Author Topic: Part 23: Interrogation  (Read 72 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 23: Interrogation
« on: October 23, 2022, 10:51:27 PM »
Nearly a full day later, strange qars approached him from the rest of the Arbormass. They spent a few minutes reattaching him to the network, and then he was connected again. To Eli, and to another treqar he didn't recognize.

"Hello, Moss—may I call you that?" The Investigator said immediately.

"Only if I can call you Eli."

Eli sent out a trace of amusement. "Of course. This is Security Apex reth'ihashq'eris. She'll be observing all the interviews and recording them. Try to act like she's not even present, if possible." He hesitated after that introduction. "Again, I'm sorry about all this delay to your work. You understand we have to turn over every root when something like this happens—just to make sure you're all safe."

"I get it," Moss kept his cynicism buried as deeply as he could. The Apex was staying silent as promised, but there was no guarantee it would stay that way. "Besides, it's not like I have anything else to do right now. This beats playing with my qars all day."

"I bet. So, you've had quite the season, haven't you? Snatched up from your home and transplanted to some grove with a bunch of strangers. I've been looking over the reports sent by the Arbormass, and I get the impression you've had to do a lot of adapting since being brought there."

Moss sent out some ambivalence. "I guess. It's different, being surrounded by people who share my interests for once. I've tried to contribute as best I can."

"Oh, you've definitely done that. Your idea for the stone throwers has saved hundreds—perhaps thousands of lives by now! Very impressive. Especially for someone your age. You're the youngest there, right?"

"I am. Char's a few years older than me, and Rax and Tobor are a few years from her. The twins and Aysa are older, but we're all basically the same in our heartwood. Trying to fill the roots of much bolder and smarter treqars."

"Like your friend, Noq? I imagine he'd be quite proud of what you've done."

That soured Moss' sap a bit. "I hope so."

"How do you feel about the trejuns? Especially given what they did to your friend?"

Moss thought back to the only one he'd ever met. "At first I thought Ter was a good guy. Strange, being from so far away, but basically the same as us. I wondered if the rest of his people were like him. When they hit us and vanished like that, I didn't know what to think. Now… all I feel is a cold hatred towards them. To them, we're nothing but vermin to be wiped out. We have to convince them otherwise—by force if necessary. I don't like the idea of building weapons, but I like the idea of dying off entirely even less. I guess what I hate the most is what they're turning us into."

"Us?" What seemed like genuine interest filtered in through the word.

"The Union, I mean. We have our flaws, but at our cores we're a nation made up of other nations. People who used to fight and dominate each other, but eventually started working together to thrive. Now thanks to the trejuns, we're having to fight again."

"Ah, I see." Eli paused, and Moss was sure he was taking down notes, wherever he really was. "So deep down you're a pacifist, and want to go back to those ways when you can?"

"I suppose that's true."

"Is that why you were unwilling to fire on the juns when you had the chance?"

What was he talking about? The last time Moss had seen a jun in person was before the war even started. "I… don't follow."

"According to one of Aysa's reports, when your home grove was under attack, you connected with the thunderers there to protect it. But at the last minute you couldn't bring yourself to fire, and other treqars had to take over."

So Aysa had been aware of the whole thing after all. Moss should have known. "Char is a better shot than me. She had a better chance of protecting my people, and that's what she did. My decision was tactical, not emotional," Moss tried to keep any trace of anger out of his response.

"And if Char had been unavailable, you would have taken the shot?"

"Of course. I don't know if I would have hit, but I couldn't have just stayed rooted and let my people die!"

"What if it had been more than just a few juns on the other end? What if it had been a trejun, being carried by its minions? A warmaster, on his way to kill your friends and family? Could you have done it then?"

Moss hesitated. "I don't know for sure. I think I would have. I'm not a soldier!"

He let out some frustration. "Putting qars in dangerous situations is necessary for our survival, just as putting juns in them is necessary for our enemies. Killing them is sad, but acceptable if necessary. Killing people though? That's not easy, and it shouldn't be—ever! You want to know what drives me? It's a desire to make peoples' lives easier, not to end them."

Eli was silent for a few moments. "I think I understand. Thank you for explaining."

"Are all your other interviews this personal, Investigator?" Moss asked formally.

"Let's talk about your friends here," Eli went on. "You've gotten to know them pretty well by now—even trusted two of them with protecting your family. What do you know about their history?"

"I know you're talking about Char," Moss said impatiently. "You're like most people: viewing only her burns and her profession. You ignore who she is under all that. Yes, I know about the fire at her home grove and about her criminal trial. At worst that was carelessness, not malice. She didn't intend anyone harm. I'm sure you know that."

"Have you bonded with her?"

"No! Even if she was interested in that, I'm not sure I am. And even if we had, what business is it of yours?"

"Is that why you're exchanging gifts? And secret messages, moments after I started this investigation? One of my qars caught sight of an enzyme package being delivered to you yesterday. From its course, the qar was coming from her."

"It was a private message," he said defensively.

"Then where is it? I'd like to confirm that for myself."

"I absorbed it." Moss was starting to feel the drought now, as if this Investigator was turning up the heat and leeching the water out of his very soul.

"After I'd told everyone that their messages were subject to scrutiny? That was a very stupid thing to do, Moss."

"It was innocent, I swear! She was thanking me for lending her one of my qars, and telling me about the good luck charms she hung in my branches. Besides, even if it was something bad, how could she be in contact with the trejuns? We've all been in isolation for weeks now!"

"I have a fanciful story I'd like to tell you," Eli ignored his statements again. "A smart and determined, but somewhat isolated female Combustor lived in a grove not far from here. She was communications controller for her grove, and found that Combustion had been made illegal for the average citizen. She lied to her grove, hiding that fact from them, but deep down she felt resentment for what the Union had done. And against her grove for being willing to go along with it if told.

"Then there was a fire. Maybe an accident; maybe not. It was blamed on her regardless, and she was excommunicated for it. We know the trejuns kept watch on our best and brightest, and they were watching her as well. They contacted her secretly, and convinced her to work for them to overthrow the Union. It probably didn't take much, given her history."

"That's preposterous. Char would never believe them, not after they attacked us without warning!"

"Let me finish. She's recruited by Union agents trying to replace their intellectual losses, and brought to a secret place with others like her. They're tasked with building tools and weapons for the good of the Union. She bides her time, trying to find a way to contact her new friends and tell them where she is."

A sense of grim smugness leaked into the monologue. "One of her young colleagues takes a liking to her. She rebuffs him at first, but that's only a ploy. He's used to being isolated like her, and she eventually uses that to manipulate him. They exchange stories, and gifts, as well as ideas for their work.

"Then his home grove is attacked, and she sees her chance. In the guise of helping him protect his home, she connects to the interroot and contacts the trejuns again. We know they have taps into our communications. The trejuns have been foiled several times by weapons that this team has made, and sent parasites here in a shipment to delay us." Eli sent out a little more satisfaction. "It's not a very subtle story, but it is plausible. Wouldn't you agree?"

"I'm not some sap," Moss protested, "and she's no traitor. Besides, Lens was connected at the same time she was. Even if she did contact the enemy, he would have known right away! Unless you're saying that Lens—a career soldier and military advisor to the Union—is a traitor too!"

"Would he have known, though? He was busy aiming your new weapons. Can you say with certainty that she couldn't have gotten a message out if she wanted?"

It was a ridiculous notion. Char wouldn't ally herself with those genocidal maniacs. Not only was it evil, it was stupid, and Char was anything but a fool. Could she have done it? Possibly. But she hadn't, and that was that.

Still, Moss remembered her reaction to the first time the trejuns had destroyed a Union grove: she'd analyzed the weapon itself, not the fact that people had died. Also, that communications root appeared unbidden in his mind again. Maybe she hadn't needed to use the interroot at all.

"Has Char ever done anything that seemed innocent at the time, but now could be seen as suspicious?"

"No," Moss said stubbornly. He had no way of knowing if Grace's memory was accurate, and Char had been right about the Streek Fire composition.

"Has she ever expressed concerns about the work you're doing there?"

"Professional concerns only. What kind of fuel or powder mixture is best; that sort of thing."

"Has she ever delayed or hindered your work in any way?"

"No."

"Even when her own fuel mixture ended up blasting your prototype cart off into the middle of nowhere?"

"That was an accident!"

"Yes, the accidents do seem to pile up around her, don't they? All of these suspicious events form a pattern of behavior that's impossible to ignore. At some point Moss, you're going to stop being an innocent victim here, and start being an accessory. Are you sure you want that to happen? You know the Union's punishment for treason."

Execution. Usually it was done slowly, with qars removing chunks of root piece by piece, as the victim slowly lost all ability to think or feel. It hadn't been done in five years now, but Moss had heard about the last time.

This was the person who had helped him move around on the ground instead of being stuck in it! This was the person who had protected his home and family, distant though he was from them. To even suspect her was an insult to her, and a mark of shame on him!

Enough was enough. Moss issued some quick orders to Grace and Prudence, and then launched into his own monologue. "I have a fanciful story of my own," he said angrily, not caring that it showed.

"The trejuns kill off our best and brightest, but miss a twigful of youngsters. They're hauled off to some secret location, and the trejuns don't really care at first. Then this group starts coming up with effective defenses, and the trejuns suddenly start caring a lot more. One of their agents—probably some Voidsouled idiot they bribed—impersonates a member of the Security Center to try and find out where these thinkers are. He hears that this group is being sent resources. Large amounts of metal that—”

Anger mixed with consternation in waves coming at Moss. "Now wait just a minute," Eli interrupted. "How could this 'agent' have known about the metal shipments unless he really was working for the Security Center?"

"Let me finish. He infests one of the qar groups heading out with tarka worms, knowing that this 'Arbormass' will be delayed. Then he uses that infestation as an excuse to investigate us remotely. He lies about being from the capital so he can sound more authoritative than he really is; and we know this much for certain, because one of us is from grove Heirach!

"He can't find out where we are, but he can delay us even further. He can split us up, and interrogate us individually. He can lie about us to each other, and get us to be suspicious and afraid, and totally unable to keep up our work. All on the orders of his trejun masters."

Moss paused a moment there, letting the accusation sink in. "It's not a very subtle story either, but it's just as Void-damned plausible! We're done here."

He signaled Grace and Prudence, and the two of them cut the connection, plunging him into isolation again.