[02:02] The Karesejat never ceased to perplex Katal's Hesha with her mannerisms. Certainly, she was something akin to a spider, which in itself was a bizarre detail, but only one of form. No, the true mystery was in her manner. By definition, the Karesejat could instruct the Hesha of Katal to do what she pleased, as long as it fell within the jurisdiction of Hesha at all.
Instead, she asked opinions. As was customary, she received honest feedback. The curiosity was that it then factored into her decisions, often times sending her off to bother other Hesha for a specific task.
[02:03] This time, Tanak had chosen to indulge her, partly out of curiosity what might occur, partly because the answers he could give her to the questions she had asked, truthfully rendered, had not dissuaded her.
Did he have any urge to mistreat kavkema if not instructed to do so? No. Would he object to guarding a kavkem from those that might? No. Would he mind, granted the certain blessing of the rest of the Nayabaru inhabitants of the Katal Pens, expanding his role to include further chores than those usually given to Hesha? No.
Would he mind taking orders from a kavkem? This had given him pause. It could be a trick question, of course, one meant to catch him unaware. He had explained, with the conviction of a Hesh, that he would not let a kavkem cause him to violate the integrity of his oaths. But if the Karesejat wished, he would earnestly consider any other instructions a particular kavkem might have.
As it were, she had led him into the basement of Katal, a circular storage area at the heart of the level, scattered with unused machinery and a thin, uneven layer of dust, and asked him to wait.
And so he was now waiting.
[16:45] The waiting would have driven many other Hesha mad, despite the fact that necessity often meant a great deal of waiting. The Ambush required a lot of waiting, yet caused no issue as it was an active form of waiting, one born of planning, stalking out the enemy, sussing out their patterns, their movements, then establishing the right location to catch the right prey unawares. This was a passive waiting.
There was no prey to stalk, no plans to engage, no traps to lay. This required real patience, the patience that was derived not from action, but forced inaction, awaiting the next order, the next plan, the next opportunity for action. He stood waiting, face saturnine, but mind still casting back on the various questions he had been asked. Whatever it was that was about to arise would not be... normal.
A slight shift, taking the weight from one foot to the other.
[16:52] The equipment was a curiosity. Dust of this level indicated long neglect, the only disturbances apparently from those that had brought in additional items to be left in their state of decay, adding to the clutter that would someday become indistinguishable from the dust that covered it. Would some creature in a thousand years open this technological tomb and wonder at the primitive nature of the creators? Or would it instead become a hive of activity once more, dust displaced by bustling technicians, scientists and steely-eyed guards? Or would someone be forced to clean it one day, cataloging it for future use, or sent to those who might be able to dismantle and reuse it in some new, interesting way? There was no clues to be had in the particles that floated in the air, suspended in time until he had been unceremoniously admonished to... wait.
[17:23] When the Karesejat returned, all sleek-limbed and graceful, her motions like a physical manifestation of patience and caution, there was a kavkem trailing beside her, disheveled, its shoulders subtly shaking.
The first thing Tanak noticed was that it still had intact teeth and claws – someone must have neglected to file them. He could conceive of no reason why it should be permitted to keep those weapons, so it naturally registered as a gross oversight. But as this one was apparently not a threat right now, not even on a leash or otherwise bound, that could wait for later.
As it entered the generous circular hall, the creature convulsed briefly and sneezed.
"I appreciate your patience and thank you for hearing me," the Karesejat began, even as she slipped a limb in behind the kavkem and ushered it forward, partly serving to make it awkwardly skid across the tiles, only a few inches at a time, but enough to completely deflate any appearance of it being a graceful predator.
"Let me waste no time getting to the heart of your assignment. This creature goes by the name of Valcen. He will be for you to guard, albeit with a starkly different focus than usual. He has made me a generous cooperative offer that I would like to reap the benefits of. This requires that I grant him certain freedoms and resources.
[17:24] "I do trust the Hesha of Katal not to generally interfere in these matters, but even just the abstract of this is quite atypical, and as you know, I do not have the luxury of maintaining a constant presence in Katal. I would like to minimise the offensiveness of this scenario by keeping it out of the way, but offend it will, and you may need to be ready to defend Valcen."
She paused, her expression opaque. "There are many details I'd like to expand on, such as the precise constraints on Valcen's freedoms, or the nature of his projects and what I hope to gain from them, but do you have any questions for the time being?"
[17:58] Tanak's gaze fell to the kavkem, saturnine expression turning to calculating. "To the quick, then... your Valcen has to be guarded both from interference and from doing things outside his parole. Body guard and prison guard in one, am I correct?" After a few moments of contemplation of the diminutive kavkem, and his gaze returned to the much more important Karesejat. "And at the same time, I am to follow it's reasonable orders in assisting with the performance of your deal with it?"
[18:21] Even with all the training he had in handling kavkema, kavkem facial expressions were still difficult to read, but Valcen seemed far more nervous than a kavkem being granted freedom at the grace of the Karesejat logically should. Surely he knew that he wasn't about to be wrestled back into submission? But perhaps he knew that by rights he ought to be.
"That's correct," the Karesejat confirmed.
The kavkem's gaze wandered through the room for a moment, as though trying to discern whether the discarded machinery held any threats. His left forepaw rose to rub at his nose – the dust was evidently getting in it.
"You may have noticed that I designated Valcen a 'creature' and not a 'kavkem'," the Karesejat commented. "This was quite intentional and is the root of my arrangement with him. Valcen may appear as a kavkem to you, but that is a question of form – the inverse, if you will, of my own nature as a Nayabaru, though my appearance may not suggest it.
"Valcen will tell you more about his nature when you two get acquainted with each other," she promised, evidently certain of it. "But for the moment all you need to know is that he is far more intelligent than a kavkem; far more knowledgeable, even, than our Darhala or Seklushia.
[18:22] "Valcen has highly specialised knowledge about kavkem neurology. He will tell you what projects that enables him to pursue in a moment."
The not-a-kavkem almost cringed at the statement. He really was exhibiting most peculiar behaviour.
"First, however," the Karesejat continued, evidently unbothered by the captive's displeasure. "I need to expand on those parts of our agreement that are purely for Valcen's benefit. In this form, Valcen is as mortal as any kavkem. He has the knowledge as to how to perpetuate himself, but not the means. He is to be given the means.
"For this purpose I will allow him up to two kavkem assistants that he may choose freely. They, too, will be under your supervision and care. Further, I intend to have this area repurposed for Valcen's contributions, simultaneously crafting it into something of a living arrangement for him and his assistant kavkema.
"You may have to coordinate the brunt of the redesign, even if it is not a task usually falling upon Hesha to do. I will ensure that you will have the authority to do this, but it does rely on the good graces of your fellow Nayabaru of the other professions, so do nonetheless take care not to disgruntle them."
Said, the Karesejat lifted a limb to tap the tip of it against Valcen's back. "Give Tanak a moment to comment, then explain yourself, if you please."
[18:31] This was a spate of responsibilities more in line with a leader or a project director, not a guard, and, while extremely unusual, would require a great deal more diplomat than Hesh from him. "The bulk of my questions are functional ones, that can be dealt with after," He lowered his head, respectful to the wishes of the Karesejat. "It shall be done in accordance with the spirit and letter of your direction. It is a great responsibility, and for this I thank you for your trust. Now, this... creature? This... Valcen." He turns his attention to the not-a-kavkem. "I am ready to hear, Valcen."
[19:11] No, there was no doubt about it. This kavkem – or whatever it truly was – looked frightened. Not of Tanak or Terenyira, but of something else, something less tangible.
[19:12] "...hi," Valcen said, proving, finally, that he had a voice – an airy, high-pitched voice, entirely as was to be expected in a kavkem. They couldn't produce a rich, booming bellow with the proportions nature gave them, much less with any nuance, so they spoke in the wrong pitch all the time. Just one of the many small irritations of kavkem nature.
"It's a little... difficult to get into what I am without potentially... offending the Karesejat, so I'll keep that part brief for now," Valcen observed, hesitantly. It was unlikely his concern was the Karesejat's offence – she was famously difficult to insult – but Nayabaru sensibilities about the Karesejat were another matter. "I am of Tamachelu's kin."
That came as quite the surprise.
While Tanak had heard rumours about a not-kavkem being held on Katal premises, he had not imagined that it would introduce itself by way of kavkem mythological allusions. Tamachelu, as far as Tanak was concerned, was probably real, some kind of bizarre, alien monstrosity, usually insignificant by being the only of her kind, and sensibly staying far away from Katal.
And now this creature was telling him that there were more of her? Curious. Dangerous if true. The Nayabaru likely had nothing on them to stop Tamachelu; he had heard that she had occasionally destroyed whole settlements.
The Karesejat did not object to the summary, suggesting that by the looks of it, Terenyira had tamed this one.
"The, ah," Valcen began, haltingly. "The projects I had in mind, depending on how you count them, there are, I think, two of them that are of interest to you, and another three that are for my purposes.
"The three for my purposes – since I suspect the Karesejat will want to hear me commit to those in her presence as well – are that I intend to work on a sensory replacement for myself, as this body lacks natural insight into a few features of the universe that I need for the rest of my work. Cybernetics, if that tells you anything.
"Further, as she's said, I am... mortal? I guess that's the word for it. I'm going to die and I'm, ah, not really keen on that." If Tanak needed any proof that he wasn't talking to a kavkem, that was as casual an admission as he was going to get. "So that part comes in two parts – making biologically viable hosts and finding a way to transfer myself into those. Two parallel projects, effectively.
"The assistants are for the hosts, just because it's really confoundingly difficult to make an entire functional zygote from scratch." A pause in the babbling. "You— don't know what a zygote is, of course, you're not a Seklushi, so nevermind that part."
It was clear enough, and it begged the question why he needed assistants, as opposed to simply using the existing infrastructure in Katal for the same purpose. Did it make a difference if the Seklushia extracted the raw material for him, or if he went for some supposedly more natural route? Either way.
"And then there's the part that hopefully benefits you and the, ah, Karesejat," Valcen continued. "So, I've been blessed with a lot of insights into kavkem neurology, owing to that I managed to... map myself into the head of one, so to speak... but ultimately, I— ah." He paused, faltering. "For the record, I know you guys are big into honesty, so, ah, I don't really like this part, but it's the only way I'm getting the other parts and they're kind of important to me, so... yeah.
[19:13] "Anyway, I am very confident that I could use this knowledge to build you tools – or a prototype tool at first – that will let you... read the minds of your captives. A bit like you'd read a book? Not really like that, it's a science in and of itself, and minds don't really work that way, but with a few guided questions you can get at anything you like, really.
"And if that's successful, and that works, then we can move on to more ambitious projects, where we... change what's in there." He looked for a moment like he might want to elaborate further, but was cut short by some other private thought. His tongue flicked across his lips. "Yeah."
[19:36] Credulity strained with credibility for a long, long moment. The implausibility of what was proposed compared to the possibility that someone had trained a kavkem to act... not kavkem... flitted through his head. But such was not the realm of thought that he was intended to pursue. And, in such a position, it would be his... pleasure to deal with such if it turned out the possible was the truth, and not the implausible. Still, the assignment promised, if nothing else, to be interesting. A different form of prey to be stalked. "I believe I understand." His eyes flicked to the Karesejat for an instant, then back. "Build tools to examine the universe. Find ways to extend your life through this... host-duplication process. See into kavkema's minds to take the information we need, and then change kavkema's minds to our will. Is my summary sufficiently accurate?"
[19:49] Valcen opened his muzzle, curled his tongue and glanced aside in a transparent gesture of anguish and distaste. A twitch ran through him. He clasped his arms to his chest. "Yep."
"He is, of course, omitting a fine but important detail," the Karesejat interjected. "The reason he wants to prolong his life is because he wants to find some long term solution to my nature as a threat to his kind. So it's to be expected he will try something, at some point.
"I don't need you to keep an eye out for this specifically as I'm sufficiently alert, myself, and I doubt whatever he schemes would be obvious to your eyes, but I feel it helps better understand his motivations – as well as my acute awareness of them – so I didn't want to see it omitted."
[20:22] Tanak's expression didn't even bother changing. "As is to be expected, of course. Certainly he had best not 'try something' while I am around." Without inflection or tone, Tanak had conveyed no hesitation on providing the necessary physical changes to ensure compliance on this matter. Any physical damage would be... repairable, of course. Within reason.
[22:36] "I'm really not—" Valcen began, then paused on a displeased expression. "I suppose there's no use yet trying to convince you of that," he muttered, warily.
[22:37] Terenyira continued the conversation as though Valcen hadn't spoken: "In any case, do consult with the Darhala if you find any of his requests implausible. If they, too, are not sure, and you deem the matter sufficiently important, you can delay until I'm next in Katal and consult with me.
"That said, I anticipate you needn't worry too much for at least one Calendar – however long it takes for his personal projects to come to fruition. After that point, however, once he can transfer himself, that is when we need to pay close attention. Until then, your primary focus must be in keeping him safe from your fellow Hesha."
[23:03] "Of course, fully understood. I expect that Valcen and myself will be able to come to acceptable arrangement so that he can pursue these goals with minimal interference." Tanak nodded, satisfied at this point that he understood the basic scope and requirements. "And now I suppose we should spend some time actually getting to know each other and planning how to proceed."
[23:25] It wasn't really customary to ask 'Do you accept your assignment?' in the current context, even given the Karesejat's idiosyncracies. Tanak did not seem uneasy about the task – presumably that was all she needed to be able to trust him to it.
[23:26] "Naturally," Terenyira was saying. "I recommend you guide the conversation with your questions, as he's still a little bit rattled. I'll remain here for a while and observe. I won't interrupt unless he tries to mislead you."
Valcen snorted a little, although whether it was in displeasure at being treated like a manipulative snake or simply because of the dust was hard to say. He shifted carefully into a sit on the tiled floor, glancing up at Tanak with what the Nayabaru could swear was a look of suspicion. "Couple of obvious things," he said. "The dust has to go. The old equipment, too. Blank slate.
"Need a light-proof tent against the wall somewhere, and a desk and some fine manipulation tools. Then I'm going to go through the captive population for my first assistant." He licked at his teeth. "Is that acceptable? Are you willing to help me with that?"
As he spoke, his feathers were almost pulsing with unease, as though he wasn't quite willing to accept a Nayabaru was going to protect him.
[23:47] With a lithe sweep, Tanak was seated in front of Valcen, facing him. Even lowered like this, he was still much larger, but at least the gesture was there. "Cleaning crew, tent, desk, tools. The tools will need to be... adjusted for your physical capabilities. I will gladly assist you with finding appropriate kavkem to assist you, however any of the fel-tshosoa are right out. Guarding you from other Nayabaru AND kavkem that might be willing to murder you with no remorse is not a productive way to finish this work."
[23:53] "I don't need or want your help in finding kavkem assistants," Valcen said, although without derision – simply firm. "I need to win their trust. If you're in the room with us at the time, I can forget about trust." Again that tongue traced across his bizarrely flawless teeth. "But I won't try to recruit the high tiers. You can instruct your fellow Hesha not to let me near them."
[00:02] "It will be monitored, of course, but acceptable to me." He leaned forward a bit, then finally asked, "Why? Clearly you don't really want to be here. Why help us to accomplish our goals? Why not try and implement your system to... transfer yourself into a Nayabaru, rather than a Kavkem? Why are you doing this?"
[00:10] Something flickered across Valcen's expression, like a comment only just barely restrained. Then his expression smoothed back out. "I know about kavkem neurology," he reminded, tersely. "It would take much longer to craft a means to put myself into a Nayabaru.
"Even if that were not true, while there would no doubt be a certain... poetic justice to it, tell me, would you want a kavkem poking needles into your unhatched babies? How does that idea make you feel, Tanak?" Valcen narrowed his eyes in curiosity.
[00:24] "What I want is irrelevant. What a kavkem wants is irrelevant, or this conversation would never be happening, and your plans would be moot. It's a question about YOUR motivation, though. Why?"
[00:35] Valcen stared back at Tanak with an opaque expression. A stubborn silence? Unpleasant introspection? Merely sluggish thoughts? Finally: "Your Karesejat is, whether you believe me or not, a weapon designed against my people – the names the kavkema have given them are Tamachelu, Tkanetar, Garukaron and Maenona, but also myself and others that go unnamed.
"She... has brought two of my kind to fall; one whose name is long forgotten and me. There are not many of us and we don't share the kavkem philosophic romanticism with extinction. I can't do anything about that when I'm dead. I'm going to be dead from 'natural causes' in about thirty Passes if I don't do anything about it.
"And I'm not going to be able to do anything about that if I'm captive in my cell. So I trade. It's a distasteful trade, but a trade nonetheless. I need to make a steep offer if I want to be considered. How much for the freedom to plot cosmic interference? Your Karesejat doesn't make it cheap."
[00:48] Tanak stared at Valcen for several long moments, eyes checking... what? But, genuinely, this rang with truth, and a baring of teeth reflected his understanding. "Yes, I believe we shall be able to get on just fine, Valcen."