Author Topic: Part 18: The Best Reason to Fight  (Read 7152 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline Daen

  • Administrator
  • We Don't Care
  • *****
  • Posts: 525
  • Karma: +1/-0
Part 18: The Best Reason to Fight
« on: September 05, 2022, 02:05:12 AM »
For whatever reason, Char reached out to him later that day, after the others had retired to their personal thoughts. So… they talked. For hours, late into the night. They worked as the conversation went on, but on parts of the project that didn't require much thought.

Moss told her about his rural upbringing in grove Praska. How he'd contributed to the grove when necessary, and retreated into isolation when he wasn't needed. It seemed they had that much in common, if for different reasons. He also mentioned Rax's grove briefly, if only to make sure she didn't bring it up and make him uncomfortable.

"I'm kind of the brown leaf of the family," he admitted after a bit. "I was a shuffle-seed, so that kind of sets me apart."

"A what?" Curiosity rolled through their link. They were conversing 'quietly', not sending too many signals through the network. The others were doing the same in other places, those who weren't resting.

"Right, that's something we only really do in Leyas province. Unlabeled seeds are distributed randomly through the groves, to promote healthy societies. I have no idea who my mother is, or if she's even alive. No one in my home grove cares, though. Probably half of them are just like me."

He paused. "Maybe I used that as an excuse, as much as I did my differing interests. Just another reason to stay apart. Until I got to know Aysa and you, and the others here, I never really felt like part of anything better than just me."

Moss was getting a little too personal now, and he could tell from her vague discomfort, but she did respond in kind. "I'm from grove Purch, way down south. We're on the edge of the Desolation, so water is scarce there. Purch was only planted after my ancestors had spent a few decades digging a well in the area. Even so, it's not an easy existence."

"I can only imagine." Moss had seen images from the Desolation, the massive desert spanning the south quarter of the continent. It was dry as a shell, and so hot that not even qars could survive for long inside the parched zone. Even in winter the Desolation was an imposing feature to try and explore, which was why so few qar expeditions had been sent in, and none had come back out. There was no record of any trees further south than that, treqars or otherwise.

"I'm actually even more of a wind-seed than you are, you know," she went on thoughtfully. "No one knows who I am, or where I came from. I just started growing there one day, and I was nearly a year old before my grovemates discovered I was one of their own kind."

He had heard of such things before: rare times when foundlings would pop up near groves or in isolated areas near waterways. Pollen was hard to keep track of, but females could generate tens of thousands of seeds in their lives, and not all were accurately tracked. It was inevitable that some would end up germinating in unexpected areas. He'd never heard of any that far south, though.

"That must have been difficult for you, being all alone right at the start."

She responded to his slight comfort with a harsh prickling feeling. "It was even harder getting used to dealing with others. They sent qars to connect me to their network, but I thought I was under attack! I poisoned a few of them before I realized they weren't a threat."

He creaked his bark in amusement at that, and after a moment she joined in. "Wow. You didn't hold back even then, huh?" It was possible for treqars to poison their own minions who touched their roots or leaves. It didn't kill them, but it made them sick for a few days.

"Not a bit. When they finally did connect my roots to the others, I realized that they were like me. Communication was hard at first, but I learned quickly. I wasn't that far behind the other seedlings."

He'd seen how smart she was. "I bet you were the top of the class before long."

"We didn't really measure academic retention the way they do in most groves. I was just one of the others. We spent most of our time training qars to search for valuable minerals or water. We all had to contribute to keep the grove going."

"Did you have any favorites? I remember naming my very first qar Bonk. Because he kept hitting his head on the entryway to my hollow."

Her emotions stopped flowing entirely for a moment. "We don't really name our qars. They don't live very long that close to the Desolation, so it's best not to get attached."

"I'm sorry," he said meaningfully. Somehow he'd gotten the impression that there were only two kinds of groves: rural, like his own, or urban like Tobor's. The idea that there were isolated groves with extremely harsh conditions was new to him. He shouldn't have been surprised, though. Rax had also lived in a harsh environment: cold rather than hot.

"Don't be. When the second well was dug and water became more plentiful, we started studying other topics with our spare time. That's when I got into combustion." She sent out an image of a treqar with early scorch marks covering an area on the lower trunk. "That's me, about fifty years ago. There was an oil deposit discovered not far from grove Purch. The Union sent convoy after convoy to retrieve it and haul it back up north, but I skimmed a little off the top to experiment on my own."

"Didn't your Grovekeeper try to stop you? Fifty years ago, intentional combustion was illegal outside of government activities!"

A tremor of mischief crept into her tone. "I may have hidden that fact from him. I was the communications liaison for grove Purch, so I could control what official edicts made it in and out. I let everything in except for the rules about burning. That way I was ostracized, but not actually prevented from keeping at my work."

There was something more going on here. She'd been a foundling, wild at first but then eager to contribute to her community's survival. That he could understand, but Char was holding something else back. "That's a risky move."

"And for good reason," she said, sadness and guilt following her words. Suddenly Moss could sense her examining the others for signs of awareness. "This stays between us, right? Aysa already knows, but she won't tell anyone."

"On my heartwood," he promised. "I won't tell anyone you were a foundling."

"No, this is about what happened after." She hesitated again, but then rushed out the words in a torrent. "Our qar queen was hit just like everyone else's. A few days later, just after Trejuna declared war on the Union, there was an accident in my grove. I… must have failed to check the seals on my stone oil samples, because I was so distracted by the war. It's so dry there. The samples evaporated, but oil gas is heavier than air, so it just spread out on the ground. Then one qar must have dropped a sharp rock on another or something."

Moss felt his roots tighten. "Oh, no…"

"All it took was one spark. The sample ignited and burned every qar outside of their individual hollows. Over two hundred died, and every treqar in the grove suffered fire damage."

Images of those groves burning earlier flashed through Moss' mind. "I'm so sorry, Char."

Her sorrow was dampened by determination. "It was my fault. I hid the truth from them for my own curiosity, and they all paid for it. The samples burned me much worse than the rest, but I deserved all of it and more!"

Moss considered, as he sent out a continuous stream of comfort. Combustion was technically legal now, if taboo. However reckless endangerment, destruction of property, possession of a controlled substance… "What did they do to you?"

"Excommunication," she said simply. "I was stripped of my adoptive name and just called Char at the sentencing. Not that it was that different; it had already been my nickname for years before that. Frankly I think I'm lucky they didn't just girdle me and call it a day. They used to execute Combustors back in the day. Within our lifetimes, easily."

"You're probably right," he answered reluctantly. "Only qars died because of that accident. If any treqars had died, they probably would have executed you."

"As it turns out, it didn't matter anyway. Union soldier qars arrived just after the sentencing, before my qars could be taken away. They uprooted me and hauled me here in short order. The only reason they even knew about me and my crimes was because of the accident. If it weren't for that, I'd probably be silent and alone right now."

They grew in silence for a few moments, as her regret and shame issued through the link. From all the stories Rax and Tobor had shared, Moss had a pretty good idea who'd they'd been before coming to the Arbormass. A chatty show-off with a good nature and a lot of pain, and a reluctant aristocratic participant in the family business. He'd figured Char would be something like them. Being… a convicted criminal hadn't been on his list of possibilities!

Moss remembered vividly how he'd sworn to her she would get the same credit as everyone else if they succeeded. But now he realized that she might not want that recognition. If news of the accident got out as well, she might not be revered, so much as reviled.

He was about to ask her about that, when suddenly Lens reached out to them. "Moss, you're going to want to see this."

Char sent him a question and he agreed, so both of them focused on what the soldier was emphasizing.

It was interroot feeds from five groves; probably the next area of the front line. With a start, Moss recognized grove Praska! Jora was there: the tallest and oldest in the grove. His father was only a few spans away, no doubt caught up in his political machinations.

"An attack on grove Yeris started a few seconds ago," Lens explained. "They like to do simultaneous attacks, so Praska is probably up soon. I figured you'd want to know."

Moss felt so many things he couldn't keep track of them all. Rage, that these Voidhearted thugs were striking at his home. Worry that the thunderers wouldn't work right, or that whoever was assigned to control them might miss or damage the thunderers. Regret that he hadn't sent more letters to his father and Rane. Chagrin that he hadn't been aware that his grove would be attacked now. He'd thought that it would happen days or even a full week later!

"How many thunderers does grove Praska have?" He asked darkly.

"Only two," Lars responded from nearby. "Sorry, Moss. The nearest forge is three groves away! We were lucky to get that many thunderers in place at all!"

Moss examined the feeds with some trepidation. "From the position of those thunderers, they're being operated by Solba and Teerk. Neither of them have had any real practice, I'm sure. What, since yesterday, when the thunderers arrived?"

Suddenly he had an idea. "What if we controlled them from here? The connection is instant, and we can use Solba's oscilli to aim! He's taller than most—he should get a better view."

A burst of startlement passed between the twins. "The communication is instant. I suppose it could work," Lars said slowly, "but we're not authorized to even show you this, much less help them to fight!"

"My friends are about to be burned alive! We can't let some stupid rule stand in the way of saving them. Tell Solba I said it's allowed, and he'll give you control!"

There were a few more moments of hesitation, as the bombing run began in grove Yeris. The three thunderers there fired almost simultaneously, and then the brief battle was over. There was some fire damage to a peripheral treqar, but the rest remained undamaged as the surviving juns retreated.

"My grove will be hit any moment. What'll it be?" He asked urgently.

A surge of brief emotions passed between the twins. "You should be at the controls, Moss. They're your people after all," Lens said. "I'll handle the other thunderer."

Moss hastily sent a message through the interroot to Solba and Teerk. They responded with agreement and profound relief, and released control to him. Moss tentatively tested the newly-built thunderer controls, and they seemed to be in working order. Solba's perspective was good, and there wasn't any mist obscuring the area. It was a good thing treqars could see just as well at night as they could during the day, if only in a limited range around them. Large animals could apparently see great distances. The same wasn't true for qars.

Then he hesitated. "Char. I think you should do this. You've had more practice than me, and you're a better shot anyway."

Concern and self-doubt issued from her. "Are you sure? I mean after what I just told you?"

"That was an accident. And I trust you. If the worst should happen… I forgive you ahead of time."

The solemnness of his words sank through the four of them instantly, but Char sent an agreement and took control of Solba's position. Her self-doubt vanished: crushed by determination and focus.

Despite his premonition of urgency from before, it was actually a few minutes before Char said something. "Incoming near grove Praska."

"Uh oh," Lens followed up. "I count four packages. They're all side by side, and coming in at the same time! They're spread out too far apart to get hit by one shot!"

Even if they fired at maximum range and then started reloading, at least two would get through! Despair rattled around in Moss' mind, before Lars spoke. "I doubt they're all Streek Fire," he said, pulling up lists of previous attacks. "From what we know about enemy resources, there aren't many oil deposits in Trejuna. I estimate that no more than two of those packages are actually dangerous. The others must be decoys."

"Then we need to pick one quickly. They're almost in firing range here," Char put in urgently.

But they wouldn't even bother attacking unless at least one of those packages was deadly! Which ones were the decoys? They all looked the same, and were probably weighted evenly! He had to pick, and soon. Giving up a brief prayer to the Core, Moss selected the one on the far right, and the second one from the left. Char smoothly communicated with Lens, and they each focused on one and fired.

Both shots connected beautifully. Char's target came apart, showering the ground below it with pebbles. Lens' one lit aflame in the air, burning a few of the juns before they let go and flew away. The remaining two continued, as the qars below frantically reloaded the thunderers.

Every part of Moss was as tense as it could be, as the packages fell down on his grove. They came apart upon hitting the ground, and pebbles showered the area where the game board had been set up earlier. There was no liquid; no flame. They were safe.

A much preferable explosion of relief followed the results. Lars sent out joyful accolades along with Moss, while Char and Lens wilted with the sudden tension that was now gone. Moss connected briefly, sending his assurances out to Solba and Teerk that they would be all right, and then joined in with the celebrations.

Suddenly he realized they'd attracted more attention. Rax and Tobor were listening in now, and Aysa was connecting even as the cheers died down. Once again, Moss felt his joy being smothered. If only these weapons had been in place a few weeks ago, Rax might still have his family as well.

"My home grove was just attacked, and they made it out just fine," Moss explained loudly, sending a surreptitious suggestion to Char. She was way ahead of him, already carefully disconnecting and removing all evidence that she or Lens had done any controlling of any kind. "Sorry if we disturbed you."

"Congratulations, Moss," Aysa said gravely. "You must be so relieved. Please, talk amongst yourselves for a while. I'd like a few words in private with Lars and Lens."

Moss sent them a tendril of gratitude as she took them aside, no doubt to berate them for bending the no-news rule. Moss would be sure to 'come up' with the idea of remote-controlled thunderers tomorrow, and suggest that specially trained treqars be connected to the front at all times, to protect the villagers who didn't have the training to defend themselves.

That was a problem for another time, though. His people were safe, and that was all that mattered! While the others started up with a celebratory song, Moss nudged his thanks out to Char, who seemed just as jubilant.