Author Topic: Part 10: Building a Better Tool  (Read 7331 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 10: Building a Better Tool
« on: July 06, 2022, 07:11:56 AM »
"No, no, no! Your designs are impressive and all, but they're based on a faulty premise. First off, we need to make them much larger than this!"

Moss was arguing with Rax over the latest model, an enzyme image of a qar made entirely of metal. Rax seemed quite proud of his rendering, and seemed hurt at being contradicted. Moss didn't want to antagonize anyone, but this metal qar was laughably impractical as a replacement for the real ones. "Look, qars move us around through sheer numbers, but it's not like we can create a mechanical queen and have her lay eggs for us! We can't make little creatures like this in anywhere near the numbers we'd need."

"So we need to think bigger?" Tobor put in, his curiosity overriding his usual aloof demeanor.

"Two spans across, at least. They would each need a radio to get instructions, as well as some kind of mechanical limb to grab things or hold weapons."

His hurt apparently forgotten, Rax let out a burst of objection. "That wasn't part of our original mandate from the Chancellor," he reminded the group.

Aysa was off chatting with their sole connection to the outside world, a treqar on the other end of a very long artificial connection. The twins were with her, probably to advise her. That just left Moss, Rax, Tobor and the apparently-mute Char, bouncing ideas around.

"I hate to say it," Moss started slowly, "but maybe the mandate she gave us was wrong. She's a politician, not a builder. She wants swarms of mechanical qars, and I'm pretty sure that's impossible for now. What we can give her, I'm hoping, is a larger vehicle that can be controlled by radio and equipped with a… grappler I suppose, to manipulate objects."

Tobor emanated a trace of appreciation. "Why just do a little better than qars—”

“—when we can do a lot better. Exactly!"

For a moment Moss felt guilty at that. Most of his original band of qars had survived the trip and the last day or so integrating into the Arbormass. And here he was plotting to replace them. He had little choice, but it still felt like a betrayal.

Rax altered the enzyme image, wiping away his carefully drawn mechanical qar and changing the scope. "All right. It has to be big enough to hold a radio," he drew a radio over the new image, and then zoomed out again. "And a grappler arm." He started drawing a much larger mechanical qar.

"Or two or three," Moss reminded him. "We don't know how easy it would be to maintain these, and eventually we'll need to use them to maintain each other."

His bark groaning slightly with frustration, Rax erased the image and began again. "How is it going to move? I wish Aysa was back already. She knows more about power generation than anyone here."

Tobor sent out a negative. "I doubt we can use the radio power sources for something that big. More than half the mecha-qar would be entirely made up of power generators! We need another way."

Moss had a suggestion, but he wasn't sure how to phrase it. Thankfully Char spoke up first. "We burn things."

As usual there was a tense reaction to her words. As long as she stayed silent, Rax and Tobor could pretend she wasn't even there. Moss was glad she'd spoken though. Given the enormity of their task, they needed as many geniuses as they could get, even ostracized ones.

Char let the silence hang in the group for a few seconds. "When my combustibles light on fire, they create expanding air. If we can encase that burning in a small space, we can direct that expansion to move the qar. It would be simple, but it wouldn't need nearly as much space."

That wasn't quite what he'd had in mind, but then she did know a lot more about combustion than he did. Moss took over the drawing, and drew a cylinder next to the radio. "So we stack deadwood here and light it, and make sure the air is confined—”

"Not wood," Char clarified. "It would have to be a liquid. I can whip up some samples this afternoon for you to test."

"A liquid would be easier to transport, I suppose," Rax said reluctantly. "We'd need some kind of tank to store this 'fuel' in. I'll ask the twins when they get back."

Tobor also seemed thoughtful. "We wouldn't need articulators or grapplers to move a liquid. We'd need tubes. Rubber, I think."

"I didn't think of that," Char said approvingly, with the first emotions Moss had sensed from her yet. "I'll adjust the mixture so that it won't burn rubber."

Some of the lesser trees that they burned to purify metal were a special kind. They bled a sticky, resilient substance that could be harvested and hauled back. These rubber trees were grown in several provinces, and their sap was used in quality-of-life products all over the Union. Including the radios themselves.

Suddenly Aysa, Lars and Lens appeared in the conversation. "I'm sorry to interrupt," the elder began, sending out disquiet and fear. "We've gotten orders from the Chancellery. It seems we've been retasked."

As an explanation, she connected an enzyme recording to the conversation. It showed a treqar's perspective from outside her grove. Moss didn't recognize it, but his attention was grabbed by an object approaching from the 'west'. In the moving images, the treqar in question focused on the intruders, and then blasted out warnings through her own network. Qars scattered, being given emergency orders by their masters, but it was too late.

The intruder flew above the grove and dropped the object, separating into a few dozen juns and a falling bag of… something. The moment it hit the ground, flames spouted from it. Hungry-looking vines made of fire spread out in every direction, splitting and expanding to overwhelm the treqars in the grove! Hundreds of little flames, and then thousands. All twenty-odd people in the grove burned, horribly, and shocks of pain lanced through the network and into the recording.

The recorder herself wasn't safe either. The flames couldn't reach her, but soon it was clear another object was incoming. She issued final orders to her qars, to flee eastwards to the nearest grove, before she burned as well. The new flames cut her connection to the network, and the images vanished.

The emotions had poured through this group as if they had been there personally! Moss could feel the flames melt through his bark and phloem, and into his heartwood! The others all let out bursts of dismay and fear of their own, in reaction to what they'd just witnessed. Even Aysa and the twins, who had evidently seen this already, weren't immune to the effect.

"Three other groves like this one were attacked yesterday," Aysa put in so softly they had to strain to detect her. "A fifth burned this morning. It seems the trejuns aren't going to just wait for us to become helpless. They're attacking now."

"Void take those frost-souled monsters!" Rax said, blasting horror and rage. "To wage a war is one thing: juns versus qars, but this isn't war! This is a slaughter!"

"They must have used pine resin to make it stick like that," Char put in. "Quicklime and sulfur would have been needed as well. This isn't like the stuff they used on the northern groves a century ago. This is more refined."

Even Moss was shocked by that. There was no sign of rage or fear in her words. Only curiosity and interest. She might have been approving, though of course she wouldn't show it.

Aysa spoke up again, probably to change the subject. "We thought we'd have years to solve this problem, but we don't. The Chancellor wants us to find a way to counter this new weapon. Some kind of shield that can withstand the fire, or a way to turn the juns back. Anything that can buy us time. If we don't," she paused, indicating the twins.

Lars sounded subdued. "Based on our understanding of their resources and reach, if Trejuna commits itself to an all-out attack on the Union, they could have juns here by the end of the next season. A season after that, the Union will be gone."

But grove Praska was further east! Moss' father and friends would die first! "We're on it," he said firmly. "They may have frost running through them instead of sap, but we're smarter. We'll come up with something."
« Last Edit: August 10, 2022, 01:36:05 AM by Daen »