, and leave it at that, wait for the physiological reaction to give him some catharsis. But the stress was too great for even that and so he snarled at Baishar, his body language promising combat – but the shivers that ran through him betrayed that no attack was forthcoming.

Speech was beyond him – beyond a ryrhakenem. He knew it was shameful. The whole situation was shameful; he should have seen these things coming, he should have known what to do...

"<I need to—>" he started, finally, his feathers falling back down abruptly, his body language one of abject desperation. "<I will stay with Ghregg, then, and defend him, if they try to do him any harm—>"

"<No,>" Baishar said, his voice gentler than before. "<If you stay with Ghregg, the threat is to you, and you alone. If the Nayabaru find you, you will cease being you. Your plans will fail – because they will stop being your plans. Take the rest of the group to safety and tell this story.>"


[05:01] Athechelt's suggestion, and Baishar's response, dredged up a realization. Against all odds, a consensus seemed to be emerging. And it involved Baishar leaving to return to his mentor. And while a ryrhakenem should not be placed in such a position-

[05:04] "<One of the two of us should still go,>" she said, suddenly, casting an involuntary glance at Baishar. "<One of us should still go, and see that Ghregg is not harmed. I will go with them.>"

[05:05] _And it would not be an abandonment, came the feverish thought. It would not be a betrayal. I could watch over Ghregg, and have a chance to speak to Valcen, and possibly... possibly...

[05:07] Of course, possibly it could get her own mind taken away from her. Like Nadani. The chill went through her, ice in her veins; but she had already made the offer. The words were said, and she would not unsay them.


[05:19] Athechelt made a soft sound of anguish, his posture alert. "<No, no, no,>" he whimpered at Edaaj, approaching her with care and affection. "<Don't risk it, please, don't just give yourself—>"

Baishar interjected: "<I came to you with an Imitorunyema. She can pretend to have been affected by it – the Nayabaru wouldn't harm her.>" It implied that Athechelt could do the same, but the risk to him was greater: He had a responsibility to kavkem culture to carry on this story. Edaaj was by some measure more expendable, much as Athechelt's own instincts wailed otherwise.

The ryrhakenem hissed at Baishar again, a brief expression of resentment – it's your fault, his body language said. You did this. Everything would be all right if you hadn't come along. But Athechelt was too intelligent to let that feeling verbally bubble up into a conversation where it didn't belong.

"<And what will you do if they do harm Ghregg?>" Athechelt asked Edaaj, his air softening again. "<Are you— they can still take your mind way, they can still— please. Please think – are you sure? How will you ever leave?>"


[05:36] "<I don't know,>" was Edaaj's hollow reply. And it was very true: she hadn't the faintest idea, on any of those counts. "<It may yet be possible to sneak away with Ghregg, to run. But I won't know until I am there. But... I think I need to do this.>"

[05:45] She suspected that the truth was that she would not be leaving – whether she was found out and converted, or whether she found what she sought. And although she did not consider herself enormously sentimental, she felt a sudden surge of regret. She had been in Athechelt's group for most of her life, and she might well be leaving it forever... not simply swapping groups, as one might if one's skills might be needed elsewhere, but going to an uncertain end. It might yet prove best for everyone, but...

[05:47] Somewhat to her own surprise, tears began misting her eyes.


[06:03] Athechelt whimpered again, this time in empathy, gently bumping his muzzle against Edaaj's face to cautiously lick at her feathers, even though none of her tears had spilled just yet. His own were less hesitant at this point. "<I'm sorry,>" he said. "<I'm so sorry. I should have prevented this — all of it. I'm sorry I couldn't.>"

Evidently they had their course of action, at the minor cost of having completely gutted Edaaj's ryrhakenem. Presumably, he would put himself back together later, even if onlookers could see no obvious way out of his current distraught state. He shuddered, glancing toward the humans with both apology and a sick worry.

A thought came to him then, and he decided to share it with a fractured whisper: "<Nadani would have wanted them to be safe. I hope we're making the right decision.>" No accusation, though, simply a heartfelt, desperate hope.

§ 2020-12-24 02:53:38


[02:53] Edaaj, after a moment's hestitation, returned the gesture, nudging Athechelt's own face with her muzzle. "<I hope so too,>" she replied, before adding quietly, "<I wonder if I will see Nadani there...>"

[02:54] Now, quite suddenly, her own tears came.


[03:10] To Athechelt, it wasn't a pleasant thought. From everything that had been said and implied about Nadani, if Edaaj were to encounter her, she would likely not be recognisable at all. For a moment, Eche flirted with the notion that perhaps her death could be arranged one night, but it took only a moment's thought to realise how foolish the attempt would be.

Miserable, he shoved his muzzle into Edaaj's mane, squeezing his eyes shut, not having the strength to comment his thoughts.

Then he drew back and eyed Edaaj like one might a lost child, bundling his emotions into his gaze. He plainly did not want to let her go – but she wanted to, she wanted to help and it was better than letting Baishar whisper the humans away without any supervision at all, even if Edaaj likely couldn't stop him from enacting any nefarious plans, if indeed there were any.

Then his attention crept up the humans, hoping to see what they thought about it. Greg did not look well at all. He had no experience with how humans were supposed to look, but he had looked different before, he had held himself differently before, and he had Samanta to compare him to.

Something had to be done. He just wished it weren't what they'd just determined.

"<What about Samanta?>" he asked, first glancing to Edaaj, then – with unchanged resentment – at Baishar. At the back of his mind nagged a thought: Decide quickly. Time is running out.

"<Up to her, presumably. She's healthy, she can go with you, find the others,>" Baishar suggested. A tension in his body language kept the lid on the alternative: Or you can let her leave with Greg and stop this hunt. It was the better idea, but perhaps it was best if Baishar was not the one to suggest it.


[03:18] Edaaj glanced at Athechelt, the misery still showing on her face, then at the humans. "<Both of them should choose. I still do not propose to carry off Ghregg against his own choice, unless he is unable to choose at all.>"

[03:23] But while the urgency of their position was perhaps not as acute in her mind as it was in Athechelt's, it was not entirely lost on her, and she was aware that a choice needed to be made sooner rather than later. She waved for the humans' attention, and rubbed out the previous set of sketches, starting over again. This time she drew five figures, three kavkema and two humans, and pointed to each one in turn to identify them: "Baishar. Athechelt. Edaaj. Ghregg. Samanta."

[03:29] Then, she drew Nayabaru, scattered around the group, and drew arrows to indicate an idea of their convergence on the group, and tapped rapidly on the ground in an attempt to convey a sense of urgency.

[03:33] She held up a single finger. "Araz." She drew lines from all of the five figures, threading between the Nayabaru and their arrows, and, presumably, toward safety. After ensuring that they took in the scene, she wiped away the lines, leaving everything else intact.

[03:36] She then held up two fingers: "Arash." This time, she drew a different set of lines: Three led from Baishar, Edaaj, and Greg to one of the Nayabaru, while those from Athechelt and Samanta led away. Edaaj held up three fingers: "Aras." She erased the line that sent Samanta off with Athechelt, and redrew it so that it accompanied the others toward the Nayabaru.

§ 2020-12-24 19:01:44


[19:01] Three simple choices, then; at least that was clear. A horrible nausea bubbled up Samanta's throat and found nowhere to vent. Each of the three plans sounded like utter madness, but as far as she could tell they were fully exhaustive. Leave all as a group, how nice! But Greg was probably physically unable to keep the required pace, even assuming he wouldn't keel over on the road. So the group had to split again, and the choice was between arash and aras. (Interesting number system; what would Saira think of it?)

Which is to say, the choice was between splitting herself from Greg and following him toward the Nayabaru. Was that even a choice at all? After ESA, the training, the voyage, the early days on Nekenalos, it had been hard enough to split from Saira and Jason. And now she was supposed to leave Greg to his fate when he was at his weakest? She wouldn't, of course; sending him to the Nayabaru was probably his best chance to survive, that was the whole point. She was rationalizing, and she knew it damn well. She didn't want to be the only human around. And she didn't want to have to tell Evenatra that they were throwing her protection away.

... Were two kavkema lines pointing toward the Nayabaru? Baishar, of course; and the other— Edaaj? Surely there was no need to endanger her as well? She didn't look particularly eager to meet her species' persecutors. For that matter, she hadn't been very cheerful after their encounters with Baishar and Athechelt. Why did she need to come, now? Samanta pointed at the line that represented her, and looked at her with what she hoped would come through as confusion.

Then she cast a glance at Greg. He was still conscious, right? What would he say?


[19:16] Greg had watched the bustle amongst the kavkema with some dismay. They'd learnt in the past days – weeks? months? It felt like an eternity – that the kavkema were very quiet creatures that rarely spoke an unnecessary word and never raised their voices above a whisper. They had seen tensions being resolved with affectionate grooming, not hissing or snarling.

Athechelt's bristly behaviour, subdued as it was, was thus obviously one of agitation. Baishar looked defensive. Edaaj concerned, inasmuch as Greg could interpret her body language, much closer to what they had come to know as the kavkem baseline as it was.

At least it resolved as the humans were used to seeing resolutions in kavkem culture.

His breath still noticeably heavier than it ought to be, he glanced down at what Edaaj was drawing, leaning some of his weight onto Samanta as not to simply topple over. And stared miserably, plainly unhappy with it. "But why not just—" leave me here. He stopped himself. "Or just... Baishar and me."


[19:44] "We can't send you alone!" Samanta exclaimed. "And, well," she lowered her voice as if there was any need to, "I don't think Eche trusts Baishar enough to leave him unsupervised with us, but if the plan is already to go meet the Nayabaru, I don't see the point of it either. He'd be enough to guide us. Plus..." She tapped him on a shoulder with a not-too-credible grin. "... you're going to need an upright biped to lean against, eh? Unless you can get a tree to walk with you."


[19:52] Edaaj glanced down at the line representing herself, and then back at Samanta. She thought she had, under the circumstances, done amazingly well in communicating with the humans, but here, at least, was a topic she wasn't entirely sure how to explain – especially since she wanted to leave out her own interest in the matter.

[19:59] She gave it a try, anyway. She pointed to her eyes, then made a motion with her fingers from them toward Greg. "Resemasaye Ghregg."


[20:04] "Heh," Greg commented weakly in response to Samanta's tree observation. "But if— if they're really dangerous, even to us— the Nayabaru, I mean, dangerous, to us in particular— maybe we shouldn't deliver the entire rest of us on a silver platter." He pushed a little on Samanta's shoulder, the forced physical distance serving as a symbol for the potential split-up.

He almost missed Edaaj's gesture. Combined with Samanta's theory about why Edaaj would come along, it seemed like she was unmistakably saying that she wanted to watch over him. "Guess I have a guard dog," he said, but his humour dropped through his gut like a heavy stone. Just because I was an idiot while climbing. Great job.


[20:22] Greg was, of course, right. "Well— yeah, but..." But it'd be easier for us to survive/escape them if we're together? But if the Nayabaru kept them separated, being both there wouldn't help, and if they kept the humans together, he'd already have Saira and Jason to count on. "... I'd rather see Saira and Jason again than meet again Evenatra to tell the lady with phenomenal cosmic powers that I've let you run away while she risked her feathers for us." She tried to sound flippant. She probably didn't sound so.

Any better argument? Offer to take Edaaj's place as Greg's watcher, maybe? She smiled as amicably as she could — keep your teeth covered, you idiot — and gestured toward Greg with her head, as if to say, 'I'll watch him well enough'. Help.


[20:31] Edaaj was uncertain about the gesture, but assumed it meant that Samanta intended to come along. She was uncertain of the wisdom of taking both humans along, but she had wanted them to make the choice...

[20:33] She pointed down at the drawing in the dirt as it stood, and asked for confirmation. "Aras?" Evidently, the idea that Samanta might be suggesting that Edaaj didn't need to go hadn't crossed her mind.


[20:48] "You'd rather the kavkema had to tell her that they let us both go?" Greg mused, trying to inflect his weak voice with humour. He was keeping himself on his feet, somehow – it looked a little precarious, as though the reason it worked was because he didn't actually have to move right now.

He was tempted to lean down, try to erase both the lines leading from Samanta and Edaaj, but he knew fine well that if he tried, he would topple over and most likely need someone's help getting back up.

Meanwhile, Athechelt was getting increasingly nervous with the dallying, and so squeezed himself past some foliage in the way until he was in Samanta's reach, trying to gently grasp a dangling strap from her carried load to tug on her with some urgency. Apparently Athechelt was of the opinion that Samanta really ought to stay.


[21:22] ... Wow. Good point. Samanta was running out of excuses; perhaps she had to admit that, however much she loathed it, it really was best for Greg to go and her to stay. "... Fair. Fair enough", she said in a whisper. Any trace of glibness was extinguished. Time was running out.

She sagged next to Greg. She wanted to argue against it longer, to find some clever turn of words that would make everyone agree with her. She could still complain about the role of Edaaj, but that wasn't the real sore point to her, wasn't it? If you already know what conclusion you'll come to at the end of an argument, you should save yourself the time and come to that conclusion right now. Why draw this out a second longer than it needed to be?

She lifted up two quivering fingers. "Arash," she said, but she wasn't sure any sound had come out.


[21:34] Some of the tension leaked out of Edaaj's stance. It wouldn't last long, she knew – it'd be replaced by entirely different tension soon enough – but at least one hurdle had been surmounted, in that, so far as she could tell, everyone knew where they were going. "<That's it, then,>" she murmured, turning to Athechelt. "<I suppose you and Samanta should get going. And we->"

[21:37] She paused. She supposed that, technically, they could simply wait for the Nayabaru to find them, but she didn't know how convincing an impression it would make on them. She turned to Baishar. "<Possibly we could walk on either side of Ghregg, so that he could lean on us?>"


[21:42] Baishar was pushing back to his feet – the motion made Athechelt bristle, his resentment not at all forgotten – and adopting a purposeful air. "<Or you can stay with Ghregg, while I angle back and direct the hunting party here. That way we can reduce the chance Athechelt and Samanta are caught by poor luck.>"

Athechelt let go of the strap he'd been tugging on lightly to glower half-heartedly at Baishar. We don't need your platitudes. But the idea of having others attract the Nayabaru's attention and having a better chance at slipping past them was a good one. He snorted in soft, reluctant approval, then glanced up hopefully at Samanta. Let's go. Let's go right now.


[22:32] Samanta embraced Greg, taking care not to squeeze him too hard. "I'm— sorry, Greg," she whispered, "Be safe with them out there. You'll see, they'll patch you up good". And if they don't, I'm going to personally take all of ESA by its neck and get them to glass all the Nayabaru half of this goddamned planet. "We'll be— we'll see you or bring you out — all three of you — as soon as we can. See if you can find a bed, and rest properly for once." She made a pale smile.

Then she pushed herself to her feet, painfully twisting her chest to push her weight onto the log rather than on Greg. Her stomach felt completely empty, suggesting all her weight must have transferred to her limbs, and thus explaining why she now found it so hard to stay upright.

She looked down at Athechelt, cloosed her eyes and nodded, very slowly, silently. Then she realized the sheer uselessness of that gesture. Oh well. Words wouldn't have been more useful. She gestured to the deeper woods. "Let's go".


[22:38] "<That... makes sense.>" Edaaj spared a moment to look at Samanta and Athechelt as they prepared to leave, and then looked back at Baishar. Her feathers remained unruffled, there was no snarl, but she fixed her eyes firmly on his, and stretched her head forward until their muzzles nearly touched. The effect was, for her, uncharacteristically intimidating.

[22:55] "<You understand that I am placing considerable trust in you, and in your judgment,>" she whispered, far too faint for the others to hear. "<You have been honest toward me, so far, and I am choosing to anticipate that that will continue, for the sake of Ghregg's well-being... and for my own interests. Please do not make me wrong about that.>"


[23:01] Greg hugged back to awkward effect – his arms were weak, but he fell forward a little and into the hug, making the overall effect very firm as gravity tugged his body into the embrace. Mercifully, he caught himself from it and steadied himself again.

"Keep sending those reports to the orbiter," Greg said. It flew overhead occasionally, effectively invisible, but there was a chance they could record their thoughts on the module if they timed it right, so they'd been doing just that. Some of it would be messed up by interference or poor timing; most of it would make it through. "Punch Jason for me when you next see him," he joked, weakly.

Meanwhile, Baishar seemed largely unbothered by Edaaj's intense stare. He smiled lightly in response, just shy of an expression of unconditional encouragement – there was perhaps some remaining doubt about whether this would all work, it required the right story to tell the Nayabaru about why they were so delayed, but he already had some ideas. He had no concerns about the human; Edaaj, on the other hand, was playing a dangerous game, but she fortunately knew it and that it was independent of whether Baishar was lying or not.

Athechelt snorted softly, still agitated and confused, then stepped energetically away from the group, his attention on Samanta, his feathers rising and falling with his breath, hoping to get moving both for safety's sake and to minimise the time he could practically spend regretting playing along.


[23:28] "I will," Samanta laughed, "and I will."

The intensity of the discussion among the kavkema (so human and inhuman at the same time, what wouldn't she give for a chance to sit down and write a paper on it) hadn't entirely escaped her. She had considered themselves, the humans that is, to be immune from the kavkema's worst troubles. They were guests after all, visitors on the alien planets for a short while, just caught into a temporary snag as they waited to return home. Now the reality hit her with its full force of how deep within Nekenalos they were.

Her hand finally left Greg's shoulders, as final as their vessel had been leaving Earth. For all the foreseeable future, she would be the only human in her surroundings. It would be her and dinosaurs, possibly until her death. Forcing herself not to turn back, she strode toward Athechelt. "... See you later," she mumbled to the forest.


[23:38] Edaaj didn't know quite what to make of the smile. As a response, it gave her little sense of certainty, and she found herself wanting to wipe it off his face; but then again, no verbal answer would have been better. She sighed, and then wandered over to Greg, in an attempt to either get him to sit down or to lean on her.


[01:13] Rather than lean on a creature shorter than him, Greg carefully sat himself back down, shifting until his back was against the log. Even with the kavkema's minimal understanding of human body language, it was clear he was very, very tired.

As Athechelt and Samanta began to disappear, Baishar addressed Edaaj. "<We may not have time to coordinate when we next see each other,>" he said, a certain eagerness in his voice. "<So the story I'm going to tell the Nayabaru is this: I managed to convert you, but we were both subdued by the others.

"<When Greg got sick, the others left him behind at his behest. We managed to break free soon after, because there was one pair of eyes less to keep an eye on things. Now you've gone to Greg to ward off the others, if they've the sense to return to him, while I've gone to fetch the Nayabaru. That explains the delay of my return, our possession of a human and your involvement.>"

The plan filled him with obvious excitement – some mixture of nervous worry about the details and elation at being able to return to Valcen, no doubt. "<Any objections before I run?>"


[01:19] Edaaj tried not to watch Samanta and Athechelt leave. She already felt the expected tension returning, and it wouldn't help dwelling on who she might or might not see again.

[01:25] Objections? She considered the story, as best as she felt she could. It seemed to hold together about as well as one could expect from a fiction, though she was no expert whatsoever. "<I don't think so – but do you have any advice on how I should act once they arrive? I think I can manage meek and nonthreatening, it won't require much in the way of acting, but is there anything else?>"

[01:27] And tired, she added silently. That wouldn't require any acting either. She might just have to suppress the terrified out of her wits part.


[01:31] "<No, don't worry about it,>" Baishar assured her. "<Valcen and I aren't perfectly friendly to the Nayabaru all the time, either. Just try to be tolerable.>"

He made it sound like it ought to be easy – just try to be tolerable – but it hinged on knowing what the Nayabaru would tolerate. Baishar might know that on instinct by now, but Edaaj mercifully had no such experience.

"<I'll try to be quick,>" Baishar was saying, turning to scamper off into the underbrush.


[01:38] Edaaj did, indeed, have no idea how to interpret 'tolerable', but before she could demand clarification, Baishar was gone. She snorted, and then looked to Greg, realizing that she hadn't actually explained what Baishar would be doing, and murmured, "Baishar Nayabaru," in the hopes that the human could fill in the missing words from context.

[01:39] She almost lay down next to him, but, on the basis that this would not be appropriate to her role when the Nayabaru showed up, continued to stand and try to look watchful.