§ 2020-12-30 00:04:37
[00:23] It was hard to leave Greg behind with two kavkema, like a grave mistake being made. Athechelt was no happier, but of course communication with the kavkem was largely restricted to body language.
It would be dawn soon. Athechelt, while he was no longer a staunch adherent of the cosmology that had kept him and his people from avoiding sunlight, still preferred to be careful, that much had been communicated to her once before.
And so, having travelled about as far as her legs could take her and as long as Athechelt was willing to stay up, they began to settle down in a shadowed niche between lush trees for the night.
It gave her time to think, which was the last thing she likely needed right now. What could she do to improve the situation? Maybe it was time to try and return to the lander, signal ESA reliably, check on what ESA had sent them in the interim. Objectively, it'd been less than a week of elapsed time since they'd left the lander.
She was in the middle of pondering how to relay this idea when a kavkem came flitting through the trees.
It was hard to keep their markings apart, especially when they were in the middle of motion, but this one seemed unfamiliar. Regardless, they were beelining for Athechelt and her.
[01:04] There was some peace in knowing that the decision had been made, that, whatever was happening on the other side, it was likely beyond her power to act. Some peace and much fear, but she could register only so much fear before it became background noise. (How she longed for the time when research grants were keeping her up in the night.) And yet, here she found a new occurrence could break through that noise with an altogether new jolt of fear.
She jumped to her feet, briefly grasping at the air as if she expected to find a weapon there. Not that there was likely any need. A messenger from the other group? An escapee from Nayabaru captivity? Evenatra, under a new form? (Unlikely, unfortunately... though for the first time in what felt like a long while Samanta had come to dread Evenatra's presence.)
She stepped in front of Athechelt, hoping that her upright stance, and with the suit augmenting her frame, would make her somewhat intimidating to a lone kavkem with ill intentions. "Who... who are you?" she muttered.
[01:19] The kavkem did seem to be shooting her cautious glances even as it was approaching and as she stepped infront of Athechelt stopped and took a step back, still about three metres away from them, its outlines muted by the morning haze.
It was Athechelt that answered, although he hadn't understood Samanta's question, placing a paw loosely on her leg to gently get her attention. What he said sounded like "Serah de Mar".
The other kavkem took the opportunity to speak from a distance, marginally louder than was strictly customary for kavkema. Its head bobbed up and down a little as it did so, conveying some form of agitation or confusion. Athechelt responded with a tone more soothing than he likely felt.
Was this someone from Athechelt's group, then? If so, they were coming from an odd angle, although perhaps Samanta shouldn't be one to judge, given they were still mostly meandering into the opposite direction that they'd been travelling the past days.
[01:50] Was that a name, or a statement, or a request to her? Whatever the case, Athechelt's reaction suggested he did know this one new kavkem, which was certainly comforting. Samanta kept discovering how frustrating her inability to talk to anyone was. She crouched back on the grass, ready to spring up once again should it be necessary, and waited for their conversation to end.
It came to her that, if this Serah-de-Mar was willing to be so quick and loud, then either they all were in desperate danger already, or the newcomer had reason to think there weren't Nayabaru around for a good distance. Hopefully the latter, and Athechelt's peaceful tone hinted that he thought so. She focused on Serah-de-Mar's face as they talked, hoping to glean some hint of their reaction to seeing her.
[02:14] Eventually it became vaguely certain that the conversation included names she'd been introduced to: Rakashei, Kalina, Yanaru. It took some digging to remember more context – but they'd been three kavkema that had come to the group back when she was already travelling with them.
So this kavkem had been with them, sent them, perhaps, and was now asking where they had disappeared to, or whether they had ever arrived and been able to help. ...it had to be disconcerting to see Athechelt but not the rest of the group. No wonder the kavkema were so busy exchanging chatter.
At least this stranger had now crept closer, less intimidated by Samanta's presence. This kavkem had never seen a human before – that couldn't possibly be helping to calm it down.
[02:41] Contrarily to her first tactic, she tried making herself small. She dipped her head and conspicuously stopped looking straight at their face — it must have been terribly rude of her. She considered attempting a grooming in the kavkem manner, but that would probably been far too forward for a second-hand friend, whose name she hadn't even fully grasped.
She took the opportunity to quietly check her backpack. She and Greg had quickly exchanged some supplies so that neither remained without anything essential, and Samanta had got the most of it since he would need less in a Nayabaru facility, but even so she was greatly impoverished. It still seemed to be much more than what Serah-de-Mar could be carrying.
... This kavkem might have never seen a human with their own eyes, but asking was worth a shot. When the conversation between them and Athechelt started petering out, Samanta casually looke at them and asked: "Jason. Saira. Humans. How are they?"
§ 2021-01-04 23:06:29
[23:06] The stranger looked up at Samanta, feathers puffing out in some mild mixture of fear and confusion. Clearly it hadn't expected one of the aliens to try talking to it. In a cautious tone, it asked something of Athechelt, who responded with a curt apology, then paused for a moment before repeating Jason and Saira's name in some opaque context, before glancing up at Samanta with some curiosity of his own.
Wrong context, then?
Both of the kavkema were looking at her now as though hoping for some guidance, or at least further utterances they could try to interpret.
[23:36] Get a hold of yourself. Calm down. Samanta considered herself a rational person, once. After a mysterious planet had appeared from scratch in Earth's skies, she thought she had steeled herself enough for anything. She had liked to think she could have absorbed any epistemic shock, with some preparation... some time to cushion the blow. She had liked to think that she was taking her new situation relatively coolly, all considered, as had Greg and the rest of them. Better than most people on Earth would, at least, until the Thing had come into play.
And now... she felt on the edge of breaking down at the slightest surprise. She was starting to realize how much of her relative cool-headedness depended on having fellow human beings to talk to and to bounce ideas against. She had been the only of her species in sight for less than half a day, and she could barely think at all. She had read a book, once, suggesting humans are only really conscious in company.
The kavkema were still company, though, were they not? Except for the language barrier, they weren't that far from humans, cognitively speaking. If only she had had Saira's genius for translation, or Jason's for body language. She dealt with species and ecosystems, not with individuals; she could make a thousand guesses about how their environment could have manipulated these beings' neurons and brain lobes, but now that two of them were standing looking at her and expecting words from her —
Samanta sighed silently. Then she drew two deep breaths (Calm. Quiet. Space. Silence.) If she was dealing with kavkema, better to learn from them. She knelt on the ground, swept away the leaves, and scratched in the dirt two human figures, with what she hoped would come across as bulky suits, and a thick-tailed Nayabaru hovering above them, in a rather threatening way. She drew walls around them, a tight claustrophobic box. Then she drew them again, nearby but outside. And then she put her hand above the inner couple, and then the outer one, slowly moving back and forth. Let's start by establishing where they are, right now.
[23:47] In a gentle gesture, Athechelt moved his forepaw over the image, covering most of it without disturbing it too much, looking intently at her. He swerved his muzzle in a gesture that Samanta had since learnt meant 'yes', but it was a statement difficult to interpret in this context.
Then he gestured silently both to the newcomer and himself and flicked his muzzle upward. That was 'no'. What could that possibly mean?
[00:22] There's an answer she didn't expect. Yes to both in and out? Had they taken the couples to represent all four humans, two of them in with the Nayabaru, two of them still away? Athechelt knew that Greg was going there, though, and he knew who "Jason" and "Saira" referred to.
So... 'they are both in, and out'? 'They are here, and we are not'? 'We are not with them?' Too obvious to mention, unless it was a way to communicate either 'We know nothing about them' or 'We won't talk about them'.The former seemed more likely. Damn. Although... of course Athechelt couldn't know their whereabouts, yet he'd been the one responding, not the newcomer. So had he prevented Serah-de-Mar from answering? Whyever would he?
What other information could she get? She stood upright on her knees, leaning forward. "Evenatra?" she asked. Then she fell back down, looking quite forlorn; and again she repeated "Evenatra?", this time in a much lower, tired tone.
[00:28] This time, Athechelt pointed into the approximate direction Evenatra had left the group into – a path almost opposite the one they'd recently been walking. Again, nothing from the newcomer. The two kavkema did exchange some commentary amongst each other, soft-spoken, curious.
If Samanta had been right, then the newcomer did not know anything about Evenatra, either. But this newcomer had mentioned 'Rakashei', 'Kalina' and 'Yanaru', so those were known – and those three had to have come from somewhere when they joined the group. If there were still kavkema wherever this 'somewhere' was, they would know none of the mentioned names.
[01:15] Again, Samanta couldn't help but find strange how promptly Athechelt had answered instead of the other kavkem. There was nothing urgent in the way he spoke to them, though. So perhaps he wasn't trying to hide information (again, why on Earth would he?), just pointing out that the neewcomer couldn't possibly answer the question themself. Should she try asking about the three kavkema? Would that be anymore useful?
She did repeat their names — Rakashei, Kalina, Yanaru — but only at half a voice, not really expecting to hear anything in return. Unfortunately, that was the closest thing to communication she could achieve. She drew somewhat closer to the two of them and dipped her head, staring at the empty ground. She would just listen to them talking and perhaps catch something of her own, maybe recognize some words. Goddammit, Saira makes it look so easy.
§ 2021-01-13 22:10:38
[22:11] At the mention of the three kavkema, Athechelt's attention snapped over to the newcomer, although without saying anything for the first few seconds.
Finally, the newcomer volunteered some words toward Athechelt, then glanced up to Samanta with a body language that seemed unambiguously curious. Athechelt reacted with some commentary of his own, then glanced at the human and twisted his muzzle from side to side in a way that the human had learnt conveyed affirmation.
But what did that mean? Yes, this one knows them? Yes, we're listening? Yes, the newcomer is looking for those three kavkema? Yes, you understood what we were trying to convey earlier? ...whatever that might have been.
Whatever it was, it wasn't meant to be the start of a conversation. Instead, Athechelt used the opportunity to gesture in the direction Serah de Mar had come from and said "Akuned," as though that meant something. Perhaps realising that she had no means of realising what it meant, he added: "Kavkem."
Did that mean there was another kavkem in the direction of where Serah de Mar had come from? Perhaps a captive of the Nayabaru that this newcomer wanted to rescue? On the other hand, Samanta knew by now that the kavkema were not that eager to rescue people; when Asraaban and Nadani had disappeared, there was no discussion to get them back. So perhaps just someone a bit further back...?
[22:29] If there was someone back there, Samanta would have certainly been glad to wait for them; perhaps even trek a bit in their direction. That wasn't a good situation to leave anyone, much less a kavkem, stranded and alone. But if there wasn't, every moment wasted was a moment in which the Nayabaru's grasp (probably) tightened around them. Assuming Greg didn't already reach them and captured their — hopefully benevolent — attention. And now, how was she supposed to convey this by gestures?
She made a few broad steps forward, in the direction she and Athechelt had been moving, looking at the other two, and said "Akuned, here...?", gesturing in that same direction whilie moving, as if to say will they come this way too?
[22:39] She certainly had the attention of the two kavkema, whose gaze followed her gestures – but whether they understood what she was trying to convey was more difficult to guess. The newcomer decided to try his own hand at it: "Akuned," he said, and fingerwalked for a moment, then gestured with both hands in a beckonning motion.
If Samanta was lucky, he was saying exactly what she'd hoped for – that Akuned would come here, that her pace was simply lagging a bit behind, perhaps for strategic reasons.
[22:54] Finally. Now that was encouraging. As long as the trees didn't come crashing down around them or this world's equivalent of hounds burst baying out of the bushes, Samanta was up for waiting for another companion — or even better, for walking forth slowly until they had caught up. The latter seemed much harder to communicate, though.
She started pacing back and forth, careful not to tread on anything too loudly (a habit she'd been trying to cultivate in the recent days, useful or not). She might have been up for waiting, but her legs were not. Maybe that would work: I'll wait here, but please, let's not tarry too long.
Hopefully poor Greg was having a chance to rest, at least, heavens knew he needed one. And the brave kavkema who had went with him to save his alien skin — alien gods, let them be alright.
[23:09] The two kavkema watched Samanta for a reaction for a moment after the communication, perhaps to see whether she would try to ask a question.
When nothing but her pacing came from her, Athechelt and the newcomer resumed a whispered conversation. It was almost always hard to read these creatures, but by the sound of it, some agitation entered the dialogue.
And then, a few minutes later, there was a motion at the edge of Samanta's vision and indeed edge of the part of the forest that was visible to them, poorly discernible in the twilight, perhaps even beyond the human's perception.
§ 2021-03-05 21:55:13
[22:18] Samanta's first reaction to the sight was panic — a convulsion in her chest, an emptiness in her guts, a sudden constriction of her sweat glands from head to toes. They've found us. We're gonna die, or worse, we're not. Her second reaction was hope — a lifting of her stomach, an elation in the back of her brain. Thank God Akuned is here, now we can finally move. Her third reaction was confusion, with little involvement of her viscera, but much of her legs, which braced themselves for a run, and of her eyes, which strained to recognize the new newcomer(s) through the dark. "What— Who's there?" she asked, too quietly for it to be a useful question.
[22:28] What surfaced from the undergrowth was indeed another kavkem, its eyes a little wider than average, as though in a perpetual state of surprise or interest – the whites were visible crescents.
Athechelt greeted the newcomer with a gesture Samanta had never seen before – a curt version of a diplomatic dipping of his muzzle, like someone going through an expected social ritual without believing it to be the proper course of action. Too bad Evenatra was nowhere near by; it would likely be good to know whether there was a problem of some sort.
The newcomer – doubtlessly 'Akuned' – babbled something at the two kavkema, while beelining toward Samanta, body language one of curiosity. Of course; this one likely hadn't seen humans before, either, but she was much bolder about it, as though she thought the human couldn't possibly be a threat to her. (Perhaps not wrong.)
Athechelt barked something sharply, making Akuned jerk her head to look at him. Something like a soft argument erupted between them.
[22:55] Samanta slowly and quietly approached Akuned. She would not distract him while he was receiving orders or a reprimand, but she wanted his features to be firmly impressed in her mind. Also, she wanted him to be accustomed to her presence, although apparently there was little need of it.
On one hand, Samanta certainly had no intention to intimidate anyone; on the other hand, she did find a bit offputting how boldly he had come toward her. Too boldly? Was Athechelt criticizing him for that? But why would Athechelt mind? Had Akuned simply broken some custom, or disobeyed a previous agreement? She awaited for them to finish their argument; maybe all would be clear later.
[23:04] Akuned's feathers puffed a little, but it seemed half-hearted, as though whatever argument they were in were either no big deal or nothing she was willing to entertain with any vehemence. As Samanta approached, Akuned snapped her attention to the human, body language back to curiosity; she stepped forward just enough to be in arm's reach and pawed lightly at Samanta's suit.
Very bold, then.
She chittered something sounding nothing at all like the speech Samanta had heard the kavkema utter, looking up at Samanta with an opaque expression that could be anything from expectant impatience to encouraging enthusiasm. Baby talk, maybe? Athechelt seemed to mutter something in annoyance, at least.
A moment later, he gestured for them to move on. It was a poor idea to stay standing in one spot, especially if the Nayabaru party that was on the hunt for them was anywhere nearby, which wasn't unlikely enough by any measure that it was worth risking it.
[23:40] With a very conspicuous sigh of relief that hopefully the rest of the party wouldn't recognize, Samanta moved on with the rest. Akuned went beside her, brushing against her suit and staring at her with startling, gleaming eyes, apparently muttering under her breath. All her life Samanta'd been absorbed in things that left most people indifferent at best and horrified at worst, from slime molds to bone-eating worms, but being an object of study was... rather new.
She wondered whether Akuned's was some sort of scientific interest (alas, kavkema society was too simple and fragmented for fellow biologists to exist); or more general interest in novelty (which must have been in short supply in a proto-urban culture, however rich, that had been locked in the same struggle for generations); or whether she was the kavkem equivalent of the people with peculiar tastes one could find in the most fascinating corners of Earth's Internet. Samanta patted Akuned's side, somewhat awkwardly. How she wished she could talk to her.
There they went, hopefully with no further stops.
[00:12] Somewhere in the canopy, a twig snapped, coming tumbling down. Three kavkem muzzles snapped up dutifully, eyes wide. The backdrop of the sky was still bright enough that the leaves and branches were clearly delineated against it, but nothing obvious was visible in any of them — although the trunk of the tree the twig had come from was noticeably thick and the tree as a whole one of the sturdiest in the immediate vicinity.
Athechelt stepped back nervously, clearly not convinced by what his eyes were telling him.
Then the tree spoke.
Athechelt jolted back at the first syllable, following an instinct no rational desire to protect Samanta could override, feathers bristling, tension seizing his body. The other two kavkema were a little slower to react, but did much the same thing. The tree had spoken a handful of syllables in the tone of the stridulations of locusts: "Ta-zysh-a-y-e."
Clearly, it couldn't possibly be a tree.
Athechelt recovered enough to step up to Samanta, flanking her from the other side, trying to by some measure put himself between her and whatever was speaking to them.
And then, as though speech from a tree empty of obvious sophonts weren't in and of itself a curiosity suggesting perhaps a hidden speaker device or some other piece of technology, what it said next came as a surprise: "I apologise for startling you. Your friends are naturally frightened of me, but you I hope perhaps less so?"
Athechelt barked something in alarm even before the question finished, pushing at Samanta as though to inspire her to run.
Even with a clear direction from which the sound came, there was still nothing to see. Either the creature was tiny or some piece of technology was mediating the exchange, neither of which would likely cause the kavkema this much fear, or— or what?
[00:52] Whatever or whoever that was, it was reacting to them... or was it? It wouldn't have been a hard guess that the sudden, invisible voice would startle whomever heard it without warning. Although, for Samanta, the really astonishing thing was not the disembodied voice — and really, how hard would it have been to hide a small speaker on a tree, especially in that gloom — but the fact that it spoke perfectly fluent, perfectly coherent, perfectly polite English, which Samanta half-expected to never hear again.
"Who... what... who is this?" she asked the tree. "... Valcen? is this you?" Oh no. Oh God. Oh no. Was that what had spooked the kavkema so badly? Or had it been those strange syllables that the tree had spoken at first, which didn't quite sound like Kendaneivash nor Naya, sounds that didn't seem to come from a mammalian nor a saurian mouth?
[01:15] Something in the dusk-soaked canopy rippled — remaining indistinct, but hinting at some large, invisible inhabitant of the heavy branches camouflaged with the texture finesse of an octopus.
"Dejeches'va-yili," the creature spoke. "Ochasaye'va ne'a; cheltus yri-reshas juna yenaak. Zei'beniye."
"Givi!" Athechelt hissed, although his body language betrayed that whatever he was hissing about was nothing he had the mental fortitude to fight for.
It chuckled. "No, I am not Valcen," it said. "Although I understand why you might think so – it was Valcen who taught me your language. The Nayabaru call me Karesejat Terenyira."
[02:05] Definitely not a speaker, then — something, something large yet invisible, was clearly hanging among the branches, making them quiver with grasping limbs. Whatever it was, it was there in person.
Samanta narrowed her eyes, hoping at least to see the outline of the thing in vegetal debris, drawn against what little light remained in the sky. Here yet another player, who apparently had something to do with Valcen — did it terrift the kavkema so because of general diffidence, or because they knew it in particular, this... Karesejat Terenyira... Karesejat... Terenyira...
/If the Karesejat convinces you to help the Nayabaru, my children have lost...//
... Oh, mother. This was the Weapon, wasn't it, the Weapon who hid at the center of all the nightmare system of Nekenalos, right in their face and hanging above it from a tree with god-killing claws?
There were beings in the universe that could move planets. And there was a being in the universe able to kill those other beings. And that being was looking at her, and speaking to her.
Samanta stood mute in horror for endless seconds, feeling something like an electric current crawling up and down her skin. Then she said, very slowly, and very carefully: "What- do you- want?"
[02:21] For an instant, there were obvious narrow limbs slipping through the branches, making Athechelt whimper and duck down even though there were at generous distance to the tree; then they were gone again and the illusion of transparency resumed, tricking their eyes.
"Sebi, dach'zysha," Athechelt whispered to Samanta, pushing against her again.
Ignoring Athechelt's obvious distress and the way the other two kavkema crowded in behind Athechelt and Samanta, the Weapon said: "It's unfortunate they've already convinced you to fear me. I'm not your enemy." Something large rippled down the tree, just barely distinct enough that it was clear that the distance between them had just shrunk by a good metre or two.
"These people have made your life difficult – entirely unintentionally, of course, they mean well," the Karesejat observed. "You've been on the run for days. I am here to extend an invitation, as it would appear I am the only one that can find you – but rest assured it is your choice whether you wish to accept it. The invitation is to come with me and rejoin with the rest of your crew."
[03:34] On one hand, that seemed perfectly reasonable. On the other, if Lucifer himself had showed up in that wood, that's exactly what Samanta would have expected him to say. Rest was a tempting offer if there ever was one. Rejoin the rest of her crew? An attractive idea, if they hadn't gone through such pains to keep apart, for now. Her choice whether to accept? Would have been more convincing if that statement hadn't been immediately preceded by "I can find you anywhere on this planet", the ultimate "I know where you live". Some choice, it would be.
The question wasn't even about whether to decline, it was how to decline without coming to regret it very much and very soon. How does one tell a god-killing machine that its company is not welcomed? Perhaps she should tell the kavkema to leave while she thought over it, and wait for them to be at a safe distance... which wouldn't exist.
Take time? Ask to meet again at a later date? How would that help? They would either waste time, after all that hurry, or just agree to be tracked through the woods by the Weapon. Which, most likely, it would do anyway.
Alright. Take time, on a smaller scale. Make an inane question, try to see if it says something interesting or damning or useful. "Where's my crew now? How are they?" And while it answers, think.
[03:38] "I'm not in real time contact with the Nayabaru about this, but I'd be deeply disappointed in the performance of my children if your friends were anything but in good health and spirits," the Karesejat remarked.
Meanwhile, fear had seized Athechelt's spine, gradually crushing it to a fine paste. He clutched at the branch with the paper slips that seemed so crucial to his role in his forepaws, pressing it against his chest, looking as though he were honestly considering using it as a weapon, if reluctantly so.
There was no metaphor here, just a vivid memory: Something ripples into appearance, more limbs than recognisable body, all at the angles of a dead tree, an enigmatic silhouette against the sky.
What could he possibly do? The dream had predicted it, but failed to advise him on how to handle the situation. It would sweep him off his feet and puncture his chest and there was nothing he could conceive of doing to stop it, barely aware of the creature's outlines, and terrified of those angles he could perceive.
A part of him considered it a good fortune that he saw only fragments of the total shape, nausea curling in his gut.
But somewhere in his fear was another memory, a detail from the dream – A sharp pain shoots up his arm as something strikes at the creature he's holding, a dagger-like sensation cutting into his palm and tearing it from him – and a thought occurs to him: It's Samanta that the monster wants. The human. Protect the human.
"<Run!>" Athechelt barked at Serademar and Akuned, then raised his staff and, heart hammering in his chest, stepped forward into a sense of panicked regret, jabbing the tapered end of his staff toward the shapeless—
The texture jerked back a generous fraction of a second before he could have made contact with it, only to fall away for only a blink of an eye, revealing the thin-limbed creature for what it was: Some hideous approximation of a spider, much larger than it had any right to be, its motions terrifyingly abrupt.
Athechelt's resolve crumbled the instant two narrow limbs cut into the ground beside him, his feathers bristling, eyes wide.
[03:39] Shyilun, with all their strategic scheming, had never scratched this monster. Dynash, with their destructive potential, had done it no harm. Some flavours of religion knew it as a god in its own right.
Athechelt had no training. His confidence extended to protecting his protégés from kaarua, a flock of aggressive birds, and perhaps a lone Nayabaru if fate forced his hand. A mythological apparition was quite beyond his ability – but he'd already stepped forward and the only way back was by stumbling back in blind panic.
So he did the worst thing he could do: He froze.
A third limb reached forward in a split second and snapped against him like a whip. He yelped, losing his footing, and in an effort to hold onto his staff fell to his side, awkwardly clutching at it. Instinct tried to roll him away once he touched the ground; but the limb that had flicked at him was quicker, stabbing down against his shoulder. He howled.
"Pranash," the Karesejat insisted.
Akuned prattled something in response that was far less intelligible than the crisp syllables spoken by the Weapon, or by Athechelt when he was hoping to be understood by Samanta.
The camouflaged monster rattled a little. "I have no interest in fighting these people; I don't suppose you can explain to them that it's neither in their best interest to attack me, nor morally necessary. They are, as always, reluctant to listen to me."
§ 2021-03-13 23:24:44
[23:24] Samanta had barely registered anything was happening by the time it was over. Athechelt was lying on the ground, obviously in crippling pain, paying the price for having placed himself between her and the god-killing monster. She just barely resisted the impulse to jump on the spider-thing and tear Athechelt from its grasp; it claimed it had no interest in hurting him, but apparently had not much interest in the opposite, either. A part of her would call it cowardice; another, common sense.
Disoriented by the event (had the Weapon planned it on purpose? Had it somehow induced or manipulated Athechelt into hopelessly attacking it for the sake of intimidation, or confusion?) Samanta answered straightfowardly and truthfully: "I don't- I don't speak their language, or they mine. Let- let him go!" And then, somewhat more softly, "Please let him go."
[23:59] Athechelt was uttering high-pitched whimpers, trying to start fitful writhing motions and aborting them each time the limb essentially began to cut through his skin in passive response to the motion. Akuned was hissing, bobbing her head, but not moving in to attack – likely a little too sane to make the same mistake the ryrhakenem had.
Or maybe just not the type to turn words into actions.
It was hard to be entirely sure that the Karesejat wasn't moving, given her split-second control of her camouflage, but she was likely holding still. The very tip of her limb was vaguely visible against Athechelt's feathers, not particularly looking like a spider's foot — more like a spear cut from bone or ivory, edges a little too round for a metal blade.
Abruptly, it pulled back, revealing a nasty gash cut into Athechelt's shoulder.
"Fair," the Karesejat said. "Until he attacks again."
The ryrhakenem awkwardly clung to his staff as he wound himself up onto his feet. It was clear from his body language he wanted nothing more than to run, but he resisted – and instead eased to Samanta's side again, partly trying to put himself between her and the monster he was clearly ill-equipped to protect against.
"N'aky genun, kavama," the Karesejat said to Athechelt. "Seteh zete-heche? Seteh szaseie'va na'ik?"
"Ne-luki," Athechelt said in a tone that couldn't decide whether it was deferential or contemptuous. "Zetu-miroie kem zetu-etha, ynaie, ochaie ta tapranaie."
"Zetu-mirosaye, rua, nebe ta'lechelu ochas. Zetu akyt'va kavkem'is," the Karesejat countered. "Na etha tel kiutar kel-ne'a kavkema." And then, to Samanta, she translated in the rough: "This ryrhakenem has the impression that I intend to steal you away and harm you. I've told him that these goals are not inseparable; I can strive to have you come with me without doing you any harm."
Then: "If you do not know their language, I can translate for you. What would you like to say?"
[00:29] How encouraging. One obvious choice would to tell Athechelt and the others not to endanger themselves uselessly by trying to protect her from an enemy they couldn't defeat in any case; if it ever became necessary, being torn apart by an alien spider would be unpleasant enough without having friends weighing on one's conscience. For some reason, though, Samanta didn't really trust the Weapon to convey that message accurately.
Still, the promise of intelligibility after what felt like an eternity of clumsy charades was a seductive one. Oh no. Was that the point? Had... it orchestrated that little scuffle to show off its translation skills and thereby tempt Samanta? No, that seemed excessive — a complicated explanation for a situation that didn't need one. Athechelt had merely been brave, and bold, and had acted to protect her.
She would have loved to know more about her feathered companions, but again she wouldn't trust anything she'd hear if the kavkema and Evenatra herself hadn't done so. As she thought of translations to beg for, different questions forced their way in front of any other thought.
"What are you, exactly? Why are you here? What do you want from me?"
[00:59] The synthetic chuckle was an unpleasant sound – not registering as gloating or boisterous, simply sufficiently surreal to spark a sense of dread somewhere in Samanta's gut. "I doubt my properties are of any interest to you, though I'm happy to divulge any you find sincerely interesting. There are many words that partially describe me, but none of them are particularly useful:
"A weapon. A general. A guardian. I protect the Nayabaru. The kavkema are understandably confused and assume instead I intend them and their friends harm. The Nayabaru certainly do, so it's not an unreasonable assumption. But unless they plot to attack my children or me, they have nothing to fear from me.
"I am here because your arrival interests me. I suspect my children could learn much from you and you could learn much from them. Your group was scattered, likely for strategic reasons, which I respect – but what do you hope to gain from this? As observed, you are on the run.
"And it makes sense that the kavkema do this, but not you. You might say I take some offence in it, in the same way you might take offence in, say, someone living in a shack when you've offered them a perfectly acceptable apartment they could live in, with no strings attached. It's unnecessary hardship.
"But to extend the analogy further, the other people living in shacks – those that were not invited – have convinced you that the offer is secretly poison. It doesn't matter that this is objective nonsense. The narrative is tainted. And you're naturally wary of someone who can destroy you with a flick of a limb, blind to the corollary that there's no need to deceive you if I wanted you any harm.
"Nonetheless, I will say it again – I invite you to join the rest of your crew. You are welcome to refuse, but naturally I consider it unwise and, if you'll forgive the judgement, somewhat childish. It does not follow that just because your present company means you no harm, that anyone else offering you sanctuary would secretly do."
Samanta had, of course, not voiced her paranoia, but it must have been obvious in her body language – or just in the nature of her questions. Or it was simply the result of the exchange between the Karesejat and Athechelt, either way.
§ 2021-03-27 23:42:36
[23:42] On the surface, there was nothing obviously false about all this. There wasn't anything obviously true either — certainly no hard evidence that she was more trustworthy than Evenatra. Samanta wasn't going to change her colors every time someone spoke with conviction, and run after whomever had spoken to her last. On the other hand, one should not stick too fast to whomever had spoken first. It was certainly possible for the Karesejat to be telling the truth, and although Evenatra's behavior had strongly suggested truthfulness, it wasn't wholly incompatible with sufficient skills in deceit, something that certainly weren't lacking on this planet.
Then again, the Karesejat had done much less to prove itself to Samanta. For one, it was a known murderer, more or less. And despite its alleged ability to locate Samanta anywhere on the planet, it had waited for her to be at her most isolated and vulnerable before showing up. Besides, she simply felt a strong reassurance from herself that she ought to have faith in Evenatra. After all you've been through. How silly, she thought — how much of it was because one looked like a graceful hoary feathered creature, and the other like a giant spider? To some extent, the revulsion that the Weapon roused in Samanta actually counted in its favor, as she had to allocate it some trust to counterbalance her insinctual dislike.
How silly, but true nonetheless. After all they'd been through in these paradoxically brief days, after all the risks Evenatra had taken personally to save their sorry alien hides, after Samanta had promised help or at least sympathy to her unhappy chosen species, how could she even consider for an eyeblink to trust a murderous monstrosity that had brought Evenatra and the kavkema nothing but grief and fear?
This Samanta could hardly say out loud. The Weapon probably knew what she was thinking, but hopefully it would forgive more easily what it didn't have to hear. "I... believe you said..." began Samanta, slowly and measuredly, "that the Nayabaru do mean the kavkema harm. What harm do they mean, exactly, and why? Does this include Valcen and his kind?" The Karesejat had allegedly killed one of them, after all. Let's see if it'll admit it.
[00:34] "My children are a bit slow to adapt to altered circumstances," the Karesejat explained, the tonal equivalent of a shrug in the synthetic voice. "A few centuries ago, the kavkema were an honest threat to the Nayabaru. Most of the habits the Nayabaru have about them these days were born of that time. I have no reason to try to make you believe it is either necessary or proportional – it is not.
"The Nayabaru are deeply aversed to murder and would not kill even their enemies. The kavkema find nothing worse than to be imprisoned for life, especially by a culture that doesn't care for their comfort, only dubiously recognises them as people and will gladly use them as resources in scientific development if it pleases them.
"Make no mistake, I don't mean to mislead you into thinking I particularly care about any of this. I exist to protect my people, not the kavkema. I dissuade the Nayabaru from their poor habits when it does them harm. Regardless, their quarrel is with the kavkema, not with you – nor will there be any quarrel unless you attempt to systematically attack and murder the Nayabaru."
A pause, so perfectly placed it underlined the near-invisible creature's nature as some kind of artificial construct. "Valcen is another matter." The creature rippled into view, causing the kavkema to shrink back automatically, and its size to become apparent – in its present resting state, feet on the ground and body loosely held aloft, the top of its carapace was somewhere at height of Samanta's clavicle.
"Valcen, you see, once came here to kill me. Suffice to say he failed. Yet rather than let my children treat what remains of him as they would a kavkem, I protect him, in exchange for his services." The voice was coming somewhere from the front of the creature's thorax, below the head.
It was clearly not a spider. The head looked like a cross between a spider and some mythological bull, its eight expressionless eyes in the wrong place, and with six chelicerae rather than two. Its exoskeleton had a strange texture, thought it was hard to put a finger on what made it strange in the shadows of the trees — no doubt an effect of the same mechanism that gave it the camouflage of an octopus.
"Now, which moral system would you like to hang me by?" it asked, pointedly. "Clearly you would like to. But what purpose does that serve? Should I judge your species by the cattle they keep to prepare their food? By the borders they draw to mow down those who seek to cross them? By the animals kept in captivity for their emotional pleasure? By the wars they wage with each other, lacking all intraspecies cohesion?
"I intend to do none of these things, as I trust you to be reasonable. I ask that you don't intentionally harm my children and I ask that you don't intentionally harm me. In turn, I mean you no harm and my children mean you no harm. It would serve you to join the rest of your crew with us.
"Indeed, if you take issue with Nayabaru handling of the kavkema and my handling of the Threadwielders, it stands to reason you would certainly do better if you made friends with us first."
[01:49] "I'm..." Samanta felt out of balance; too many threads, too many obstructions, as if each of the thing's spider legs had been attacking her. "I'm not here to advocate for my species. It's not the point—"
And what was the point, then? If it was being of help to the kavkema, well — the Weapon's last point was sound: human visitors had a unique ability to befriend the Nayabaru and mediate between the two species. But then why had't Evenatra done that? Was it simply beyond her abilities? Had the Weapon prevented her from doing so? (And, if so, why wouldn't it do the same with the humans?) Or had she simply refused, out of some principle or precommitment, to deal with the oppressor species?
There was something... unsettlingly defensive about the Karesejat's argument. It had remarked how merciful it was, allowing Valcen to live; it had turned against humanity accusations that Samanta hadn't even really expressed, as if to distract Samanta from its own faults. Evenatra hadn't argued like that; she had been much more straightforward. More vulnerable, even, as if she'd been confident that the visitors would come around to her side without pressure.
Still, this being had blood on its hands, and not (just?) the literal blood of a squishy flesh-and-bone creature. A straight refusal wasn't wise or safe, as they both knew. For that matter, lying to it was probably even less wise or safe. "... Look— I definitely don't intend to harm you or the Nyabaru, or anyone at all, for that matter... and I think that's the case for my human friends, too. If someone is scheming against the Nayabaru, I know nothing of it and I'm not planning to participate." Not now, that is, not for the sake of hurting them; though she didn't care much for that casual mention of 'using' the kavkema as 'resources'.
"... What we are trying is..." Take time. Think. Don't commit for or against, not yet. "...to get as wide as possible a view of this planet. Most of us are with Naybaru already. We are thinking... that at least one of us should keep in contact with free kavkema. It's a matter of..." Samanta's throat constricted, her body burned and itched under the suit. "... exploration. It's not our policy to interfere".
[03:15] The thing crept closer to Samanta, although at a pace that refused to feel threatening. Limbs set down at a generous distance, one each beside her. Athechelt had disappeared to behind her with a very soft, apologetic whimper.
"I know," the creature said. "And as much as it might surprise you, I encourage that. No one is going to imprison you or lock you up – but you are tired, your resources are running low, and we can help you. Try for one moment to see this from my perspective – you're running, exhausted, from something that isn't a threat to you. And you're—"
And here it stopped. For a moment, it held itself motionless, as eeriely still as though someone had turned off a machine.
"The nearest Nayabaru settlement is there," two limbs rose to point in a very particular direction. "You will be welcome there, to rest and regain your strength. Unfortunately, I need to cut this conversation short." The limbs near Samanta drew up and back, for a moment a mere slow, graceful stride. Then the whole creature rippled both into its eerie camouflage and into motion.
And then it was gone.
§ 2021-04-05 00:45:18
[00:45] Only then Samanta realized that all her body had been tense like a bowstring, barely allowing air into or out of her chest. She relaxed, collapsing onto her self, with a sigh of relief like an avalanche. She tasted oxygen again, and her muscles felt liquid for a moment. Still, for several seconds she dared not move, glancing around herself like a songbird or a rodent. Had the Weapon went away, or had it just returned invisible, and was it still watching her? Maybe there was no difference between the two — it didn't need to be close to Samanta to watch her.
Eventually she staggered back, her mind swarming. She saw her travel companions move again, and instantly regretted having lost another fellow English-speaker so quickly. I'll be welcome there — will I be welcome out, as well? At least she wasn't on the spot anymore. God, how she hated being on the spot. But she was going to be there again soon, no doubt about it. The thing did have a point: she was tired, and their resources were running low. She leaned against the treetrunk, and looked pointedly at Athechelt, Serademar, and Akuned, as if daring them to prove the Karesejat wrong. How much had they understood of their exchange?
[00:55] Even their body language seemed alien now, a sudden stark contrast to the ease of communication with the monstrous apparition; despite all her experience with birds, there was a threatening lack of certainty as she tried to interpret their posture. Were they confused and lost, or concerned for her? Were they afraid for whether she wanted to join the Nayabaru, or hoping she had been given new information, new options?
One thing was sure – the one called Akuned began stalking into the direction the Karesejat had disappeared into with a strange, manic energy, prompting the other newcomer to dart after her and grab her arm. They bickered at each other softly, the language unbearably opaque to Samanta.
Athechelt limped very slightly from his brief physical spat with the eerie creature, breathing in a soft pant that only just filtered through to Samanta's perception. He pressed his torso to the ground and held his head low, murmuring something, perhaps apologising profusely – although for what in light of the Karesejat's sheer force was anyone's guess.
[01:47] Samanta crouched on the grass just in front of Athechelt, and briefly considered petting his head, for her own benefit as much as his. Bur even that felt too intimate for that situation, and she surmised Athechelt wasn't in the mood for any contact right now. She said, in the softest and still firmest voice she could muster, barely keeping it from cracking: "Thank— you for everything you're doing for us. I'm sorry we're turning out to be such a bother to you. I appreciate your help very much". Who knew how much of that would come through.
Akuned's courage was impressive. Samanta half-wished she share it, although she was sure it would only shorten her lifespan considerably. She stood up again, and bade Athechelt rise after her with a little gesture of her hands. Staying still was always stressful for their little expendition, and that particular place felt especially unfriendly. She longed for rest, as always in those days, but they would take it elsewhere. "Let's go, will we?"