Author Topic: Part 22: Quarantine  (Read 7050 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 22: Quarantine
« on: October 17, 2022, 01:30:33 AM »
Purging everyone of the worms was going to take a long time, it seemed. Moss was denied the use of his qars, even though they'd been found clean. He spent the time in the network with the others, idling and playing visual games through enzyme interaction. Maintaining a game of ajed in this virtual space wasn't easy because there were so many details to keep track of, but there were simpler games of strategy they could try.

There had been a tarka-worm infestation in Noq's grove a few years back, and he'd written about it in a few of his letters. Some of his neighbors had been carrying the worms for weeks without knowing it, and became deathly ill. If left untended long enough, they could chew through an entire ring of the bark, girdling the treqar and sentencing them to death. As such it was an important but not urgent problem here.

The waiting was made all the worse because of the resources which were piling up outside. Stacks of iron, steel, copper conducting wire and aluminum were still being hauled in by the qars, and Moss was itching to put them to use. Now that his articulator limb had been proven viable, Tobor had presented his new design for the 'internal combustion ingenious machine' as he called it. It would burn the fuel slowly, as Char had insisted, and cause four cylinders to rise and fall in sequence. That motion would turn the wheels in a much more controlled fashion than the trip Char had taken Moss on. With this, if it worked, treqars would also be able to slow down or speed up at will!

But they couldn't test it—not stuck here like this! Moss tried to commiserate with Char as well, but she was being aloof for some reason. Perhaps she'd had enough group time for now, and was relaxing on her own for a while. Moss hoped it was that, and not a relapse into her earlier isolationist anger.

Suddenly a new presence appeared in the network, and a ripple of surprise came from everyone. Even Aysa. The new person spoke quietly with her for a few moments, and then she addressed the rest. "Everyone, this is Investigator tar'helikais'trath. He's been sent here on the authority of the Chancellor. Please give him your full cooperation." Aysa's frustration was clear, but so was her determination to go along with this despite that.

"Call me Eli," the newcomer introduced himself. "I must say, it's a pleasure to meet such a brilliant group. You've made quite an impression on us here in grove Heirach, with your amazing defensive inventions. I regret having to distract you from your work, limited though it has to be right now. Hopefully we can all get this sorted out before the decontamination process is complete and you'll be able to get back to work uninterrupted."

Moss felt a surge of fear from Char. It was brief—probably only noticeable by him because he knew her the best—but definitely there. She was probably reliving her own crime and trial right now, and the Investigator's arrival had triggered it.

Moss also got a faint trace of disbelief from Tobor, and he agreed. This 'Eli' wasn't in Heirach, for sure. Tobor had lived there, and told Moss there was no way to isolate a private network from there to here in real time. Even with the new copper wire conductors in the interroot. The Investigator was much closer: probably in grove Thaan, the closest connection to the Arbormass.

"What exactly are you investigating?" Rax asked bluntly, not bothering to hide his hostility.

Eli's flattering emanations faded away, leaving an emptiness of emotion behind. "The Security Center has uncovered evidence that this infestation was not an accident. We believe that infected qars were sent to your location on purpose, to delay or destroy your work. Given the nature of the work you do in the Arbormass, it's likely that trejuns are responsible. I've been tasked with digging up any security leaks, intentional or otherwise, that might have happened there."

His pronouncement was stunning to everyone. The idea that any of them might have betrayed the Arbormass, even by accident, was inconceivable! Or it was to Moss anyway. From the feelings he was getting in the network, at least one or two of the others wasn't as surprised as he was. "Are… we going to evacuate? I mean if they know we're here, we need to move, don't we?" Moss spoke with difficulty. Evacuating wouldn't save the twins or Aysa. None of them were small enough to move anywhere!

Eli sent out a negative. "You have sufficient thunderers at the Arbormass to defend yourselves if the Consensus sends an attack your way. The qars I've sent you have been trained in reloading them if necessary. Besides, we don't know for sure if your location has been compromised. It's possible the Consensus only heard about the resource allocation and hoped to get the qars where they needed to go." His aura changed, becoming sharper. "At any rate, I'll be interviewing each of you in private, possibly more than once. During the investigation you will have no access to the interroot or local network. Your qars will remain in contact with your trunk at all times, and any enzyme messages you have in your possession will be subject to my scrutiny. Any attempt to subvert these restrictions will not be tolerated."

This guy made the Sergeant back in grove Praska actually sound reasonable! Moss sent out farewells to his friends, before his connection went dark. He was alone, just as he had been back home.

At least he had his qars now. They might not be able to work at the moment, but he was glad for the company. Grace had been working with Char for several days now, lending her experience with construction and design for some secret project she was working on with the twins.

Most of them came back without incident, but Fortitude noted some strange objects hanging from Moss' upper branches. He hadn't even been aware of them until Fortitude's reports. Had they been placed by his Investigator overseer's qars? What were they, even?

Grace also brought back an enzyme package from Char. Apparently Eli was busy conducting someone else's interview, so he hurriedly connected it and listened to the message.

"Hey, Moss. Sorry about the rough ride the other day. I'm still working on controls, but I'm getting better at moving people smoothly. I promise the next ride will go better.

"I had a few of my qars put those charms in your branches, for good luck. Don't worry, they're supposed to be connected to each other like that. I'm making more for the rest, but I wanted you to have the first ones. As a thank you only," she specified, including a burst of professionalism, "for lending me Grace. She really is impressive. I've lost so many qars to flame or explosion over the years, I never really got used to having one old enough to know what she was doing.

"At any rate I hope your decontamination goes smoothly. Mine should be short: the worms don't like burnt bark nearly as much, I guess. Talk to you later."

That was it. This message must have been recorded before the Investigator had shown up. Feeling slightly encouraged, Moss absorbed the message entirely, recycling the enzymes. It wasn't relevant to the investigation, and he didn't like the idea of some stranger poring over his private communications.

Over the next few hours while waiting for his turn, Moss did an interrogation of his own, on Grace. Qars only thought in images and impressions, not words, so it was hard to get a feel for how Char was feeling or doing based on Grace's experiences over the last few days.

Grace only gave the impression of being mildly contemptuous of the qars she'd seen over there, probably because of their limited experience. When asked about what they were doing, the images she responded with were confusing. There were flashes of conversation between Lens and Char, none of which Grace could understand. There was also a massive tube being built on the far side of her trunk.

It looked like a thunderer, but it was at least fifty times as large! What was she planning on doing—launching a full-grown treqar into the air? After a moment's thought, Moss realized it made sense. Eventually the Union would have to take the fight to the enemy, and that meant building weapons capable of destroying trejuns from a distance. She was just thinking ahead, that was all.

In the final images before Grace had been brought home, she'd seen these protective charms being hung up in Moss' branches. Grace had a definite sense of safety and protection associated with them, even if Moss didn't believe in those things himself. According to almost everyone else in the Union, everything happened according to the will of the Core. If they lived a thousand years, or if they burned to death tomorrow, it was all preordained, and no number of special superstitious charms could change that. He decided to keep wearing them anyway. If only to please Char.

One of those final images was really weird, though. It showed a communication root disappearing into the ground. Not sinking in, but being pulled away. Based on how recent the image was in Grace's mind, it had happened mere moments after the Investigator shown up in the network.

Moss let Grace go back to the others, pondering the image. She might be misremembering, or he might be misinterpreting her memories. Despite centuries of symbiosis, qars weren't truly sentient, and therefore incapable of modifying their communication on purpose.

Had that root been connected to Char? If so it should have shown up on the network. He and everyone else would have been aware of whoever was on the other end of it. Unless… Char was keeping it secret. And if that was the case, it made sense she'd want to hide it if someone like Eli sent qars to snoop around.

Troubled, Moss tried to focus on his designs instead.