Author Topic: Part 34: Sight Beyond Sight  (Read 9003 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 34: Sight Beyond Sight
« on: January 27, 2023, 07:35:55 PM »
"Char. Char! Can you hear me?" Moss sent out several enzymatic prods in her direction. "Come on, snap out of it. I need you."

Vaguely, her aura changed from one of contented dormancy into something a little more alert. Then surprise and shock flitted out from her, and he had to hold back amusement. "What in the Void? Where are we?"

Her reaction was understandable. He'd seen the desert change gradually, and even he couldn't really comprehend it yet. "We're still in the Orja, headed south. We just left the mountain chain behind, though. I don't know where to go from here. Should we just stay here until the Core rises again?"

She pushed her awareness forward within the network, and he obligingly let her take control again. The cart slowed a bit. "Let me think."

He took the opportunity to redirect sap flow up to his branches, trying to warm his leaves. His bark was still mostly gone, and the temporary layer he'd grown was ill-suited to keeping him insulated. "How did it get so cold? I never expected that in a desert!"

"It's normal," she said angrily, turning the cart around. "Moisture traps heat in the air, but there is no moisture here. That means when the Core goes, so does the heat. I should have remembered this. We can't go on without a good sign of direction, so I'm taking us back to the rocks. We'll wait there until dawn, and then head south. If we're lucky, in a few days we'll get close enough to Sharpcrag to feel the change in the ground."

Sending out an agreement, Moss tried to be as unobtrusive as possible as she maneuvered them back off of the sand. He was still overwhelmed by how different everything had become. "It's like an entirely different world, isn't it? I mean if I hadn't been focused on steering, I might have gone dormant like you did!"

"Sorry about that." Chagrin leaked into the network. "I was focusing on keeping my leaves watered, and before I knew it I was out like a light. It was like I was in winter again!"

"I don't blame you. At least one of us should have been able to relax, and I'm glad you could. Besides, your dreams in dormancy were very relaxing too."

All feelings from her went dead silent for a moment. "You could see those?"

"Don't worry. I stayed far enough away to leave the details to you. I could feel your contentment, though. I never felt anything like that from you before. Is it that way every winter?" That question was laced with some bitterness. Moss never could remember his own dreams, and the few times he'd stayed linked to grove Praska during the cold season, no one had ever told him what they could feel from him. He would have liked to try dreaming in the Arbormass, and see what his friends had made of it. That too was a bitter thought. His friends and family were probably dead by now.

"All sandkin dream like that," she said softly, and miraculously a sense of empathy came from her for just a moment. It was probably too brief for her to have noticed, but he did. "I guess that's the difference between being a citizen of the Union and a sandkin. I never dreamed while linked to anyone from the Union. I was afraid my dreams might give me away, and it seems I was right."

Her thorny exterior was back up again, holding connection at bay and resisting any attempts at closeness with the threat of injury. Still, he had felt it, and she confirmed it came from her people. These enigmatic sandkin were getting more and more intriguing as a result.

They came to a stop again atop a flat stone wide enough for the whole cart. The flame that burned inside the motion machine flickered out, leaving them stationary again. He would have been worried, but Char had come up with a truly brilliant alternative to get it going again. Back at the Arbormass, the whole team had tossed around ideas about ignition, from having qars with flint and burnable plants, to bringing glass lenses to concentrate light and start a fire. It had been Char, unpredictably, who had convinced everyone that combustion wasn't actually necessary. They were using accumulators for the radio, she'd argued, and electricity could very easily start fires. As long as they were careful, they could just use the charge from the accumulators to spark the flame they needed to run the motion machine!

Of course they dared not use the radio itself now. For all they knew the trejuns were listening in. Still, they could use the power source to get moving again when the time came. Now that they were still, Moss tried to take in the surroundings, absorbing all the sounds, and tastes in the air. Unlike those poor limited qars and juns, his people could taste with their entire bodies, bringing impressions in from leagues and leagues away sometimes.

He sent out a burst of startlement, and could feel Char come alert in response. "What is it?"

He directed her attention to the creature on the rocks, just barely within his limited range. When she brought her own undamaged oscilli into the network, the range expanded dramatically, encompassing the intruder.

It was an animal. A mammal of some kind, from its fuzzy exterior. Four-limbed and staring at them with some intensity. As Moss marveled at it, the creature tensed its forward two limbs and sprang up into the rocky hill above them, hopping from position to position with powerful thrusts from its rear limbs. At the end of each limb was a hardened surface in a half-circle, probably to protect the animal from harm. Hooves, he recognized them after it was gone. He'd read about animals with hooves before.

"Incredible." Moss let out, after the creature had disappeared. "I've seen mammals before, sometimes even some big ones, but I've never seen one move like that! It was so natural for it—one moment here, and another gone!"

"I've heard about them," Char put in softly, and with some awe in her sense as well. "We call them gaats. They feed on grass which grows on the edge of the Orja, or possibly in those rocks up there. They're no threat to us normally, but lying down like this, I might have looked tempting to it. I loaded a thunderer, just in case."

Moss couldn't help but feel alarm. "You can't kill it! That would be such a waste of a beautiful animal."

"I wasn't planning on it. Gaats are skittish creatures, from what I've read. Just the noise would be enough to scare it away," she assured him, and Moss sent out some relief.

"What is that?" He exclaimed, as another creature burrowed out of the nearby sand and made its way slowly past them, up into the rocks as well.

"I think it's a skarpa," Char responded slowly. "See those big limbs in front? They carry a poison that the skarpa uses on other animals. They're solitary, from what I remember, and ill-suited to the cold. It's probably trying to find someplace warmer."

Memories of Grace and Strength and the others flooded through him, at the sight of the large insect. Moss felt a wave of despair, at the sight of them burning to death back at the Arbormass. Grace had given her life in service to him, just like the others, and he'd never really given any of them the credit they deserved. To him, all the qars had just been tools to be used and discarded—pets at the very best. Maybe he shouldn't have survived back there after all.

"Maybe you should enter dormancy," Char suggested gently, most likely picking up on his mood. "I'll keep watch for a few hours."

Moss sent out a negative. "I won't be able to. Too much has happened, Char! I don't know if my people are holding the line still, or dying en masse! I don't know if my father and friends are still alive! Even if we both make it to this Sharpcrag place, there might not be anything left back home to save!"

"We must stay hopeful regardless," she insisted. "Have faith in your nation's durability, Moss. In their unending and unrelenting drive to stay alive. It is a failing in peacetime, but in war it can be an asset. We gave them powerful tools to defend themselves, and in time, they will create carts like this one to get around. Don't despair just yet."

She was right, but he was having a hard time doing as she suggested. At least there were plenty of distractions here to keep him occupied. Again and again he queried her about various animals that came within range of her senses. She had no personal experience with any of them, but a lot of her letters from home had included descriptions, which she obligingly shared with him.

As the night wore on, the animals went into dormancy of their own, and fewer and fewer were evident. Moss focused instead on other questions. "These sandkin of yours… what do they know about the Great Freeze?"

Char sent out some confusion. "Everything you do, most likely. We hadn't heard about it at all until we found out about the Union itself. When we were able to access your history, we read about the Freeze and all the destruction it caused."

"Do your people have any idea how it started?"

She responded with a negative. "I doubt it. It happened so far up in your territory, in the mountains and nearby, that it didn't affect us at all." She paused. "Why are we talking about the Freeze of all things?"

Moss let out some bitterness. "My friend Noq, the one who died at the start of the war, theorized that the Freeze was caused by something falling out of the Void and hitting the ground."

He got a sense of patronizing patience from her. "I thought you Union types believed that the Void was just that: a great emptiness with nothing in it."

"Not all of us," Moss directed his attention up, first to the limit of his own senses, and then to the limit of hers. "I believe there are a great many things up there, not just the Core and nothing else. The Core is just the biggest, or maybe the nearest, of them."

"Isn't that heretical? You talk about the Core as if it's an object and not a person."

"Oh, it's definitely against the teachings of our faith, but I get the impression you don't believe either. The sandkin, from what little I know of them, sound a little more tolerant of this kind of thinking than my own people."

Char paused for a few moments, before sending out some agreement. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to tell you. Most sandkin do have faith in one thing or other, but as a whole, our society is very strict about using that faith in policy. For example, your Union outlaws growing towards Corelight on the eighth and forty-third day of every season, as a tribute towards the Core. My people wouldn't view that as superstition—some of us follow the Core as well—but we wouldn't follow that custom because it's based on faith and not the common good. In fact the custom itself would be illegal."

"I… see," Moss responded hesitantly. "What would the punishment be, if a sandkin were to ignore that law?"

Char seemed to think about that for a while. "In the ancient past, it was very harsh, even going as far as execution. Now that we aren't always on the edge of dying off entirely, the sandkin would be more lenient. The offender's growth rate would be curtailed, probably. He would have less room in which to grow, so that the others would have more. If he kept up on breaking the law, though, they might vote to respond the way our ancestors did."

It sounded barbaric at first, Moss thought. In the Union, executions were reserved only for the very worst crimes, such as treason. Still, the Union had plentiful water and soil. These people had never had much of either. They'd been on a wheel's edge of survival for hundreds if not thousands of years! It made sense that their code of justice was similarly strict.

His attention wandered back to the sky. "Anyway, Noq and I surmised that there's more up there than just the Core, and that… thing that hit us and started the Great Freeze. He thought there were at least three other Cores of sorts, all too small or too fast-moving for us to be aware of. Large animals like that gaat might be able to see them, but we certainly can't."

Her attention focused, and she let out a faint stream of interest. "What made him say that?"

"Observation of animal behavior, mostly. He had a lot of help, from his contemporaries across the Union. They gathered notes on animal behavior every night for centuries on end. He noticed that every thirty-five days, certain kinds of animals behaved more recklessly. The various groves noted that injuries among some of the running and climbing species jumped during that time, and then went back down once it had passed. Not enough for the average treqar to notice, but with enough people gathering evidence and sharing it, it seems pretty conclusive." Moss couldn't help but let some smugness seep into his words. He'd been part of gathering that information—recruited by Noq himself!

For her own part, Char seemed amused. "So there's some kind of spirit of mischief up there, causing those poor animals to act crazed two or three times a season?"

"Funny, but no. Noq seemed to think that these other Cores send out light the same way the Core does, but of lesser intensity. Too faint for us to feel, but strong enough for animals to pick up. Strong enough even for the ocean to feel. Our friends on the waterfront sent a lot of data about the sea water rising and lowering, that seemed to have nothing to do with the rising and setting of the Core. You know, before they were incinerated," he added bitterly.

"Interesting," she said, ignoring his brief aside of anger and grief. "There is a sandkin grove on the western shore, as I said, but they're more focused on survival than gathering information about water levels. Or they were, centuries ago. Nowadays, they might want to talk to you about what you've learned."

"Me?" Moss put out, surprised. "I'm just a builder. All I did was help gather data."

She sent out an image of a shrub, which was synonymous with indifference. "Noq and the others are all dead now, right? Who else could honor their memory like you?"

Moss didn't know what to say to that. "I… guess I could tell them what I remember about the studies. Noq's friends called the movements of the oceans 'tid', with each one rising and falling multiple times a season."

"Something to think about, anyway," Char said noncommittally.

He let the silence linger after that exchange, doing as she said. Maybe there was more to be gained, if they reached sandkin territory safely, than just a military alliance against the trejuns.