Thankfully, it seemed that the stargazers were eager to forget the beacon and focus on his presence. It was to be expected; they’d waxed poetically of contact for many years, hopeful that they would find kindred amongst the stars. Now, not only had they made a peaceful encounter, but they were faced with the prospect of diplomatic relations between worlds.
He was able to navigate the conversation well, steering it away from anything that could reveal the truth of the beacon. He was also sure to keep the location of the Network’s systems and starbridges to himself, at least for the time being. They could be trusted in time, but only after they had left the world behind and forgotten the beacon.
On the off-chance that relations deteriorated before he could establish a dialog with their world, it would be for the best if the stargazers didn’t have any immediate targets.
It didn’t appear as though events would unfold in that route, however. The stargazers were quite amiable, and didn’t seem to pick up on his body language enough to tell that something was off when he spoke. It seemed they would be quick to leave the planet and let him accompany them back to Earth.
There was one enigma, however- the one that called itself ‘Rudak’en’ziz’.
The alien seemed to be amiable, but he couldn’t quite tell. He knew the stargazers well, and could interpret their body language, but the ktrit’zal was a newcomer, its nature and history a mystery. Was it as trusting of him as the stargazers?
There was another matter as well. Its homeworld was in the system, an astronomical stone’s throw away, and he highly doubted there would be no more expeditions to this world. Even if he could stop the stargazers from finding the beacon and learning the truth, could he stop the ktrit’zal?
Had they seen the colony already, with ground-based astronomical equipment?
He made sure to ask the ktrit’zal that. Thankfully, it seemed that they’d only been able to study nearby worlds in depth for a short time, long after the event must have scoured the planet they stood on. Still, it was a worrying thought to consider.
He’d need to take action as soon as possible.
The aliens, Teksha found, were rather strange.
They still seemed to be rather wary of him, but the offer of food seemed to sway them over to the point where they brought him and a few others to their community- a group of twenty adults and fifteen children, all living in a large cavern. There were a pair of structures near the mouth, made from the bones of the species he’d killed, but it seemed to be reserved for the elders of the group. At least, he assumed they were elders; their skin was more wrinkled, their bodies more frail-seeming.
There had been alarm in their group when the hunters came back with him and some of his crew. Some held the children back, while others began to speak with the three hunters in some odd tongue. For a short while, Teksha feared that he’d be driven back, after coming so far, but eventually the hunters seemed to be able to convince the community that he meant no harm, showing the meat as proof.
He and the crew were allowed to stay near the area, though the natives grew defensive if he tried to actually enter the cavern proper. They feasted on the meat he’d brought to them, cooking it over a fire, and he studied them as they ate. Their teeth were rather blocky in comparison to his own, but it seemed that their strong jaws made up for the difference.
He was surprised to see that they ate plants with it as well. Perhaps they were more nutritious than the types found on Cefac, or it was simply a matter of differences in digestive tracts. Either way, he never expected to see something with elements of both predator and prey.
As night began to fall, he and the others returned to their ship. Two of the hunters accompanied them back to the spot where they had felled the animal, then turned back, seemingly satisfied.
When morning came, the hunters returned, now numbering five. They took more of the meat from the dead animal, and Teksha had the crew help them along. The community was less wary of him this time; the prospect of another large meal seemed too good to pass up on. He sat on the outskirts with the crew, eating some aquatic life they’d caught for themselves, and watched them like before, taking note.
The natives were less uneasy, now, and were becoming inquisitive. Occasionally, one of them would try to talk to him, making crude attempts to breach the language barrier. He manage to learn that they called themselves nurma, or at least, that was just the individual’s name. One of the children even tried to play with his wings before an adult took notice and made it rejoin the others.
Once again, he and the crew left for their shuttle, but they made sure to catch some more food before turning in for the night. The dead animal was beginning to become discolored, and he didn’t want to lose the nurmas’ good will by having nothing to offer them.
A cycle began to form. The hunters would come, and bring him and the crew back with them to the community. As the days passed by, they grew more and more comfortable around him and his crew, especially as the language barrier began to weaken. And as that happened, he could observe them better, and learn more about them.
They were quite fascinating. Despite the harsh conditions of their world, they had managed to actually thrive and develop a culture, albeit a fairly primitive one. The males -each gender only had one set of genitalia- were the hunters. They used tools made by hammering stones and sharpening pieces of bone, and used them to great effect.
Teksha used to study itakshi prehistory when he was younger, and he found the differences and parallels interesting. Whereas his own people had used small throwing knives to slice open the wings of their quarry, or rope to snare them in mid-air, the nurma got up close to their prey, using their great strength to drive sharp points deep into flesh. They were resilient, and knew it; Teksha was astonished to see one get back up after getting kicked by some swift-footed beast taller than him. That did not mean they were limited to such brutish strategies, however; sometimes, they would light fires to chase their prey off cliffs, or tumbled stones from the tops of hills into their herds.
Then, they would bring the food back to the females. The females were the ones who made a number of tools, and maintained the community while the hunters were away. They gathered plants to eat, and used animal skins to make the coverings he’d seen them wear. It was a fascinating process, watching them essentially make removable skin and fur; it was a utility he’d never seen before.
The nurma were not limited to tools, however; they could make art. The females often made necklaces from smoothed stones, or made carvings from stone and wood and bone. A young one, most likely an adolescent, had even given him one. At first, he’d been confused by the large eyes, and strange curves on its head, until he’d realized it was one of himself. The angling of it was odd, and many of the features had been simplified and exaggerated, but it was him.
What had been the most fascinating art, however, was in the cave itself. It’d taken ten days before they allowed him inside the place, which was where most of the group lived. Stone rings littered the broad floor, ash marking where they’d lit fires to keep warm during the cold nights. One of the elders led him inside, guiding the way with a torch. Their eyesight was weaker than his, it seemed; he could’ve made the route without any aid.
Finally, he saw it. One of the flat walls of the cave was covered in markings made from red and black paint. Looking closer, he saw that they were in the shape of local animals, with the large brown one being most common. Smaller figures were featured, and he realized they were meant to be nurma. A stylized depiction of a hunt, it seemed.
The elder leaned in closer, guiding the torch along the paintings. With his other hand, he gestured with a gnarled hand.
“Look,” he said.
Teksha suddenly realized what the elder meant. The flickering of the torch’s flame was creating an illusion, one that normally wouldn’t have been seen. Many of the animals had been painted with multiple heads and legs, but in the low changing light, they appeared to be moving, legs completing the cycle of a trot. As the torch went along, it gave the impression of something almost fluid, as the nurma hunters led the animals into a trap.
There were more paintings. The one on the other side of the wall was not one meant to show a hunt, but something else, more abstract. Hands, outlined in red and black against the smooth rock.
The elder knelt down at the wall, handing the torch to Teksha. Reaching into a small puddle, he splashed a bare patch of wall, making sure it was evenly wet. When that was done, he took a small bowl of red dust in his wrinkled hands and stood back up.
“Put hand on wall,” he said.
Teksha did as told, putting it on the wet patch. Miming the other outlines, he spread his fingers, claws gently scratching the stone. The elder grabbed some of the dust from the bowl, then opened his hand, letting the palm face flat up. Puffing his fleshy cheeks, he blew gently, letting the dust settle on Teksha’s hand and the surrounding rock. Where it made contact with the wall, it stuck, swiftly coloring the stone.
“Wait,” the elder said.
Finally, the elder gestured that he could remove his hand. He took a step back, admiring the fresh outline on the wall. Compared to the others, it was quite different, with its seven narrow and pointed fingers. Yet, it was just one of many handprints- different, but not separate.
With that, the elder guided him out of the cave. He spared a glance back at his handprint, then stepped out into a cool night. The stars were up out overhead, and he found his gaze pulled upward. The galaxy could be faintly seen, a band of gems across the sky. The nurma were watching it as well, peacefully resting after a good meal.
It was something they did often, he noticed, even more than his own spacefaring crew. It seemed that anything that could dream and imagine liked to look up at the stars, but the nurma seemed to do it more frequently.
What did they see, when they looked up? They had no knowledge of astronomy; the stars were little more than lights in the sky to them, not entire systems and worlds onto themselves. And yet, at the same time, they could sense that there was something waiting for them in the sky. They may not have not what it was, but they knew it was there.
He made a happy chuff at that. Stargazers, they were.
He’d keep that memory close to him, comforting, when the Urshnata returned, bearing terrible news with it.
The door was locked, but it wasn’t an issue a plasma cutter couldn’t solve.
He winced at the sound it made when it fell inwards, but he knew it was an irrational fear; there was no-one around to hear it. Shouldering the cutter, he stepped inside, ready for whatever could lay within.
There was no warmth in the halls as he descended, and he knew he was stepping into a tomb. Yet, he pressed on, in the vain hope that there would be something to be saved. The stargazers were a crafty and hardy folk; there had to be a way that something of them could survive.
All he could see, however, was dust.
He examined a hall, and found chilled DNA samples. The complex’s emergency power had lasted for some time, long enough to preserve them, and he spent a short while examining them. He was off again, however; they were not his main interest. There had to be something left of their culture, aside from some broken ruins.
The next hall took him to a large room, and he realized it was the control room for the beacon. It took him a few tries, but he managed to work the dials and levers with the help of some labels, and the beacon was shut down.
One less problem to worry about.
Still, it was not quite what he was looking for. He scouted the next few halls, adjusting his eyes to better see down them, but they were all full of equipment that had fallen into disuse. Power generators, analyzers, bulky computers.
The last hall, however, caught his attention. He could make out what appeared to be a library, and his heart began to pound as he stepped closer. Entering the room, he saw that it was indeed filled to the brim with thick volumes and data crystals, meant to store a trove of knowledge.
He went over to one of the shelves and pulled a book free. Flipping a page open, he skimmed the page, reading. The writing system was easy to understand -he’d invented it, after all- and the language had changed little over the years. Satisfied, he put it back in, then skimmed the sections, seeing what they had. History, art, biology, sociology, philosophy; if there was a topic, it was contained within the library.
As he looked around, however, his eyes fell on something else.
There was also a skeleton inside.
The sight of it sent a shudder down his spine as he went over to examine the body. The individual had died fairly recently- around thirty standard years ago. Little remained aside from the skeletal structure and some clothes, but he could still determine the cause of death.
He couldn’t constrain himself any longer. All the dread and worry and fear boiled to the surface, and he set it free. Rearing his head back, he howled, a horrific wail of anguish that echoed through the sepulchral halls.
He’d failed them.
There was no way around it; he’d set out to ensure their safety, a way to conserve and protect, and let them blossom into something beautiful. Instead, a spark of life in the void had been forever snuffed out, and it was his fault. It brought back painful memories of that fateful time, and he let them come unbidden.