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New Releases / Drive Part 55 added, 1/20/24
« Last post by Daen on January 20, 2024, 03:13:53 AM »
Drive Part 55 added, 1/20/24
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 55: Innocence
« Last post by Daen on January 20, 2024, 03:13:00 AM »
“So, you and Moss are both People?” The People asked, finally.

Rane let out an exclamation of relief. “Yes! I am my own person, and he is his own person too. I can speak with him, like I’m speaking with you, but I can’t think for him unless he lets me. Not that I would try,” he added with a sour feeling.

It had been over a day since their initial connection, and Rane was finally getting used to these peoples’ way of communicating. More accurately, they were getting used to his way. The People had learned the Union dialect very, very quickly. Moss was back down at the shoreline, trying to arrange the incoming sandkin carts using the radio, which just left Rane here with these strangers. Or this stranger, actually. He was technically talking to just one person, even if there were a bunch of individual organisms here.

The hard part had been getting through to them as individuals. Whenever he and Moss had disagreed, even slightly, it had frightened and confused the People. Since they were so closely connected, even to the point of sharing their very identity, the idea of disagreement was terrifying to them. Even more so than the metal carts, or the very existence of other people out there.

“You’ve really never had any contact with anyone else? Outside the islands, I mean,” Rane asked again, still not quite believing it.

The People sent out a negative. “Not as far back as we can remember. At the very beginning, when we started growing roots to the other islands, we encountered another People there, but very soon we were aligned with them. Now we are the same. As are the other People on the other islands.”

A little freaked out, Rane tried to contain his anxiety. This was unnerving at best. Moss had explained how the sandkin bonded each other, sharing minds. He’d spoken of it with obvious fear and excitement, and that had been only after a few seconds of connection. These people… lived their entire lives sharing minds with each other!

Trying to focus, Rane remembered Moss’ parting instructions. “Uh, how many islands are there? Aside from this one, I mean.”

In response, the People set up an image that Rane didn’t understand. It had shapes, but they made no sense. Some lines were squiggly and others sharp, like on the schematics Moss had shown him years ago, but even Rane could tell that this wasn’t meant to be used to build anything. The People didn’t seem to sense his confusion though. “These are our islands,” they said as if it was self-evident. “You’ve never been found on any of them before, so you must come from others. Where are they?”

“Uh, I don’t understand,” Rane admitted. “What exactly am I looking at?”

The People let out some confusion, and then embarrassment. “We call it a map,” they explained. “The chivas draw them in the sand from time to time, and we copied them a long time ago. It represents the islands.”

There were maps back home, but the Peoples' way of depicting beaches and water and islands was esoteric and strange to Rane. Years ago during the formation of the Union, all movement, first by qars and now by people, was handled instinctively. By the taste of the air, or the firmness of the soil. By the other plants passed by, or in the case of the Desolation, the depth of the sand. Even the sandkin seemed to operate that way, but for a group like the People, who had never traveled anywhere, nor even considered travel, to think of mapping like this? It was like a miracle!

“Um, what are chivas?” He asked, a little hesitantly.

Amusement rippled out from the collection of lights nearby, and a hundred images sprang up from them. All of them were of the mammals that had climbed down from the People a day ago. White-furred and long-limbed, they had returned to their places of rest as soon as the People had become less anxious. They weren’t domesticated like the qars or juns, but they did seem to have a symbiotic relationship with the People. And they were a lot bigger and stronger.

“How… do you communicate with them? Enzymes, like we use with the qars?” As an example, Rane sent out a sample of the enzymes, along with his own images of the qars he’d cared for back home.

“In a way,” the People answered after a moment. Since communicating in this way was a new concept to them, they had to take some time to get used to it. “This island is small, as are the others. We can have only so many of us here, but we still grow fruit, which they consume. Long ago we sweetened our fruit so that they would come here more often. At first, we could only give them simple messages through their food, but now we use audio cues.”

Rane must have still been sending out confusion, because they continued right away. “We expand and contract bark patterns among all of us. A, uh, ‘single’ one of us wouldn’t be able to make much noise, but together we can send out a tone they respond to. We did so out of fear when you first showed yourselves.”

“Huh,” Rane answered mindlessly. For centuries now, the Union and Trejuna had been using chemical secretions to control animal life. Not once had anyone in either nation considered using sound. “That’s just amazing.”

“What’s amazing?” Moss put in, suddenly appearing in the network, and Rane let out some surprise. He hadn’t noticed Moss’ cart make its approach and connect up to the roots, because he’d been so caught up in all of this.

“Those climbers are called chivas,” Rane explained quickly, and could feel rapt attention from the People as he did so. “The People use compressed bark in and out to make noise to speak to them. Together, they can make a sound loud enough for the chivas to hear. Chivas aren’t as smart as qars, but they’re much stronger. Imagine if we could get one of the chivas onto a sandkin sea-cart and send it back across the ocean! Union animalogists would sell their own bark for a chance to examine it!”

“Would it survive the trip, though?” Moss asked with some concern. “Mammals need a lot more food than we do, and they need it more often. Also, they can’t drink ocean water. Or at least I think they can’t. No one’s ever seen one try.”

“I’m sure we could stock up on food and water, right?” Rane pointed out. “The People just said they eat fruit, which the People have in abundance, because they don’t have enough space to grow out from the islands. We can help you with that, by the way,” he added as an afterthought.

It was only then that Rane noticed the whole collection of lights was just suspended in front of them. Confusion rolled out from them in waves, and he realized that he and Moss had just hit them with dozens of terms and concepts they couldn’t understand.

Together, they explained those concepts one by one, and in return the People explained their version of maps again, this time to Moss. He seemed suitably impressed by their version of navigation, especially since it had been learned from the chivas, not taught to them.

The People seemed fascinated by most of them, but they reacted negatively when the idea of moving a chiva off the island came up. Apparently they were very close to their mammalian pets, which Rane could understand. He missed his qars dearly, even this long after they’d been gone. Most of them were probably still alive somewhere, having been pressed into service for the Union. Even if Rane did someday get home, he’d never see any of them again.

As it turned out, there were eleven separate islands that the People knew of. Eight of them were inhabited by groves, or whatever the People called settlements. It seemed to be different in every place, and the trejuns probably called their groves ‘torture centers’ or something. With help from the People, Moss seemed confident that they’d be able to move from island to island safely, and get much closer to Trejuna in the process. When the People asked why they were going there, though… he hesitated to respond. “Excuse us for a moment,” he said quickly, and then cut his connection. Confused, Rane did the same thing.

Once they were in private, Moss was practically blasting fear. “We have to come up with some excuse. We’re, uh, explorers or something. We don’t know what’s out there, but we’re trying to find out. Does that sound plausible?”

“Why not just tell them the truth?” Rane asked, still wondering what was going on in his friend’s mind. “I mean, they’re not trejuns; we know that for sure. Maybe they’d be willing to help us. In some way I can’t think of,” he admitted, realizing that they had no technology, no experience at war, and no way to cross the ocean.

“We can’t risk it, Rane. With those chivas of theirs, they can stop us if they want to. Those mammals can break our articulators and swarm all over the sandkin sea-carts when they arrive. We have to stay on the Peoples’ good side if we can, at least until the two of us are already on our way to Trejuna.”

Rane thought about it for a few seconds, but then sent out a negative. “Somehow, I don’t think lying to them is a good way to gain their trust, Moss. They don’t keep secrets from each other, and they wouldn’t understand it if we tried to keep secrets from them. They might even view us as a threat. If I’d spent my entire existence unaware of anyone outside Grove Praska, and then suddenly two people showed up, I’d be suspicious of them. Void, some of the Union people were suspicious of the trejun ambassadors, even after they’d been trying to ingratiate themselves to us for a century! If only we’d listened to them. Look, the point is, we should be open with them. They’ve been open with us so far.”

He moved his articulator limb to reconnect to the People, but Moss’ one swung around and grabbed it. “Trust me on this, Rane. They’re not ready. I won’t lie to them, I promise, but they’ve never even heard of conflict before. If we tell them about the war with Trejuna, and all the bombings and killings, it could overwhelm them. We need their help. Besides, I got in radio contact with Sprayhaven. I can tell the sandkin about the People, and they can send a specialist over here. Someone who’s actually been trained in speaking to a society like this. We’re amateurs at best, and we could do a lot of damage to the People if we’re not careful.”

Rane didn’t like it, but he sent out a begrudging assent. Moss had a point: in many ways, the People were like seedlings. If Rane had heard about the war, much less experienced it through enzyme messages, as a seedling, he would have been terrified and overwhelmed. They were better off leaving it to the sandkin.

Moss let go, and Rane reconnected them to the People. “We’re not going to tell you the reasons yet,” Moss launched right into it without any hesitation. “Others will arrive here soon, in a few days maybe, and they can answer your question, but we can’t.”

As Rane had predicted, the People seemed confused and frightened by this, but that fear faded quickly. They’d gotten pretty good at recovering over the past day or so, from all the changes. Taking their silence as an acceptance, Moss sent out some gratitude. “If you’re still willing, can you guide us past these islands? We need to go here, I think,” he indicated the northwest edge of the map.

There was a kind of pulse through the People, as happened when they were thinking amongst themselves. Then, without warning, more people showed up! They were very distant though, and Rane could tell that they were from another grove.

The first People communicated with the others with a series of pulses, and then the second People responded. A third group showed up, and responded the same way, like a relay system. Finally, the other groups vanished. “We can help you,” the People concluded. “Your strange metal animal can take you from island to island. If you get lost, the chivas can see you and push you back to where you need to be."

“So you can communicate with the other islands?” Moss said with some amazement.

The People sent out an affirmative. “Many years ago, we seeded most of the islands. We grew roots out, and convinced chivas to take seeds to them. We’ve even grown underwater roots from the edge islands like this one, but the water gets too deep. We gave up long ago. Do you grow underwater or something?”

Rane shared amusement with Moss for a moment. “No, we’re from another island, of sorts,” Rane explained. “It’s much bigger, and that’s why there are so many of us.”

He slipped into explaining, carefully, the details about the Union. He tried to avoid the specifics of how warfare had formed the Union originally, and how they’d used to be a bunch of individual groves. The People responded with their own very boring history. Apparently they’d felt portions of the Great Freeze even this far south, so at least they had that much in common.

They were getting tired, though. Not from the effort of growing leaves, flowers or fruit, but from processing so much information. Rane wasn’t exactly at top form himself, with all he had to think about. When the People finally said that they needed to rest, he gratefully agreed. Moss finished up by saying that the sandkin would have more answers when they arrived, but then they disconnected to get some rest.

By now, cart devices had expanded dramatically. The sandkin hadn’t hesitated to develop articulator limbs and carts, and the two that had been brought over the sea were no exception. Digging a couple holes near the People’s grove wasn’t that hard, even as tired as Rane was. Once they were complete, a ‘lever’ as Moss described it, lifted both him and Rane upwards slowly. They both slid down into the new holes, and then the carts lowered again. They’d be able to suck up some water for now, and get some nutrients. Getting past this island chain wouldn’t be too difficult, but there was no way of knowing how far northwest they’d need to travel in order to reach Trejuna. They weren’t out of the plains yet.
New Releases / Drive Part 54 added, 1/6/24
« Last post by Daen on January 06, 2024, 04:57:41 AM »
Drive Part 54 added, 1/6/24
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 54: Imperial Thinking
« Last post by Daen on January 06, 2024, 04:57:11 AM »
The Union war machine was on its way. Hundreds of carts were now surrounding the Qarier, all moving at the same pace. Thankfully it was slow compared the fragile and agile prototypes that Char had developed, but mournfully, it didn’t need to stop. Faster carts were constantly connecting and disconnecting, like insects buzzing around an animal corpse to feed. These were carrying fuel, though, and dispensing it before rolling off to get more. As long as they were within Union territory, the herd of carts would continue inexorably towards the coast.

Behind the Qarier, and dwarfed by its massive size, was a lower and smaller cart carrying five more people. It hadn’t taken Char long to discover that this was the Chancellor’s personal transportation. As a former strategist for the Union military, he’d insisted on coming along for the trip. Even though between the interroot and the radios, he could easily keep track of this group without being here himself. Vras was apparently very roots on.

Char had been trying to arrange an audience with him for days now. Despite the fact that this group didn’t have much else to do but cross mostly flat grassland, somehow their Chancellor was always busy. Naturally. The very idea of needing an audience was root-twisting, but Char was the best person for the job. Even she could recognize that. She’d grown up with these kinds of stupid traditions.

When he’d finally agreed to meet with her, Char had needed to work hard to suggest the right times. Any number of minor situations could distract them, and be used as an excuse to end their meeting early. Now that Moss was gone, Char couldn’t count on anyone in the Union to tell her the whole unbarked truth. She’d have to assume that everyone around her was lying to some degree, and that itself was a depressing thought.

At least she’d made some progress with the military leaders in this conveyance here. Most of them were young, including Vras himself, and had been excited to learn about the sandkin. Multiple times a day during their slow roll to the coast, she was approached by this lieutenant, or that commander, and asked about sandkin life. Char answered all of them truthfully, if somewhat incompletely. The group discussions back in the Orja had been clear: whoever was chosen as ambassador to the Union would have to be very careful about what they said. The Union society was based on unquestioning service to authority. As such, she now had to pretend that the sandkin had an authority of their own, to avoid exploding their tiny, limited minds.

“Yes, I suppose you could call them Grovekeepers,” she responded to her latest visitor, a female named Torsa. “They speak for their oases at each national gathering, so in a way they’re in charge.”

Technically that was true. Each oasis had been ‘spoken for’ by a single individual, but those people were in no way in charge of anyone else. Char had to rely on her long experience hiding her disgust and fatigue with these people. She couldn’t really blame them, as they’d been raised in this slave state, but continuing to pretend that her people and theirs had anything in common at all was starting to get… tiresome.

“Fascinating,” Torsa responded through their little root network. “So that’s how you were able to develop the technology down there? How you were able to build these marvelous rings and articulator arms?”

“In a way,” Char hedged. “We wanted to make sure that we had something of value to provide to the Union before we made contact.”

Torsa continued to prattle on for a while, and Char sent out the occasional flash of surprise or amusement, at various intervals. In truth, answering to a Chancellor of any kind would have slowed down their progress, if not stop it entirely. The only reason they had these ‘marvelous’ things was because they weren’t[/u] like the Union! In time, with Moss' help, maybe these people would realize that having leaders itself was their main problem.

Char had lied many, many times as part of her cover working at the Arbormass. Unfortunately, her deceptions there were nothing compared to the horrific image that she had to project to these people. If Moss had been here, he would have at least been a sounding board for her frustrations. Core above, she missed him. Even with what he’d done, and why, she wished he was still here at her side. Wherever he was now, she hoped he would come back safely. Whether it was so she could cut him again, or forgive him entirely, she couldn’t say for sure anymore.

Finally, Torsa was contented with what she’d heard, and made her excuses to leave. It was good timing, given that Char was due to speak with the Chancellor shortly anyway. Vras wouldn’t appreciate it if she was late.

On approach, Char became aware of three other carts casually moving in parallel to hers. They weren’t just more resupply vehicles; that was clear. They had what they undoubtedly thought were hidden thunderers embedded in their sides, and were tracking her movements carefully. Special security to protect the Chancellor, no doubt. As if any such security were necessary. Before the trejuns had shown up, the sandkin had been entirely peaceful, and never would have made any weapons.

Char’s small cart was forcibly seized by two huge manipulator limbs, and lifted into place next to the important transport vehicle. She started to roll her own ring and bring a limb into position for communication, but one of the huge ones grabbed hers and held it in place. It seemed they wouldn’t even allow her that much freedom here. They had to do everything.

Another ring on the cart spun, and a limb on it connected her up to the five-person network. Carefully controlling her output, Char prepared to encounter this Vras in person for the first time. His bright, shimmering presence appeared in front of her, with the other four in a backdrop conversation.

“Ah, Char. So good to finally speak with you directly,” he started off right away, leaking out enthusiasm. “I’ve been looking forward to speaking with another sandkin for a while now. Your countrymen are most… interesting to me.”

She couldn’t detect it from his tone, but Char was sure he was being sarcastic. Interesting was a nice way of saying primitive or absurd. As if he was one to talk, she thought sourly. “Of course, Chancellor,” she said instead, trying to mimic his tone. “Although you may find me different than the negotiators you met with during the treaty signing. I was raised in this country, after all.”

His carefully controlled output shifted slightly with surprise, but it shifted back quickly. He probably hadn’t been aware that the sandkin had been watching the treaty negotiations carefully, and knew the names and details of every single Union representative there. Unlike these people, the sandkin had no internal politics to get in the way of true efficiency. “Of course, your people have done their research on me,” he covered for his initial surprise quickly. “As I have on yours. Now, what can I do for you?”

“I appreciate your directness,” Char said genuinely, for once. “As you’re also aware, I had an… altercation with some of your soldiers days ago. They were literally poisoning seedlings, apparently on your orders. They didn’t object when I washed the poison off, but only because they’d been ordered not to interfere with me. Now, let me be direct with you, as we are in, uh, private. Did you order the deaths of children, Chancellor?”

He let out a burst of amusement. “Ah, this is why I enjoy speaking with sandkin; no guile! You say it as you see it, without restraint or fear. Yes, I gave those orders, and I would do the same again. Don’t tell me you object to me destroying these invaders on our lands, though. We’re not in the territory that my predecessor ceded to the sandkin yet. You have no right to tell anyone what to do here.”

“I’m well aware of that, Chancellor,” she began, but he let out a flash of impatience, interrupting her.

“Oh, please. Call me Vras. We both know that the sandkin don’t respect authority, despite what you’ve been telling my more gullible advisors. The words just don’t feel right, coming from you.”

Grimly, Char sent out an assent. He was right about that, and apparently she hadn’t fooled him. “Very well, Vras. You’re right. I can’t tell you or your people what to do, but I can at least appeal to your sense of decency. The seedlings you’re destroying may be trejuns, but they’re no threat to you. They have no juns, and are too young to use them even if they did! Why not move some of your own adults to these locations to teach them the truth as they grow up? You have the means now, thanks to us.”

This time, his amusement was laced with scorn and anger. “I don’t know how you do things down in the Desolation, but here, we destroy our enemies. The trejuns planted them here intentionally, to grow up and take over this land in a few decades or so. Just because we routed the trejuns and sent them back across the sea, it doesn’t change what these things are. They carry the enzyme memories passed down to them by their parents, and no amount of reeducation can undo that. Isn’t that how your own ancestors sent messages between towns, before you eventually stole radios from us?”

“Ha! That’s rich, coming from a man who repeatedly claims in his public speeches that the Union alone developed carts, wheel-rings, and articulators! If anything, you stole all of those things from us!”

There was a moment of silence across the entire network, as even the other four in the distance had picked up on their antagonism. Char spared a moment to rebuke herself for losing her temper. This wasn’t the way to change anyone’s mind.

It seemed like the Chancellor was thinking on the same lines. “Perhaps we should distance ourselves from this for a moment,” he suggested, his output changing noticeably to a more stable balance of emotions. “Since you clearly don’t understand, I’ll explain my reasoning as I gave that order. Unlike the sandkin, fully one third of the Union has been destroyed. One in three of our citizens burned to ash by our enemies. Entire groves immolated, as their last messages sent out were ones of horror and pain. I’m sure you witnessed some of those messages, back in the Arbormass,” he added, and for once he sounded genuinely hurt and angry.

“By contrast, the sandkin lost one grove. A terrible tragedy to be sure, but a tiny one compared to our losses. Your people have been observing our war for months, unwilling to get involved. I understand why not, actually. What good could you have done, anyway? Without the right tools to help, you would have just made yourselves into targets as well. However, you yourself may not have thought about the effects that war has had on my people. The anger it seeded within us. The fear that the trejuns may find a way around our thunderers and stormers and carts. The hatred we feel, almost universally, for this enemy who has hurt us so badly! My people need catharsis, Char. Even if it means hurting enemies who are no direct threat to us.”

Part of her could empathize with his suffering. After all, she’d known some of the victims herself, and still felt a twisting in her mind every time she thought of the sound that jun wings made. “It’s not a universal hatred though, is it? Moss doesn’t hate them, and many people listen to him. We can fight the trejuns without becoming like them. It’s just a matter of recognizing the difference between justice and revenge. Or more to the point, between our pain and everyone’s pain.”

“Oh, my dear. You’re staggeringly naïve, I’m afraid,” he responded condescendingly. “How many of your companion’s feelings are actually yours, I wonder? You manipulated him for months in the Arbormass, slowly shaping his emotions around your own. Then you abducted him, forcibly bonded him in the Desolation, and then sent him off Void-knows-where! Yes, I know about that, despite your efforts to keep it hidden. Face it, Char: Moss is your creation now, whether you’re willing to admit it or not. He’s not even a Union citizen anymore, not really. If he’s even still alive.”

“He is,” Char couldn’t help but let out some anger of her own. How could Vras have known? Or was he just guessing? After all, Moss being missing wasn’t exactly something she could cover up. He was a public figure: the war hero and master inventor; survivor of the Arbormass.

There were no other options: she had to go for the truth now, and hope that he could understand. “Moss is going to Trejuna, Chancellor. By now he’s far ahead of anyone who could stop him, either sandkin or Union. He’s not defecting though, or selling secrets. He’s trying to convince them to surrender! Before their destruction becomes necessary.”

Vras was an absolute blank now, giving off no emotions of any kind. No wonder he’d been able to rise to the top post of the Union, with obscuring skills like that. Finally, he spoke again “Did he now? Hm. I must say that in all of the projections that my advisors have given me, that was one possibility that never occurred to any of us.”

“If you think that he’s only doing this because he’s bonded to me, and we’re manipulating him, think again,” Char went on as it occurred to her. “He had doubts about this war even back in the Arbormass, when we’d first met! He built weapons so that we could defend ourselves, but he never wanted to be responsible for the destruction of an entire country! That is what you’re after, isn’t it? Whether it’s your personal hatred for the trejuns, or your desire to appease the rage and pain your people are suffering, you do plan to exterminate them all. We’re being frank with each other, Vras. Remember that.”

There was another long silence between them. “Peace is always preferable to war, my dear,” he responded tonelessly. “Despite my previous occupation, I’ve always believed that. However, we will never be sure of peace until we can be sure that Trejuna has no more weapons. Our goal with this campaign isn’t extermination. It’s occupation. We will cross the sea, hundreds of carts strong, and plant ourselves on Trejuna’s shores, wherever they are. We will monitor them closely, assuming they’re willing to surrender, and make sure that they never have the ability to harm us again. And make sure that they provide appropriate reparations for their unprovoked attacks, as well,” he added, almost as an afterthought.

In an instant, a vision of Vras’ preferred future took shape in Char’s mind. She’d studied Union history, and this was just a more machined version of the conquests that had taken place to form the Union in the first place. On that distant continent there would be treqar overseers, using machines like these rings and carts, to girdle and execute trejun citizens. To steal their resources and transport them back to the Union. To ‘reeducate’ the seedlings planted there so that they hated what their ancestors had done. The actions had been hateful, yes, but the offspring themselves were innocent! In some ways, this was even worse than an extermination!

A distant memory- one which she’d studied long before this conflict had begun- flitted into Char’s mind. It was a history lesson, about her own people’s past. “Have you ever heard of a negative peace, Vras? I don’t expect you have. It’s all about the absence of violence, actually. Peace, like what you’re seeking, but enforced rather than agreed upon. You would put the Union in command of Trejuna for how long? A year? A hundred years? A million? How long would it take to convince you and your successors that they would never be a threat again?

“We both know that day will never come. A Trejuna that can never threaten you is also a Trejuna from which you can profit. You can use their resources and people for your own ends from now until the end of time! Your people want safety from Trejuna, and I understand that. But you want dominance over them. A negative peace, where they are forever controlled by the Union’s will. Those people will never again know freedom for themselves, no matter how many generations pass. The Union will never let them go.”

That actually brought up a different idea in Char’s mind, and she wasted no time bringing it up. “I’m curious how different your vision of the future would be, Chancellor, if the death toll hadn’t been so high. Would you hold off on invading Trejuna if, say, only one fifth of your groves had been destroyed? Or one tenth? Or a hundredth? Would it even matter how many of your people died, as long as the end result was the same?”

Finally, Vras was back to his usual amused tone. “You have a very vivid imagination, Char. It’s no doubt a result of your… interesting way of looking at the world. But you can rest easy: I have no intention of staying there forever. A few years, maybe, to ensure their good behavior. Nothing more than that.”

He was lying and they both knew it; so much for directness and honesty. Char held back her disappointment. She’d hoped to spend a few hours convincing him, but it was clear a few centuries wouldn’t do it. “Thank you for your time, Chancellor. I’ll relay your intentions to my people.” Whether that last sentence was a promise or a threat, she honestly couldn’t tell anymore.

“Of course,” he responded graciously. “I greatly anticipate the day when we have a lasting peace between Trejuna and the Union. One which could be compared to the wonderful peace that our two people share,” he added as she departed, and his meaning was clear. If the sandkin tried to obstruct his plans, in any way, they could expect the same ‘peace’ to be enforced on them!

As she was disconnected from the larger cart, Char thought once again of Moss. It seemed that like him, she was now on an impossible task, and she’d have to somehow find a way to make it possible.
New Releases / Drive Part 53 added, 12/29/23
« Last post by Daen on December 29, 2023, 04:59:02 AM »
Drive Part 53 added, 12/29/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 53: What Makes a People
« Last post by Daen on December 29, 2023, 04:58:13 AM »
It was on day three of their journey that the miracle happened. At first, Moss had noticed the waves getting higher, and then there was a slight change in the taste of the air. Salt had been mixed with soil and sand again, just like back at Sprayhaven! Moss and Rane exchanged excitement, each extending their senses as far as they could. Land couldn’t be far away! Rane just hoped that they wouldn’t miss it entirely and keep on splitting their way out into another open sea, but Moss assured him that if they did, they could always turn around and follow the scent of sand.

It was a strange taste, as well. Not like Sprayhaven exactly. There were animals that Rane could pick up on, but none he knew of. He’d heard of shelled creatures back home, which scurried along the shore or buried themselves in the sand. Was he about to experience those creatures for himself?

For the next few moments, everything happened very suddenly! Through Moss’ senses, Rane detected another shoreline ahead of them. He was about to mention it, when Moss sped them up! The Splitter accelerated hard, and the next moment both of them were on the shore! The cart rocked back and forth a bit, as Moss was a little lighter than Rane, before it came to a stop. Rane still didn’t know how high the tides got here, or really what tides were, despite Kolser’s attempted explanation, but they weren’t getting the Splitter out of the sand anytime soon. “What in the Void was that all about?” He demanded harshly.

“Sorry, Rane. Had to do that,” Moss managed, as his articulator ring spun around. The limb attached to it extended down towards the sand, and then pushed into it. “We had to draw a line in the sand, so that we can get back home someday. And I wanted it to be deep, so that the water couldn’t wash it away. So I made the line with our sea-cart.”

“A bit extreme, don’t you think? Why not wait until we could come ashore gently? Why not make the line with your land-cart instead?”

“I knew the Splitter could handle it. The sandkin know how to put things together, and she’s a tough nut to crack.”

Rane couldn’t hide his amusement. “She? The Splitter is female now?”

“If you insist,” Moss joked back at him. “I might be channeling Char’s spirit out here, but it just feels right that the Splitter should have a personality as well as a name. She’s almost as tough as Char, I’d say.”

Soldiers. Holding back his confusion at Moss’ weird ways, Rane tried to take in their surroundings. “So this is Trejuna?”

“I doubt it,” Moss responded after a moment. “From what the sandkin told me, Trejuna is at least two weeks away, even if we knew exactly which direction to go. Still, we can’t be too careful.” His articulator swung back around and picked up the radio from the bed of the cart. “Kolser, are you there?”

There was a long stretch without any enzyme response, and Rane was just starting to fear that maybe they’d gone too far, when a familiar sense responded. “I’m here. Did you make it?”

“We made it to a shore, but I can’t say for sure if it’s Trejuna. Since we’re still within radio range, I’ll set up a relay here, a little bit away from the shore. Rane, are you comfortable enough with a cart to take a trip inland while I do that?”

Fear of the unknown stabbed at his heartwood again, but Rane just let out an affirmative. He hadn’t come this far to be a coward, anyway.

“Good,” Moss encouraged him. “I’ll get you off the sand, and then you can look around. Radio me if you hear any juns, or get close to any trejuns.”

The wide base of the Splitter had actually been big enough to fit two land-carts inside, along with their other equipment. Carefully moving his own ring-limb around, Rane touched the controls to roll his own cart out of the Splitter, but nothing happened. Moss paused from his own task for a moment. “You have to-”

“Turn it on, yeah, I know,” Rane said with embarrassment. He was glad they weren’t connected anymore, so he wouldn’t have to keep his emotions in check. “Still getting used to these things.” He swiveled his limb around and made another few adjustments, and the fuel inside his cart ignited. It rumbled, and then rolled forward off the now-open side of the Splitter. The sand parted beneath his cart’s wheels, and Rane luxuriated in his now expanded senses. Now that he was off the water, he could finally be aware of his full environment again!

The sand didn’t extend inland for more than three spans or so, and beyond that was what felt like clay and dirt. Strange dirt from the smell of it. Equally strange trees were lining the edge of the shore. They were tall, and thin, with inelegant wide leaves splayed all over the place. Rane hadn’t thought much of how the non-sentient trees back home were put together, but these ones were ugly. Their seeds were huge, too. Enormous spherical pods, probably that big so that the new plant would have a lot of nutrients. Enough to survive growing up on the edge of an enormous ocean.

At least the ground wasn’t too rough. Rane turned the wheels as needed to go between the nearest trees, and started exploring. That word itself wasn’t new, as qars has been sent on exploratory missions for centuries now. But the idea of doing it for himself was truly wonderful!

There were scores of animals within his range. Mammals for the most part, as best he could tell. Flying ones up above, with very long feathers, and climbing ones nearby. As he approached, they all stopped moving and stared at him. He supposed he would have done the same. It was doubtful any of these creatures had even conceived of a cart, much less seen one. It was a pity they were all too primitive to bother talking to.

It would probably take Moss the better part of a day to set up the radio booster from his position just above the shore. It would serve as a relay, for when they were further along, and it had an accumulator that should last for a season or so before running out of power. By then, from what Rane could surmise, other sea-carts from Sprayhaven would have arrived, and the sandkin would have started mapping this entire area.

Rane wasn’t about to waste that day, though. He circled the entire island several times, and determined that there were probably a few more nearby, from the motion of the waves. The animals didn’t harass him during the journey, and they were even starting to ignore him, as he was far too noisy to be any kind of predator, and far too slow to catch them even if he had been.

During his first trip to the interior of the island though, Rane noticed something unusual. There was a second species of tree here, much larger than the twig-thin ones near the shore. It took him a moment to realize what they were, and then he was rolling back to Moss, as quickly as he could go. He didn’t want to use the radio, in case others were listening, so he sped right up to his friend and used his grasper to connect a synthetic root.

Still leaking out surprise, Moss’ presence sprung up in their little network again. “What’s wrong?”

“We’re not alone. There are people on the interior of the island! I sensed at least a dozen!”

Moss seemed to take the news well, or at least he was good at hiding it. “Are they trejuns?”

Rane sent out a negative. “I don’t think so. I didn’t hear any juns, or sense any movement. But they’re definitely just like us. Same size as an adult treqar, and they’ve got half a dozen saplings, too. Maybe it’s a new grove?”

“Or it could be a trejun settlement that doesn’t have any animal support yet. Or a spy outpost. Or a military training site. It could be anything,” Moss speculated darkly.

Rane felt his sap slow down. “They’re definitely aware of me by now. I stumbled right into them! But if they don’t have any juns, I doubt they could have warned anyone. I doubt even trejuns could grow roots under the water all the way back to the others.”

“Well, I’m done underestimating them,” Moss responded with finality. “Come on. Let’s go introduce ourselves. I’ll be able to tell if they’re trejuns or not the moment I connect to their network. They should feel like Prajanko did, back in Grove Praska.”

Glumly, Rane followed Moss inland. He hoped that Moss knew what he was doing. After all, Prajanko had fooled them all, before sabotaging Praska and escaping into the sky.

Now that he wasn’t panicked anymore, Rane was able to lead Moss back to the grove. He was careful to pay attention for any signs of movement, or unusual noises. Even the slightest wingbeat of a jun would have been enough, but there was nothing but the usual noises from the furry or feathery animals around them. Rane stopped them at the edge. It had made the journey a bit awkward, but they’d been using a synthetic connection as they travelled, so that they could communicate without radios. “I think they’ve got a root outcropping here. You should be able to connect to their network.”

“You mean we should,” Moss said, moving his articulation grasper to his own roots. “I’ll need your insight as much as my own.”

Rane knew that there was no point arguing. Besides, he was curious, too. If they weren’t trejuns, then what exactly were they? The moment they connected though, that question was driven from his mind.

This network was unlike anything he’d ever seen before! Back in the Union, even when Prajanko or Char was connected, there were discrete points of light which represented each person in the network. They came closer or moved further depending on how much intimacy or privacy they wanted during their conversations, but they were always distinct from each other. Here, in this island network, it was like he and Moss were staring into a storm of light! He couldn’t tell where one person ended and another began, and it was always shifting in and out! It was like they were looking at hundreds one moment, and then just one person the next!

Even Moss seemed stunned by what he was experiencing, but it was nothing compared to the locals. Shock radiated out from that… thing, and nearly overwhelmed Rane’s senses. Fear followed it, but in lesser amounts, and curiosity was underpinning both.

“Hello?” Moss asked tentatively, as if not sure where to direct his greetings. Rane could sympathize.

Again, shock and surprise blasted over both of them, and the roiling mass of lights shifted its attention to Moss. They tried to get closer, but Moss was connected to them only very faintly, through just the tip of one of his roots. It limited their communications, but it was a lot safer than a more intense connection. Rane was only connected to them through Moss.

“My name is belhiera’torkalm’oss,” he continued slowly, “of the Continental Union. Who are you, if I may ask?”

For a second time, the mass tried to reach them, and was foiled. If they understood him, Rane couldn’t see any sign of it. Despite the hypnotic shifting of lights in the network, he could also sense movement in the real world.

“Core!” Moss exclaimed suddenly. “They’re bonded! All of them, don’t you see? Even the saplings are connected to the group!”

“Bonded?” Rane echoed him. “In the sandkin way?”

“Exactly! They’re sharing minds, and from the looks of it, they do that all the time. Core preserve me, I was only bonded to Char for a few moments, and it nearly drove me mad! How do they do it? I mean, the noise alone…”

“Uh, Moss?” Rane put in, nervously.

“This is fascinating, though,” his friend went on. “If they grew up with this connection, maybe they’re more inured to it! Maybe they can handle it more easily if they’ve had time to adapt over the years!”

“Moss!” Rane interjected. “We’ve got company in the real world!”

By now it was clear, even to his mesmerized friend. Over two dozen mammals had climbed down from various trees and people, and were encircling the two of them and their carts! They weren’t that large, but in those numbers, the pack could swarm all over them in an instant. One of them was letting out a low rumble, which Rane could only interpret as a warning. He couldn’t really tell, but if he had to guess, its eyes were focused on them. Did… these creatures eat wood? Was he about to become food?

Even before he thought of fleeing, Moss was sending out a warning. “Don’t move, Rane. Not even your articulator. They can catch us easily if we try to get away, and if any of them grab the controls, we might be stuck here. Or just killed.”

Despite his terror, Rane’s mind was analyzing the problem. “It’s no coincidence these creatures showed up moments after we connected to this network,” he thought aloud. “They have to be responding to this grove here. But how?”

“It doesn’t matter right now,” Moss responded. “They’re guarding us, but they haven’t attacked yet. We need to talk to the grove. Maybe they can call off their mammal guards.”

“How? We don’t even speak the same language.”

“But we can understand their emotions.” Moss’ sense went completely blank for a moment, and then he issued a steady stream of peace and comfort. The roiling mass in front of them seemed to back away from it for a moment, and then surged forward again. Their fear faded a little, but anger was starting to show up in its place. “You have to do it too, Rane. We have to show them they don’t need to fear either of us.”

Trying to present an image of harmlessness, Rane suppressed his fear. He tried to send out peace as well, and cowered a bit under the sudden attention of the group.

For a long few moments, the mass didn’t respond. Then, amazingly, one of the points of light within seemed to move away from the rest. An enzyme message came forth from it. “Hello?”

“We’re here,” Moss responded encouragingly.

“My name is belhiera’torkalm’oss,” the pinpoint of light went on, “of the Continental Union. Who are you, if I may ask?”

“What?” Moss asked. “That’s my name.”

“It’s just repeating your original message, Moss,” Rane said, realizing a bit too late. “It doesn’t understand what you said, or are saying now.”

“Core!” The pinpoint spoke up. “They’re bonded! All of them, don’t you see?”

Rane let out some amusement, despite the danger of their situation. “He does a pretty good impression of you, I’d say.”

“He sounds nothing like me,” Moss grumbled. “We have to teach him our language. It could take days or seasons even, but it’s not like we have much choice.”

Rane was about to offer a suggestion, when the pinpoint suddenly retreated, and joined back up with the others. They both watched as the whole mess of lights rearranged itself again. Then, another point of light, bigger than the first, detached itself. It exuded curiosity at them.

“Let me try something,” Rane said quickly, and moved forward. “Rane,” he sent out clearly, just waiting there for a moment. Then he moved closer to Moss. “Union,” he went on, hoping that the difference was getting through to them. Moving back away from Moss, he sent out a prod to his friend. “Now you do it.”

After a moment, Moss said his name, though this time the shortened version. He moved closer to Rane and said the word Union, and then backed away again.

This shouldn’t be as hard as it was! Translation between the Union and Trejuna hadn’t taken nearly this long, from what he’d read. Most enzyme concepts were universally understood, no matter where you grew up. But then, most people weren’t jumbled together in some kind of freaky mind-cocoon like these natives were. Even the very idea of individuality might be something they just couldn’t understand.

The larger point of light let out a phrase that Rane couldn’t interpret. It was short, like his and Moss’ names. Then the point of light moved closer to the others, and let out another word, “people,” before moving back to its solitary position.

“Did you hear that?” Rane asked excitedly. “He said People! He understands that much at least! The first one must have been his name. If they even have names.” Belatedly, Rane realized he’d been leaking joy and relief, there.

Moss did the same for a few moments. “That’s right,” he said encouragingly. “That’s your name, and when you’re with the others, you’re ‘people’. Just like when the two of us are together, we’re ‘union’. I mean not exactly, but it’s close enough.”

The point of light let out amusement and relief as well, and then darted back to join the others. Immediately afterwards, the whole thing let out a quick burst of incomprehensible noise. An image popped up in front of the roiling chaos of light; of the carts that Rane and Moss were using. The image was laced with curiosity and fear.

“It’s all right,” Moss explained quickly. “They’re just devices. You don’t need to fear them.” He sent out reassurance as best he could.

Rane tried to hold back his agitation. This would probably take a while, and mammals weren’t known for their patience. He hoped that if they ate bark, and started to get hungry, these ‘people’ would be able to control them.
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