Suriel came back. I couldn’t tell you if it was before or after I fell asleep or what. He ignores my various states of consciousness. He’s come when I was awake and alert and walking around. He came during my hunger strike and amidst hallucinations. He visited me in the depths of interstellar hibernation. Nothing affected his appearance in any way. I had gotten the impression, without anyone ever actually saying it, that his kind were immortal, or very nearly so.
He curled all around himself to fit inside my tent. A lithe spring, poised to unfurl. The whole place filled with golden illumination. Sometimes, when the Niskivim come, you feel like you can hear the interstellar winds, a sort of static hiss. They are creatures of the universe’s empty space, so far as I can tell. I heard its distances yawning now. And he radiated cold.
“Lis/ten,” Suriel said. It was odd for him to insert other words like that, words I could not understand within a word I could. Usually, the Niskivim respect linguistic units. This probably meant he was trying to convey something profound on levels of meaning humans almost certainly couldn’t comprehend.
I was not impressed. My head hurt, and dreaming or not I couldn’t shake my sour mood. Still, I listened.
“Nothing but the crickets, old pal” I said a while. I wondered if there were crickets on this world.
A shake of furious negation. It had taken, in the beginning, about a minute and half for Suriel to pick up the full range of human physical expression and begin implementing it flawlessly. It’s the kind of thing that either impresses or annoys.
“Lis/ten with/in” he said. “It has/will be/is speaking to you.” His face, like ours only worn down by water, radiated forlorn yearning.
I groaned. I have not become enamored of all the Niskivim’s problems with time. “I’m no mystic, Suriel. You know that. I don’t do it. It’s not my temperament.”
He waited a moment, as though trying to think of something else to say. I felt his frustration, because you always feel whatever a Niskivim feels, as much as he or she does. Sometimes I think we feel it more. I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, he was gone. I muttered something unkind and rolled over.
Ki shook me awake. “Guardian,” she said. “I’m sorry to disturb you. Nogilian insisted.”
I looked outside. It was dark. Huh? I’d meant to sleep for twenty minutes. That never went wrong. The Academy built up my internal clock to spec. Muzzily, I stood.
“Stay with me,” I said. “This has to be important.” After spending about a minute with Nogilian, you knew he would not be easily overwhelmed. It was equally excellent that he and no one else had come. It meant the men respected him immediately.
I walked out to meet him. “What time is it, Nogilian?” I asked.
“More than half the night has passed. Two foraging parties did not return. We searched their grids. We did not immediately look overhead, where they were hanging in the trees.”
Foraging parties? I thought. Oh, hail, Elmy. Hail the competence of actual officers! Getting all the additional men food was something I had been too stupid to consider yet.
I started cursing myself for that oversight. But beside me my lady captain swore in real time.
“Tell me, Ki,” I said, because she knew the swamps first-hand. “Have we met the enemy? That something Augers do for fun?” They hadn’t used to on Earth. But then you never knew.
“No, our Guardian.” She made that odd religious gesture, palms out and thumbs bent in. “It means that the apes have started hunting us. They are territorial creatures, and feel that we are rivals. Men in armor should be able to fight them. But never men alone. The foraging parties must be large and fully armed.”