Author Topic: Part 35: Stupid Self-sacrifice  (Read 1462 times)

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Part 35: Stupid Self-sacrifice
« on: February 03, 2023, 07:45:46 PM »
Given her pampered, soft upbringing within the Union, Char had always thought of the Core as something to be welcomed. Every grove up there worshiped it devoutly, and even a skeptic like Moss seemed reverent of it. Now, Char was starting to feel more and more like her true people. The Core was their enemy.

It beat down on them, as she continued slowly through the Orja, maneuvering around the dunes, and trying as best she could to avoid moving into areas where the sand was too thin.

It was fascinating, in a morbid way. Enzyme texts she'd read while growing up had suggested the Orja's sand wasn't that deep. Perhaps the height of a single sandkin, or treqar, at most. That meant that if a seed did somehow make it down there to the clay and bedrock below, and miraculously had enough water, it could grow straight up through the sand and into the light.

Unfortunately, it also meant that if they stopped in the wrong spot, the cart's wheels would sink in, stranding them and leaving them to die of thirst.

It had been three days now since they'd left the green lands. Three days of stopping and starting, painstakingly choosing their next course at the edge of each dune. It was like they were driftwood, floating on a huge sea of sand. That was probably where Moss came up with his term 'navigate'. 'Nav' came from the sea; from the various animals that used deadwood to get around. She'd even heard of some animals that did the same in freshwater rivers.

He'd been amazing, really. Because of his damaged senses, he couldn't take over for her and direct the cart. Nor could he use her senses to 'navigate', since she'd have to be just as alert for that process. He did keep her company, though, telling her stories about his life in Grove Praksa. About his friends and rivals there. About his father. There was some obvious tension there, but he seemed to sense she didn't care. She would have given anything to have sap-kin where she was growing up. The letters from the sandkin were great, but from the word pictures he was painting, there was nothing quite like having family close by.

Again and again, Char caught herself monitoring their water tank. They had enough fuel to reach their destination and then some, but both she and Moss were draining the water supply at an alarming rate. Even after they'd discussed it, and put in a rationing system like the ones she'd read about, it still was disappearing fast.

That was the thing about rations. For animals like qars, they could take their portion and then leave. They didn't have to stick around and be tempted to take more. She and Moss had both grown a root down into the tank, and then thickened that root to seal it off and make sure the water didn't evaporate. They couldn't just take their ration and then look away to avoid temptation—it would always be there! Lucky little biters.

Infuriating as well, was their slow pace. In the green lands, they'd been able to move at least three times as fast, because they could follow known landmarks. After the Arbormass had been destroyed, Char had followed a river most of the way to that rock oil deposit. Here, there were no landmarks; not ones that stayed put anyway. As such, they could only know where they were going at certain times of day. When the Core was rising, they could feel its light from one direction, and move perpendicular to that. Same for when it was setting. But if it got too high, or after it had disappeared, they had to come to a stop!

As they continued south, animal life became scarcer and scarcer too. Those hooved creatures that had fascinated Moss so much had nothing to eat out here. Even the many-legged stinging insects had very few other insects to prey upon. They were entering the deep desert: a blasted, bark-dry expanse just as empty as the Void up above.

Fortunately they found a relatively stable stretch of sand, where the rock underneath must be much closer to the surface. Drained mentally and physically, Char rolled them to a stop on top of it, as the last of the Core's rays disappeared from her senses. Moss was about to launch into another story, this one about one of his father's exploits back in Praska, but she put a stop to it. "We should both go dormant for a few hours. I doubt there are any animals this far out that could be a threat to us. You'll probably recover first, so wake me before dawn, please."

He gave his assent, and she gratefully relaxed both the branches above and hanging below the cart. Her root controls too, loosened up and he took control as she released it. Trying not to think about how the water tank would most likely be empty by the next day, Char bid him goodnight.

Some time later, he did wake her as promised. Char could feel the warming of the air, in preparation for the Core's rising. Then she noticed something else, as she cringingly checked the water level. It wasn't empty after all!

Feeling encouraged, she almost missed the reason for that. Moss had curled his root inside the tube, cutting off his own supply. "Moss! What do you think you're doing?"

"It's pretty simple," he explained, apparently aware of her realization as soon as she made it. "We have to be close by now, but if we don't find Sharpcrag in the next day or so, we're both dead out here. You're already pretty dry, and if it gets any worse, you could lose your way and get us both killed. I'm just deadwood to you right now, so you're better off with double rations."

This was ridiculous. "Stop thinking with your bark first, idiot! We agreed to come out here together, and planned accordingly. I'm not just going to let you dry out entirely."

He let out some appreciation. "This is the best way. Besides, I figured I'm just a danger to you where you're going. If you reach Sharpcrag, you can claim you brought my remains along to be studied. That should answer any suspicions your people might have."

"You start uncurling that root right now. We're wasting Corelight!" Speaking of which, they had to get going. She could berate him and move the cart at the same time, and she used the radio's accumulator to start the ignition flame.

"No can do. Even in my current state, you can't force me."

"Yes, I can!" She insisted. "I'm still connected to you through this network. If necessary, I'll take the water through my body and force-feed you, like some kind of disobedient seedling! Do you really want me to do that? You know I will."

Horror crept into his sense for a second, and Char had the satisfaction of detecting his root slowly changing configuration. She had the decency not to gloat, but she did keep a careful watch on that root from that point on.