Recent Posts

Pages: 1 2 [3] 4 5 ... 10
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 45: A Branch to Grab Onto
« Last post by Daen on April 21, 2023, 03:21:32 PM »
Another convoy of carts arrived the next day, and Char took the opportunity to reposition herself. She was actually getting used to this back and forth thing by now. Her roots had shortened, and her leaves limited their growth so as to avoid needing extra water. It took an effort each time to make sure her roots didn't extend too far outwards, but it made the transition much easier.

This time she was settling down in a hole dug not far from Moss' own position. She'd made the request herself, though reluctantly. She'd also ignored Moss' communications until the move was complete, with a certain vindictive pleasure. It didn't feel too good being the one in the dark, did it?

As the sandkin convoy moved on, Char connected a synthetic root to his own, creating a supposedly private conversation. Moss didn't speak at first, but then after a moment, sent out a stream of curiosity mixed with apprehension. "I wasn't sure you'd ever talk to me again."

"Don't think too much of it," she responded acidly. "This is official business and nothing more. Are you sure no one else can hear this?"

"I believe so. There is one way to be sure, but I don't think you'll like it. We could bond again. That would ensure privacy."

Char had to work hard to keep her fear from showing. "That won't be necessary. As you know, my people gave me a radio before sending us out from Hightop. They've been keeping me updated on the treaty negotiations with the Union, among other things. Recent reports have them a little disturbed, though. I was ordered to loop you in, provided you can keep it secret from the rest of the Union. I know how good you are at keeping secrets, so I agreed on your behalf."

She could tell that stung a little, but didn't gain as much pleasure from doing it as she thought she would. Moss sent out an agreement. "Go ahead."

"Allain is my contact in Hightop. He's been compiling reports sent by sandkin agents all over the Orja and inside the Union. He showed them to me, and I'm disturbed as well. It seems your people won't be content just forcing the trejuns back to their side of the ocean. From what we've been hearing, your Chancellor and her advisors are building carts that can cross water!"

Moss sent out some shock at that, but it was immediately followed by contemplation. "How would that even work? It's possible that they could make a cart that would float, if it was hollow and big enough, but how would they move it? Wheels couldn't do that, not underwater."

Despite herself, Char was amused. He was a builder, bark and soul. His first response to troubling news was how it was being done, not what it meant. "From what Allain told me, they turned the wheels sideways. When a wheel spins, it pulls water in from one side, and pushes it out the other. That makes the cart move. They only have a few prototypes as far as we can tell, and they move very, very slowly, but they work."

Finally, he caught up. "But if they want to cross the ocean, they want to invade Trejuna?"

"Or destroy it. Allain thinks they plan to build whole convoys of these water carts, and blast away at Trejuna's shore. Not just until they surrender, but until they're all dead!"

Moss hesitated, and Char did understand his response. He hated violence, but he also hated the trejuns for what they'd done. They'd destroyed more than a third of the Union, for Core's sake! It was only natural that his people would want to exact total vengeance for that. Even Moss seemed to feel that urge himself. She knew him well enough to sense that, at least.

"What are the sandkin going to do about it?"

Char let out some frustration. "There's not much we can do anymore. We've already solidified the treaty, trading our technology and resources for land to occupy in the southern parts of the Union. My people are already preparing carts to move up here, but we're not supposed to even know about these water carts, much less want to stop them. Assuming we even do want to stop them. Even Allain seemed split on that one."

"I still have my reputation as a Union hero. If I make a public statement, people will listen to me. If I were to break my loyalty oath, and make that information public to the entire Union, would that give your people the leverage they need to stop it? To force the Chancellor to accept the trejuns' surrender, if they offer it?"

Again, Char was surprised. "You'd do that? You know the Union's penalty for treason. I doubt you could bond with a Union citizen to protect yourself this time around."

Moss only twitched his branches a little. "It wouldn't be the first time I sacrificed for my people. As long as it's for all of my people and not just the ones in charge, I don't mind."

Char felt her earlier fears about him start to evaporate. Maybe bonding with him hadn't been a bad influence as she'd thought. Maybe some of her sandkin values were starting to push him in another direction. Not that it would matter, if his people ended up executing him anyway. She sent out a negative. "No, given public sentiment about the trejuns and the war, I doubt even this information, or your status as a Union hero, would sway things. Don't break your oath, because it wouldn't do any good even if you did."


They both stayed in silence for a long while, turning the problem over and over in their minds. Or at least Char was; she had no idea what Moss was thinking about. Bonding would fix that, but she didn't know if she could ever do that with him again. With anyone, really.

"I have to go to Trejuna," he said suddenly.

Jolted out of her thoughts, Char had to think that through for a second. "What? Are you crazy?"

"Probably, but it's not like that matters anymore. I assume your people are sending you north shortly? Either off to grove Heirach, or to whatever mobile group has the Chancellor in it?"

"They are. I'm supposed to be picked up the day after tomorrow. I don't know exactly where I'm going, but Allain said I should use the radio to keep being a liaison between your people and mine."

"Your people wouldn't condone a peace emissary being sent to Trejuna, would they? Not this soon after they were attacked."

"Definitely not. Sharpcrag is still fresh in everybody's mind," she said, remembering uncomfortably how she felt about it. "Allain thinks if we put it to a national vote, fewer than twenty percent would be in favor of peace, at least until the whole continent has been reclaimed. After that, it's less clear."

"Then I'm the only option," he concluded. "Your people would never let you go to Trejuna, not with your position of importance as a liaison. None of my people want to go either. That leaves me."

He set out some chagrin. "Look, the war has already turned in the Union's favor. My people are pushing west even now. It's only a matter of time before we reach the sea. If the Chancellor has her way, we'll build huge numbers of water carts, cross the ocean, and kill every last trejun on their island! If I leave right away though, I might be able to get to Trejuna in time to show them what they're up against. If I can convince them to surrender before those carts get built, then the sandkin might be able to convince my people to accept that surrender. Or you might, actually. I doubt they'd listen to Allain if he's hundreds of leagues away. That way the war ends, but most of the people stay alive."

Char seriously doubted that it would be as simple as he was making it sound, but at least he had a plan. That was more than he could say for her own people right now. They were just following the Union's lead, and the Union was being led by people who were apparently fine with genocide! "What kinds of terms do you think your Chancellor will demand? Reparations? Criminal prosecution of the warmasters who survive the war? Will she want territory from Trejuna as a concession?"

"I don't know," Moss admitted. "Any or all of them, maybe. But at least this way they'll be talking and not fighting. If doing this saves even a few lives, it'll be worth it, but I have to try either way. I can't believe that every single one of the trejuns was in favor of this war. It's more likely that they are just afraid of what their president will do to them, if they speak out against it."

Char thought back to the enzyme recordings she'd reviewed while being a part of the Arbormass. She remembered experiencing each one individually, as the various groves had been consumed by Streek Fire. Perhaps some of the trejuns hadn't been in favor of burning those people to death, but they hadn't stopped it either. If concern for their own safety had stopped them from keeping other people alive, that made them the opposite of Moss. He didn't care if he lived or died, as long as he spent his life keeping others safe.

Trying not to think about the likelihood of that happening, she tried to stay on topic. "How would you even get there? All of the carts around us are already being used, either to go to war or to relocate my people up north."

"I'll build my own," he responded confidently. "I'm a hero of the Union. If people ask, I'll just tell them I plan to join the war effort myself. No one will question me. I was planning on building one anyway—” he cut off abruptly. "Oh, Void!"

"What is it?"

Regret flooded out from him. "I promised Rane—oh, Core forgive me. What will I tell him??"

Char recognized that name. He was one of the villagers here in Praska, and apparently a friend of Moss'. She was tempted to offer a suggestion or two, but didn't know enough about the situation. Char had learned through bitter experience that trying to help when you weren't familiar with the details often just made things worse.

Eventually, Moss snapped out of it. "I'll have to think of something," he said despondently. "He won't be happy, but I'd say giving an entire civilization the chance of survival is a little more important."

Still with no idea what he meant, Char brought up something else that she'd been meaning to find out about. "What about the other thing? The—” she hesitated. There was no guarantee this conversation was private. Somehow, this topic was even more sensitive, to her at least, than treason or statecraft. "What about the object we found in the cart in the desert?"

Moss' confusion melted away. "Oh, that. I've already spoken to Father about it. He's agreed to look after it while we're away. He anticipated that one or both of us would be leaving. He's a lot brighter than he lets on, actually. It's probably a politician thing."

"Will it be safe here, though? I mean Praska's not that far away from the front lines right now."

"It will be. He may not have been the best father, but he's always been diligent, attentive and driven. He agreed with me that we should keep it secret from everybody for now. We can always change that if or when we get back. Or you could send for it in a few years. It all depends on what happens."

Char felt a bit of relief at that. One less thing to worry about, but a particularly important thing in this case. "So you're really doing this thing, then?"

He paused for a moment. "I am. I have to. But you knew that already, the moment you told me about what your people discovered."

"Moss, if this is your idea of redemption, there have to be other ways." She wasn't exactly sure what those other ways would be, but there had to be some. Somewhere.

"It isn't. Like I said back in Hightop, there is no redemption for what I've done. I'm making this trip because it's the right thing to do. No other reason."

He said it with a sense of complete certainty. He meant every word. Char let out some frustration at that; at how likely he was to get himself killed in this crazed endeavor. Still, she had to admit he was brave, in his own damaged way. "All right. We have a few hours before Corerise. I have a few ideas about this water cart you're gonna need, and Allain sent what they know about the design your people are working on. Let's bounce ideas around, just like old times."

He sent out a trace of gratitude as they got started. Still, it was laced with bitterness. At what, she couldn't tell.
New Releases / Drive Part 44 added, 4/14/23
« Last post by Daen on April 14, 2023, 08:05:28 AM »
Drive Part 44 added, 4/14/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 44: The Price of War
« Last post by Daen on April 14, 2023, 08:04:50 AM »
There was a saying among some rural areas of the union: sapset. It meant that home was always where the sap set the easiest. For most treqars, it was a moot point, given that so few of them traveled. But Moss had. He'd traveled further than any treqar in history. Possibly any person anywhere. No, wait. Trejuns could fly, and had no doubt covered much greater distances.

Moss hoped that he could get into sapset here. He hoped that he hadn't changed too much to return to his old life in Grove Praska. Now that his task was complete and his nation saved, he might actually get that quiet life after all.

It was strange. It had barely been a year since he'd been in this very spot, secretly corresponding with Noq, and hoping to be a famous inventor known throughout the Union. Now his dreams had come true, and all he wanted to do was forget all about them and be that unknown country sapling again.

News of Moss' survival had spread like Streek Fire throughout the surviving Union groves. He'd only been back a day, and already he'd gotten several hundred messages from other groves. He didn't even bother examining most of them—sent by rabid fans, or just appreciative strangers. He did respond to one, which had come from Tobor's parents. He expressed his deep condolences over their loss, and told them, quite truthfully, that Tobor's work had helped save all of their lives. Even Rax, traitor though he had been, had helped them. And his family had died before he did.

The twins had no family on record, being military seedlings with an… unusual physical deformity. Aysa's family records had been destroyed years ago, to keep her safe from retaliation. There was no one left to contact.

Other than Char, of course.

She was rooted on the other side of the grove for now, no doubt being chatted up by the ever-gregarious Tressa. She had stayed behind like him, though she still wasn't speaking to him. Not that he could blame her. Twenty-three deaths were hovering over him like a cloud, and he doubted it would ever dissipate.

He had meant what he'd said, though. One grove's destruction and the resulting guilty conscience were a small price to pay for the survival of the Union and the sandkin. As far as he could tell, Char hadn't told anyone what he'd done. Or rather, what he'd allowed to happen.

They'd been alone together for several weeks. From the ashes of the Arbormass, to the ashes of Kulik, into the desert to Sharpcrag, across to Hightop, and then north again heading home. He'd grown accustomed to her company, and now he missed it. No matter how brutal and forced the circumstances had been.

Before the sandkin had continued north, they'd equipped both him and Char with those ring-shaped devices. He could sense qars all over Praska still fixated on him, even after he'd been here for a full day, wondering what it was, and what it did. His friends and family had been polite enough to not ask questions, when he'd first connected to greet everyone and explain things, but they had to be curious. The qars were their surreptitious attempt to gain information.

Reluctantly, Moss sent the enzyme commands, and the articulator limb on the ring began moving again. It reached down under his direction and connected him to Praskas network again. Several dozen minds flooded into his own, shattering the peaceful solitude he'd been trying to cultivate. No matter. He had to talk to them eventually anyway.

His father was the first to 'approach' within the network, with the others still hanging back. "How are you doing, son?"

"Better, thank you. The soil here is much better than what we had in some places down south, and there's enough water that I'm healing nicely. I should have a full set of branches again in a season or so."

"I'm glad," his father responded, with emotions matching words. "Your friend Char has been catching us up on the new treaty. I could hardly believe it at first. Dozens of groves, all inside the Desolation? It's amazing!"

Moss sent out some assent. "I had the same reaction. They're a very hardy people. Still, they used the secrecy of their existence like bark for millennia. Now that their secret's out, I imagine they're feeling quite vulnerable. I suppose it's no surprise that they were quick to build the Qarier and other machines like it. They want to prove to everyone that they're not brittle and fragile."

"They certainly proved that to us," his father said with a subdued sense. "So many thunderers on that one machine, and dozens more smaller ones around it! I saw what just a twigful of thunderers could do in defending Praska."

"What has Char told you about the state of the Union?" Moss changed subjects abruptly, not wanting to think about his part in building all those weapons. "Or have you gotten news through the interroot about the course of the war?"

The old man hesitated. "I'm sure you know more than I do, what with you being an advisor on the negotiations and all. We did get confirmation about the casualties. The restrictions on the interroot have been lifted following the treaty with the sandkin. We're now sure: about a third of the Union has been destroyed. Grove Praska is now the westernmost settlement in the entire Union."

Moss had suspected as much, but it still felt like his heartwood was freezing, hearing it described like that. "But no more, right? Now we're pushing back."

"That's right. The Chancellery is still being evasive about the details, but our friends in other central—or now I should say western—groves, are all sending in their own perspectives. They all describe convoys like the one you came in on, pushing westward into areas destroyed by the trejuns. With the aid of the sandkin, our people are finally able to strike back against those flying monsters!"

Moss carefully held back his disappointment. His father was speaking truthfully, unlike his usual political persona. He'd come very close to being killed by the trejuns, and it was natural that he wanted them to pay for what they'd done. But he didn't know the fullness of what war did. Moss had only had a sample of that horror, and it had practically broken him. Those soldiers out there, controlling sandkin war machines and equipped with weapons capable of blasting enemies out of the sky, they probably felt vengeful and hateful—perhaps thousands of times worse than what his own father did!

Another presence tentatively approached. It was Rane. Moss let out a burst of appreciation at seeing his old friend. "Hey!"

"Hey, Moss. I wasn't sure I should interrupt, especially with you being Big Hero Guy and everything, but—”

"No, I'm glad you did," Moss responded immediately. "I'm sorry I was a bit too overwhelmed when I first got back, to greet you properly. How have you been?"

Rane seemed encouraged. "Pretty good, actually. I mean, having most of my qars confiscated wasn't exactly great, but the idea of our mobility being a real possibility… that's just unreal. Pardon the pun."

"Wait, your qars were confiscated?"

"Yeah, about two weeks ago. All of us are down to just eight qars apiece. All the others were taken off eastwards to help with the construction efforts. From what I've heard, pretty much every grove on this side of the Union is in the same situation."

Moss should have seen that coming. Regretfully, he thought over the reasons. Before the qar queens had been obliterated, personal use of qars was considered a universal right. Afterwards, with qars now being reduced to a doomed species, it made perfect sense that the Chancellery and military would take more and more to fill their ranks as their own died off.

This was a sticky situation for him, actually. Back in Hightop, after the vote had gone his way, the sandkin had held days of meetings, nonstop, over their interroot. All the details for the expedition to meet the Union were planned out, with Moss being less of an advisor and spectator, and more of a pawn and tool. After all, he was just one, and they were many. One of the things they'd expected of him—insisted on, really—was that he keep the existence of their qar queens a secret. As such, when the Qarier had come to a stop next to grove Praska, and he and Char had been planted here, it had been done without any qar labor at all.

It made sense in retrospect. One of the big reasons the trejuns had been so effective in wiping out the qar queens here in the Union, was because they weren't being hidden. The species might still be doomed: he had no idea if only five qar queens could rebuild a population that had once numbered in the millions. Still, at least this way there was a chance. He kept the secret gladly.

Rane went on about local gossip for a little longer, still sending out signs of his disquiet. Apparently getting the message, Moss' father excused himself. "I'll let you two chat for a while," he said quickly, and withdrew his presence over to where Char and the others were gathered.

Rane let out some relief at that. He'd never really been comfortable around the old man. Possibly because Moss' father was so formal and serious, and Rane was at his heartwood a relaxed country seedling. "So you've traveled more than anyone I've ever heard of!" He said excitedly afterwards. "You must have experienced some incredible things!"

"You could say that," Moss responded, bemused. "But Char's traveled more than me, just so you know."

"No kidding. I heard her talking this morning and last night. The stories she tells, about the sandkin living all the way down there in the Desolation, are amazing! Most of us didn't believe her at first, not until she shared some of her memories of the desert groves. Oases, I guess I should call them. I only hope I can find stuff half as interesting when I head out."

Moss paused. "What are you talking about? Where are you going?"

His friend let out some surprise, and then followed it with realization. "Oh, right. You wouldn't have heard, because you haven't been connected since yesterday. This morning an announcement came in through the interroot from grove Heirach. The Chancellor and Council of Ministers are calling for volunteers to fight in the war. Now that we can build carts and move thunderers around, they need people to control them. I'm sending in my application today. I'm going to be a soldier! At least three others are doing the same, as far as I can tell. It would be more, but they're only taking saplings for now because we're the only ones light enough to get around."

Moss felt a freeze creep in, deep inside himself. Rane, out in the field, risking his life? Killing people?

He tried to moderate his response, and keep his shock and disgust from leaking out. Fortunately Rane didn't seem to have noticed. "Rane, are you sure that's a good idea? I mean, you're one of the gentlest people I know. You didn't even send your qars out to work on the aqueduct with the others, because you were afraid they'd get hurt! You kept them close to yourself, tending the people in the grove, because it was safer."

Rane responded with a burst of confidence. "I can do it, Moss. Trust me. I've got what it takes to be a good soldier for the Union, like you. I'll make you proud, and I'll be proud of myself, too."

"But… I'm not a soldier, Rane. I never was. Sure, I designed the weapons, and used them when I had to. But only because I had to. If you do this, it will change you. Even if you survive to come home again, you won't be the same. Are you prepared for that?"

His friend paused, and his sense was one of confusion and hurt. "What are you talking about? You're a hero to the Union! You may have saved all of us from being destroyed! I just want to do my own part to protect my people, like you did."

"I did what I thought I had to, but even now I'm still not sure it was necessary. Even if it was, it definitely wasn't right or good. Killing is bad, no matter why you do it, Rane. I… don't want you to make the same mistakes I did. I'll have to live with them, and you shouldn't have to do the same." His actions in Sharpcrag came flooding back into him, and the personalities of those sandkin flitted through him once again. All the people he'd sentenced to death.

He tried to focus on the matter at hand. "I understand your desire to explore, I really do. Even without the war I would have wanted to experience new things. Even knowing that I probably would die, traveling into the Desolation was a wonderous thing for me. But you don't have to become a soldier to do it. I'll make a cart for you. Two, if you want me to come along. We can travel the Union together, or go south into sandkin territory if you want. Anywhere, as long as it's away from the fighting."

Rane seemed subdued at that, as if the ground had been taken away from underneath him. His initial hurt and indignation at Moss' reaction had been replaced with shock and surprise.

Moss supposed it was only natural. For seasons now his friend had been stuck here, hoping against hope that the Union would be able to hold off the trejun attacks, and helpless to act in any way. Now they had mobility and the means to strike back. Unsurprisingly, Chancellor Esta had taken that fear, and the sudden freedom that followed it, and used it as a tool to generate patriotism. 'Yes, defend yourselves against the trejuns,' she might say, 'but do it as part of the Union's forces. If they're bad, and we know that they are, then we must be good. If they're wrong, then we must be right.' Unfortunately, it was just a very short distance away from, 'if them killing us is evil, then us killing them is not evil.'

She'd taken advantage of the fear and frustration to recruit young people, probably all over the Union. Not just to defend these people, and perhaps not even primarily because of that. No, this was to solidify the Union's power and authority. And by extension, hers.

"Please, Rane. Don't send off that application just yet. Think about what being a soldier will be like, and why you want to be one. Think about my alternative. You've always been kind and considerate, and I like the person you are. I don't want that person to change."
New Releases / Drive Part 43 added, 4/7/23
« Last post by Daen on April 07, 2023, 03:07:18 AM »
Drive Part 43 added, 4/7/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 43: Going Home
« Last post by Daen on April 07, 2023, 03:06:47 AM »
The Qarier was truly a thing of beauty.

Nearly sixty spans from end to end, and more than twenty from the ground to its summit, this new cart was the first joint mechanization project between the Sandkin and the Continental Union. It was thorny with thunderers, with more than forty lining the edges, and was capable of carrying four treqars: two in the front half and two more in the back. One person controlled the direction, two were on the weapons, and one handled the overall course. Moss' term 'navigate' was starting to catch on, though it was new to most people. The Qarier also had sixteen wheels instead of Moss' original four, to accommodate the increased weight.

In addition, these new wheels weren't just solid metal anymore, as proven as that design had turned out to be. They were covered with interlaced metal plates, which allowed them to grip the ground more tightly, the same way that some mammals used hooves or claws to push themselves upwards more easily. Telden had named them 'trackers', for the interesting patterns they left behind in the ground.

Moss hadn't liked Telden that much at first. The sandkin builder had shown up near the ruins of Grove Kulik, with a huge entourage of small sandkin carts laden with supplies from the other side of the desert: metal, both purified and unprocessed. Apparently he'd cleaned out their stockpiles before leaving, and it was necessary to build a sort of hodgepodge smelter right there in Kulik. The sandkin must have put a lot of faith in his abilities. Fortunately there was plenty of unintelligent plant life nearby to burn—they wouldn't have to resort to burning what was left of Kulik's residents.

At the time, Moss had been a little preoccupied though. He had reconnected to the Union's interroot just outside of Kulik, and had sent a message to ken'hroahen'vol, the same Sergeant who'd basically arrested him just after this war had started. Sending a message straight to Chancellor Esta would have attracted immediate trejun attention, and despite how many thunderers the sandkin had brought to protect their new project, Moss hadn't wanted to risk it.

Thankfully the Sergeant had been both discreet and intelligent about it, and had smuggled a radio past the front lines to their location. After that, official negotiations between the sandkin and the Union had begun.

While he'd been kept busy as an advisor to the Chancellor, and a still-angry Char had been doing the same for the collected sandkin negotiators, Moss had still had time to examine the work Telden had begun. He was arrogant, brash, inconsiderate, and a little overbearing, but he definitely knew his craft well. The Qarier had taken shape quickly. By the time the treaty had been finalized, this new machine of war was finished and fueled.

Now, Moss was lying atop it, senses connected to the other three people up there. As the Qarier rolled past the hills, pushing northwards, Moss had to admit that Telden had outdone himself. Not that he could take all the credit of course. He had a team working for him, and Moss had offered advice with what little free time he'd had available.

The war machine's wheels weren't just lined with trackers, they were outfitted with individual rods that could change direction! This way if the ground suddenly shifted quickly, as was known to happen on sandy beaches, the wheels could be moved side to side, and not just forward and back! It was brilliant.

The device would still be under construction actually, if not for the unexpected arrival of over two thousand qars, from the east. The sandkin had been breeding them in secret, though not many had survived the trek north out of the desert. They still had several queens hidden away somewhere, in case the trejuns tried to wipe out the species again. That had been what had given hope to Moss, far more than any treaty or mechanical design. He thought he'd never see another living qar again, but here they were, working in and around the mechanical controls, right up on the Qarier with them!

That had been the inspiration for the machine's name, actually. One of the reasons Moss had been requested to help with the project was because he had a lifetime of experience controlling qars. He'd given a few pointers to the enthusiastic, but admittedly sloppy, sandkin builders, and each of them had taken charge of a hundred or so qars. When the time came to name their new creation, Moss strongly suspected that the sandkin had insisted the decision be his. Telden certainly wouldn't have named it after these creatures he so clearly despised.

Moss supposed he could see from Telden's perspective—figuratively, of course. They certainly weren't close enough to share senses directly. He'd learned that Telden had been one of Char's advisors back in the day, when she'd been working undercover at the Arbormass. In a way, he had helped design the carts as well, and really, really didn't like sharing the credit. Even with crawling insects.

Core, the Arbormass seemed like a lifetime ago now.

And now things were coming full circle. For the first time in over a year, Moss was going home, to Grove Praska. The Qarier was just the largest of about two dozen carts, each laden with a sandkin. They'd drop him off like a seed falling from a tree, and continue northwards to aid the war effort.

Thanks to the treaty, the war had turned from a defensive action into an active response on the part of the Union. Hundreds of treqars had been trained in using thunderer-equipped carts, and sent westwards to push the invaders back to the coast again. Not that there had been many trejuns to fight. They'd gotten reports of trejuns flying here and there, well out of range of thunderers, and directing jun attack forces to try and destroy the carts themselves. Some had even succeeded, but it was clear by now that the enemy was running out of Streek Fire. Perhaps Trejuna didn't have much by way of rock oil deposits.

"Company to the west," a voice cut into their four-person network, jolting Moss out of his thoughts. It was a rough taciturn sandkin speaking—the unofficial leader of their little unit. The Union had a strict hierarchy especially in their military, and the sandkin had no hierarchy at all, on purpose. As such, their military units were still a little… awkward.

Eolos shared his senses with the others, and Moss tried to hold in his apprehension. At the edge of the sandkin's senses, there were four distinct clusters of juns inbound. Moss was in charge of the forward thunderers, and quickly made sure they were loaded. He could sense the others readying for combat as well. Eolos turned sharply to the south, to give the other carts a chance to form a circle. They weren't nearly as well-limbed as the Qarier, and as such would need to protect each other while Moss' team took out the main threat. Zaras was using his enzyme connection to flash a message at them using a reflective surface, from one side of the Qarier. They couldn't risk using radios to communicate, not this close to the front lines.

The juns sped up, spreading out and gaining altitude briefly. On Eolos' command, Moss fired his thunderers in sequence, and was rewarded by seeing one of the clumps break up as its explosive package came apart. He immediately got to reloading, as Eolos continued his turn so the other side could get their shots in.

This was the second attack since they'd set out from Kulik. Fortunately no one had been killed, but it had been a near thing. Moss felt a surge of fear again, towards one of the carts on the far side of the convoy. If something happened to that one-

Then, suddenly, it was over. The second barrage of thunderers had gone off, and the remaining juns were in retreat, flying back to whichever warmaster had directed them here. Slowly, the convoy formed up again, with the small carts encircling the Qarier and staying close under its protective 'branches'. Moss checked his supply of powder and ammunition, and reported that he was still doing well on both. He was a little distracted though, and at first he missed the message sent to him. "Sorry. What was that?"

"I said you don't need to report to me," Eolos repeated, sending out some amusement, mixed with relief at their recent encounter. "You're in charge this time, remember?"

"Right. Still getting used to that," Moss explained, holding back his discomfort. This group was three-quarters sandkin, and therefore three-quarters weird.

The sandkin way did make sense in theory, he supposed. While people's jobs were decided by how good they were at them, and how much the job needed to be done, who was in charge rotated around. On the rare occasions when they acknowledged that one person had to be giving orders, and others had to follow them, they did it this way. Eolos was still controlling their direction, and Moss was still in charge of the forward guns, but they would keep rotating the person who made the decisions, until everyone had had a turn. Then, everyone would vote on who did it best. Since this was day four of their trip as of a few minutes ago, coincidentally, it was now his turn.

Not that it would matter, given that he'd be saying goodbye to them once he got home. Still, it was a sandkin tradition, and he was required to follow it, being a legal sandkin himself.

Again, Moss' thoughts drifted towards that cart on the far side of the convoy.
New Releases / Drive Part 42 added, 3/31/23
« Last post by Daen on March 31, 2023, 08:56:08 AM »
Drive Part 42 added, 3/31/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 42: Summit
« Last post by Daen on March 31, 2023, 08:55:31 AM »
The Speaker for Hightop was called Allain, and he wasted no time connecting them up, as soon as they arrived. Char was startled at the haste, but didn't really complain. If the trejuns knew about Sharpcrag, they probably knew about the rest of the sandkin as well. This situation affected the entire nation, and thankfully, they now had the means to debate what to do as a whole.

She was still getting used to all the mechanical changes here! She'd never visited any actual sandkin oases back in the day, but the images she'd received over the years had shown simple people living simple lives. Messages sent between oases would take hours, not seconds, and therefore a public referendum had been impossible. Now, thanks to the copper wiring linking all the oases, the entire sandkin community could listen in or chip in at will!

There were some formalities to observe, naturally, but nowhere near as many as those in the Union. Here, all that was required was that each oasis be recognized one after another, with a Speaker to represent them. Figurative representation only, she reminded herself. Any person in any oasis could raise any objection or put forth any suggestion at any time.

For a moment, she wondered if this meeting might take several days or weeks.

According to Allain, this was the third such meeting in history. The people were getting accustomed to it, and therefore streamlining the process. However, most people didn't know that there was a trejun sitting in Sharpcrag right now. That would be revealed in the next few minutes, and it would no doubt cause a stir.

She and Moss were linked to Hightop, and therefore to the network at large. He was uncharacteristically silent for a change. Char was just grateful that they wouldn't need to be bonded for this. Trem had sent word from Sharpcrag, and would be there at the meeting, in case anyone challenged Moss' right to be here. Perhaps he was nervous. He was no diplomat, as he'd said repeatedly, and was about to have to speak on behalf of his entire nation. It was understandable.

Allain connected Hightop to the rest of the sandkin, and everyone in this small community braced against the sudden cacophony of voices and personalities that came swarming in at them! It was unlike anything Char had experienced before, and Moss sent out some tremors of fear and pain. Belatedly, Char remembered that he'd been very insular and isolated, even back in his home grove. She sent some comfort his way, and then focused on the gathering.

The discordant noise of minds quickly divided itself into groups. Each oasis had a cluster of people, all bundled together, but watching the others intently. Eighty-seven in total, or so she guessed. It would have been eighty-eight, but for Kulik being… ashes now. Allain spoke up, into the darkness surrounding them. "I am Allain, of Hightop, and we are ready." As the person who initiated this meeting, it was his responsibility to go first.

"I am Ceera, of Clearbough, and we are ready."

"I am Garas, of Claywater, and we are ready."

"I am—” She tuned them out at that point, watching instead of listening. As each representative spoke their piece, their own oasis grew slightly dimmer as an indicator. Slowly, the bombardment of light from the sandkin society became less harsh. No doubt they would flare up again when the debates began, and people began to speak their minds freely.

Still, Moss was silent. Even to her. His fear and pain had faded, but his aura was one of distraction and nervousness. The two of them were technically part of the Hightop group, but Allain had put them far enough apart that others could observe them as separate. Already, focus was being shifted away from the roll call and towards them. Char tried to send out only confident calm, and wished Moss would do the same.

When the formal introductions were finally complete, Char realized someone was missing. Well, aside from Kulik. Even though they were on the edge of the green lands, they had still been sandkin. No, neither Sanoro nor Trem had spoken up for Sharpcrag. She peered around in the darkness, but all the oases were now dimmed. Everyone who was here had been announced.

Was Trem avoiding this meeting to keep information away from their trejun guest? It seemed like a reasonable precaution, if a little harsh.

Allain spoke up. "My friends, I must begin this gathering with saddening news. Yesterday, just after Coredown, Hightop lost all contact with Sharpcrag. We have checked the wiring network, and determined that there is no flaw on our end. However, there was an enzyme recording stored in the relay station, which we recovered this morning. I intend to play a portion of it now, but I warn you: what you are about to see is graphic, and unsettling."

Char felt a chill run through her, and focused on Moss briefly. His output was strictly controlled, revealing nothing new. Hightop's Speaker connected the message, and someone's memories flooded into the network.

She recognized part of Sharpcrag from the view, and perspective. Someone young from the low angle, and limited in view. It seemed he was recording a message to a pen pal of his in another oasis. He ran through a short list of the most recent happenings, including the arrival of their trejun guest. Char was surprised that no one in this meeting seemed upset by that. It seemed that they'd already been informed. Whether that meant the meeting would end quicker, or they wouldn't find in Moss' favor, Char couldn't say.

At any rate, the recording message continued, ending with the arrival of her and Moss the other day. The young sandkin making it hadn't been one of those to meet with them afterwards . Then, just as he was giving final greetings and preparing to send the message off, there was an explosion in the distance behind him!

Hungry red tendrils streaked out in every direction from its source, racing and intertwining as they sought out life to consume. Streek Fire burned outwards rapidly, and fear and pain burst from each person it touched, before they fell quickly silent. The person making the recording, in an amazing show of foresight, sent off the message in the last few moments. Just before the image went black, Char could see the Streek Fire closing in on the poor sapling.

Confusion rippled through the entire network, like the waves she'd seen from distant shores. People conversed with each other, and then put out questions to the group, but none were clear enough to distinguish.

"We were just there!" She said to Allain, who had just played the recording back and paused it in that last moment. "We spoke to Trem, one of Sharpcrag's elders! She said they were well defended, and we saw thunderers and stormers there to protect them. How did this happen??"

"Peace, everyone," Allain put out, with a great deal of emphasis on the first word. Slowly, the noise and voices faded. "We're still gathering information. We've sent one of our own out to Sharpcrag to investigate, but at this point, it seems there are no survivors. As for how this happened, we all know that there was a trejun ambassador recently planted in Sharpcrag. We've analyzed the recording, and determined that the explosion started at exactly where he was set. It appears…" he trailed off briefly, sending out just a trace of outrage and anger. "It appears that he was the source of the explosion. This was a suicide bomb."

Again, confusion and cacophony burst from all corners of their meeting space, but Char wasn't paying attention to them right now. Everyone here was leaking emotions in every direction, except for Moss. He was still tightly controlled, as impenetrable as a flat stone surface. "Moss?" She put in quietly, faintly enough that only the two of them could hear.

Abruptly, he spoke up into the network, as loudly as he could manage. "Sandkin! I am belhiera'torkalm'oss, of Grove Praska, of the Continental Union. I ask to speak on behalf of the Union, if you will hear me!"

It was a good move, she realized. His legal status was still ambiguous, given both his identity as an outsider, and the fact that he was bonded to a sandkin citizen. If he had just started making observations and requests, he might have been met with people questioning his right to speak, but asking to be allowed to speak early on would whet people's curiosity.

Slowly, the confusion faded, as more and more conversations turned inward. It wasn't technically a vote, as the sandkin had done many times, but people started treating it as one. One by one the oases dimmed again, until a majority were giving their assent to let him speak.

"Thank you," he said, leaking a little relief. "As all of you know, Trejuna has been waging a war on my people for the better part of a year now. They have burned nearly a third of our groves to the ground, killing thousands. Whether soldiers or ordinary citizens, it doesn't matter to them. They kill indiscriminately. As they have now killed yours.

"We also had trejun ambassadors in our own groves. I met one personally. He pretended to be interested in me and my work—to be building a lasting friendship between his people and mine—but it was all lies. All he wanted was the chance to cripple us, in preparation for this… extermination they had planned! I witnessed the attacks as they happened. I saw through our network the people near my own home burn to death, in the very same Streek Fire they just unleashed on you!"

He let out some rage, but then tamped it down. "We have tried to communicate. We have tried to end this war peacefully, but they won't have any of it. They're intent on ridding Tarn of us entirely, and I believe they mean to do the same to you. They place no value on any of our lives, and they were so willing to end yours, that they went one of their own people to you with enough Streek Fire to wipe out an entire oasis!"

A sapling from over in Tallsprit spoke up, near the other end of the network. "But why? We've never done anything to them. We've made every effort to stay hidden, both from your Union and from Trejuna, for thousands of years! What possible threat could we be to them? Why would they want us dead?"

Moss sent out some sympathy, and pulled up his own enzyme recording. "Just after the initial strikes, the enemy sent us a message of hatred and domination. This is what he had to say:"

"To the treqar citizens themselves, I make the following statement. Trejuna is the apex of all civilizations. We have achieved a perfection of form and purpose beyond anything you could ever understand. As such our superiority over you and all others is manifest. Destiny will have us rule over this world, now and forever."

Silence reigned through the network for a change, as people everywhere absorbed this new information. It shouldn't have been news to them, given the information Char and other spies had been sending south since the start of the war, but clearly her people hadn't done much thinking about it.

Sandkin life had never been easy, but it had always been peaceful. Char could understand how they could observe the conflict to the north with sadness, even sympathy for those dying, but with no real impulse to help or stop it. They could claim to be unwilling to give up their secrecy, or to be maintaining their nonviolence, or that they were too far away to help, or that interfering would be playing Core, or that they had no right to intervene, or any number of a hundred reasons they might have to stay out of it, but the result was the same. They didn't care what happened to anyone who wasn't them.

Just… like the trejuns.

"My people are still unaware of you," Moss said into the darkness and quiet. "We've been so busy holding the line, that we're unlikely to ever become aware of you. If you wish, you can destroy me, and keep your secret from them for the rest of time. But Trejuna does know about you now. They've spilled the sap of your people, and I can assure you that eventually, they will find a way to do the same to the rest of you! Whether my people survive or not, your people are now a target as well.

"I urge you. Form an alliance with the Union! Reach out to them! They will welcome any ally in this fight. We have the numbers, and you have the technology. Together we can face this genocidal threat to both of us!" He hesitated for just a moment there, and Char could tell why. It was technology that he and the rest of the Arbormass had invented, and then she'd stolen, but it was still in sandkin control for the moment.

"I know that you are not used to war. I know that the idea of using these marvelous devices to kill and destroy seems like a perversion of everything they were built to do. It does for me as well. I started my career as an inventor to help people, not destroy them! But both of our nations face an enemy who is determined to destroy us. Until that changes, we can't show mercy. No matter how much we want to."

Garas put himself forward. "There can be no doubt that the trejuns have hostile intent. But how can we be sure your Union will be any better? We've had a chance to look over Union history. Only four hundred years ago, the green lands were occupied by dozens of different clans. They were compelled to join together, under the threat of force. Hundreds of thousands of qars were trained, equipped, and sent out to destroy anyone who refused. Hundreds of your own people died in this so-called unification. You ask us to join with you, but we cannot ignore your own violent past!"

There it was. Garas had no idea, but suddenly the pieces fit together for Char. His own violent past. Searing rage built up in her, and Char was barely able to keep it under control. Moss had known! He'd let this happen on purpose!

Moss didn't respond at first. He was probably aware of her anger, but was apparently ignoring it for now. When he did speak, it was slowly and deliberately. "I can't excuse the actions of my ancestors, Speaker Garas. Nor would I even try. They conquered and forced others into the Union for their own selfish reasons, because they wanted more power. They spread their borders as far as they could in every direction, out of an arrogant need for control. But the ones who did that, have passed into memory by now. Also I have recently been educated in sandkin history. Isn't it true that your ancestors did the same? That they killed others of their own kind from time to time, and told themselves it was for the greater good? We all have marks on our ancestry, and therefore on ourselves. I ask you to consider allying with the Union as it is now, and not as it was in the past."

Through her rage, Char did have to concede that point. Individual leaders who'd refused to give up power had to be girdled and killed off, though it was rare. It hadn't happened in centuries, thankfully.

It seemed Garas was thinking on the same lines, because he didn't seem to have much else to say. An elder female from Shimmerpond did speak, though. "How can we be assured that your Chancellor will hold to any agreement we make, though? Individual leaders are fickle and frail, which is why we have none. Who's to say she won't go back on her word the moment the war turns in her favor? You?"

"Chancellor ath'qestarlo'morha rules with the permission and favor of her people, ma'am," Moss said respectfully. "Any treaty she signs with the sandkin will be upheld by those same people. If she breaks it, she will be punished accordingly."

"After the fact, though!" The Shimmerpond resident responded. "We would require assurances that the treaty could not be broken in the first place! Can you guarantee that? Can any Union citizen?"

Moss hesitated, and for the first time in this meeting, Char could pick up a sense of doubt from him. "The sandkin have all the advantages right now! You can swoop in like a bird and save the day, and then negotiate terms with her at your convenience. If it's done publicly, word will get out, and my people will be so grateful to you that they will force her to hold to any agreement. All you need to do is provide us with the technology to become mobile. Then we can start pushing back. Eventually, we'll retake the whole continent, and force the trejuns back across the sea. Technology which, if you'll remember, you wouldn't even have if it weren't for Char, myself, and others who died inventing it!"

There was a burst of emotion from many at that, and Char thought that maybe he'd made a mistake. The sandkin were proud of everything they had, and didn't like reminders of outside help. Still, the memories of Streek Fire consuming Sharpcrag were still vividly recent. It might be enough.

"I believe we have enough basic information to vote on a course of action," Allain put forward, and the emotions faded. "As always, every sandkin citizen will have an equal say in how we proceed. That includes you, belhiera'torkalm'oss, if only because of a technicality for now. Perhaps if formal relations are established, your citizenship might become more… settled."

Moss didn't answer, but he did send out some appreciation.

"All in favor of breaking our long silence and extending a treaty offer to the Continental Union, cast your vote now."

She cast her vote quickly, and saw Moss do the same. The odds were definitely in his favor, but it still took a few minutes for the last holdouts to make up their minds. Perhaps rules would be put in place later to set a time limit on how long people had to choose.

Char used that time to resume private communications with Moss. "You knew, didn't you? You knew that trejun in Sharpcrag had Streek Fire on his person! You knew that he would set it off the moment he found out we were leaving. That's why you told Trem not to say we were leaving until after we were gone—so that he would destroy the whole oasis!"

"That's right."

Rage blossomed inside her mind again, and this time Char didn't particularly care if some of it leaked into the network. There was certainly plenty there already. "How could you? You sentenced them all to death!"

"They were dead the moment that trejun landed, Char!" He responded severely, letting out frustration for once. "I didn't set off those explosives; he did! As soon as he found out we were there, he was going to destroy Sharpcrag to kill us. And he would have found out eventually, no matter what we did!"

"You don't know that! If you'd warned them, Trem and the others might have been able to stop him. They could have delayed him long enough to douse him with water, maybe. Enough to stop him from setting off his Streek Fire."

"If I'd warned them, he would have found out immediately. We'd both be dead right alongside them."

How dare he defend his cowardice! He was acting as if he'd done the right thing, and using excuses to pretend like Sharpcrag had… had it coming! "That wasn't your decision to make, Moss! They deserved the chance to decide for themselves. Why would you just let them die like that?"

He hesitated. "The few for the many."

At first she didn't understand, but then she noticed how the votes were tallying up. Already more than half had voted, and mostly in favor of his request. "You… sacrificed them? So that the vote would go your way?"

"Our way. This is as much for the sandkin as it is for the Union." He let out some more frustration. "If Sharpcrag hadn't fallen, your people might not have even been willing to hear my petition, much less consider it. At the very best they'd debate it for days, or even seasons. All while more and more of my people are being exterminated! All while the trejuns are finding ways to kill your people too. Now, they've already started voting on it!"

"And that makes it right? You're not the Core, Moss! You don't get to decide who lives and who dies!"

"Let me be clear about this, Char. Nothing makes what I did right. I'm directly responsible for the deaths of twenty-three people, including that trejun himself. If I have a soul, it's probably going to the Void. But if my actions saved both of our peoples, and all it cost me was my soul, my self-respect, and your regard for me, it was well worth it."

He spoke with such certainty; such finality, that Char didn't have an immediate response. What had he become?? She remembered an insular, fragile introvert from the Arbormass. She remembered a desperate and excited sapling, trying out new inventions, all while worrying his bark off about his people back home. When had he changed? Was it because of her? Had her training as a spy changed him, when they bonded? She'd been taught to be calculating and cold—to view people as assets to be used and spent, rather than viewed as actual people.

Vaguely, off in the distance, she was aware of the final vote tally. It seemed that for the first time in history, the sandkin were going to war.
New Releases / Drive Part 41 added, 3/17/23
« Last post by Daen on March 17, 2023, 06:24:38 PM »
Drive Part 41 added, 3/17/23
Drive (ongoing story) / Part 41: Enroute
« Last post by Daen on March 17, 2023, 06:23:45 PM »
Moss was lost in thought as they made their way through the night. To the east, he believed, but couldn't be sure without the Core's light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She agreed easily, and helped him on the rest of their trip. He was doing the right thing, he told himself. Telling her would just distract her. It was best to wait until after the talks, and this new situation had been safely sent away to his father.
New Releases / Drive Part 40 added, 3/10/23
« Last post by Daen on March 10, 2023, 03:33:21 PM »
Drive Part 40 added, 3/10/23
Pages: 1 2 [3] 4 5 ... 10