Recent Posts

Pages: [1] 2 3 ... 10
New Releases / Drive Part 41 added, 3/17/23
« Last post by Daen on March 17, 2023, 06:24:38 PM »
Drive Part 41 added, 3/17/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 41: Enroute
« Last post by Daen on March 17, 2023, 06:23:45 PM »
Moss was lost in thought as they made their way through the night. To the east, he believed, but couldn't be sure without the Core's light.

"At least I know why they didn't punish you right away, or me as well for revealing their secret," Char said nervously, with the artificial root still connecting them. "The trejuns had already figured it out. There was no reason to make an example of us after that."

Moss agreed silently, wondering what would happen the next time he had to bond with her. He'd felt her suspicion back there, and she was right to be worried. He was keeping a secret from her now, a secret which would come out the next time they were truly together. Could she forgive him? Perhaps. Despite all her burns, she had developed a kind nature. But would she?

"There's something I need to tell you," they both said at the same time.

There was a moment of confusion, during which Moss spoke. "You go first," he said, grateful for the distraction.

In answer, Char shared her senses, including something small rolling around the back of their cart. "The Ashers found this in the bed of our last cart. I think it was there since we first started out from the green lands. We were just so focused on survival and finding our way that we never noticed it."

Curious, he focused on it with his own damaged senses, and then stopped dead. It couldn't be!

They just rode in silence for a while, intent on it. Moss thought back to every place he'd been in the past two seasons. Praska had been sabotaged. The Arbormass had been destroyed. Kulik had been burnt to ash before he'd even arrived, and now Sharpcrag was most likely doomed as well. He destroyed every place he went to! He was cursed, and he had to get this thing away from him, as far as possible!

That was, if she didn't have plans of her own for it. "Is it… viable?"

"I think so," she said slowly. "I considered destroying it, but that didn't seem right. Not without your input at least."

"I'm glad you felt that way," he said faintly. "What do you want to do with it?"

"Well, I don't want to leave it here in the Orja. I'd sooner leave it for the Void to take. But doesn't your Union have some pretty strict rules when it comes to situations like this?"

He sent out an agreement. "They do. If you don't want to destroy it, then I suggest we send it to Grove Praska. My father is there, and he can keep it safe. I know, Praska is much closer to the front lines, but it's also not a target like the sandkin are."

She sent out some relief. "That sounds like a good idea. I'll make the arrangements once we reach Hightop."

Truthfully, he didn't know if he was relieved or not. He should be focusing on the mission: obtain sandkin aid, and this was a distraction to that mission. Maybe someday it would be something more, but now it was jut a liability.

"What was it you wanted to tell me?" She asked, after a moment, and he carefully hid his guilty twinge.

"Oh, nothing important. Nothing compared to this, anyway," he said smoothly. "Come on. We've got a few hours before we arrive in Hightop, and I'd like to get your ideas on how to address the sandkin. Despite our bonding, I'm still a stranger to these people."

She agreed easily, and helped him on the rest of their trip. He was doing the right thing, he told himself. Telling her would just distract her. It was best to wait until after the talks, and this new situation had been safely sent away to his father.
New Releases / Drive Part 40 added, 3/10/23
« Last post by Daen on March 10, 2023, 03:33:21 PM »
Drive Part 40 added, 3/10/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 40: Hasty Departure
« Last post by Daen on March 10, 2023, 03:32:41 PM »
They kept up their façade for the next few minutes, before Vaal bid them goodnight and disconnected, and then Char let out a burst of fear. "Core preserve us! A trejun, here?"

"This is a big problem," Moss responded, leaking analytical problem-solving as he considered the variables. Moss had been just as shocked, Char could tell, but his startlement had faded faster.

"No kidding. He's obviously here to negotiate with the sandkin. If he can convince them to join Trejuna instead of the Union, your people could be facing an army from the south as well as the west!"

"I was thinking of a slightly more immediate problem, actually." Moss let out some anger. "Your interroot here is very similar to ours up in the Union. If the trejuns can tap into ours without being noticed, what's to say this guy didn't do the same here? I think he heard the whole conversation with your people back there. He knows I'm from the Union, and that I'll try to sway them against Trejuna."

Char was silent for a moment, processing that. It was bad news, certainly, but it could have been a lot worse. "At least there's only one. And he couldn't have any juns to send after us, not this deep into the Orja. The heat and dryness would kill them off pretty quickly." She paused. "Come to think of it, how did he even get down here without juns?"

"He must have flown in. The juns carried him here, dropped him off, and then flew away back to somewhere cooler. A bunch probably died getting him here."

"So he's stuck here? I doubt the juns would last long flying back here to pick him up again, much less getting him out of the desert."

"Looks that way," Moss agreed. "You have to admire his courage to come here like that. He had now way of knowing what your people might do to him."

"I'm more worried about what he'll do to them," Char responded harshly, as images of all the burnt groves up north flashed through her mind.

"That depends on what his orders are, I think. Maybe he was just sent to negotiate, but for all I know, he has standing orders concerning the two of us. You can bet he's already sent a message to his people, probably the moment he became aware of us."

Char was tempted to point out that they had no proof he really was aware of them, but let it pass for the moment. "How could he warn the other trejuns without using our interroot? Maybe he can tap into a local network, but we have no roots or lines to trejun territory."

"He must have sent a jun out with an enzyme message," Moss said slowly. "You're right that a large number of juns wouldn't survive out here, but a small group might. When I was little, one of my qars fell ill with a very contagious disease. My father instructed me to hide him away until the disease passed. I grew a sealed enclosure and ordered poor little Peace in there, to stay for more than a week. I provided everything for him until he recovered, and then I could let him out to rejoin the others. If this trejun has done the same, he could have kept some of his juns cool and watered enough to survive a trip back to his people. It's only a matter of time before they know we're here."

Char thought back over what little she knew about the juns. The meeting had been four hours ago. If Moss was right and their enemy had sent out his message then, a trejun attack could be as little as a day away! "We have to leave. Or you do, at least. They'll be after you. Maybe if our friend out there realizes you're gone, they'll chase after you and leave Sharpcrag alone."

"Agreed, but how? They took our cart, and even if we still had it, I'm in no shape to survive crossing the desert again so soon."

"You won't have to cross the whole thing," another presence responded, and both Char and Moss sent out bursts of shock.

It was Trem, who had spoken on their behalf earlier today. Feeling her sap freeze momentarily, Char struggled to regain her composure. "How in the Void did you do that??"

Trem let out some amusement, but gave them both a few moments to recover. "Don't get your roots in a knot. It's just the three of us here."

"She asked you a question," Moss responded, and his aura was lined with menace and threat. For a moment, Char felt flattered. They were both helpless here, but he still instinctively thought he could protect her. It was a stupid impulse, but a thoughtful one.

"Right. I apologize," Trem went on. "There's nothing magical about it. I just helped design the artificial roots you're using right now. It's easy to listen in on a conversation if you built the means by which they're conversing."

Char focused on the roots briefly, trying to hide her chagrin. Somehow, because her people were so open and blunt with each other, she'd forgotten that they could be sneaky as well. "If… we'd been bonded while you were listening in, would you have heard that, too?"

"Oh, no. Not at all. Even if I wanted to, and I'm not into that sort of stuff, I couldn't. The communication roots are the only access I have."

That was a relief. Being bonded with him was uncomfortable enough with an audience, but having someone feeling the same things she was would have been mortifying! Thankfully, Moss seemed to sense her discomfort, and he spoke up next. "So you heard everything we said?"

"I heard enough. And you're right. You should go immediately—both of you that is. I've already called for a cart. It can take you over to Hightop. It's a trip of less than a day—in an almost straight line. Even you should be fine, Moss."

His aura didn't change, but Char forgot all about that. "I can't just leave you here. I'm a sandkin, and my place is here, protecting my people!"

Trem put in an image of the thunderers lining the edge of the oasis. "We're hardly defenseless here. We've got enough firepower to put up a good fight."

"And how much experience have you had firing them? I've been loading and aiming thunderers since they were first built! You need me!"

Trem wasn't having any of it, though. "Maybe so, but we need you a lot more talking to the other sandkin. If Moss is right and the trejuns attack us, our lives are expendable. You two are the best bet we have to form an alliance between the sandkin and the Union. You're the least expendable people here!"

Char hated the idea of leaving these people, especially now that they had at least tacitly accepted her as one of them, but Trem's logic was rock-solid. They'd both lived in the Union, and now they'd both lived, if only briefly, among the sandkin. They were the most likely people to negotiate successfully, on both sides. Reluctantly, she sent out agreement.

"Good," Trem responded with relief. "I'll make sure the cart is loaded with water—we store it the same way you did, by the way. I'll also let our guest know, quietly, that his rivals are about to leave."

"No!" Moss put in, unexpectedly. When they both focused on him curiously, he quickly went on. "He might have another jun ready to fly out. If he finds out we're going, he'll warn his superiors, and they might hit us on the way to Hightop. When we don't have a mess of thunderers to protect ourselves."

He was keeping his emotions very carefully controlled right now, and Char couldn't help but feel suspicious about that. His reasoning might have been sound, but it wasn't complete. What other reason was he not telling them?

Trem paused, but then agreed with him. "All right. I'll wait a few hours after you leave before finding a way to let him know. Then even if he does send out a message, it'll arrive too late."

The cart trundled up to them and came to a stop, obviously being radio-controlled by Trem. She wasn't there herself, but two more Ashers from the oasis perimeter came in as well, and helped load them up onto it.

Fortunately, it looked like the artificial root could stretch that far. "Will you get in trouble for sending us away? Will the others punish you?" Char couldn't help but ask.

"Even if they do, it's worth it. I don't trust the Union at all, but at least they're not guilty of attempted genocide. If you can establish a peace with them, then I've done my job. What happens to me is unimportant."

"No it's not," Moss objected, as he was lifted up by two heavy-duty articulators. "But it is your choice. Thank you, Trem, for all your help. Even if you did scare me half out of my bark back there."

Trem hesitated. "I'm happy to help. Moss, do you mind being disconnected from us for a moment? I'd like a word in private with Char."

He seemed surprised, but assented quickly. Once he was gone, Trem focused on Char. "When you were first brought in, there was a small object in the bed of your cart that the Ashers found. On my request, they put it in this one. I figured it belonged to you."

She showed it to Char, and for the second time that evening, what was impossible was suddenly true. "I don't believe it!"

"I was surprised too. Don't worry, though. The Ashers know enough to keep quiet, and I won't tell either. What do you plan to do with it?"

The implications were both unexpected and staggering. "I have no idea. I'll have to think about it."

"Well, you have time," Trem pointed out. "A few weeks at least, before you have to make a decision. Whatever you do, good luck. With everything."

Char flooded the link with thanks and fond farewells also, right up until the connection ended and she was put in contact with Moss again. As they started their straight, smooth journey, the last sandkin she could see was their two Ashers peeling off and returning to their patrol route.
New Releases / Drive Part 39 added, 3/3/23
« Last post by Daen on March 03, 2023, 04:17:42 PM »
Drive Part 39 added, 3/3/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 39: Wolf in Sheep's Bark
« Last post by Daen on March 03, 2023, 04:17:01 PM »
As night fell, the sandkin dropped in on Moss and Char one after another. They weren't connected to Sharpcrag's interroot directly, but the sandkin curiosity was still too great to let them stay away. Moss reflected on just how direct they all were. Back home, greetings were polite, and conversation cultured, even in groves as remote as his own. Every phrase had a secondary meaning, and even the slightest shift in aura while speaking could give away a different intent. It was much much more so in large cities like Grove Hierach, but here… it didn't exist at all!

He supposed it made sense, really. Until relatively recently, all sandkin groves had been on the verge of dying out from thirst and heat. When you had to work that hard just to survive, conversational subtext would seem like an indulgence, if not something outright pointless.

At least Char was here with him. She told him what they'd talked about, but they didn't stay bonded this time. Apparently even sandkin couples weren't expected to stay bonded at all times. That was a bit of a relief. He'd sensed how Char had sectioned off parts of her mind to avoid being overwhelmed by it, and even tried to follow her example, but had failed completely. Unfortunately, if he was allowed to address the entire sandkin nation, he would probably have to be bonded for that.

For her part, Char seemed completely at ease with them. She responded to bluntness with even more bluntness, commenting without any buffer on what she'd seen and experienced up there. When the topic of her punishment was brought up, she handled it with good grace, saying she'd accept whatever they chose to give her. As if either of them had any choice here. Their cart was gone, and with it the only articulator limbs they had. They were helpless as seeds right now.

A young male named Vaal seemed particularly interested in him. He pestered Moss with questions about his life in the Union, and was apparently unaware of Moss' repeated polite clues that he'd rather be left alone right now. As the youngster went on, Moss swore he could sense amusement from Char.

Well, if she wasn't going to help him, he would do something about it himself. "Vaal, I've been wondering about those rings around each of you. When we were making the wheels for our cart, we had to use qars to dig long, circular holes into stone. Then we had them pour molten metal into them, until the metal cooled into a wheel. But each and every one of you has one of those rings around your trunk! How did you do that without getting lots of burns everywhere?"

Vaal seemed exuberant to be answering questions, just as much as he'd been asking them. "We didn't! They didn't come to us as rings. They came to us as two halves of a ring! Here, I'll show you." He brought up a memory of his and displayed it for them. "This is when I had my ring installed. Here they're putting up the metal supports as you can see. Then they rested half the ring on one side, and the other half on the other. Finally, they connected the two before attaching the articulator to my roots."

"Impressive," Moss admitted, staring at the memory as it happened. "I had no idea that metal could be fused together like that, after it had been shaped. How is he melting the two pieces together like that? I don't see a furnace anywhere."

"He called it… a flameblower, I think. He used the fuel from his own cart to keep it burning." Vaal zoomed out his memory a bit so they could get a better view. As they watched, fuel streamed along a gum rubber hose like the ones they'd used back in the Arbormass. As it reached the end, it touched the flame being generated at the tip, and a white-hot mess shot out the end!

"Incredible!" Char put in, and Moss felt the same. Why hadn't they thought of that? A portable way to melt metal and fuse it into new shapes? With the right articulator materials, they could have come up with something similar.

Vaal must have picked up on their disappointment. "Don't feel bad or anything. You were just a twigful up there, and you did most of the work for us! It was just sandkin taking your ideas and developing them from there. This is all still your credit, as far as we're concerned."

Moss gave him some appreciation, still staring at the memory for a moment before remembering something else he'd been wanting to ask. "Vaal, is there anything like the Union interroot here? Char told me that your ancestors grew roots over long distances to connect to each oasis. How fast can you send a message to other oases?"

"That's the really exciting part!" He responded, suiting attitude to his words. "Back before we were one nation, it could take thirty years or more to get a message across the sand. After the roots were grown, it was down to a few hours. Now, thanks to the copper lines strung across the sand, I can talk to thousands of people I'd never even met before, as if they were right here in Sharpcrag!"

So it was as advanced as the Union network. Even more actually, because the 'groves' here were farther apart than villages back home. "So you don't use the root system anymore at all? All communication is done with wiring above the ground?"

Vaal sent out an affirmative. "We don't talk with the roots, but they're still useful." He added his senses to their three-person network for a moment. "See that cart leaving? It doesn't have a sandkin in the back of it. It's one of the carts that brought the latest batch of articulator limbs here. One of us uses a radio to get it moving, and then it just follows the root line to the next oasis. When it gets close enough to the next one, say Hightop in our case, someone there will use their radio to slow it down. Once it gets close enough, they use their own articulators to load it up again, or send it down another path or whatever."

"How do you keep the cart from going off into the sands forever?"

Vaal directed his attention downwards. "The roots stick up out of the sand. Not much, but enough. If the wheels turn too much, they bump into the roots and are put back on… well, the path I guess. We're not used to words like that. We've never had qars like you. All of this is recent. I'm still getting used to moving this thing around," he demonstrated with his articulator limb.

"Looks like you're getting pretty skilled," Moss complimented him, distracted. When Vaal had shared his sight, something had caught Moss' attention. Something out of place, even for a foreign country like this one. "Who is that?" He indicated another sandkin on the far side of Sharpcrag, near the edge of Vaal's sight.

"Him? Uh, he's nobody of consequence," Vaal responded hurriedly, cutting off his senses and returning Moss to his own limited scope. "Pay him no mind."

This time, Moss shared a knowing sense with Char. He might not be a skilled negotiator like Aysa had been, or public speaker like his father, but he could tell when someone was lying. "I didn't see any articulator ring, or limb on him at all. Does he have some kind of moral or religious objection to them?"

That might be a complication. Char had mentioned there were differing beliefs here. If some faiths allowed an alliance with the Union, and other faiths forbade it, it could cause problems for his case.

"Uh, no," Vaal hedged, giving out signs of being perturbed. "I don't really know what he believes. He just doesn't have them, that's all. I can't tell you any more than that."

"Can't, or aren't allowed to?" Moss guessed, and was rewarded when Vaal's anxiety spiked.

"What about me, Vaal?" Char spoke up, following his cue. "I'm a sandkin citizen, remember? By law, anything that the people of Sharpcrag know, I should know as well."

"You will!" He assured her quickly. "Just not right away, that's all! We're not supposed to tell you until tomorrow."

"Come on, does that seem fair to you? How would you feel if your own people kept secrets from you like that?"

Trying to suppress his dismay at how easily she'd slipped into a manipulative role, especially of someone who obviously looked up to both of them, Moss spoke as well. "And is that any way to treat the people who brought you such marvelous machines? None of this would exist without Char and me." He changed his attention slightly, focusing on Char. "You know, I figured the sandkin would be more honorable than that. Are other oases as untrusting as Sharpcrag?"

"I don't know, dear. But maybe we should go and find out. We could take the next cart. Hightop is the closest."

Pretending to consider that, Moss directed his attention out over the sands. "But what will we tell them if we ask why we left Sharpcrag? I don't want to make the people here seem bad or inhospitable. Should we lie?"

"No, that wouldn't be honorable, would it? I guess we have to tell them the truth," Char bounced the conversation back, as the whole time Vaal had been getting more and more upset.

"All right! All right! I'll tell you," he relented, and they both returned their attention to him. Moss tried to hold back smugness, and was betting Char was doing the same.

Vaal took a moment. "I guess it wouldn't hurt that you know, but you have to pretend to be surprised tomorrow, all right? No one can know it was me."

"No one will," Char promised immediately.

"Good. That guy you saw? The one without a ring or articulator arm? He's a visitor like you, Moss. He's not from Sharpcrag. That's why you didn't see him at the meeting. You're not supposed to see him at all until tomorrow."

Moss wasn't sure what to make of that. Mobility was so new to these people, but it was possible this visitor had come from another oasis. After all, they'd had to send people to install articulators. Perhaps relocation was happening as well. "Which oasis is he from?"

"None of them," Vaal said innocently. "He's from Trejuna."
New Releases / Drive Part 38 added, 2/24/23
« Last post by Daen on February 24, 2023, 04:34:21 PM »
Drive Part 38 added, 2/24/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 38: Grilled Medium-Rare
« Last post by Daen on February 24, 2023, 04:33:37 PM »
Char held up under the questioning as stoically as she could, given the circumstances. They wanted to know every single thing that had happened to her since the destruction of the Arbormass. Since before it, actually. Her revelation about Moss had frozen their roots for a second, but they'd thawed out and were digging deep again.

"As I said before," she responded patiently. "The messages I sent to my handler were necessarily brief and cryptic. If they had been intercepted, I would have been arrested and probably executed as a trejun spy. I had no means to tell Torlo about Moss. That's why he never included it in his reports to you!"

Like Moss, she was growing around the truth, but hopefully close enough to it. She'd been relieved when they'd disconnected him, but strangely, felt alone as well. She'd had no idea he felt that way. Or perhaps she hadn't let herself believe it. She'd had a mission to accomplish after all.

"So you took it upon yourself to save him?" Sanoro went on, though his sense was less severe than before. "How, exactly?"

"I discovered as a part of my Combustor experience, a substance that blunts flames. A liquid that I had been using for years to protect my own bark and roots. I coated him in it, or actually instructed one of his own qars to coat him. That way when the trejuns attacked, the flames scorched him, but he survived. I waited for them to report total destruction, and then came back to retrieve him."

"And then you took him to Grove Kulik, to present to your handler?"

"Not directly. I knew that with two of us, the cart would burn fuel more quickly, so I took us to the rock oil deposit outside Kulik first. There I mixed more fuel, and then finished the journey." Her thoughts fluttered at that, remembering the devastation. "Did anyone in Kulik make it out? I know the chances are slim, but I saw you have carts here. If they had some up there as well—”

"I'm sorry, Char," another person named Trem put in, her sense leaking sympathy. "We only started getting carts ourselves a week ago. Kulik is gone, along with anyone living there."

"I understand," she responded slowly. Torlo and the others had been like family to her. Distant cousins and uncles, maybe, but valuable all the same. They'd been her only connection to the sandkin, until she'd actually come here herself. That brought up another topic, though. "How did you get carts anyway? Or those rings surrounding each of you? The designs for those are only a few weeks old!"

"That's not your concern," Sanoro responded immediately. "Until we decide what level of threat you represent, you can't know any more about us than you do now."

For a second, all Char could do was process that. "Since when? I'm a sandkin citizen. Under sandkin law, I'm entitled to know all that the oasis knows. I'm one of you, for Core's sake!"

"Are you?" Sorfa put in. "You grew up in a Union grove. You bonded a Union citizen, in violation of your oath of secrecy! You didn't even have the decency to show shame at that, when we questioned you about it! Can you really say, Char, that you're one of us?"

"Of course I am! I may have been raised up there, but I am and always have been a sandkin! The first thing I did after the Arbormass was destroyed was try to make contact with my handler. When I found him dead, I risked everything on a near-suicidal trip into the Orja to find you! I could have died. I could have lost Moss!"

That last part had been unexpected, even to her, but she told herself it was part of her cover story. Regardless, she had proven herself. "If I'm not a sandkin to you by now, I never will be. And besides, you don't have the authority to restrict information from me, Asher or Elder. Your authority is simply based on the majority. If more than half of you want to, at any time, you can say so, and both of those titles will just vanish like water in the desert!"

Agitation leaked into the conversation from all corners, as sandkin started to speak out. Whether in favor of her argument or against it, she couldn't tell, but they were all cut off quickly. "Enough!" Trem put in, her confidence and surety acting as a bulwark against the budding hostility. "Char is correct. She may be a newcomer to Sharpcrag, but she knows our ways and our laws. We agreed long ago that none of us will have more than any other, and that includes secrets. That is the basis of what it means to be sandkin, and we cannot forget that, ever."

In any grove within the Union or Trejuna, people would have continued to disagree, loudly and angrily, despite Trem's statements. Unlike the sandkin, neither of them had a central ideology defining them. They were just people. Sandkin were people and equality, in every sense. Char and Moss' arrival may have shaken Sharpcrag's calm, but Trem had just reminded them that they were better than their neighbors to the north, or the potential enemies across the sea. They were sandkin, and that meant something.

Sorfa, Sanoro, and a few others leaked hostility, but they begrudgingly accepted the will of the majority. Trem waited until that was clear to everyone, and then continued in Sanoro's place. "Char, when you were just a seedling, we discovered that one of our oases was temperate enough to sustain qar queens and workers. We don't know why exactly, but something in the area around Evershell allows them to survive and breed successfully. Evershell has four queens right now, and about fifty thousand qar workers."

"That's amazing!" Char exclaimed. "I can't believe it. I thought the qar species was going to go extinct, but if these queens survived the trejun attacks, maybe they'll survive."

"Or maybe not," Trem said glumly. "We have no idea if four queens are enough to keep the qars going over the long term. It's possible that the Union kept a few alive as well. Regardless, it was enough to get the avalanche started as it were. They were stockpiling refined metal dug from the hills near Evershell for over two seasons, until you started sending your designs from the Arbormass. After that, they used the newly built carts, and articulator limbs, to spread these devices to nearly every oasis in the Orja! And you started it all. You, Moss, and the fallen heroes of the Arobormass."

So that was why the crowd had been split on her fate. Char had been confused why there wasn't universal anger against her, until this moment. "I just did as I was instructed."

"You did a little more than that," Trem said wryly, indicating the space were Moss had been, and the crowd sent out traces of amusement. "Still, don't underestimate what you've accomplished. For the first time in history, sandkin all over the Orja can actually manipulate their environment, the same way Evershell can. For the first time, sandkin have actually moved from one oasis to another! Your contributions have helped open up a whole new world for us, Char."

Appreciation washed over her from most of the group, overwhelming the continuing hostility from the few of them. Caught up in it for a moment, Char suddenly remembered the whole reason Moss had chosen to come.

She tried to collect her thoughts, as she paused. Moss might not appreciate her speaking to them on behalf of the Union, not without him being present, but she could at least make some inquiries. "It's been almost two weeks since the Arbormass was destroyed. We didn't use the Union interroot to avoid detection, so we don't know what's been happening up there. Have you gotten word from the Union, even after Grove Kulik was destroyed?"

Trem sent out an affirmative. "Kulik wasn't our only source of information—just the one closest to the front lines. Their Chancellor is still restricting public information, but our other operatives have told us the Union is holding the line for now. They don't have carts or articulator limbs, so they can't go on the offensive, but the fighting seems to have come to a stop for the moment. Either the trejuns are running out of combustible materials, or the juns themselves."

Char couldn't help but let out some relief at that. She might not approve of how the Union did things, and especially their Chancellor, but that didn't mean she wanted them all dead. "Moss will want to address the people of Sharpcrag, and hopefully the rest of the sandkin, as soon as possible."

"We figured as much," Sanoro put in. "If you two weren't bonded, I might assume he was using you to get to us. As it is, we still need to decide what to do with you, before we move on to him."

So much for laying the groundwork for a good conversation. Char hoped that when it was his time, Moss could do better.
New Releases / Drive part 37 added, 2/17/23
« Last post by Daen on February 17, 2023, 05:09:24 PM »
Drive part 37 added, 2/17/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 37: Under the Microscope
« Last post by Daen on February 17, 2023, 05:08:52 PM »
Two days later, after he'd been given a chance to recover and grow his new root, the two of them loaded up on the cart again and trundled south over the last ridge.

Char had connected to the sandkin's version of the interroot briefly, to let them know she was on the way. Moss had listened in, and could sense the surprise on the other end. Apparently they thought she'd been killed along with everyone else at that grove on the edge of the green lands. They bid her come immediately. She didn't mention that she was bringing company.

They had bonded the previous day, in true sandkin fashion. The process had been far more intimate than anything he'd experienced before, and was therefore terrifying. Still, he had agreed to do it. Not because it increased his chance at survival, but because it helped his people. If the sandkin killed him, he'd have no chance to plead with them on behalf of the Union.

Sandkin bonded each other by bonding minds, literally. They had grown roots into each others' central root clusters, attaching directly to the connection point that made up each treqar's mind. He had heard everything she was thinking and feeling for a few terrifying moments, and she'd heard the same from him. In retrospect, it was no wonder sandkin law treated bonded people as legally the same person. For a few seconds, he and she had been the same person!

Moss had been hesitant to test it out at first, but he had to admit she'd been right to insist. Experiencing… that for the first time, while under the scrutiny of her sandkin superiors, would have given them away instantly. At least now he knew what to expect.

Char directed the cart slowly, moving around the last change in elevation, while Moss pondered what had happened. His whole life he'd been alone, by choice. Hers, she'd been alone by necessity. The flood of memories and fears and hopes he'd experienced had passed through him so quickly, but he thought he'd spend the next fifty years working it out. And they'd have to do it again soon, she'd told him.

Her surprised emanation cut through his pondering, and he tried to focus his attention. "What is it?"

In response, she shared her senses, and he could suddenly see the north end of Sharpcrag. From what she'd told him about each 'oasis' in the desert, he had some idea of what to expect. Sandkin and treqars were the same species, but obviously grew differently because of their divergent climates. Because of the animals, sandkin branches were much higher off the ground, and their bark was much thinner so that they could bend more easily in the wind. But as they got closer, he could see what had surprised her so much.

Each and every person here had a strange metal harness wrapped around their trunk! Actually, it was more of a latticework of metal, surrounded by a shining ring. As he watched, some of them twisted, spinning the ring around. There was an articulator limb on each one!

"Core above!" Char whispered slowly, and Moss sent out some agreement. "I had no idea they'd come so far so fast. The images I've seen of this place didn't have any carts or articulators, or frames like that."

Belatedly, Moss noticed the carts she was talking about, moving off to the east and west. They were wheeled, just like theirs, but instead of having a person riding each one, seemed to be following some kind of line into the distance. What it was, he couldn't tell. She'd have to get closer.

Char came to a stop, as she apparently contemplated all this. "They must have started building the moment they got my reports on the wheels and combustion devices, and articulator limbs! Either that, or they were inventing these things on their own without telling me."

Moss sent out some disagreement. "No, I recognize that articulator configuration. It was one of Rax's designs. And that ring was theorized by Tobor. He figured that eventually, treqars would want a device that let them move an articulator limb up and around, to any position around the trunk, to deal with many situations. It was a genius idea he never had a chance to explore."

"Apparently they took his idea and expanded on it in a big way. Look how that ring spins, with the articulator on the end of it! And then it rises and lowers. It's like we're looking at a huge qar that can grab and move things far off the ground." Amazement filtered through her words. "What I don't get is how they built all this so quickly. I don't see any smelting or refining equipment, much less metal-shaping tools. These had to have been carted in, and installed by articulator-equipped sandkin from somewhere else."

"Why don't we just ask them?"

He meant the two carts that were rolling towards them, each carrying a youngish sandkin. Both came to a stop right in front of them, and Moss was just wondering how they'd communicate without qars to attach roots between them, when that question was answered for him. One of the articulator limbs mounted on the cart itself reached into the bed of it, and came back out holding something coiled. As it extended it towards Char, Moss got a better look at it. It looked like a communication root. At the same time, the second cart extended a similar line over to the first. Apparently they wanted all four people to be able to chat at the same time.

"Agent boli'smarthas'traan, I am Asher Sorfa, and this is Asher Akain," an authoritative male tone put into the new network as soon as it was created. Both of the new presences shone brightly to Moss, but Char seemed unimpressed. The name he'd said must be the one she'd been given as a seedling, back before she'd grown up to be a Combustor. Moss kept quiet, as he'd been instructed to. Despite his brief flood of sandkin information yesterday, he was still an idiot when it came to their full customs and behavior.

"Thank you for meeting with us, Ashers. Please, call me Char. It's the name I was known by for many years, and will make things easier during my debriefing," she said respectfully.

"We were expecting you to be traveling alone," he said pointedly, his interest focusing slightly on Moss instead.

"Yes, I know. This is belhiera'torkalm'oss, and he prefers to be known as Moss. The two of us are bonded."

That sent a shockwave of surprise rippling out from both of them, and Moss could sense a sudden interchange of communication between them, but he couldn't tell what they were saying. "This is highly irregular, Agent. May I assume this is the same belhiera'torkalm'oss who was working alongside you in the Arbormass?"

She sent out an assent, and they went into private communications instead. It went on for a short while, actually, and Moss decided to take that as a good sign. He had seen thunderers on the edge of the… grove? City? Oasis? Yeah, that last one was the right one, now that he could think back on the bonding. It was still so strange to know these things and not have experienced them himself!

Eventually the Ashers stopped, and Sorfa's tone became noticeably angrier. "Please follow us to the edge of the oasis, and root precisely where we indicate. Room will be made for your… bonded."

At that he broke the connection, and the articulator arm removed the connecting wire. And it was a wire, surrounded by insulation, that Moss could sense clearly now. It was exactly like the underground interroot communications used by the Union, but much, much more portable. How had they gotten it so fine? Ingenious!

Sorfa had phrased it like a request, but it was clearly an order. The thunderers on the edge of the oasis had swiveled to aim at Moss and Char, and tracked them as they moved. There were probably stormers inside as well, with enough firepower to blast their cart to bits if they tried to flee. As if that was even possible now—despite their days at the aquifer, the water tank was only half full. They'd never make it out of the desert without a full tank. They'd barely made it in with one!

At least the carts these people were using didn't look any more advanced than the one Char was controlling. She was right: they must have started building as soon as her reports reached them. All of this was new—there was no sign of wear or tear on any of the articulator rings or frames around the trees, nor on the carts themselves. In retrospect, Moss realized he might be able to leverage that over them! They owed him, in a way, for allowing them such freedom of movement and control over their environment.

"Listen, when they root us, they're going to connect us to Sharpcrag's interroot. We'll be visible to everyone living there. They'll expect us to be bonded, and they'll be able to tell if we aren't. I figured you'd want to know," Char said sharply, as they slowed down.

"Way to set the mood," he responded wryly, and she sent out a burst of irritation. But it was tinged with amusement.

They were both forcibly removed from their cart, stripping their water roots of external layers, and then plopped into holes outside the oasis. Naturally, his seemed much rougher than hers. They hadn't been expecting him after all. Moss braced himself as they attached one of his roots to her central cluster, and hers to his.

Just like the other day, suddenly his mind was twice as full! His awareness didn't change that much, because he was used to seeing through her senses, but his knowledge expanded dramatically. Every thought she had, as she had it, was his to see. And the same was true in reverse!

Char seemed to be handling it better than he was. She coolly presented herself to the assembled group—at least fifty people arrayed around them, all intent and listening. Sorfa was the first to speak, but he was clearly not the center of attention. "Agent Char, please explain how this outsider came to be brought before us."

She projected calm confidence into the group, but Moss could tell she was nervous underneath. Or was that his nervousness? He couldn't tell right now. "He's not an outsider anymore. When we bonded, he became aware of everything I know about the sandkin. He knows our ways and customs, and has the same respect for our people that I do."

"How could you have done this?" Sorfa demanded, his forced calm evaporating in the presence of obvious anger. "You know that secrecy has been our only defense for thousands of years, and yet you threw it all away on a whim! What could possibly have possessed you to do such a thing?"

The crowd sent out a conflicting murmur, but all seemed curious as to the answer. "I'm not sure if you've ever fallen in love, Asher Sorfa, but I believe you're familiar with the process," Char responded smoothly. "I made the decision to bond with him, and to bring him here, in accordance with sandkin tradition and law. If the oasis collectively decides to punish me for that, so be it. I will abide by that decision."

Moss had to admire her statements so far. She hadn't lied once, and implied that they'd been bonded for weeks now. The crowd had been so stunned by that, that they hadn't considered she might be misleading them.

Sorfa was about to respond, but another presence cut him off. "Enough, Asher. Your purview is limited to patrolling our perimeter and protecting us from threats, which you have done. You have no training as an interrogator or investigator."

Strangely, Sorfa immediately backed down, and the elderly male who had spoken came into sharper focus. He turned his attention to Moss. "I'm Elder Sanoro, Moss. Tell me, did you bond with Char willingly?"

It had been that or likely execution, but he had made the choice to come here, so… "yes, I did, Elder."

"And did you do so for love, as she has suggested?"

There it was. The Elder was asking straight-out, having seen through the shock of the news without much effort.

This was a foreign interroot, with an integrated society of people who'd known each other for decades. Moss couldn't risk lying to them outright, since he had no way of knowing if they could tell! "I… had an interest in her from the very moment we met, Elder," he answered carefully. "At first it was because she seemed so isolated and alone, but as time passed, I came to know her for who she truly is. Truthfully, the idea of bonding in the sandkin way terrified me at first, but it's an important part of her culture, and therefore part of mine." All true statements, if evasive.

"Do you love her?" The Elder insisted again, bluntly, and the crowd became even more still.

"I don't even know what love feels like!" Moss blurted out suddenly, sending out as much frustration and insecurity as he could manage. "Who knows exactly what that feels like? How many among you have thought you loved someone, and then found out that you didn't, or felt those impulses fade, or saw them change into someone else? How many of you have loved many, many people—so many that it seems to lose its value over time? Can any of you say for sure what love is, or what it feels like? I certainly can't!"

He didn't give them a chance to absorb that. "I don't know if I love her. I don't know if I even can love someone. But I can say, truthfully and openly, that I have never felt for anyone else what I feel for her, and I don't think I ever will. If that's not a good enough answer, then I don't know what is!"

There was another long moment of stillness in the group. Moss expected Sanoro to react angrily, or perhaps punish them on the spot, but instead he sent out a trace of respect. "Very well, Moss. We will deliberate on this, and debrief her. Under the circumstances, I have to insist that you disconnect both from Char and from Sharpcrag's network for the time being. If we deem her to be telling the truth as you have, then it seems we'll have a new legal precedent. Along with an oasis-full of new issues to discuss with you."

The nearest sandkin reached down with her articulator, to disconnect him. In the last seconds before the world went mostly dark again, Moss picked up a trace of gratitude from Char.
Pages: [1] 2 3 ... 10