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Drive (ongoing story) / Part 50: Under New Management
« Last post by Daen on June 09, 2023, 09:12:00 PM »
Char's arrival at the Union war camp was virtually unnoticed. She didn't feel that surprised, though. It looked like convoys were joining the huge group, and leaving it, all the time.

The war camp was actually a misnomer. It wasn't stationary like any grove or oasis she'd been to. It was physically moving, but very slowly by her standards. She did some quick calculations after her group joined up, and estimated that at this rate, the war camp would reach the sea in about three seasons.

At the center of the group was a huge rolling monstrosity large enough to put even the Qarier to shame. It had dozens of wheels, and was effectively, a mobile outpost capable of supporting fifteen or more treqars. Including the Chancellor, if Char's information was correct. Allain had gotten back to her about a day before, with instructions on where to go. It had been difficult and annoying getting them over the radio, but until the sandkin and Union interroots were connected, this was the only way to communicate at a distance.

She felt some trepidation at meeting the Chancellor in person. Not out of hero worship or anything—she felt that the very title was pretentious and arrogant. No, she wasn't used to having this much responsibility hanging on her every word and her very aura in the network. Even designing the thunderers and carts had been an intellectual exercise, not a social one. This was well out of her area of expertise.

Char had been made the temporary ambassador from the sandkin oases to the Continental Union. Until Allain showed up (he was the one the majority had chosen to interact with these authoritarian weirdos), it was her job to speak in his stead. She would have to be respectful, despite her feelings, towards Esta. Once again, Char wished that Moss was here. He'd actually spoken to the Chancellor before, and he was a native-grown Union citizen. She had neither advantage.

Something else caught her attention, to the south edge of the rolling war camp. A small group of carts had detached, in close military formation, from the main group and were making a slight detour. Curious, Char altered course away from her escorts to find out what was going on. Her own security escort of Union guards were probably confused by her actions, but they stayed with her. Their job was to protect only and to follow her closely. Nothing else.

Surprisingly, there were treqars growing here! Char could sense them as she approached, growing out of the ground not twenty spans away from the edge of one of the destroyed groves. They weren't that old, either. Two seasons at most. As she watched, the four carts that had separated from the main group moved close to each one, watered it, and then moved on. It took maybe ten minutes for them to cover all the seedlings.

Why were they doing that? There was a river flowing right next to this area—it wasn't like the seedlings needed any more water than they had. Was it a blessing or benediction of some kind? She'd adopted belief in the Core from her upbringing inside the Union, but she didn't remember any kind of rituals like that. Those kids were just lucky to have avoided the burning of the nearby grove in the first place.

Then she sensed it. A slight tang in the air, barely detectable over the burning fuel from the nearby carts. A sour taste. That hadn't been water at all—it had been some kind of acid! She was sure of it now—it was acetic acid, the results of some forms of alcohol being left to open air for too long. She'd studied alcohols as a fuel source back in the Arbormass, but nothing had come of it. That stuff was toxic!

"What are you doing?" She demanded, before realizing that they didn't have a radio to communicate. Fumbling with her articulator, she turned the mirror to signal them, and the one who looked like he was in charge came to a stop. He signaled the others, and they moved onwards back to the main group. Then he turned towards her, and his own articulator began reaching out with an artificial root. Still seething, Char extended her own and connected to him.

At first, she sensed only disquiet and uncertainty from him through their two-person network. He introduced himself as Lieutenant orso'valhsi'thron, of the Third Contingent, and politely asked her name in return.

"I'm Char, the, uh, temporary ambassador from sandkin lands. Are you aware that the 'water' you just put on those kids is toxic? You have to get actual water in there right away, and wash it off. In a few hours that stuff could poison them, and they don't have any qars to remove it!"

"Uh, ma'am, those were my orders. We were to come out here, spray each of them, and then return to the group. I'm expected back even now, if you don't mind."

Char was shocked. They'd been ordered to do that? Surely they could sense the acidic compound for themselves—they had to know it wasn't water. "You… were ordered to kill treqar children?" She asked faintly. "Bomb victims, who barely survived the destruction of their home grove itself??"

There was a burst of understanding through the network. "Of course, you wouldn't know, being from down south. Those seedlings didn't survive the bombing, ma'am; they were seeded here after it happened. They're trejuns, not treqars. The enemy did that all over the place actually; seeding their own kind in territory they'd just burned to ash. My squad is just one of dozens who've been tasked with getting rid of this infestation."

"Infestation?" Char echoed, horrified. "These are people we're talking about, not tarka-worms! It doesn't matter if they came from Trejuna or not; they're seedlings! They aren't old enough to be a threat to anyone! You have to wash them off, right now."

"I'll do no such thing, ma'am," the Lieutenant responded, hostility leaking out from him now. "Seedlings or not, they don't belong here. We're at war, and our enemy has done far worse to us for far longer. Our orders were to clear this area of enemy presence, and that's what I've done."

"Then I'll do it myself," she said firmly, and took in the location of the nearby river. Her secondary tank of fuel was nearly empty. She could dump what was left, and replace it with water. It would take some effort to use the tubing to wash off the seedlings, but it was doable.

Hostility had been replaced with outright anger now. "I can't let you do that, ma'am," he said respectfully despite his feelings. "I realize this is new to you, and I know the sandkin may do things differently, but those are enemies down there. I can't let you aid them, in any way." His thunderer was pointed at her cart directly now. In response, her two escorts, who had no idea what the conversation was about, aimed their own at him.

Thunderers were unlikely to kill any people here, but they might disable a cart or two. But if shooting started, others might join in. There were almost certainly sandkin up in that group, training the Union soldiers in how to use their new weapons. Besides, she couldn't believe that the entire Union war group was agreed that killing children was a good thing to do!

"Think carefully about what you do next, Lieutenant," she warned him. "I'm going to help those seedlings now. If you want to stop me, you'll have to cause a diplomatic incident to do it. It might even end the treaty between our two peoples. Are you sure you're willing to risk that?"

Anger was mixed in with uncertainty again, and she did feel some sympathy for him. He was just a soldier, after all. He probably felt like she did right now—underwater up to his topmost leaves. Fortunately for him, he was spared the need to respond.

"Is there a problem here?" A new voice put in, moments after joining the network. Char let out some surprise—with her ire and determination, she hadn't even noticed the other cart approach. It had linked up with the Lieutenant from the other side, apparently.

"No sir," the Lieutenant responded immediately. "Just a slight… difference of opinion, sir."

"I'm Sergeant ken'hroahen'vol of Chancellery Security. Enrho, if you prefer, Ambassador."

So he knew who he was talking to. That made things a bit simpler. Quickly, Char explained what the Lieutenant's people had done, and how she planned to respond.

He didn't answer at first, but then finally sent out some agreement. "Very well, Ambassador. Do as you see fit, but after that I must insist that you return to the war camp to meet with the Chancellor."

The Lieutenant was clearly astonished. "Sir?"

"I'll take responsibility for her actions, Lieutenant. You're dismissed."

"Yes, sir." With a subdued sense, the Lieutenant disconnected, ending the small network, and rolled his way back uphill towards the others.

Char took the opportunity to do as she'd promised. Strangely, the Sergeant helped her, filling one of his own backup tanks and following her example in washing off the seedlings. It made no sense, until she realized he was probably just trying to hurry things up so that she wouldn't keep Chancellor Esta waiting. Well it was still the right thing to do, even if he had all the wrong reasons.

It took them maybe twenty minutes to wash everyone off and get back to the camp, but they sent limited messages using mirrors during that time. On the way back, they linked carts so that they could speak during the journey. It seemed the Sergeant didn't have a radio, either.

"I'd heard you were a firebrand," he said informally, on their way back. "I suppose it makes sense, given what you did for a living before and during the Arbormass. Still, a lot of our people won't approve, just so you know."

"Trust me, I'll be having words with Chancellor Esta about this," she promised darkly.

He let out some discomfort. "Actually, you won't. Ath'qestarlo'morha… is no longer the Chancellor of the Continental Union. She resigned her position about two weeks ago, while you were on your way here. I'm sorry if you're saddened by that news," he offered as an afterthought.

"I'm not," she said automatically, trying to deal with this new information. "I never even met her, to tell the truth. Who's in charge now? Or are you people finally learning to move away from blind obedience to authority?"

She regretted the words as soon as she'd uttered them, but the Sergeant only sent out some amusement. "I'd heard you had some strange ways down in the Desolation. No, the Council appointed hath'xelvra'snna as the new Chancellor just last week. His installation ceremony was very unorthodox, given that it was done literally on the move, and officiated by radio reception, but it's official now. He's our new leader," he said, as if he'd just commented on the Core rising.

It was that simple to them, wasn't it? It didn't matter if this new Chancellor was a saint or a monster: he was in charge, and that was that. It was like travelling with very young children. They didn't want to think about why someone was in charge, so they just didn't!

Trying to hide her frustration, Char started asking about the new Chancellor, trying to get a feel for what changes she might have to expect. Allain had given her a lot of information on Esta, back in grove Praska, but all of it was useless now. Unfortunately, the Sergeant didn't know much. Apparently this 'Vras' person was an experienced military commander, having organized attacks and defenses in the chaos following the founding of the Union. That meant he was old, at least two hundred, and probably had a great respect for military tradition. Not good at all, if he used that respect to order the deaths of children.
New Releases / Drive Part 49 added 5/30/23
« Last post by Daen on May 30, 2023, 01:30:34 AM »
Drive Part 49 added 5/30/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 49: By the Sea
« Last post by Daen on May 30, 2023, 01:28:43 AM »
Rane listened with increasing amazement, as Moss explained the whole thing. Or what he assumed was the whole thing, anyway—Moss was probably holding some things back. Either they were private, or important to the security of the Union, or both. He heard how Moss had met Char at the Arbormass, and they'd worked together for seasons developing new devices with the others. He marveled at how Char had apparently died, and that most of them thought she was a traitor. Which she was, technically, but she hadn't been a trejun agent.

Then it turned out she was a savior instead, pulling Moss' burned trunk out of the ashes and taking him to safety. Rane had never been seriously burned before, but he felt his sap begin to boil at the description of what had happened to the Arbormass. After that came the desert crossing, and their slow drying out in the Desolation. At that point, Moss stopped for some reason. He'd gotten as far as them reaching safety: a source of water. "What is it, Moss? You were just getting to the good part, I imagine."

"Or the bad part. I can't really tell anymore," his friend let out some resignation. "I was interested in her right from the start, as I said. I was intensely curious about her life, and hobbies, and work. She wouldn't give me the time of day.

"At first I thought it was because she'd been hurt by others, for being a Combustor. She had been, yes, but now I know it's because she was a spy. She didn't want to get too close, in case she'd be ordered to betray me."

Rane thought he was being a bit vain at that, but didn't say as much. For all Moss knew, she just hadn't felt the same way. He was no stranger to being rejected himself, and it could easily have gone that way for Moss as well. He simply listened instead.

"Then we finally reached sandkin territory," Moss went on slowly. "She thought that the only way to protect me would be to bond with me in a legal sandkin ceremony. That way she couldn't have been ordered to leave me behind. She was wrong, in retrospect, but she couldn't have known that. She saved my life, for the second time, or so we thought. Then… I betrayed her. I won't go into the details, but I kept a secret from her, and people died because of it."

Ah, so that was it. Maybe Moss had seen it as a bonding of convenience, but a betrayal of trust changed everything. "She was upset, I take it?"

Moss sent out an affirmative. "Rightly so. That's what we were talking about just before you and I left Praska. She said we needed time apart, to figure out exactly what we both want, and why. She needed to think about what I'd done, and what to do about it. She tried to talk to me just before we left Grove Praska, too, but I wouldn't let her. If she was ending things with me, then I was saving us both a bunch of pain. If she was going to try to convince me to stay, then I was better off not hearing it. This mission is too important, and I'm the only one who can complete it."

He seemed to be done at that point, but Rane gave him a few seconds before responding anyway. "Ok, let me get this straight: you worked with her for a long time, all the while interested in her. Then you two were stuck alone for weeks heading into the desert. Then you literally had to bond with her in order to keep yourself alive. And then you betrayed her trust and caused the deaths of some people. Probably her people, given where you were at the time. Is that about right?"

Moss' aura took on a wry note. "That's pretty much it. So, what's your assessment, lovemaster? Are we doomed?"

Rane held back some disdain at the flippant way Moss was treating this. "It's not that simple. All told, I think she's right. The two of you do need some time apart. Think about it; you were both put in terrible situation after terrible situation, for seasons on end! You saw good people die, friends and strangers alike. You were both under suspicion as traitors, and then you both nearly died multiple times. With that much horror all around you, for so long, it's only natural that you'd feel this connection with each other!"

He let that sink in for a minute or so, as he concentrated on keeping the cart out of a particularly choppy area of sand. "You both need time to think about those events. To think about your feelings at the time, and whether what you 'felt' for each other was real, or just a product of your circumstances. If it was real, and you still feel that way for her after you've been apart for a time, then great. Hopefully she feels the same way, and you can be together. If not… well, better that you know that for sure, than just staying with her until those fake feelings dissipate, and you're stuck with each other for the rest of your lives. This is an opportunity, Moss. Not a punishment."

Moss didn't respond for a long time, and Rane kept his attention on the cart. He could feel the Core's rays fading, and soon it would be night. Hopefully that wouldn't make the waves come any closer to the rocks. He would hate to have to come to a stop every time they washed in, to avoid getting stuck in the sand.

"When did you get to be so wise, anyway?" Moss finally asked, leaking out some respect despite himself.

Rane didn't know what to say at first. "I think 'wise' is a bit of a stretch, but I've always had a good insight into the people in grove Praska. It just doesn't show much, because I'm always in the shadow of people like you, your father, and my grandmother. People don't pay much attention to bit players like me, when they've got major players around."

"Well, it's our loss," Moss responded, and Rane let out a little embarrassment. "I'm sorry I never noticed before. I'll think on what you said, and write an enzyme letter to Char. The sandkin should be able to get it to her eventually. Definitely before I can tell her in person."

"Speaking of which," Rane said suddenly, focusing on what was just ahead. It looked like an ordinary rock formation, but he slowed the cart by instinct.

Moss shared his senses and sent out some agreement. "I don't like it either. Wait just a moment." He rotated his articulator and snagged the mirror. Fortunately there was still enough Corelight to reflect, and he aimed it at the section of beach up ahead, and then panned the reflection up into the rocks above.

After a few more seconds, an answering flash of light came through. It was faint, barely enough for Rane's oscilli to pick up, but it was there. "I take it that's a good thing?"

"Should be," Moss said shortly. "Take us uphill, slowly. That recognition signal should keep them from blasting us right off the beach, but we still don't want to startle anyone."

Ah, so they'd reached the oft-touted 'settlement' at last. Rane did as he was told carefully, and wove the cart between rocks and up into the foothills. As they passed the earlier rock formation, Rane became aware of roots grown up behind it, and a well-hidden stormer there as well! It was roughly fifty times the size of a normal thunderer, and it was loaded and aimed at them. If Moss hadn't sent that signal…

He didn't want to consider that possibility. Char had said that the sandkin were peaceful, but they clearly weren't about to be caught unprepared for a fight. He could sense other stormers and thunderers as they continued, but there was still no sign of the people controlling them.

A minute or so later they came around a corner and found themselves inside a grove! The noise from the ocean was muted here, probably by the barrier of rocks. This place was perfectly concealed. The only way anyone would be aware of a settlement here, other than that recognition signal, would be if they flew directly overhead! It wasn't completely protected from the trejuns, but it was as close to invisible as it could be. Rane's opinion of these sandkin jumped up another notch.

The Core had set by now, leaving them in the dark. Still, a small light shone out at them from the western edge of the grove, and Rane followed it. There were two holes in the ground, spaced just about right. He used his own articulator to help Moss down first, so he could start chatting with them right away. Then he followed, placing himself in the second gap. It fit just right—they must have had measurements sent from grove Praska all the way out here.

When he connected to the local network, he found himself in the middle of a heated exchange. Not with Moss this time, but between two of the sandkin.

“—have no idea what the risks might be! If they're captured and interrogated, the trejuns will learn all about this place! They'll send one of their jun squads here, and we'll all burn!"

"We're not exactly helpless, Verask. We have plenty of stormers and thunderers in place, even if they did know. Besides, they're busy enough dealing with the main army up north. This is the perfect opportunity to sneak people up behind their lines and get some accurate information."

"Enough." Another sense cut in, this one muted for some reason. It took Rane a few seconds to realize that this person was not actually in the grove with them. He was communicating from a great distance away, probably through those synthetic roots Moss had told him about. Strung above the ground rather than grown underneath it, for ease and speed of placement. He wondered how new those roots were. "These arguments have already been made, again and again. All the arguments have. It's time for a vote. All in favor of assisting our two guests with their reconnaissance mission, vote aye. All opposed, vote nay."

Abruptly Rane was aware of dozens—no, hundreds—of other presences on their network. Perhaps even thousands! Each one was turning either brown or green, as the counting progressed. Each single sandkin had a say in how all sandkin behaved. This was so weird.

The vote was closer than he would have liked, but in the end the greens outnumbered the browns by four hundred and twelve. They had succeeded. Moss let out a burst of relief, and Rane followed his example. There were signs of disappointment in some of this grove's inhabitants, and some disgust as well, but most of them seemed pleased with the results. They listened to the official tally being announced to everyone from wherever else that person was speaking, and then their connection to the other groves went dark. No one seemed concerned, so Rane assumed it was normal.

Moss was already speaking with one of the locals. "Kolser, this is my friend Rane. Rane, Kolser here is the one who built the cart we're going to be using." He let out some friendliness and encouragement, and Rane sent out a subdued greeting.

"Wait, the cart we're going to be using? What about the one we came in on? It's low on fuel and water, but once we're resupplied, why can't we just use it?"

Kolser let out some amusement, his aura getting dimmer briefly. "It's not exactly equipped for the journey. My cart can actually float on the water. And it's built to carry two people over great distances."

Rane froze, as the implications of that washed over him. "We're going out… on that? He indicated the distant waves, still sending muted repetitive noises in at them.

"That's right," Moss said, clearly enjoying his discomfort. "We're going to cross the ocean, heading northwest, and then straight north, until we reach Trejuna. Then we're going to infiltrate the enemy homeland, gather information about them, and send it back here where it can be put to use." He paused, his sense becoming more serious for once. "Still glad you're coming along?"

"I wouldn't miss it," Rane responded faintly, and they both let out amusement. They were going to Trejuna itself? He'd thought they were just going to observe troop movements or something, maybe try to steal a jun queen if they had the chance. But going to the enemy stronghold themselves? This was a lot more intense than he'd anticipated.

"All right," Kolser went on practically. "You can't actually use the water-wheel to push your way all the way up to Trejuna. You'll have to go from island to island. We've only got vague impressions of how many there are, based on memories from a few sandkin who ended up there as seedlings back in the day. But they'll protect you from the worst of the waves as you continue north."

Moss let out some concern. "The worst of the waves? You mean what we heard on the way in wasn't as bad as it gets? I thought they were worst near the shore—or at least that's what Char seemed to think."

"They're pretty bad, yes, which is why we have an inlet nearby where we can load you up and have you practice using the water-wheel. Unfortunately, once you're out there on the sea, you'll be on your own. Even if we had another water cart to send after you, we don't have anyone trained in how to use them. From what we've heard, neither does the Union. If you get in trouble, you'll have to get out of it on your own."

"But we'll be all right, won't we? I mean, once were out on the water, the waves won't be as bad, and we can move from island to island safely?" All amusement had faded from Moss' sense by now.

"Sure, as long as the weather holds," Kolser said seriously. "If it's warm and sunny like yesterday, you should have a safe trip. If it rains, things will get more complicated. If a storm starts up, you're in trouble. I equipped the sea-cart with tubes that can be used to get rid of any water that ends up inside the cart with you. You'll have to practice with those, too." He seemed to sense Moss' concern, and sent out some comfort of his own. "Look, if you're having second thoughts, that's perfectly understandable. Eventually someone will have to start taking carts out on the water, but it doesn't have to be you, and it doesn't have to be soon."

Moss sent out a negative. "We can't afford to wait; the timing is critical. If we don't leave soon, the trejuns will begin to fortify their homeland, and we won't even get to the shore, much less close enough to learn anything useful about them."

"You're assuming they haven't already fortified their borders," Kolser reminded him. Even the sandkin know very little about Trejuna, and we've certainly never been there."

"True, but it's a safe assumption. When they started this war, they had all the advantages. Even now that their forces are being turned back, they still have no reason to fear for their own homeland's safety. Once the Union takes to the water though, that'll change. I think we'll be all right, as long as we leave as soon as we're done training on your… water cart."

Rane couldn't help himself. "Still glad you're coming along?"

Kolser sent out some more amusement, and even Moss joined in slightly. "I wouldn't miss it."
New Releases / Drive Part 48 added, 5/23/23
« Last post by Daen on May 22, 2023, 10:40:59 PM »
Drive Part 48 added, 5/23/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 48: Endless Waves
« Last post by Daen on May 22, 2023, 10:40:17 PM »
They had been rolling for days now. At first, Rane had been overwhelmed just observing as Moss directed the cart around the rocks and hills. When he'd been given control, he'd nearly rolled them right down a sheer cliff! He had learned quickly though, and now he handled the controls with a lot more confidence.

It was still so miraculous, from Rane's perspective. They were… actually moving through the hills, heading west towards the sea. Like a massive qar crawling its way, or a rollweed tumbling across the ground. Mobility!

Moss had spent most of the trip in silent contemplation, aside from periodically offering to take the controls so Rane could go into dormancy. Rane had allowed that only rarely, and then reluctantly, because he wanted to get used to it. Even when he wasn't directing their course, Rane spent the time thinking back over it, and getting very little rest.

Now they were moving through what was hopefully the worst of it. Because their cart couldn't handle steep climbs, they had to go around the biggest ones, which meant skirting the edges of the mountains inside the Desolation. Moss had impressed upon him the importance of speed here, but haste would do them little good if he ended up flipping the cart and rolling them both into a ravine. Rane didn't have many opportunities to be self-congratulatory, but he had to admit, he'd become a fine carter. If that was the right word.

He'd tried speaking to Moss now and then, early on, but his friend barely responded. Aside from giving him the occasional bit of advice about their course, or how to avoid getting stuck, Moss had continued his internal planning. At first, Rane had been afraid he might try to leave him behind again. That was one of the other reasons he'd been so reluctant to give up control. But as they continued, he was more and more certain Moss was thinking of other things.

It had to be their plan. Whatever that plan was. Moss hadn't said a word about it, so all Rane had was his theories. He might not be the greenest branch in the grove, but he wasn't stupid either. They'd consumed more than half of the water and fuel that had come with the cart, which meant they were heading somewhere they could resupply. They weren't heading to any Union grove—of that he was certain. All the groves west of their hometown had been burned to ash. That meant the resuppliers would be sandkin.

Char had been the only sandkin he'd ever met, as far as he'd known anyway. She wasn't anything like that trejun lord who had seemed so impressive, in his own aloof way. She'd been personable and chatty, insightful and patient with all the questions sent her way, and calmly confident in both her people and the Union. He could understand why Moss had bonded with her. But how much of that had been genuine? The last foreign visitor they'd hosted had been lying right from the start! Was she really such an outgoing and engaging person, or had she just been pretending? Sure, the sandkin had turned balance of the war in their favor again, but what would happen when the war was over? If it ever ended. Like the strange repetitive noise coming from up ahead, he felt like the fighting might continue forever.

Rane tried not to think about that. The only family he had in grove Praska was his grandmother. Jora had raised him well, in addition to her duties as Grovekeeper, but she'd been opposed to his decision to join up. She'd been worried he might die up there, or come back changed, as Moss had also feared. Rane felt shame over how he'd responded to her at first. "People are dying all over the Union, all to keep us safe, grandmother! I have a duty to help them—to make their sacrifice worth it! Not to do so would be wrong, and you taught me to value what's right."

She'd been so relieved when he'd told her he was going with Moss instead. So had he actually, but privately. As much as he felt it was his duty to defend the Union, he didn't want to risk dying. Or killing someone.

Whoa. Up ahead, the terrain was changing. Rock gave way to sand, and tough, wiry plants were disappearing as they moved on. Sand couldn't support much by way of plant life. And beyond that… was something he couldn't even comprehend.

Rane had seen enzyme images of the ocean, but actually experiencing it directly was something else! The repetitive noise he'd heard before was amplified tenfold, and the rush of water, so much louder than that sloshing he'd heard back in Praska's aqueduct, stretched out to the north and west for leagues! It was mixed in with animal noises, too. Strange-sounding small birds were soaring above the waves. They weren't like the small ones back home at all. Their… what was the word? Beaks? Yes, their beaks were much larger, and they stayed up there for long times by comparison. The little birds in Praska would flit from tree to tree, or from treqar to treqar, and then sit, making their little songs. Here, these creatures just floated up there, swaying back and forth like he'd done directing their cart this far.

Speaking of which, he didn't know where to go from here. He sent an enzymatic prod in Moss' direction. "Hey."

It took a couple more prods, but Moss eventually came out of whatever dream he'd been having, and took in their surroundings. "Wow."

"Yeah. Reading about it just isn't the same, is it? Now, where do we go? You just said reach the sea, and we have."

"South," Moss directed. "Stay on the sand, but out of the water. The wheels are wide enough to handle it—they were built by desert-dwellers after all."

"You got it."

He was getting used to the noise from the 'waves' as he'd read them described. Apparently at some times of the season, the waves were higher, and at others lower. Sometimes they pushed further into the sands, and sometimes less. "How long will we be on the sand?" He asked casually.

"Not long," Moss said distractedly. "A few hours, maybe. I'm not sure where the settlement is."

Rane kept in a surge of satisfaction. Finally, some details! The sandkin settlement, he assumed. He was eager to meet more of them, and compare them to Char. Unless they were under attack or something. He didn't want to fight, but he was willing to. Their cart had a pair of thunderers in the front and back, and he was trained in using them. He'd been practicing with the articulator limb even before leaving with Moss. Maybe now was the time to press his luck and wheedle more information about what they were doing all the way out here. "So, anything I should know about this settlement? Should I start loading the thunderers?"

Moss let out some amusement. "I doubt it. They're expecting us. Hopefully they'll have what we need to continue the journey. If not, for all I know, they'll just resupply us and send us back to grove Praska."

That hadn't been the answer Rane was expecting. "Wait, what? You mean you don't know what the plan is? Then what have you been pondering for days now?"

"I know the general plan, Rane; don't worry. I just don't know if it starts at the settlement or somewhere else. As for what I've been 'pondering', I… I'd rather not get into it."

"Ah." That was a relief. "Female troubles, then?"

Moss' sense sharpened suddenly, but then softened a bit. "You could tell, huh?"

"It's not much of a stretch, actually. It really only could have been one or the other. Are you sure you don't want to talk about it? I'm a good listener, and I can keep a secret."

"I don't want to bore you either."

Rane tried to hold in his incredulity. "Moss, we've been traveling in near-silence for days. As wondrous as controlling the cart has been, I could use the distraction."

His friend hesitated again. All right. "We've got some time before we reach the settlement."
New Releases / Drive Part 47 added, 5/15/23
« Last post by Daen on May 15, 2023, 08:16:29 PM »
Drive Part 47 added, 5/15/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 47: Regrets
« Last post by Daen on May 15, 2023, 08:15:49 PM »
"Please, Allain. We need this, you know it!"

Char waited impatiently for the lag in the transmission to finish up, so that her distant friend could respond. Allain was actually still in Hightop, many leagues to the south. Given the limited range on their radios, their conversation required two relays between them. Fortunately the sandkin in the relays could be trusted to keep this conversation to themselves. Allain had chosen them specifically for their skills and their discretion.

Despite her years working undercover, this was actually the first time Char had used a radio personally. It was still a new technology, actually. The Union had come up with them only a few decades ago, and the sandkin had been able to acquire one and figure out how it worked about eight years ago. How they'd done that had been a mystery to her. Most likely, she hadn't been the only spy working for the sandkin within the Union.

For some reason, message sent by the radios was instant, but only up to a certain distance. After that, the message didn't arrive at all. That distance was increased by elevation, strangely enough. As a result the relay locations were both on high ground. Moss had told her that the Union came to the same conclusion long ago. They had determined that the terrain itself could block radio messages. He suspected, though he'd told no one but her, that the ground actually curved. At a very, very slow rate, and therefore imperceptible to any individuals. That meant, if Tarn was large enough, it might actually be… spherical in shape!

It was a ridiculous notion, of course. Moss had been wise to tell only her. But who knew for sure? Perhaps once this war was over, people could travel in every direction, on both land and sea, and find out the truth. She could dream, anyway.

"I'm sorry, Char," her distant friend finally got back to her. "I told you, the sandkin won't support a peace envoy at this time. Even if I called for a vote, we would be outnumbered nine to one. Everyone here is too focused on the upcoming move north to care anyway. Those who aren't already up in the green lands, fighting the trejuns there."

It was disappointing, but not entirely surprising. Besides, she'd come prepared. "I'm not asking for them to send a peace envoy. Tell them this is intelligence gathering, which is technically true! We still know so little about the trejuns, and the Union knows barely any more than we do! All I ask is that by the time M—uh, my friend—gets to Sprayhaven, there's a water-equipped cart there waiting for him. One big enough for two, actually," she amended quickly. The people in the relay knew who her friend was, but others might be listening in. Also, Moss had told her that his friend would be going along. He seemed uncomfortable with the idea, but she'd been glad to hear he would have company. She'd been alone inside enemy territory for years on end as a spy, and couldn't recommend it to anyone.

There was another long delay, and she once again considered the miracles that were these little communication devices. Sure, communication roots were more durable, and if they included copper wiring, could send messages just as fast, but they had to be laid down first! Remote communication had been a practical impossibility until the Union had done it. For all their bloated bureaucracy, their short-sighted authority figures, and their reactionary instincts, she did have to admit they did have some bright individuals.

Her intangible compliment faded as she considered Moss. He was part of the Union too. Bright could also mean calculating, or cold, or murderous.

She didn't care what he said. This was penance to him, clearly. He would give the trejun civilians a chance to survive, or die trying. All because he'd sacrificed lives before, and didn't want to live with that over the long haul. She knew better than to talk with him about it, too. He would just deny it again, but perhaps Rane could get through to him. She barely knew the young sapling going with him, but he seemed to be a good influence on Moss. At least they wouldn't have to wait and build their own cart here. She'd already been able to convince the majority to get them passage out west, though the carts would be sent back as soon as they arrived.

Allain's response finally came through again. "All right, Char. I can't promise anything of course, but with the rocky terrain, it should take more than a week for your friends to get all the way over to Sprayhaven. By then, the foundry there should have a cart ready for them. The people here are listening to the reports you send in, so you have that long to convince them that 'scouting' Trejuna is the right move. I'll argue your case as well, but there's only so much I can do. We've all had a lot of new experiences down here, and you know how bad sandkin are at adapting. Allain, out."

Char shut off the radio with some relief. Allain's last sentences had been something of an understatement actually. While her people excelled at planning ahead and sticking to their plans, as evidenced by the desert-wide network of communication roots, he was right about their lack of adaptation. They hadn't expected to be revealed to the outside world, much less be at war with part of it, for centuries yet. A lot of them had had a very Union-like response to being attacked, and would therefore be unlikely to support peace for a long time.

It was up to her to convince them.

The sandkin convoy was pulling up even now, and they sent a light signal out to her, which she acknowledged. They would siphon off water from the nearby aqueduct, and partition off a large cart for Moss an Rane to use, but they wouldn't be putting down roots. They were only here to pick her up, and convey her north into the warzone. Reluctantly, Char used her articulator limb to connect with grove Praska's network again. This probably wouldn't be pleasant.

Several dozen people popped up into view, with similar auras to the ones she'd seen over the past few days. Most of the young people were clustered together, and took interest in her sudden arrival. She sent out a polite declination to their request that she join them, and instead focused on the elders. She exchanged brief greetings with the Grovekeeper Jora, and then directed her attention to Moss' father. Wordless communication among the Union groves wasn't easy, but she'd practiced over the years. She sent him a silent request for a private chat, and he agreed without being too obvious about it.

By the Core, she missed sandkin territory! Everyone was so open, there. So honest and forthright. There was no doublespeak, or innuendo, or deception. It had been so refreshing, even if she'd only been there for a few days. And here she was, back among the manipulators.

She braced herself, and spoke respectfully once they were in relative isolation from the others. "I wanted to speak with you again, sir. To thank you for your hospitality, and for looking after the object Moss told you about."

"Bah. I told you before, missy. Call me belhiera'torahn'salk. You're bonded to my son. That makes us family." Despite his slight condescension, which she was reasonably sure was by accident, he did sound friendly.

"I'll try to remember that," she said with some bemusement.

"So I hear Moss will be leaving tomorrow. With little Rane at his side. I don't suppose you could tell me where they're going?"

"I'm afraid not."

He sent out some ambivalence. "Just as well. I'd probably just worry anyway. Besides, you're leaving before he is, aren't you? Today, unless I'm off the mark."

That surprised her, and she knew that it showed. "How did you know that?"

Belhiera'torahn'salk just let out some amusement. "Credit an old soul with some perceptiveness. Those sandkin friends of yours out there aren't getting out of their carts, are they? Even from here, I can sense their impatience. They're waiting for you, aren't they?"

With some anguish, she sent out an affirmative.

"I knew it. You probably have some very important task to do, helping with the war effort, or maybe back home in the Desolation. You'll be missed here, though; especially by the youngsters. You've sparked their imagination in a big way with all your stories. That's a good thing. The last time we had a foreign dignitary here, it didn't work out well for us."

He was referring to the trejun ambassador, naturally. "Yes, I heard. We're nothing like the trejuns, you know. We've spent the last few hundred years trying to stay as hidden as possible. We're only here because they dragged us out of hiding and attacked us."

Belhiera'torahn'salk studied her for a long moment. "Well, Moss said the same thing, and I have no reason to doubt his judgement. You know how much the Union has suffered, especially in this part of the continent. Those burns fade slowly, if at all, and we have long memories."

"I know a thing or two about being burned, and about healing, sir."

He let out more amusement. "I suppose you do, at that."

There was another awkward silence, and she decided to address it directly. "I know this can't be comfortable for you at all. I'm almost certainly not the companion you had in mind for Moss. I want you to know I'm aware of that, and I sympathize. He wasn't what I had in mind either, at first."

"I imagine not. Don't worry, I'm not upset. We all have to adapt to changing circumstances, and Moss has been a changing circumstance ever since he was old enough to speak. I urge you, though. Whatever is wrong between the two of you, talk it out before you leave. I don't know when you'll be back, or if you ever will, so you don't want to leave with that bugging you. It will eat at you—trust me on that."

Again, his insight caught her by surprise. "Moss told you?"

He sent out a negative. "We don't really talk about those kinds of things. But I know my son very, very well, and I have five bonded myself. I know the signs. They're not here in grove Praska, thankfully. I never had the misfortune of living with any of my bonded. Still, they and my children are all important to me. Whatever issues you two have, settle them while you're still able to easily."

Moss had told her his father was a political animal—who had been controlling and distant while he'd been growing up. He seemed to think the old man cared very little for family, other than how he could use them to further his own aspirations. This was a very different person than the one Moss had described. Maybe it was a Union thing. Her own adoptive mother had been distant, even before she'd been moved to the Arbormass. Were parents here just culturally influenced to be as authoritative as possible to their offspring?

She was tempted to explain that they did things differently among the sandkin, but he might end up taking it as an insult. Instead, she sent out an agreement. "Thank you… belhiera'torahn'salk. You've given me a lot to think about."

"I have that knack," he responded easily. "Now, off you go. You've got things to do, and not much time I imagine. Certainly not enough time to keep humoring someone like me."

It was said self-deprecatingly, but she could tell that it was in jest. She again agreed, and disconnected with a fond farewell.
New Releases / Drive Part 46 added, 4/28/23
« Last post by Daen on April 28, 2023, 06:10:26 PM »
Drive Part 46 added, 4/28/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 46: What a Real Friend Would Do
« Last post by Daen on April 28, 2023, 06:09:54 PM »
"What do you mean, you're leaving?" His father demanded sharply. Unusually, there was no anger or disappointment in his aura. Just curiosity and fear.

Moss let out some annoyance. "I thought the sentence was self-explanatory," he jibbed.

"Don't make light of this, Moss! You've done what you needed to. You've served the Union well, and you've done it without taking lives! Despite our disagreements in the past, I've always respected your regard for the lives of others. Are you suddenly willing to just throw that away and join up with the military?"

Only long experience kept Moss' self-loathing hidden. Without taking lives. There were a bunch of blackened corpses back in Sharpcrag who would disagree with that assessment. "I'm not going with the military, father. I have my own task to complete."

"But why? Haven't you done enough for them already? You're home, finally, when many of us thought you would die far away from your own grove! Let others carry on this task, whatever it is. Stay with us, son."

That was the last layer of snow, which caused the branches to break. Moss felt a surge of anger overcome his shame. "Son? Since when have you treated me like a son, sahta'shk'oss? Why are you bothering to care now, after decades of having a political prop instead of a child? Why should I believe you've suddenly grown a soul, after so long without one? We've been strangers since I was a seedling! Why do you think I lived apart from the others, and only connected roots when it was absolutely necessary??"

He expected anger, even rage from the older treqar, but got nothing but sorrow and regret. "I'm sorry, Moss. I really am."

Moss let out a burst of sardonic humor. "Sorry isn't enough. One apology can't make up for a lifetime of neglect."

"But I offer it all the same," his father went on. Implacably, but sincerely as best Moss could tell. "You're right. I was obsessed with my status; with being the next Grovekeeper, or even a representative to Grove Heirach. I put you aside in favor of my own ambitions, and I was wrong. I know that now. When we saw those juns coming at us, I knew I was about to die. I thought back on what I'd done, and what I'd failed to do. I thought of your mother, and how we haven't spoken in such a long time. How much happier you would have been under her care than mine!"

It was like a flash flood, as the words kept coming. A rainbow of emotions poured out with the words, as if his father was coming apart at his very core. "Then the thunderers changed position and started firing at the juns, and I knew it was you. Somehow, wherever you were, you were protecting us. Despite my selfishness, and my arrogance, you were still there for us. I know, you were probably doing it for Rane's sake, and for the others, but you still did it. Thank you for saving my life."

Moss felt his own anger fade a little. The exact identities of the people controlling the thunderers that day were supposed to be a secret, but apparently his father had figured it out. "I don't want your thanks," he said bluntly.

"But you have it all the same." There was a long silence, contrasted by his father's open emotions, like bark stripped away and bare to the whole world. For his part, Moss was keeping his guard tightly up. Just because he hadn't expected this response, didn't mean it was genuine. He'd been fooled before, and by the same person.

Finally, his father spoke again. "If you felt this way, then why did you bring that here?" He indicated the object now resting between the two of them.

"Where else could I take it?" Moss let out angrily. "I wasn't about to leave it in the Desolation, and I couldn't exactly bring it into a war zone! You were the best of a bunch of really bad options. I knew you'd look after it, if only to maintain your own image."

"I've changed. I'm more than just that person, now. Facing your own death will do that, as I'm sure you know."

Moss' disbelief must have leaked out, because his father finally put out some indignation of his own. "I'll prove it. When you come back to claim this, it'll be safe and sound at my side. I swear it."

"We'll see," Moss answered with a little confusion. He was sounding a little more like the hard, distant father he'd always been, but he also seemed sincere. "I should get ready for my trip."

That was satisfying: dismissing his father like that. Still, it didn't feel as good as he'd thought it would.

His father made his excuses and disconnected his roots, thankfully. Moss didn't have time to relax though, because Rane had apparently been waiting on him. He showed up just afterwards, and Moss braced himself at what his younger friend might say. Selfishly, Moss did sort of hope that Rane was about to announce he was joining the military after all. No, that was an unworthy thought. Whatever he had to say, Moss would take it like an adult. Like his father would have, if only for his public image.

"Hey, Moss," Rane started out hesitantly. "I've… been thinking a lot about what you said. I didn't send off my application to join up just yet. I couldn't really focus on anything else for the better part of a day. I couldn't even go into dormancy last night."

"I know," Moss answered sympathetically. "I could sense you being awake, but I didn't want to bother you. Still, there are some things I need to tell—”

"No, let me say this," he interrupted, and his sense grew sharper. More confident. "When those Union qars took you away the first time, I didn't know if I'd ever see you again. I didn't even know why you were leaving at first. I thought it was something I'd done! But when the war started and we got news of all the burning and deaths, I knew you were thinking of ways to stop it. You've always been the smart one. I felt comforted because I knew you were out there, protecting us in your own way.

"But the thing is, I was also angry! So mad, all the time! Hearing about my pen pals and distant friends dying one after another, and all I could do to help was donate my qars to the war effort! I felt so helpless, and it was true. None of us could do anything."

He let out a stream of anger and frustration. "You said you liked who I am. Your kind, gentle, passive friend in this tiny grove on the edge of nowhere. You've definitely changed since you've been away. You're harder now, more closed off. Before you were quiet, but you were always attentive. Now… you're something different.

"But I've changed, too! I don't want to be kind anymore. I don't think being gentle is what we need. And being passive nearly killed all of us! I want to experience the world outside this tiny spot on the map. If you say that joining the military isn't a good way to do that, then I'm inclined to trust you. So, yes. I want that cart you promised me. I want to go with you, out into the world. We'll find some other way to help the Union, other than killing people, I mean."

Moss felt all twisted up inside. This was it. "The thing is, Rane, my plans have changed. I'm leaving, as soon as I can build a cart, and I probably won't be coming back." That was true in many ways. For all he knew, even if he did make it all the way out to Trejuna, the trejuns would just kill him or take him hostage. Not that it would do them any good, but a lot of people didn't let a little thing like objective reality stop them from doing what they wanted to. "Don't worry, though. I'll make sure you get that cart you wanted. If I can't build it myself before I leave, I'll insist that the sandkin donate one of theirs. You'll be free to go wherever you choose."

"Where are you—” Rane cut off, his sense one of anger now. He tamped it down quickly, though. "I take it you can't tell me where you're going?"

"No. Only that it'll be dangerous. It's something I have to do, though. I, well, it would take too long to explain."

"Then I have to come with you," he responded resolutely. "I don't care where you're going. If you're going to be in danger, then I'll be there to watch out for you this time around."

In some corner in the back of his mind, Moss had considered that possibility. That Rane might let his seedhood hero worship make him do something stupid. Like traveling to an enemy nation during a time of war. Still, actually hearing the request felt unreal to him. "You did get the part about probably not coming back, right?"

"You got the part where I don't care, right? Hey, Moss. It's largely on your word that I don't trust the military anymore. If you're going to risk your life to help your people, and we both know that you are, then I get to risk the same thing for the same reason. You don't have the right to leave me behind. And if you try, I'll stop you."

That caught him by surprise. Not just Rane refusing to back down, but also threatening him! And he could stop Moss if he wanted to. Just the rumor that the hero of the Union wasn't joining up with the Union's military after his rest in his home grove, would be enough to put him under scrutiny. All Rane had to do was send a single enzyme message to the right person, and Moss wouldn't get anywhere near the coast, much less the ocean itself. It seemed Rane had done some growing up while Moss had been away.

He examined Rane's sense briefly. Determination was there in full force, but it was laced with tension as well. He wasn't sure what Moss would decide. Come to think of it, Moss wasn't either.

But then, it wasn't his decision, was it? Rane was an adult as well. Moss wasn't sure how useful he'd be in this expedition across the sea, but he would be glad for the company. Who was he to tell a fully-grown treqar that he didn't have the right to do as he pleased?

"All right," he said finally, and Rane let out a burst of excitement. "Shush! Do you want everyone to know? We have to keep this under roots for now, understood? As far as anyone else is concerned, we're preparing to join in the war effort. No one can know where we're really going until after we're gone. Preferably not even then. Got that?"

"Got it. Now, how can I help with our building two carts?"

Bemused, Moss gave him some basic instructions, and they got to work. There was always the option of ditching him somewhere safe, once they were underway. Rane didn't know a thing about mechanical design, so Moss could easily strand him somewhere that Union forces would find him. Still, the Core had given Moss a place of importance in this nation's destiny. Who was to say it hadn't done the same for Rane as well?
New Releases / Drive Part 45 added, 4/21/23
« Last post by Daen on April 21, 2023, 03:22:26 PM »
Drive Part 45 added, 4/21/23
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