Author Topic: Part 33: Into the Bright  (Read 2978 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 33: Into the Bright
« on: January 20, 2023, 12:47:32 AM »
Because they had so few qars, it had taken several days to completely refit the cart and refuel it. Moss had worried that without qars in the desert, they wouldn't be able to leave the cart again, but Char had reassured him. If they were able to find her people, she knew they had the means to help them. If not, it wouldn't really matter.

There had been a scare the other day, though. A squad of juns had flown low to the ground, north of them and out of sight. They couldn't have missed Moss and Char just sitting there on the ground lashed together, but juns weren't any smarter than qars. The two people near their path were of no consequence, and clearly not part of their mission, so they just ignored them. Char only hoped that they wouldn't report what they'd seen when they got back to whichever warmaster had dispatched them.

"Did you see how low they were flying?" Moss had asked, worried. "They didn't come from across the sea, I bet. That means there are trejuns landed on Union soil right now. Bastards aren't even trying to hide it anymore."

"There's nothing we can do about it right now," she'd reminded him pointedly. "If we make ourselves known, even to help, we paint a target on our barks."

So now, with a sullen Moss in tow, they were headed south into the Orja. Char had let the last of the qars go an hour ago, and actually felt a little bad about it. They might be able to survive in the wilderness despite being domesticated, but only for a year at the most. It was a saddening thought, and an angering one. For a moment, she felt the same urge he did to go back and fight. They had two thunderers, which they had been able to attach to the cart before leaving. They also had a lot of experience using them. They might be able to do some good before they were targeted and destroyed.

The transition from green lands to desert was slower than she expected. She still had memories passed down to her from her lineage: vague images of the endless sand sea, stretching out forever. It matched the images she'd seen in the various letters from sandkin friends. It was so very different from everything she'd seen for herself, that somehow she'd expected it to just switch from verdant green to arid yellow in a flash.

Finally, they were on sand instead of soil. The cart seemed to take it well at first, and she was grateful Moss had fine-tuned the wheel design to make them wider. It spaced out their considerable weight more evenly. Still, she didn't want to think what it would be like if they came to a stop on top of one of those dunes. If she wasn't careful, the cart would roll over entirely, and they didn't have any qars to put them right again!

"This is a lot different than I expected," she said, surprising herself a bit by speaking out. Maybe she was more nervous about this strip than she'd been willing to admit. "I got letters from my friends that had descriptions, but you have to see it for yourself, don't you?"

Moss sent out some agreement, mixed in with his wonder. "Imagine if we had full eyes like the qars. The light would be blinding! At least we can spread it out over our oscilli."

Most of his branches and leaves hadn't grown back yet, and Char was impressed that he could so easily talk about oscilli without sending out some regret or anger over his situation. "Some sandkin researchers noticed that the mammals that live out here have two sets of eyelids. They guessed that the second set is for the glare."

"That makes sense. I wonder if they have some natural ability to store water, like we did with the second tank?" His focus shifted, and Char could sense him double-checking the seals on the water container. "So far so good."

She sent out some relief, and tried to hold on task. Steering around the larger dunes had already thrown her off as to the direction they were going.

Moss must have picked up some unease from her, because he immediately centered on that. "What's wrong?"

This wasn't good. They were barely an hour into the Orja and she was already having trouble. It would take at least two days—probably longer, since they didn't know exactly where it was—to reach Sharpcrag. "There's supposed to be a mountain chain off to the west, but the ground here is still all sand. The sand is supposed to get less deep, and the ground more rocky, but it's still the same."

He pondered that for a moment, and then let out some inspiration. "The Core! It always rises in the west, right? Keep its light to our right, and then we can make sure we're still going south at least."

Now why hadn't that occurred to her? Sending out a grudging surge of thankfulness to him, she altered the enzymes to change their course. It still took careful adjustments to keep them away from the biggest dunes, but at least she could stay relatively on course now. Thankfully, the terrain started to get rocky, indicating the mountains were nearing, but she still couldn't see them yet. She wished she had a bird's gift of sight.

But then… here she was; a tree, moving along the ground like an animal. Who knew—maybe one day sandkin might be able to soar through the air like a bird! Or swim like one of those fish she'd read about. That would really be something.

The heat increased exponentially over the next ten hours. To make matters worse, the Core continued its inexorable climb into the sky. Before long she couldn't tell where west was anymore, and just had to keep the rocks to her right. Her leaves were suffering as if near an inferno, and she felt a sense of shame roll through her. She was sandkin, and a Combustor as well! She should be able to handle the heat!

"Let me take over," Moss offered softly. Yet again he'd picked up her usually-concealed feelings. "You can protect your oscilli better if you're not using them at all times."

She could have used a break, but sent out a negative. "You're still recovering from the fire," she reminded him. "You're in no shape to control the cart."

"Voidstuff," he dismissed quickly. "I've had days to grow my leaves back, and you need a rest. You don't need to stay in control every minute of every day, you know."

The rebuke in his tone was two-fold, and she found it stung a little. This was her mission, not his! He was only alive because she'd saved him. Who was he to claim she was too controlling?

But then… it wasn't just the sandkin at risk, was it? The whole Union was under attack. He had just as much stake here as she did. And he had come up with the idea for the water tank in the first place. Without it, she doubted they'd make it through one day in here, much less three.

Reluctantly, she ceded control to him, and he took it gleefully. In retrospect it shouldn't have surprised her. He'd given off that same sense of glee back in the Arbormass when she'd directed his old cart remotely. Of course he'd feel this way now that he could actually move himself without any kind of help at all. "Let me know right away if there are any problems and I'll take over again," she said nervously, as the cart briefly clipped one of the larger rocks.

"Oops," he said excitedly, and leveled them out again. "Will do. Trust me, I'll keep us on the straight and narrow. You'll think they had a qar trail here for all the trouble we'll have."

Char tried not to think about his overconfidence, but she did admit it was encouraging to see him this giddy. At least one of them should be.