[03:12] The Nayabaru had been highly nervous about Samanta's disappearance. It took much of Saira's poor linguistic grasp to calm them back down. She remembered Valcen's warning, of course: "For now, I leave you with the sincere advice to avoid all contact or implication of contact with the kavkema."
Instead, it became her foundation to explain that she, too, as well as Jason, would have to return to the landing site.
Communicating all this hadn't feel like much of an achievement, as gestures had done most of the work for her and she still wasn't sure if she even understood what parts of the Nayabaru language did what, but it had gotten results. They'd been brought back to the landing site.
Of course, Samanta was not there, and neither was Greg. The Nayabaru noticed. Saira tried to explain that the human mission was to explore – that they were likely off somewhere. What little one could make out of the tracks confirmed her statements, thankfully – the 'raptors had evidently kept their distance to the landing site while Samanta and Greg restocked.
It took Saira and Jason a whole hour to switch out everything – filters for air and water, sanitation, the ultra compact food that could keep them going for a few weeks before it would make them ill. It all felt tedious and unnecessary, though both of them were educated enough to know the very familiarity of the landscape outside was precisely what made it necessary.
The Nayabaru decided to set up camp at the landing capsule despite the arid landscape. Within half a day, a tent shielded them all, along with their mounts, from the worst of the sun's heat.
She'd brought a book. Written in a vexingly compact script without immediately obvious spacing or punctuation, it was only so helpful in guiding through how the vocalisations corresponded to classes of words, even with the one Nayabaru she'd spent the most time speaking to gesturing at words as they were rumbled.
Rumbled. That still seemed like the right way to describe the Nayabaru language. A deep, throaty language, sometimes sounding as if it was just at the edge of human hearing – although that couldn't be factually true, they weren't nearly large enough to speak in infrasound. The subjective impression remained.
At least vicinity to the capsule meant that she could eat better food than what her helmet was capable of disgorging and leave the emergency rations for actual emergencies.
A shame Samanta and Greg had no such luxuries.
It was three days later toward the evening, with dusk beginning to colour the horizon, led by a Nayabaru on one of the gazelle-like mounts, that Valcen arrived.
It was immediately obvious that it was him, although his appearance came as a surprise. Striding with an alien confidence across the barren desert ground was a kavkem, though with a kind of scarf wrapped around his neck and shoulders, a vivid purple banner the ends of which dangled off his arms.
In his wake came another bundle of feathers, posture considerably more tense – enough that Saira could make it out from a distance. A friend? An assistant? In either case, another kavkem unafraid of the Nayabaru.
Once the visitor was close enough to speak without shouting, he dipped his muzzle down and spread his clawed forepaws, palms upward – a posture Saira hadn't seen either sophont species make so far. Almost human.
The voice that spoke was eeriely pitched, but shockingly crisp, a jarring disconnect between the verbal and visual: "I guess I shouldn't have expected you to be anything other than terrible at staying put." His muzzle lingered in a half-open state, as though perhaps grinning – his tone had been friendly, possibly amused. "I'm Valcen. Thanks for waiting for me."
Saira had expected many things – including the possibility of some stray, stranded, confused human. She had not expected a creature native to the planet to speak fluent English, with a trace of an accent that linguistically placed him somewhere between Indian and British English.
It felt at both odds with and like an appropriate rendition of the statement from the message: 'In brief, know that I am neither human, Nayabaru, nor kavkem.'
"I expect you have a lot of questions," the kavkem-look-alike panted, blinking a little against the fading desert light. "While I'm regrettably not omniscient..." – he let his tongue loll out for a moment, suggesting a very specific gripe – "...I should be able to answer a lot of them, though be warned I might counter with some of my own. Sound good?"
[06:32] It was a long three days that passed while Samanta and Greg were elsewhere, and Saira and Jason languished at their ship. Attempting to continue the language lessons, her primarly function on the mission, was not entirely unpleasant as it meant she could be working as she was supposed to. Progress was made in millimeters and agonizingly slow. Were it not for what appeared to be an inexhaustible wellspring of patience, she would have gone mad in the interim while they waited to meet this Valcen. Expectations were high and mysteries swirled about the prospective encounter. Focusing on work was a worthy distraction, but in the quiet hours, she found her mind continually going back to the questions that danced through her thoughts. There were no answers, or at least no satisfactory answers that she could piece together on the scant crumbs of knowledge she had of this place and those that inhabited it. How had Valcen come to know English? It couldn't be that all those stories of alien abduction were true. That just seemed crude and not at all among the interests of the creatures they had met so far. Anal probing? The technology just wasn't there for it. Whenever she ran into a wall with the language lessons, or when her anxieties tormented her with questions, she just had to imagine the little green men that supposedly came from across the stars to stick things in the evolved monkeys. The comical image was enough to alleviate some of the pressure, depending on how long she allowed it to sit unchallenged. No, the only thing she could expect out of Valcen was his seemingly masterful command of the English language. But how that came to be was a prime question that she would have to unearth the answer for. When the appointed time finally arrived, it was when she least expected it, some three terrible days later. As the sun lowered itself to its rest, one of the Nayabaru came striding forth, leading not only their mounts, but the dignitary in question. Saira made a pretty picture of standing there agape. Given the reaction of the other raptorial sorts, that there were two in the presence of the Nayabaru was nothing less than a shock, but the deference they showed to at least one of them indicated that this could only be -the- Valcen. All imagery of green men fled. Remarkably natural English flowed from the creature's lips, introducing himself, even maknig a sort of half joke, though the muzzle and its rows of teeth were not what she would consider welcoming. She allowed him to speak, or in reality, was simply shocked by the juxtaposition of visual and speech. Trying to cover up with a sudden display of manners, she gave him a little wave but it was clear she was just going through the jerking motions that granted semblance as real life. "I'm Saira, and I have so many questions." She snapped her teeth shut on more, not wanting to suddenly gush like some giddy school girl.
[14:20] Valcen had by now crossed the last metres necessary for a courteous talking distance, the mount of the Nayabaru that had led him to the landing site looming beside them, the Nayabaru perched on it moreso. He glanced up at the Nayabaru, perhaps uneasily, perhaps to ask them to leave.
Indeed, words were exchanged – in the Nayabaru's language, opaque to her, but no less fluent coming from Valcen than his English.
She could make out a word she was sure meant 'with', and one she was reasonably sure meant 'run', but she hadn't gotten far enough with the language to make any sense of the rest of the rumbled speech; in Valcen's case, a full octave higher, for want of a torso to produce anything deeper.
Then he brought his gaze back around to Saira and extended one three-fingered forepaw to her in a disconcertingly human gesture. "Welcome to Nekenalos, Saira," he said. "I'm honestly glad we get to meet. You have dibs on the first question. Go ahead."
[18:53] Now they stood across from one another, in comfortable talking distance. She didn't know what to make of the kavkem that could speak English. He seemed to be quite the linguist, also having mastered the Nayabaru language at some point. The deference with which they treated him suggested he was some sort of dignitary or otherwise Important Person, but the nuances would not be learned without plunging straight into it. Saira nodded to him vaguely, obviously distracted by her thoughts, but still paying mind to his words. His usage of 'dibs' and correctly was so off putting. So human from such an alien mouth. Better get used to it because this Valcen was not going away. Pursing her lips, she considered her first question but the one hammering at her was 'How the hell do you know English?' Which seemed impertinent and not at all the most important of all the things she could ask. She repeated the name of this place, 'Nekenalos' carefully and quietly to herself, trying to mimic his inflection as she tasted the word. "How did Nekenalos come to be in Earth's orbit?" Let's start at the top. Saira could work her way up to the English speaking kavkem.
[19:14] Valcen chuckled softly, though the sound betrayed a certain tiredness. "Right to the point, I see," he quipped, casting his gaze aside as though to form a response. Gradually, it became apparent that he wasn't just speaking her verbal language – he was speaking human body language as well, to the degree that it translated into his appearance at all.
"If you don't mind me skipping the physical underpinnings for now: I moved it out of the way of a cosmic catastrophe. Earth's orbit was the closest place I could put it – a mere forty light years, connected by something much like a worm hole.
[19:15] "But 'how' is such an insiduous word, isn't it? I just told you, in abstract, what I did to to put the planet here. I skipped a wealth of details you'd need to understand it, but even if I hadn't, there's more to the question. If I can move a planet, why not protect it from the catastrophe in some other way? Indeed, why the suddenness of the move?
"And why is there a worm hole between this stellar system and wherever we came from? Are there more of that sort? Why haven't they been detected?" Valcen casually hypothesised questions. Again, his face tried to approximate a smile, somewhat giving him the appearance of a panting dog.
"The word you would use to answer some of these questions is: Politics. Politics moved this planet here. Politics made it possible to move the planet here. Politics threatened it in the first place. Eventually I'll tell you more about the politics, but right now I imagine we have more mundane things to speak about."
A pause, just long enough to let his gaze travel across her suit in a skim. "I'll admit I was expecting the CNSA, not ESA – which would have been awkward, since I never stopped to learn Chinese." More smiling. "Mind you, those suits are not actually necessary, though I understand why you'd think so."
[19:28] Valcen was a chatty sort of person, it seemed. He -moved- the planet. Forty light years, he said, but that seemed impossible within the scope of human ingenuinity and technology. She stood there, somewhat agog at the nature of what he was saying. It was unfathomable, and nothing of her mission debriefing or training had prepared her for the sheer what the fuck is going on that was actually going around.
This was displayed in a nervous laugh, like he was the old racist uncle at holiday telling some exceedingly uncomfortable joke that she had to politely react to. Surely, Valcen was insane, but then again, this was all insane. "You moved a -planet-?" she said, her voice weak as she forced the words off her tongue. Seeking something rational to do to try to reset her breaking mind, she looked down at her wrist panel. Just had to check it was recording this exchange and relaying it back to the ship for storage. Her mouth felt dry with the sudden exposition she was given. "Are these uh.. politics something we're about to get wrapped up in?" He insinuated little danger or drama, but surely if there was some catastrophic event that had precipitated the move of an entire planet into the orbit of another planet, and it was all chalked up to politics, then Earth was surely also in danger now.
[19:38] "You're already wrapped up in them, unfortunately," Valcen commented, with a matter-of-fact solemnity. "In fact, you may have the questionable pleasure of being this planet's life extension as long as you're here – something I personally am very invested in, being a little... stranded on this world.
"But the fortunate detail about the political circumstances is that no one on any side of the playing field wants to hurt your species. You're not in any danger, although I'm sure some of the participants in this tedious game will try very hard to convince you that the opposite is true."
He tilted his head, blinking, running his tongue along the edge of his teeth briefly. "I'm sorry – it is a bit much, isn't it? But I thought it might be rude to skip the question simply because it has the most complex possible answer I'm likely to give you. Do you want to sit down? We can take this slow."
[19:53] Yeouch. Being told that they were already caught up in an alien world's politics, where apparently, supposedly, they had the technology or the means to move entire planets forty light years was not the most comforting thing. Valcen wasn't trying to be comforting, just candid, but that set Saira's nerves on the razor's edge and about to fall into an abyss of extreme anxiety and worry. She was trying to keep her shit together because this was not the time to have a breakdown about the implications of all of this. This was not what she had been expecting, but what could she really reasonably expect in this whole scenario? "Yes, it's quite a lot to process," she admitted a bit snappishly, though she managed to look apologetic for her response. "Sorry. Bit nerve wracking this all is, you know?"
Despite his reassurances that the suits weren't needed, she made no move to remove her helmet, or otherwise break the carefully maintained seals. Her O2 levels were good, and all of the filters appeared to be working, having changed them out fresh earlier that afternoon. "We're gonna have to take it slow, if that's all the same to you, because this is... this is much, much more than I think I can process at once. How did you learn English? It's almost impeccable."
[20:17] Valcen seemed about to respond, when the Nayabaru he had been brought by grunted a few things, nudging at the rucksack-like contraption Valcen bore on his back near his hips with one of those trident-like staves that seemed common in the Nayabaru.
Valcen glanced up at the Nayabaru, blinking again against the desert light. Words frustratingly opaque to Saira were exchanged – something that sounded like an apology, perhaps, or a generic excuse.
Then he brought his attention back down and explained: "Sorry, the Nayabaru aren't very... patient with me. They can't understand what we're saying. That makes them nervous."
He folded his hands, glancing down at them as though making sure they interlocked correctly despite the anatomical difficulties of mimicking that particular gesture. "As I said in my message," he began, only slowly peeling his gaze back up from his hands. "I'm not a kavkem, any more than I'm a Nayabaru, or a human being.
"But I did spend a while in all of these cultures, as one of their own. Up until around sixty Earth years ago, I spent three decades as a human. English was still very fresh in my mind when—" He stopped himself. "No. Taking it slow. Let's keep it simple for now: I haven't forgotten English. And here you are – and I'm glad I haven't forgotten it. It's good that we can talk."
[21:02] Just as the Nayabaru were uneasy about the conversation in English, the same could be said of the conversation that Saira couldn't understand. What did they discuss? The words were too fast and too foreign for her to decipher with her nascent linguist skills. She was patient because there was nothing else she could do about it. As unobtrusively as possible, she claimed a seat on the nearest appropriate spot, be it ground or fallen tree, whatever suited the purpose. He repeated the same gist of the message: he was none of the lifeforms that she had met here, or knew on Earth. That made her quite uneasy, because it suggested another unknown element. Then she was reminded of the fact that he claimed to have moved Nekenalos forty light years and into Earth's orbit.
"Yes. It would have taken weeks to establish a real dialogue with the Nayabaru," she conceded, even though she was obviously still dubious about not only what he was, but what that meant for the team. Valcen wasn't exactly dodging her questions, but she couldn't help but sense that there was so much left unsaid. "How were you able to live as 'one of their own'? Do you have the technology to implant consciousness into other bodies?"
How would that even work? Saira tried to rationalize it with the technology she was familiar with, and there was nothing that remotely came close to it. If everything Valcen was confiding in her was true, then he was of some sufficiently advanced race of beings that could perform miracles of science. That was terrifying. "If you can do all this, why take this form?"
[21:17] The nearest suitable surface was a stout, wind-weathered rock. Valcen cautiously eased himself into a sit near enough for polite company, his limbs practically disappearing under his feathers. His kavkem companion huddled close to his hips, watching Saira with a far more primal curiosity.
He answered her last question first. "When I initially took this form, I chose it for reasons of mobility. Nayabaru are very much bound to their own communities and predefined roles, it would have made it difficult to get anything done. But currently I'm a little stranded in it.
"You ask whether we have 'the technology to implant consciousness into other bodies'. In brief, yes. It's generally frowned upon to do this to adult sophonts – rude, if you will. I incarnated into a human when I took a human form and I incarnated into a kavkem when I took a kavkem form – that is to say, there was never any other conscious mind in there to displace.
"Unfortunately, looking like a kavkem means the Nayabaru I encounter are biased against me. Though these help," he commented, unearthing one arm from under his torso and pointing at the banner-like scarf around his neck with a delicate finger. "Have the Nayabaru been treating you well, though?"
[21:26] They sat and chatted like old friends on this nearby rock, like the circumstances of their meeting wasn't utterly and completely bizarre. Trying to make some sort of normalcy of the moment appeared as a coping mechanism and nothing more. There was nothing normal about any of this. She was on an alien world now sharing the Earth's orbit and speaking to some manner of creature that could not only change its body when the mood struck, but had apparently been on Earth at the turn of the millennium. Saira nodded as if she understood what Valcen was saying about implanting his consciousness into other bodies. She was not entirely doubtful of his etiquette about what creatures made the best... hosts? He called it rude, but what did that really mean to a being such as he? She could only wonder what the scarf meant and whether or not this was some demonstrable way to declare an affiliation with someone higher up on the pecking order. "Yes, they've been gracious hosts. As helpful as they can be." After all, they had escorted herself and Jason back to the ship so they could replenish their filters and sustenance. Saira couldn't really call the goop 'food'. "I was making slow progress with their language, but most of it still escapes me. I don't suppose you have a Rosetta Stone sort of volume that might help?" she asked with hope colouring her voice. Then realizing he might not know what that was, she added, "You know, something written in their language, and the same text in English?"
[21:41] "I do, in fact! ...although I didn't think to bring it with me, brilliant idiot that I am," he sighed, grimacing awkwardly. "But yes – a few months ago I compiled a dictionary translating between Kendaneivash, Naya and English vocabulary, mostly to fortify my own knowledge of the tongues.
"The grammars of Naya or Kendaneivash are reasonably simple, though I'm sure you've picked up on that already." It was, of course, the first time she had heard the languages given their formal names, though it was easy to deduce which was which – that Naya was the language of the Nayabaru, and Kendaneivash perhaps that spoken by the kavkema.
Although quite possibly it was the native language of whatever species Valcen belonged to – though no doubt he didn't have to write that one down.
[21:42] "It may help you understand Naya to know that Naya used to be Kendaneivash. It's morphed over several thousands of years, in part deliberately, in part naturally. So the two languages have much in common and if you know the vocabulary of one, you can sometimes guess at the equivalent word in the other."
He glanced back up at the Nayabaru, grumbling a few things up at it – no doubt some kind of brief summary of the conversation at hand. The Nayabaru gave a sceptical-sounding snort, but did not jab at Valcen or his rucksack again, evidently content to let him and Saira simply speak for now.
[22:24] 'Kendaneivash' was quite the mouthful of a name by comparison to 'Naya'. It sucked that he hadn't thought to bring the language primer, but it was what it was. Assuming this was the beginning of a working relationship, there might be time to get a hold of it later. There was something off putting about Valcen, though she couldn't quite put her finger on it.
Of course, it was quite weird to be holding a conversation with someone in English, who also looked like an evolved sort of raptorial dinosaur. That he was even making an attempt at human like gestures set off the warning bells on their own. His mimicry, or if he had spent thirty years on Earth as he claimed, perhaps slightly natural gestures, were very strange. She schooled her features into the polite, if not trepidatious overcast that she could not banish, expression.
"That will simplify some things," she said of the languages and the fact that Kendaneivash and Naya shared a root language and thus, grammar. Suddenly, she wished for her tablet so she could note these things down. Saira had to be satisfied with making a verbal note to her recorder while Valcen updated the nervous Nayabaru nearby. "Why did you spend time on Earth? Were you always intending to make contact? There were less dramatic ways to do that than moving a whole planet." For the moment, Saira took it on faith that Valcen did as he claimed.
[22:31] "No contact, no. With no disrespect intended, I had no particular interest in your planet. I came to Nekenalos to help a friend, but after initial scouting felt ill equipped to give assistance entirely on my own.
"Instead I left Nekenalos for Earth, which happened to be the closest planet with another of my kin to recruit. It was that which tied the planets' fates together," Valcen explained.
The Nayabaru on his mount rumbled something down at Valcen that sounded like an instruction.
Valcen's face crinkled slightly. "Ah, yes. The Nayabaru would like me to get on with the agenda. They would like me to ask if you and your associates would be willing to join me heading back to Katal. Katal, you see, is something you might consider the capital city of the entire planet, for lack of any better analogy to describe its scope.
"I'm admittedly not sure how to describe the relative location of the coastal stretch it's nestled into. North-east, north-west and south-west are all appropriate, depending on your definition of 'north', 'east' and 'west'." He chuckled, then elaborated, secure in the knowledge that he was talking to a linguist:
"Electromagnetically, you see, it's north from here. By solar hemispheres and their correspondence to those of Earth, it's also north from here. But if you define north and south relative to 'east' and 'west' and those in turn by where the sun rises and sets... then it's south-west. Geography gets complicated you're talking to someone whose planet spins the other way."
[22:40] Perhaps it was benevolence on his part to say that he had no interest in Earth. Maybe he was lying, but she couldn't hear the tells of deception in his voice, and forget body language. Despite how he gave a pale facsimile of human gestures, there was nothing to betray a lie that she could easily decipher. The mention of other kin sent her mind spinning as thoughts of aliens infiltrating various parts of human society ran rampant.
They were interrupted by the Nayabaru, who though they could not understand the English conversation, seemed to have some understanding of not getting to the point. Valcen put to her this invitation, though she had to wonder if this was more instruction if they refused. While she was intensely curious, it would not be acceptable to just venture off with the not-kavkem without a by your leave from the rest of the team.
It would also entail trusting Valcen's assessment that the suits weren't needed. She, or they, should anyone be joining her could pack food. These thoughts rapidly fired in her brain just long enough to miss his rueful remarks about noting directions in geography with a different spin on its axis. "Let's just settle with electromagnetically until a cartographer decides to change it," she decided on the fly for the sake of ease. "I'm sure your invitation is well meaning, but it's something the team and I would have to discuss." It wasn't that Saira was passing off responsibility. It was just foolish to go off into the alien world with an alien host without even running it by the rest of those on the mission with her.
[22:52] "By all means," Valcen nodded. Saira had seen enough of the kavkema to know what Valcen was doing was unmistakably a human gesture – the kavkema swerved their muzzles to agree. Nodding was human. "Do you want to confer about it privately, back in the capsule – or is it better if I'm there to answer questions?"
[22:57] It wasn't exactly that she had anything to hide, but admitting to the man-raptor-not-kavkem-creature that she had some misgivings about the invitation. He seemed well meaning, but didn't they say that the road to hell was paved with good intentions? Or something. She managed a polite, pleasant smile to him. "I think we'll need to discuss it privately. Will you be remaining here for a brief time or are you expected back? If you're staying, we can ask you questions."
[23:02] "Yeah, I'll be right here. I anticipate that the Nayabaru won't be happy about staying here another night, but what can you do? We wouldn't realistically travel at night anyway, so they're almost surely staying here another night in either case," Valcen observed, shruggling his feathered shoulders lightly.
"Can I tell you anything about Katal or about accommodations that will help you form your collective decision?"
[23:07] So there was roughly a day or so that they had to discuss about whether or not the human delegation would travel to this Katal. It wasn't a lot of time, especially with Samanta and Greg out doing their thing. Saira really didn't want to make this decision alone, especially with how -off- everything felt about the entire situation. An English speaker claiming to move planets, transfer consciousness into other bodies, but not be any of the known, sentient beings. It was frightful when put all together like that. "If it's the uh, capital city, that begs to reason that there's someone in charge." Given the Nayabaru escort, she assumed that it was another of the sort and didn't bother asking. "Is that who we could be expected to be meeting? Or some delegation of their own? How far away is Katal? Are there even safe foods for humans to eat? You said that the suits weren't necessary, but sustenance is another question altogether."
[23:16] "The Nayabaru are quite good at medical and nutritional science. In anticipation of a human arrival, I asked them to research on mammals as well – naturally their focus in the past has been on saurians.
"I understand it's daunting to trust yourself to an alien species you can only indirectly speak to at the moment, but if you trust my word at all, know that I have an absolute faith in their ability to keep you at peak health for as long as you wish it," Valcen summarised. "You'll be okay. And if for some reason the Nayabaru themselves should falter, I can help."
[23:19] It did not go without notice that he avoided the question of who or what were in charge of this Nayabaru city of Katal. But in reality, the nutritional needs of the humans making a protracted trip on the word of Valcen took precidence. Saira nodded, and filed the information away for future reference, but wasn't exactly what anyone would called reassured. There were only so many supplies they could bring from the capsule. "Would we be free to leave if we were to go to Katal? I understand that someone, or someones, would like to make our acquaintance, or so it sounds, but would we be prisoners there?" She asked him directly, but whether or not she could expect a real answer in response was another concern altogether. He could just lie. He could be lying this whole time and she might never know until it was too late and they were suddenly lab rats, literally, in some sorta-dinosaur's experiments.
[23:25] "It's an infrastructural question, really," Valcen explained. "This is the middle of nowhere. I have only half of my own equipment at my disposal here. Anyone who wishes to meet you can also come here, but it's quite a way away from anywhere else of interest. Katal is just the logical place to settle for a longer cultural exchange.
"To answer your other question – of course you'd be free to leave. It would hardly be the hospitable thing to keep you against your will. As I said, no one on this cosmic playing field wishes your species any harm." It was all quite matter-of-factly delivered, in an almost casual tone, nothing suggesting that he was perhaps trying to cover up for anything.
[23:30] Well, the linguist had to have an open mind about things. She -wanted- to see Katal now that she knew about it. She wanted to get her hands on a copy of Valcen's language primer so she could establish a command of the languages used on this strange planet. Those goals would further the mission, but she couldn't make the decision alone. "Were you travelling three days to reach us? We got your message then." But he might have been in transit even longer than that. It was quite the long distance to escape from, especially with unknown, inhospitable conditions between here and there. Saira frowned at the thought, but smoothly covered it up. "I don't know what the others would say... but I think we should discuss these things first."
[23:48] "About three days, yes, good guess," he confirmed. "All in all we lost the first twenty-four hours after your landing to preparations, but actual travel time took us approximately three days. It would be much longer by mount and an impossible journey on foot – but we came quite some of the way by rail, which speeds things up."
The Nayabaru once more gave some rumbled commentary, glancing down at Valcen with a vivid facial expression Saira could still barely place, but seemed almost suspicious. There was, perhaps, more to the interaction between the Nayabaru and Valcen beyond a simple 'bias against' Valcen based on his appearance of a kavkem.
But again, he hardly seemed to be trying to hide anything – there was just a lot to talk about and only so much verbal bandwidth to do it in.
Valcen's gaze snapped from its attention on the Nayabaru to the human, his eyes widening. "Apologies, please hold that thought. The local Nayabaru tell me there were more humans that haven't returned in three days and wants me to ask about them."
An edge of something very distantly related to fear touched his voice. "...please tell me honestly: Did they rendezvous with the 'raptors?"
It was striking that he called them that – 'raptors, not kavkema. Like Samanta, he was avoiding that sequence of syllables. Was he trying not to tip the Nayabaru off that he had that hunch?
[00:31] He had left rather explicit instructions that they were to remain here and not travel. He had also mentioned not making contact with the 'raptors', which was precisely what the other members of the team were attempting to do. Humans were so curious, and they were suspicious by nature. No one could blame them for a bit of skepticism when it came to believing Valcen's recorded message. That had been so strange and off putting that it was hard to explain that it had the exact opposite effect than what had been intended. Saira had the good grace to look somewhat chagrinned at his question, but did not want to put the others into danger by admitting what they had done. Her hesitation stretched into a pregnant pause that indicated far more than she would've cared to admit to him.
[00:44] With a very human gesture, Valcen exhaled into a sigh. "I doubt we can keep that a secret," he told Saira. "I can shield you from the associated fall-out, but understand that there's a very, very large cultural rift between these two species. These others of your crew – they've done the equivalent of treason, and your hosts are not as... mentally flexible as you or I about this."
He sounded rather crinkled; not directly distressed – so perhaps the situation was possible but messy to salvage. "May I tell them about it... or would you rather I try to tell them a plausible lie?"
[00:48] His words only confirmed what they had been hypothesizing about the two species they had encountered. While there was no knowing exactly the nature of such rifts or entanglements, it was enough to know that they had committed a grevious error in the eyes of their hosts. It was hard to read Valcen, but he seemed less bothered by the knowledge than she would've expected, given his warnings and dire explanation. Torn between wanting to hide it, and wanting to be up front, she was presented with a choice that would have far flung ramifications for the team of explorers. It was a lot of pressure for someone who was not a commanding officer. "A lie will eventually be found out," she said, more to herself than to him. "Better to be honest about it, so it's not found out later." Which seemed a good deal more precarious a situation in the future. Saira hoped she was doing the right thing, that this blunder wouldn't damn members of the team to some horrible death.
[01:13] Valcen seemed to consider his options with signs of nervousness obvious even to Saira – his feathers puffing repeatedly, only to settle back down, almost in time with his breath. Regardless, he remained seated, sandwiched between the rock and his rucksack, looking like a very strange bird as he canted his muzzle up to his Nayabaru companion.
Words Saira couldn't dream to make out in full spilt from Valcen – but there were vague, familiar fragments. She thought she could identify the word for humans by now, or whatever stand-in word the Nayabaru were using for them. Kavkema was an obvious one by now – the 'raptors. Some derivative of the word knowledge or know appeared.
The Nayabaru snorted sceptically, then glanced across at Saira as though hoping to find the truth in her body language. Perhaps it was trying to assess whether or not Valcen was lying. Was that a threat from their perspective? That Valcen would misrepresent the humans to harm them?
Valcen said a few more things – some of it seemed at least partly a repetition of what he had said before. The Nayabaru responded with its impossibly deep voice, the occasional syllable almost at the edge of what Saira could make out as anything more than a background hum.
The expressive faces of the Nayabaru was proving to be such an oddity – it had just enough in common with a human face that it was obviously misleading in its cues. But by now, Saira knew enough about it to understand, at least consciously, that this Nayabaru was unhappy.
Valcen began to say: "I told them that some of your crew—"
The Nayabaru poked at him, prompting him to glance back up, squeaking some objection. Another curt exchange, more temporarily puffing feathers; then Valcen's attention was allowed to settle back on Saira.
"I told them that some of your crew is travelling with the kavkema, but that they're doing so because they didn't know any better." A pause. "The Nayabaru are still deciding whether they want to believe that – but make no mistake, the question of belief is whether I'm telling the truth at all. As I said, my appearance causes some communicative problems.
"Understand, you and those of you here now almost surely have nothing to worry about. I'm more concerned about those of your crew that aren't here – in my experience the Nayabaru will try to... find them. There's no way you can contact them, is there? Or you would have done so already."
[02:52] Other than the instructions left behind by Valcen via recording, they didn't really know any better. It was mostly true, and hopefully delivered in such a way that it was not doubted. Though given the thorough tongue lashings the Nayabaru were inflicting on the poor creature, it didn't seem like they were that fortunate. Keeping her expression as neutral as she could, she tried not to betray the small deception, though she wasn't sure how well the Nayabaru were able to read human body language. The suit was cloaking a lot of the pheremone cues that might have been put off by any distress she was feeling. Maybe they were clueless about reading mammalian responses. One could hope. Nodding to Valcen, she tacitly agreed with the deception. "They didn't know any better, they had departed before we returned with the message." It was a half truth at best, as Samanta had definitely heard the message. 'Almost surely have nothing to worry about' left a lot of gaps in it. Shaking her head, she responded in the negative to his question. "Nothing reliable across a vast distance, unfortunately." Not a lie, it was delivered with more fervor than previous statements.
[03:21] Valcen seemed to consider the revelation in private for a moment, picking at the ends of his purple scarf with his claws.
Perhaps it would be best to ask him more questions about this 'cultural divide' at some point – it was, after all, the closest thing that Saira had come to know about as a threat to humans so far. It was clear both the kavkema they met initially and now Valcen were uneasy around the Nayabaru.
Of course, perhaps it was strictly mutual and she was misinterpreting behavioural cues. Samanta would be able to help, if she were here; no doubt she'd be going off on evolutionary tangents for hours on end if given the opportunity.
Hopefully she was okay.
Finally Valcen thawed out of his awkward silence. "I apologise," he said, finally, his tone light. "That was a little heavier than I wanted to lay on you. We have so much more to learn of each other, these cultural politics are just an unfortunate distraction. You were, though, going to convene with your crew, about Katal. I can still recommend that.
"Indeed, the further we can get from the rest of your crew, the more likely the Nayabaru might yet lose interest in their little... excursion. Would the others of your crew be all right if you travel?"
[03:39] They both sat in awkward silence for a few breaths there, as they tried to act normal in front of creatures that didn't know what that looked like. Well, maybe they understood the kavkema normal more than the suited human normal. She was still uneasy about agreeing to any excursion three days away, for multiple reasons. Communication with the rest of the crew was definitely primary on that list. Despite his assurances that atmosphere and nutritional needs would be seen to, she was naturally wary of that. But if it would keep the Nayabaru from 'finding' the others with the kavkema, it might be a worth while trade off. Besides, the linguist could cite it as a chance to learn about the cultural divide, and practicing her nascent language skills. Saira considered the prospect and glanced back towards the shuttle they had made their landing in. Toggling on the communication line to the ship, she spoke into the mic on the inside of her helmet. "Hey guys, it's me. Valcen's here and extended an invitation to a city a few days away. And he has implied that doing so will alleviate the pressure of our hosts from searching out the rest of the crew with the uh... raptors. Which seems a compelling reason to go. He has assured me," and here Saira's voice implied relative doubt, "that they will be able to see to my dietary needs. I can bring a solar powered recorder to record my travels..." The linguist was attempting to be brave about the whole thing, but a thread of trepidation crept into her tone.
[03:46] Valcen listened to Saira's recounting, nodding along lightly in that misplaced human mannerism of his, right up until she began to speak of nutritional concerns – then he perked up, raising a limb to gesture, gently, for attention.
"The invitation is meant for your whole crew. Neither I nor the Nayabaru would ask you to split any further," he commented, soft-spoken. "And as far as I'm concerned, that is especially true if we want the benefit of distracting our friendly hosts away from the cultural mishap."
[19:29] Doubting that the microphone in her helmet would be able to clearly record Valcen's comments, she paraphrased. "The invitation is extended to the whole crew," she added, as if that wasn't implied. It was not wise to split the group any further than it was, but it looked like that might be inevitable. Saira was feeling a rather distinct pressure to going, if only for the fact that it would reduce the possibility of those with the kavkema would remain unmolested by the Nayabaru that wanted to seek them out. That she was nervous was a given, her expression frowning in concern. "Because definitely not the greatest idea to go off alone." She took what Valcen said at face value, having no compelling reason to trust this apparently awesome creature that could change its form, but also having no real choice in the matter, given the safety concerns of the rest of the crew.
[19:47] Valcen's message itself had not carried, but Saira's extended remarks had of course reached the inside of the vessel. It was Jason who responded after a moment's silence. "Valcen's there?" It was more of an acknowledgement than anything else. "Just a moment."
There was a bit more silence – conversation, no doubt, about the risks and benefits.
Then: "Looks like consensus is we go; we can learn much more about this world in a city than here on Pioneer Plateau. But I'd like to talk to Valcen first, and we should definitely take the rover."
The rover was a solar-powered vehicle with a light frame and a range of nearly a hundred kilometres per day. Given a fairly extensive surface area, it was an 'unpack once' item – they wouldn't be taking it back home, it would be impossible to decontaminate.
Of course, there was also no reason to take it back home – data gathering was done through other means. The rover was just to get around and to better transport some luggage. It had backup communication that might be able to send short bursts of communication to the orbiter, and from there to ESA.
It was also a potential way to escape to a bit of a distance if things got rough – a small consolation prize on a planet where they were, nearly at any point in time, sitting ducks, until they could collect and connect the fuel drops from an approximate mile radius to their lander.
That kind of flight plan would take time. It couldn't be done by one or two people alone. And the entire purpose why they had come to this planet was to learn about it. As daunting as the idea to travel that far might be, there was no use simply being paranoid about it.
[20:12] Taking the rover was an excellent idea, and if no one actually said, 'it's our get away car', they should be in the clear. Whether or not they could actually get away if necessary, it remained to be seem. But 100km was nothing to scoff at. Slightly distracted by the contingency plan for escaping if necessary, she nodded to Jason's comment. He couldn't see that, and she remembered that a few minutes later and added, "Sounds good!" Turning to look back at Valcen, she continued, "I'm gonna help Jason prep and get some gear for this trip. Are you alright waiting?" What other choice was there but to wait for the humans to do their silly preparations. While it was both exciting and terrifying to be invited to this city, she couldn't help but feel the researcher's curiousity more than anything else. Wasn't that why she was on this mission in the first place? Saira knew it would be dangerous, she just didn't reckon on dealing with these intelligent creatures. Though, maybe she should have expected that given that the planet just mysteriously appeared in Earth's orbit. Still, mind boggling to consider that Valcen claimed to have moved it there himself. That was definitely something she was going to have to debrief the others on.