Author Topic: Part 31: Wisdom of the Sands  (Read 6101 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 31: Wisdom of the Sands
« on: December 30, 2022, 01:35:18 AM »
"We call it the Orja Desert," she began simply, not quite sure how to lay it all out.

They were lashed together now, on their trip back to the oil deposit, so they could communicate more easily. Char found it uncomfortable at first, but traveling for days in silence hadn't exactly been great either. Moss was a good listener, too. He didn't usually interrupt or get rooted down with details.

"Most of it is what you've seen: harsh and uninhabitable. But there are places where water springs up from the sand naturally. We call that an oasis. They're rare, but they do happen."

Moss seemed to absorb that, releasing interest. "I know that rivers form from rain, especially high up. Does it rain in the Desol—I mean the Orja Desert?"

Char sent out an affirmative. "It doesn't always rain over the sand itself, but the rain trickles into massive caverns underground, that keep these oases (that's what you call more than one) from drying up. Some do disappear, but people have been living at older ones for thousands of years now."

"Amazing! How long can a treqar live like that? A hundred years? Two?"

She gave him some admonishment, and he immediately tamped down on his excitement. "We live as long as you do in the Union, for the most part. And we call ourselves sandkin. Obviously, we've never been truly treqars."

"Right. How do you build a society without qars though? I mean, did you use other animals, like the trejuns do? How did you even get that far out into the sand in the first place?"

"No one knows for sure. We have migrating birds that move through every year. It's assumed that some of them ate treqar seeds in the distant past, and left them in droppings near the oases, but we can't confirm that. In the beginning survival was more important than documenting history."

"I can imagine," he said gravely.

"At any rate, most of the sandkin thought they were alone for a long time. All they could see or hear was their own source of water, and sand in every direction around them. There were insects near each oasis, but they were far too small and independent to be domesticated. The only larger animals they encountered were the seasonal birds, and some walking creatures."

"Mammals, like the grasping primates?"

She sent out a negative. "Mammals, yes, but these ones had hooves and horns. Sometimes a herd or two would stop by, drink water and eat some of the other plants that grew there. My ancestors learned pretty quickly to grow tall and get their leaves out of reach.

"Still, they wondered what was out there. Various groves started using the birds to send messages to each other. Seeds would be purposefully dropped where the birds would eat, and then taken to other oases. When those seedlings started to grow, they could convey the differences to their new surroundings. Like your people, we can remember at least vague impressions from what our parents knew. It was enough for my ancestors to start learning that they weren't the only ones in existence."

"That must have taken generations!" Moss exclaimed. "Without qars to carry your seeds in a specific direction, or to pick up and carry enzyme messages from one person to another, it must have taken decades to send even a simple message."

"Centuries actually," she confirmed. The cart hit a large rock, but they were lashed together pretty tightly, and it didn't interfere with their conversation. "Some groves decided to start growing roots in the direction that the birds flew. Communication roots, like the ones you know, but grown entirely instead of picked up and put down. Most didn't find anything and were left to die off, but all it took was one finding its target. Eventually, we had a network of painstakingly-maintained roots between all eighty-seven groves in the Orja. Messages could be sent from one to another in a matter of days, instead of the years it would have taken otherwise."

"Wow. So you really can do almost everything we can. It just takes a lot longer without qars."

"Pretty much. Actually it was finding qars that made us look north in the first place. Some of the larger birds would have all kinds of insect parasites, but one year the sandkin in grove Sharpcrag started noticing a strange, large kind of insect being brought along for the ride. They were wild qars, we assume, from groves up here. The qars didn't last long in the heat, but we were curious."

"That makes sense," Moss said, satisfied. "After my ancestors started domesticating qars, their population exploded in just a few years. A lot of them went missing, and some were probably eaten or just carried along by those birds."

"Well, whatever the reason, our observations suggested that the qars had been bred. Selectively. It was our first indication of intelligent life up here, so sandkin groves started growing roots to the north. It took another few hundred years, but we were pretty shocked to find the green land."

"This is incredible!" Moss said, his excitement surging to the front again. "Why didn't your people make contact? The groves would have loved to hear about treqars, or sandkin I guess I should say, living in the Desolation of all places!"

"Some of us wanted to," she admitted with a little amusement. He was practically giddy. She liked history too, but not to this degree. "Sharpcrag talked about it with the others, and decided it would be better to wait and watch at first. We wanted to know more about these strange, distant cousins of ours.

"It was like a different world to us, Moss!" She said intensely, surprising even herself. "Your groves are so much closer together, and there are so many more. And you had so, so much water! Enough to grow thousands of people, whenever and wherever you wanted!"

"I think I see what you mean," Moss responded sadly. He must have sensed some of her frustration and anger. "Your people were struggling for survival from day one, and striving to explore despite that. My people had all we could ever want, and all we did with that gift was kill each other so that we could control more."

Again, she was surprised. If he was guessing, he'd done it correctly. Maybe she was having a good influence on him after all. "When your interroot was done, and the Union formed, some of us wanted to reach out again, but the majority decided against it. Your wars were over, yes, but now you had a single leader. That's something the sandkin couldn't abide. We still can't, even to this day."

"Why not? I mean Chancellor Esta isn't perfect, but she's always tried to protect us and guide us."

"That's authority, Moss. Hierarchy. One person, or a small number of people, putting themselves over everyone else, and then claiming it's their right to be in charge! I understand why it's normal to you, because it's how every generation before you has done things, but that doesn't make it right!"

Char had dreaded the day she might have to debate a treqar about the many ills of the Union. Moss was pretty even-tempered, though. Even now he didn't seem offended by how he was wrong. Just curious.

"With authority and power comes privilege. Always. They're linked, leaf and branch, to each other. We learned the hard way that as soon as one person takes more, everyone else has to do with less. In a place as harsh and hostile as the Orja, that can mean the difference between life and death!

"Even if that person seemed to be noble—to be doing what was in the best interests of the grove—the result was always the same. The many suffered, so that the few could thrive. My ancestors did away with that kind of thinking. When we made contact with other sandkin groves, we again had some groves putting themselves above others! We had to force them to accept that we are all, young and old, firm and infirm, east to west, equals. We all deserved the exact same access to water, and the exact same standard of living!"

She let out some frustration. "It was a difficult lesson to learn. I wasn't even there, but the memories I got in enzyme packages showed how stubbornly the powerful held onto that power. A few even had to be killed: roots were grown in a pattern around them that starved them to death. It was a cold, vicious decision, but in the end it was the many who made it. Not the few."

He seemed disturbed at the idea of sandkin killing each other. Maybe it was because he thought they couldn't do anything to each other without qars. Char hoped she hadn't shocked him too badly.

"You take orders, you said," he responded after a lengthy pause. "If you don't believe in having leaders, then how do you put up with taking orders? Why would you give anyone authority over you, if you hate authority so much?" So it wasn't the ancient executions that had given him pause, but the fundamental difference between the sandkin and the Union.

"Because it was the will of the people," she answered firmly, resolutely. "And I don't mean that the way your Chancellor does. She lies when she says it's the will of your people. I mean every sandkin from every grove in the Orja had an equal part in the decision. Their votes were tallied, over the course of years, and the majority decided to send me and others like me into the green lands so that we could learn more about the Union. Torlo and a few others lived back there, organizing things, while the rest of us were sent to nearby groves. To be raised in public by Union citizens, but secretly by our own people."

"Against your will, though."

"Yes, against my will! I didn't choose to be a spy, or a traitor. But my people didn't choose to live in a desert either! I live in luxury compared to them. I'm proud to serve because I serve an entire people, and not just one fallible individual."

He still seemed skeptical, but didn't push any further. At first. Then suspicion rippled out from him. "Did you choose to become a Combustor? Or did they make you do that, too?"

Char hesitated. It had been so long ago that she barely remembered. She'd thought the fire was pretty, but then had been scared by it. Torlo had reassured her that it wasn't just pretty. It was valuable, too. They needed it. All sandkin needed it.

"That's what I thought," he said bitterly. Suspicion rose again. "Wait—the fire. The accidental fire that got you in trouble with your grove in the first place. Did they order you to do that, so that you'd be noticed by the Chancellor and brought to the Arbormass?"

He had no right to judge her! Everything Char had done had been for the good of her people. Of all people actually, Union and Trejuna included. They were all equal, whether they could admit it to themselves or not! "Yes, they did."

"They turned you into a criminal, Char! A pariah. And still you defend them?"

"You don't understand, Moss. If you'd seen what I've seen, if you'd been raised by them, you'd know how important—” She cut off briefly, trying to contain her anger. "How irreplaceable that trust is. To be part of not just a family, or a grove, or even a nation, but a people. To know that you are them, and every one of them is you as well!"

She let out some resignation. "If you come with me into the Orja, and survive the trip, maybe you'll start to understand."