§ 2020-11-25 21:41:19


[21:41] The worst of Greg's terror at dying of some unknown disease abated in the next hours. He only slowed them down a little, occasionally pausing a steady stride to hobble for a few metres, likely born from psychology more than physical necessity.

Sleep schedules had been shot to hell and back by now, of both species – the kavkema struggled with the added strain of moving during the daylight hours, but the climb a while back had forced them all into a phase shift.

A careful analysis might reveal that it was about two days after Evenatra had taken down the Imitorunyema, give or take, when a rest in the shade of the trees was disturbed by Evenatra shooting into their impromptu camp like a bullet. In a raised, tense whisper: "Someone is coming. Be prepared."


[21:58] Samanta's eyes, which had been on the fence about closing for either twelve seconds or twelve hours, snapped open. Adrenaline burned through her arteries, as the image of the hideous thing they'd battled blazed more vividily than ever in her mind.

She cast a glance all around herself, and saw Greg jump to attention (minding little the wounded leg, at least for now), and the feathers of the kavkema bristle like cat fur. Were they seeing the same thing she was seeing? Greg's apparent greatest fear was not of the sort that can jump out of the trees, but their hosts could probably remember enough terrors to fill the whole forest.

They were all perfectly silent, perfectly still — the mammalian visitors were adapting quickly, though they still had to learn to keep their breathing quiet. What is there?


[22:09] Given the lack of solid sleep she'd been getting, Edaaj's waking hours had begun to take on an aspect of fatigued unreality. The sights and sounds presented to her by her senses seemed... not right, distorted, the products of funhouse mirrors and echoing chambers.

[22:11] Rest, however welcome, did not replace slumber, and Edaaj had laid among the foliage shaking with gentle tremors; Evenatra's warning sent her nearly jumping to her feet. What now? Is there no chance of respite at all?


[22:18] "It's a kavkem," Evenatra commented, turning into the direction she'd come from, her posture as though wary but ready to pounce. "It might be Asraaban," she added.

Asraaban? Wasn't that her travel companion? Why would she react like this to the prospect of Asraaban's return? ...but then, after all they had learnt about Torunyemaa, perhaps what she feared was that some foreign, hostile creature now inhabiting Asraaban's body was returning to them.

Baishar glanced toward the indicated direction with a strange mix of calm and apprehension, as though, while not sure of what was rolling their way, certain that it would do him no harm.

And then straining eyes might spot the first hints of movement amongst the foliage, hard to make out in the shade. It was, that much was clear, definitely a kavkem that was coming toward them. By first impression, they were coming alone, but there was no telling at what distance Nayabaru might be following, especially if they were abusing a kavkem to lead them to Evenatra and the humans.


[22:55] A kavkem? That sounded almost like not-utterly-terrifying news, though the fact that they were alone suggested that they were working with, or rather for, their enemies. With some luck, they wouldn't be much more of a threat than their new prisoner, but luck was hardly an abundant resource on this planet, and why would the Nayabaru make the same mistake twice?

They didn't seem to be carrying any dangerous item, but who could tell? Had— had Samanta already seen this one, way back when they had first met Evenatra, what now felt like several years before?

As the newcomer approached the group, and there was no longer any point in trying to remain unseen, Samanta bent and secured her backpack. If it was necessary to flee or, heaven forbid, to fight, she wouldn't leave any supply behind. As for Greg, he seemed to be dealing well with the leg for now. Did she have to come up with a plan to shield him?


[23:10] Greg rose with a bit of a soft, panicked noise – barely audible in itself, but near enough to Samanta that she could pick it up with ease. He might be dealing well with the wound, moving autonomously, but his demeanour had traits of a wounded animal regardless.

And then, instead of advancing further, the approaching kavkem came to a cautious stop at a distance from their temporary camp, posture alert and as intentionally visible as was possibly in this undergrowth, staring directly toward them through the trees.

Whatever his orders – if, indeed, he was following Nayabaru orders at all – battle was apparently not amongst them.

For a long minute, the kavkem stayed where it was, making no move to advance or retreat. Then, finally, having perhaps decided that the group was no threat nor about to mistake him for one, he resumed his path toward them, approaching slowly and visibly, letting his muzzle dip in a gesture of peace.

It was definitely Asraaban.

Either the Nayabaru had significantly upped their deceptive skills or it was just Asraaban, just the kavkem they already knew, perhaps having escaped from whatever dangers the trailing patrol had encountered to now bring news to them about the exact nature of the threat, oblivious to that they already knew of it.

"<Your brother,>" Asraaban remarked to Evenatra, "<is both clearly insane and astonishingly terrifying.>"

Evenatra visibly bristled in confused alarm, then glanced at the humans. "...it is Asraaban," she said. For a moment, her words faltered, before she managed to reassemble them, picking up where she left off: "He's met Valcen."

It was an odd revelation; if Asraaban had met Valcen, surely he would have fallen prey to some measure of Torunyema? The Nayabaru weren't the type to send out messengers.

On the other hand, Valcen was perhaps not quite Nayabaru.


[23:31] Well, now Samanta felt foolish for having been so afraid. At least now their group would be stronger by one. Yet Evenatra had clearly bristled, and presumably not out of joy; maybe later Samanta would feel foolish for not having been more afraid.

There were plenty of good questions by proxy to make. What's Valcen doing? How far is he? How many kavkema like Baishar are there? Where are Saira and Jason, and how are they? The obvious choice was to combine them and let Evenatra extract whatever was most salient. Thus Samanta asked "What— what does he say?".


[23:37] Edaaj relaxed, but only slightly. Asraaban's visage was at least known, though she had not gotten to know him well; but neither his words nor Evenatra's body language were particularly reassuring.


[00:02] But Evenatra asked something else entirely first: "<Did he hurt you?>"

Asraaban seemed to consider the question for a moment, then shrugged lightly and flicked his muzzle. "<No. I'm not sure why not — he could have, easily.>" A slight shudder ran through him, subdued by whatever training Shyilun had given him in his youth. "<I can't claim I understand what he's up to — he deceives the Nayabaru readily, but he is not our friend. Nadani is—>" His expression darkened, feathers bristling slightly as though he were being forced to chew on something sour. "<Nadani is lost to us, changed, and he feels no remorse about that. But he may have— he may have chosen not to change me.>"

May have? That didn't seem like the sort of thing one ought to be unsure about. Evenatra fussed at some of her feathers nervously. To the humans, she said: "Um." To Asraaban, she said: "<You're... unsure?>"

Asraaban swerved his muzzle to confirm the subtext. "<He claimed to be putting on a bit of a show for the Nayabaru, but his device was right here,>" he tapped at his skull. "<On my head. I felt nothing, but who's to say 'nothing' isn't what it feels like?>" he grimaced, clearly sceptical of his own thought processes.

But it was Baishar that interrupted: "<No.>" It drew Evenatra's and Asraaban's attention his way. "<You would know. There's nothing subtle about it. It feels— intense. Definitely not nothing.>"

Evenatra drew a deep breath, then glanced toward the humans a little helplessly, searching for words to summarise what was going on. "Asraaban is telling us that Valcen... pretended?... to change him with an Imitorunyema, to fool the Nayabaru. I do not know why. He is worried that it was not... pretending, but Baishar thinks it was."


[00:32] If that was true, Samanta considered, that was excellent news, after all: a clear instance of Valcen, the inscrutable eldritch power, working with them and, to some degree, against the Nayabaru. If Baishar wasn't lying about the details of what Asraaban was relaying — ah, too many layers about which she knew too little.

If it was a trick, it was playing the long game: why bother reprogramming Asraaban so subtly just to follow him to the group, when Baishar had already been willing to serve Valcen? So at least she could slip the backpack to the ground at sit down once again, for which her aching legs and lower spine thanked her profusely. Greg too was clearly waiting for an opportunity to let the dirt carry his weight.

Then again... "Evenatra, just to be on the safe side, there aren't any nayabaru patrols around here, are there?"


[00:34] "<Nadani is...?>" Edaaj asked, then faltered.

[00:35] The older Watcher had always seemed so much tougher – if also more reckless – than Edaaj herself. Her first thought was that she wouldn't've expected it… but then, what defense was toughness against an Imitorunyema?

[00:36] Nadani had been the one to urge them to find the humans in the first place, she recalled. Edaaj remembered thinking, then, that something big and probably stupid was going to happen to them because of it, but somehow she hadn't thought that it would happen to Ada before herself.

[00:37] For all that she had not been extremely close to the Watcher, the realization was a lead weight; Edaaj sagged.


[00:51] For the moment, Evenatra was busy asking Asraaban, "<But why did he do that?>", flustered and not trying to hide her own anxiety about the situation.

Between Edaaj's faltered question and Evenatra's confusion, it was Asraaban's turn to crinkle. A trace of defensiveness entered his posture, as though he were being accused of lying, though he knew perfectly well that wasn't the case and it didn't quite describe his true emotion – a helpless distress at seeing the others' worries bubble up with such fervour.

"<He asked me to warn you,>" Asraaban said, raising his voice a little more than was customary in emphasis. "<He believes that the Karesejat is broadly sweeping through the rough direction you're heading in, fencing it off and laying traps, forcing you all into a dead end.>"

Evenatra glanced toward Baishar as if stung, as if Valcen's minion might have anything to do with this revelation – then to the humans with wide eyes, again searching for words that wouldn't easily come. Finally: "No. No, I do not think there are. But— He says we are walking into a trap."


[01:13] Samanta clutched her knees and stared at the rough ground, trying to analyze the situation as best as her exhaustion would allow. A trap, huh? If he's lying, the trap was definitely there, too. Was there a way to avoid both their obvious path and whatever Asraaban would suggest? But if he was telling the truth, then any path other than the ones he suggested was too dangerous.

A part of her mind ran through the options of what capture might mean, especially if Valcen turned out to be less merciful than Baishar and Asraaban were suggesting. She and her companions turned into warped servants, copies of the mind-breaking machine brought back on Earth, human and Nayabaru technology combined to crush this world even more effectively, and she wouldn't just contribute to that with her own hands, but willingly and happily—

Ok, ok, that's enough. There wasn't any actual reason to think Asraaban was lying, willingly or not. Everything he could have accomplished doing so, Baishar could have done earlier, and raising less suspicion. Trust, but verify, then — but how? What explorer could they send, whose return wouldn't raise exactly the same problem?


[01:19] The warning filtered through. A trap...

[01:22] The tightening boundaries of her world were even closer than she'd felt them to be after speaking to Evenatra. Where was the room to breathe? Would all of them end up changed, as Nadani had? Was there any point in continuing at all?

[01:25] Rising terror, depression, and fatigue all met in Edaaj's head and set the world to spinning. She shuddered, and her legs gave out from under her, tumbling her to the ground.

§ 2020-12-02 01:43:34


[01:43] There was little delay in Evenatra's reaction, as though her empathy were hooked to her hunting instinct – she was upon Edaaj the moment she crumpled, arms slipping around her shoulders, chest lightly touching against her back. Her muzzle touched lightly against the side of Edaaj's, all in a familiar body language – parents guarding hatchlings did it on instinct and adult kavkema had adopted it into their culture: I'm here for you. I'll protect you.

Of course, it could only ever be a promise to try, but that went without saying – and the support usually managed to be soothing regardless of any likelihood of success.

Asraaban stepped closer to the centre as though in part to fill the gap left by Evenatra, glancing at his fellow kavkema and each human in turn. "<Remember, I don't know if you can trust this information,>" he said with a pained inflection, clearly displeased with having to distrust himself. "<We have only Valcen and Baishar's word that I am still who I was when you last saw me, and we have only Valcen's word of the trap.

"<I do believe that he believes the trap is there. But even if we can... trust Valcen not to lie, there are no guarantees that he has not also been deceived.>" Except Nayabaru culture, which usually did not deal in lies – but now was perhaps not the time to rely on such alleged virtues.

"<But from my perspective, the risk it may be true is too great. I have no interest in telling any of you what to do with this information, but—>" He trailed off briefly, resisting the urge to make a demand of a good friend. Instead, he said: "<—if we're careful, we can backtrack, pass the coming Nayabaru and Valcen while keeping sufficient distance, and disappear into a wilderness less prepared.>"

Athechelt drew his lips back from his teeth for a moment's expression of displeasure, then said: "<Can we not simply use the cover of night and careful advance to slip through the cracks of this... barrier?>"

Asraaban chuckled wrily. "<I see you have the great luxury of never having dealt with the Karesejat in your social circles,>" he observed, his obvious tension still feeding into traces of snark. "<The dark of night is no hurdle for her – even assuming we could safely identify any 'cracks'.>"

§ 2020-12-02 23:57:40


[23:57] The discussion among the kavkema was lively and, unfortunately enough, Samanta couldn't understand a word of it. She wondered whether Saira would have had better luck, in her place, at cracking their hosts' language; but she was probably underestimating the difficulties of Saira's field, just like many people underestimated those of hers.

Their body language was perhaps a bit more perspicuous: it was hard to interpret Evenatra's gesture toward Edaaj as anything other than tenderness and comfort. Asraaban looked cautious in speaking, and the rest cautious in listening and responding; definitely nobody was taking that uncertainty lightly; how could they?

Samanta did not ask Evenatra for a translation, as the question was simply too obvious to bother. She trusted her alien friend to provide the essential details at the end, and assumed Greg would feel the same.

... Speaking of Greg. "What do you think about this situation?" she asked him, "If it's dangerous as it seems, I'm not going to force you along, whatever the mission specifics say. I imagine we'll go with our friends where the group chooses, but if we're going to make any argument to Evenatra, your opinion counts as much as mine".


[00:04] Edaaj shivered in Evenatra's grip. She had, indeed, not been held in such a fashion since she was a hatchling, and it helped a little; but she still felt lightheaded, and struggle to pay attention to any of the words being spoken.

[00:06] After a few moments, slightly slurred words emerged from her mouth in a faint whisper, almost a whimper: "<I don't know if I can keep doing this.>"


[00:40] Despite everything Evenatra had witnessed, it was rare for her to see a kavkem like this. She spent her time around Shyilun – kavkema that had to the one or other degree volunteered to put themselves in the line of fire. Edaaj and her group, while following some initial call of commendable bravery, was now simply caught in it without any training or mental preparation.

Whereas Athechelt appeared to consider the problem something they could solve with the usual bag of tricks, Edaaj had clearly drawn the opposite conclusion – putting her closer to the truth.

There was an urge to offer Edaaj the platitude that she could safely leave any time, but if was Asraaban was saying was true, it was 'any time but now'. Evenatra bristled quietly, then offered: "<You don't have to come along with us. Asraaban—>" She paused, glancing up at him as though trying to assess whether the man who wasn't entirely sure he was still himself was still trustworthy. "<—could try guiding you to safety.>"

Asraaban didn't hear her – he was busy discussing the logistics of evasion with Athechelt. By the sound of it, he didn't know how to guide anyone to safety, either, except in a risky backtracking manoeuvre.

Of course, Baishar had told her precisely how she could escape capture. She only had to accept the offer. And Evenatra's words could easily be laid out to encourage her to leave any way she wished – it was certainly in the spirit of what Evenatra was saying.

All this was opaque to the humans, a vivid conversation held purely in bird body language – and so they spoke to each other instead.

"No; I'm not disabled," Greg was insisting, but gently. They were on an alien planet; none of them were truly prepared for it, but at least they'd gotten the best preparation humans could muster. There was a tiredness to his voice that went beyond the long trek – but how much of that was physiological and how much was psychological was not yet clear.

"There are only two of us out here for now," he reasoned. "We shouldn't split up. After all, you patched me up, I may yet have to return the favour." There was also the unspoken question of where should I go, exactly?. If they were broadly surrounded, any way he went was as dangerous as any way the others went.


[00:50] In a more focused mental state, she might have been better able to convey that the this she couldn't keep doing covered enough territory that it might include even the effort to get to safety.

[00:57] Edaaj needed to know what the world meant now. She needed to know the point. She needed to know that there was a way out of this, and what exactly it was. She needed to lie down and stop moving, and think. And sleep. A lot. Preferably for a week straight. She did not get the impression that she was going to get any of those things in the very near future.

[01:02] And, anyway... she had to stay, to keep an eye on Baishar. He had not given any particular sign of giving up on his intention to escape. She would... she would have to be ready to chase him down. Yes.

[01:06] Wearily, she gave her muzzle a hesitant twitch upward. "<I won't go yet, though I don't know how long I will remain useful. If I am still useful.>"


[01:52] "<If you're sure,>" Evenatra whispered, squeezing her arms lightly against Edaaj's shoulders and rubbing her muzzle against the side of Edaaj's briefly. "<You are certainly useful – and recall, none of us are useful all the time,>" she soothed. "<Don't judge yourself by a period of inactivity. Especially if we find no way around the traps, it may likely be your help that we rely upon to get us through them instead.>"

§ 2020-12-06 22:37:26


[22:37] "Fair enough," Samanta said quietly but without hesitation. It wasn't as if moving away from the group would improve anyone's situation, at any rate; she just felt increasingly frustrated at the way people had looked at her as the mission's very unofficial leader, as if she were any less overwhelmed than her companions. Evenatra now, that was a leader if there ever was one. Prophet, general, explorer, and mom all rolled into one.

Samanta peered into the vegetation around, as if she could hope to see any trap or ambush that certainly would lay days away. She'd been deep into wilderness before, even in the middle of night, and whatever people said about the pitiless indifference of nature she found she still preferred it by far to the idea of having an enemy actively plotting harm to her and hers. Samanta found herself walking up to Edaaj and softly patting their feathered back near the shoulder, hoping that gesture meant for kavkema roughly what it meant for humans.


[23:03] As Samanta approached, Evenatra made cautious space for her – but the interaction served its secondary purpose of reminding her that their visitors would need a translation of what had just hastily transpired.

"Asraaban suggests we go back, not forward," Evenatra tried to explain, once more haltingly digging her way through her rudimentary understanding of language. "Athechelt wants to go to the traps, find a way through." None of which explained Edaaj's state. "Edaaj is... tired. In her mind, she is tired. I told her it is okay to go, if she wants. But she will stay for now."

Inasmuch as Evenatra's tone was at all easy to interpret, she sounded somewhat unsettled.

The patting motion meanwhile had not seemed to result in any biting or bristling of feathers, although it was evidently unusual enough a gesture to attract some visual attention. Perhaps it was no surprise, though; from what she'd observed so far, this culture communicated friendliness by touch, centred around and likely evolved from allopreening.

Greg approached to linger in touching distance, shifting into a crouch. The motion looked anything but smooth, revealing more of his tiredness, but it was functional, at least. "And what do we do?" he asked, deliberately unspecific as to whether he was addressing Evenatra and the group as a whole or simply Samanta.

Evenatra let her gaze alternate between the two humans. "I think I will ask Athechelt to lead you, Edaaj and Baishar back and then around the danger. And I will go forward with Asraaban; we can look at the traps. Maybe we can break them and maybe we can be a—" She searched for the word. "A distraction."

It meant guiding Edaaj away from the traps she could help with, but as long as Asraaban was not sure about his own identity, it was best to keep him away from the others.


[00:04] "That sounds..." Samanta started, and trailed off. That sounded like an excellent plan for the ones that would go back; less so for those who would go forward. She wasn't sure how much she liked that idea, or rather, both the idea of retracing back the progress they'd made so painfully, and the idea of sending two of them to potential doom. She dearly, dearly hoped that "distraction" was not the word Evenatra had been searching for.

What do you mean with that? You will flee if the trap is real, won't you? So she imagined asking, but didn't, because the answer was all but guaranteed to be "no". There was no way that, pursued by the Nayabaru or imitorunyema, they would ever risk leading them to the rest of the group. Instead she asked: "Is that a necessary risk? If they are waiting for us on a particular path, couldn't we simply stick together — I mean, remain united — and move on them from a different direction? Or isn't there something else we could use as distraction?" Like what, exactly?

Samanta, too, crouched on the ground, kicking away a pebble, and feeling very foolish: surely Evenatra wouldn't propose cutting herself from the group if she didn't deem it necessary. But Samanta would have liked to hear it clearly from her, and then there would be no point in worrying about it.


[00:07] Edaaj eyed Samanta warily as she extended her arm, but, strained though her nerves were, she kept still – Greg had, after all, petted her before. She aimed a mournful look at Samanta that probably reminded the human a lot of puppy-dog eyes.

[00:14] She was finding it no easier to think, but she was at least starting to calm down a little. As she wiggled her legs slightly, to try to get them to stop shaking enough to support her again, Evenatra began speaking to the humans again in their own language, and not for the first time, Edaaj wished she could follow the conversation. Samanta had sounded, so far as she could judge, uneasy at whatever Evenatra had said... though if it was the same thing that had been said to the kavkema, that was probably quite reasonable.


[00:24] "Asraaban is not sure if he is still who he was before," Evenatra reminded them, gently. "I want us to avoid the risk of travelling with him, but I can do it. He is not a danger to me," she insisted softly, dipping her muzzle down to mumble the last word into Edaaj's mane, nuzzling lightly at her spine.

So it was a risk travelling together and it was a risk travelling in smaller groups.

"What about the others of Athechelt's group? Someone needs to warn them, if the way forward leads into a broad strip of traps," Greg remarked, looking troubled, as though he weren't altogether sure of his own argument.

"That is why I want to go forward," Evenatra confirmed. "It will take much too long to find them all but maybe I can stop the trap from working."


[00:36] Well then. Samanta still really didn't want Evenatra and Asraaban forward alone, but she had to admit this to herself: it had less to do with concern for them — there was nobody in that group who was even remotely as likely to survive any danger than their alien host — and more with concern for the rest of them, who would have had to trek back alone. Then again, she was probably being unfair to Athechelt, who would certainly be an excellent guide on his own. Had she grown so dependant on being near Evenatra? Had the surprises of the last days, and the mind-warping machine, really shaken her so badly? She cast a glance to him, as to catch a glimpse of how he felt about this.


[00:48] Athechelt was seemingly still discussing potential strategies with Asraaban, both more subdued by now, less energetic, and clearly oblivious to that Evenatra had already made a choice for them – though perhaps it had sounded like a choice only out of her limited ability to articulate complex thoughts, perhaps she would still confer with them.

Greg grimaced and pressed one hand against his face plate. Backtracking was the last thing he wanted to do right now. Going forward was already exhausting enough. Adding more mileage to their path was not going to be kind to his aching leg. At least the bones were fine.

"But if they know where we're going, won't they know if we change course?" he asked, tiredly.

"I do not think they know where we are going, except in a much rough way," Evenatra mused. "But it is enough to make a— a— a border of traps." She gestured with her forepaws to give an idea of how she envisioned the setup, like a half-circular fence or some kind of funnel.


[01:22] Samanta briefly contemplated a clump of pine needles on the ground. What precious information they could yield, if only she had the time and energy and opportunity to study them.

Things being as they were, and as much as Samanta racked her brain to come up with another, Evenatra's plan really sounded like the safest option. Except— "Wait, sorry, wait," she said. "We — I and Greg, I mean — we can't talk to Eche, can we? How will we communicate if we need to do something or change our course?"


[01:30] Evenatra glanced at Greg for a moment, as though contemplating his presence, then back at Samanta. "I think details are lost, but you both know how to communicate with the others. Greg and Edaaj speak to each other. You speak to Edaaj," she gestured with her muzzle at Samanta's hand on Edaaj's feathers. Body language. Gestures. To change course it ought to be enough. "I will join after Asraaban and I are done."


[02:31] Samanta replied just "... I see." In any other circumstance she would have dismissed the idea of communicating through cuddling without a second thought. But Evenatra had sounded really confident, and Samanta probably just needed that to be true, because in fact she was terrified, and would take any comfort she could get.

She looked at Greg, who now was also standing beside Edaaj, and surmised the same was true for him. That was going to be, by far, the hardest part of their whole mission so far. Worse than training in the wild, worse than the liftoff, worse than the travel and the landing, worse than their discoveries about Nekenalos, worse than their separation, worse than the mountain trek, possibly, heaven forbid, worse than the fight with the Imitorunyema.

There was nothing left to ask except: "When do we leave?"


[05:02] Possibly sensing the humans' disquiet, Edaaj inexpertedly petted Samanta's arm.

§ 2020-12-07 21:51:01


[22:29] When was the right time to leave? Evenatra shot a searching glance to the group, as though the soft debate between Asraaban and Athechelt could give her any true guidance. But the answer was obvious with a moment's thought – soon. The traps would come no closer, but the Nayabaru trying to follow their lead would. Asraaban had found them, proving that the distance couldn't be too great.

And so she looked back at Samanta, ready to say as much, when her gaze slipped to Greg and lingered. For a moment, she considered saying something else entirely, speak a different warning to the human guests. Fortunately, the urge passed quickly, allowing her to pull her mind back on track.

"As soon as is possible," Evenatra urged, explaining her reasoning: "The traps do not move but the Nayabaru are still hunting us."

And so she turned her attention to the group, closed her muzzle and gave a sharp, guttural sound to attract their attention, a birdlike, subdued call. The mild squabbling stopped and she addressed Asraaban and Athechelt: "<Asraaban's idea should work in principle, but we needn't rely on his guidance. Asraaban and I will part ways here – Athechelt, you've guided your people admirably before, I ask that you guide them now. Find a way back through the forest that leads our alien friends past the Nayabaru and the obstacles trying to fence us in. Asraaban and I will continue on forward and see if we can disable the traps.>"

Asraaban bristled visibly, his attention snapping to Evenatra. "<The traps are for you first and foremost, you should not engage them,>" he hissed.


[23:30] Of course if they weren't going to fall in the trap at all, the Nayabaru would notice, and pursue. But then catching Evenatra and Asraaban alone would hardly qualify as the trap working as intended, unless Evenatra was the only one the Nayabaru were actually after, and in that case what would have they accomplished? The Nayabaru would pursue in any circumstance in which they didn't get what they want. Might as well prepare to flee immediately — all of them, right now?

Asraaban seemed... dissatisfacted with something in Evenatra's plan. Was that his point — no reason to feed the both of them into the maws of their enemies?

Samanta approached Greg as if to speak to him. To say what? Ask him whether he could deal with the trek back? Of course he'd answer yes, as he would even if he would have to crawl on his hands, and it wasn't as if there were other options. Offer again to take some more of his load? He'd refused during their ascent on the rocky ridge and then during their descent, he wouldn't accept now.

She settled for small talk. At least hear a familiar voice in the lull before the storm, before Evenatra gave them the final briefing and kicked them off in the forest. "This would be a nice day, and a nice place, if it weren't for all of this, hm? I bet we would have a lot of fun in the square kilometer around the lander."


[23:46] Greg had sat down on the ground, following the beckon of some exhaustion, be it physiological or psychological.

"Let's be honest, though," he commented dispassionately. "That was never really an option. You don't visit a planet with signs of intelligent life and expect to stay in a nice, designated area." A pause. "Though I suppose in some alternate reality we stayed in civilisation, at least."

Maybe it was good their kavkem hosts couldn't understand them – that was probably an insult, even if not intended as such. At least Evenatra, who could understand, seemed to have a good enough grasp of tone not to be offended, although her focus was on the others right now and she might not necessarily have heard.

"<If no one engages them, it's far too likely the others of Athechelt's group will blunder right into them. I'm not going to be responsible for that,>" Evenatra was responding to Asraaban, coolly, with a firm authority.

"<Then send me and your prisoner,>" Asraaban insisted, although doubt infected him a moment later. Perhaps it would work – sending two kavkema that were or potentially were under Valcen's influence certainly meant there would be no collateral damage if either of them turned on the non-minions – but the chance that the problem was dealt with shrank significantly.

"<Or me and Edaaj,>" he suggested, but less vehemently, glancing at her with some apology coded into his body language. It was a significant risk to her, after all, at least as far as Asraaban himself thought.

Evenatra turned back to the humans, her breath a light huff, and summarised: "Asraaban thinks the traps are for me. But they always are. He is trying to choose someone else to go with so I can go with you and the others, but it is not a good idea." She snorted softly, evidently convinced of her observation.


[00:22] Samanta sighed wearily at Greg. "No, I suppose it wasn't, right? Even if it had been just one sapient species, like on any sane planet," that part she said rather quietly, as Evenatra was discussing rather animately with the others, "just some scientific collaboration would have been too much to hope for."

Then Evenatra turned and gave them the latest update. "...Would we be of any help if we, or one of us, came with you?" she asked. No, of course you wouldn't be, you fool. You're going to be separate for a bit. Deal with it, you big baby. "I mean — is there anything useful we can do, after we split?"


[00:28] Edaaj felt her panic rising again. Splitting up? In other circumstances, it might not have been such a terrible thought, but now...

[00:35] None of the options being suggested made her feel any better. If Evenatra and Asraaban went... of course, she did not fault Athechelt at all, but there was something deeply unsettling, once Evenatra's abilities were known, of being deprived of her protection. If she were to follow Asraaban... she might be of some use in detecting them, perhaps, and the other members of the group would find her a recognizable figure, but the idea of going forward toward the traps made her legs start shaking again.

[00:37] And if Asraaban took Baishar and the latter tried to escape, he might get Asraaban in trouble. Or get them both in trouble. Or cause Asraaban to kill him.

[00:41] For that matter, she thought, if she went with Asraaban, there would be no one with foreknowledge of Baishar's intention to escape, and Evenatra would kill him.

[00:45] The neglected voice of brutal practicality told her that his death was not her concern, and, given what he'd said about having a qidravem, possibly not even Baishar's. It helped no one, surely, to keep his intention a secret. At worst, he would... just wake up, possibly? In a new body... and not remember his interactions with the group. Or her. Or his offer to her.

[00:53] And, in any case... she couldn't just go. Not into the midst of the Nayabaru, not to speak with the mind that had devised the machine that had brainwashed Nadani. That would have taken Athechelt, or even herself. It was... was just a matter of rationality. Baishar did not have to be in a position like that, if possibly he could be persuaded not to go (but how little had she tried?) and then, maybe, then there might be a way to negotiate his release...

[00:57] She felt that there was a limit to the arguments she could make aloud, at least on short notice, but meekly offered, "<Given the trouble I have had so far, I do not know that I would hold up well, going further toward the entrapments.>"


[01:00] "No, please, do not get caught," Evenatra addressed the humans at Samanta's question, moving her arms in a surprisingly human way to encourage their reservation. "If you pass the Nayabaru, they will not find you for some time. Use this time to rest."

It was an odd suggestion – rest was nothing that had been recommended to them so far, for good reason, suggesting that something might have prompted the change.

But her attention was on Edaaj before questions could really be asked about it. "<And you don't have to,>" she insisted, first with a gentle air toward Edaaj, then shooting a stern glance toward Asraaban. "<Asraaban and I will go forward, the rest of you follow Athechelt back along a safe route.>" The qualifier 'hopefully' was left out.


[01:52] 'Rest', a tall order right now. Samanta doubted she could so much as close her eyes before all of them, every last one of them, were safely away from the clutches of their enemies. She envied Jason's much more thorough survival training, and in particular soldiers' supposed ability to fall asleep and awake as needed in any circumstances, if that was true.

... Rest didn't mean sleep, did it? Right now her legs were like charged springs, but soon she would sorely miss the ability to sit down with her back against a tree trunk. Nothing uncertain about that.

One more minute of peace, please. One more minute to breathe and think. Then she would run to the other end of Nekenalos, if it took that.