Author Topic: Part 37: Under the Microscope  (Read 1539 times)

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Part 37: Under the Microscope
« on: February 17, 2023, 07:08:52 PM »
Two days later, after he'd been given a chance to recover and grow his new root, the two of them loaded up on the cart again and trundled south over the last ridge.

Char had connected to the sandkin's version of the interroot briefly, to let them know she was on the way. Moss had listened in, and could sense the surprise on the other end. Apparently they thought she'd been killed along with everyone else at that grove on the edge of the green lands. They bid her come immediately. She didn't mention that she was bringing company.

They had bonded the previous day, in true sandkin fashion. The process had been far more intimate than anything he'd experienced before, and was therefore terrifying. Still, he had agreed to do it. Not because it increased his chance at survival, but because it helped his people. If the sandkin killed him, he'd have no chance to plead with them on behalf of the Union.

Sandkin bonded each other by bonding minds, literally. They had grown roots into each others' central root clusters, attaching directly to the connection point that made up each treqar's mind. He had heard everything she was thinking and feeling for a few terrifying moments, and she'd heard the same from him. In retrospect, it was no wonder sandkin law treated bonded people as legally the same person. For a few seconds, he and she had been the same person!

Moss had been hesitant to test it out at first, but he had to admit she'd been right to insist. Experiencing… that for the first time, while under the scrutiny of her sandkin superiors, would have given them away instantly. At least now he knew what to expect.

Char directed the cart slowly, moving around the last change in elevation, while Moss pondered what had happened. His whole life he'd been alone, by choice. Hers, she'd been alone by necessity. The flood of memories and fears and hopes he'd experienced had passed through him so quickly, but he thought he'd spend the next fifty years working it out. And they'd have to do it again soon, she'd told him.

Her surprised emanation cut through his pondering, and he tried to focus his attention. "What is it?"

In response, she shared her senses, and he could suddenly see the north end of Sharpcrag. From what she'd told him about each 'oasis' in the desert, he had some idea of what to expect. Sandkin and treqars were the same species, but obviously grew differently because of their divergent climates. Because of the animals, sandkin branches were much higher off the ground, and their bark was much thinner so that they could bend more easily in the wind. But as they got closer, he could see what had surprised her so much.

Each and every person here had a strange metal harness wrapped around their trunk! Actually, it was more of a latticework of metal, surrounded by a shining ring. As he watched, some of them twisted, spinning the ring around. There was an articulator limb on each one!

"Core above!" Char whispered slowly, and Moss sent out some agreement. "I had no idea they'd come so far so fast. The images I've seen of this place didn't have any carts or articulators, or frames like that."

Belatedly, Moss noticed the carts she was talking about, moving off to the east and west. They were wheeled, just like theirs, but instead of having a person riding each one, seemed to be following some kind of line into the distance. What it was, he couldn't tell. She'd have to get closer.

Char came to a stop, as she apparently contemplated all this. "They must have started building the moment they got my reports on the wheels and combustion devices, and articulator limbs! Either that, or they were inventing these things on their own without telling me."

Moss sent out some disagreement. "No, I recognize that articulator configuration. It was one of Rax's designs. And that ring was theorized by Tobor. He figured that eventually, treqars would want a device that let them move an articulator limb up and around, to any position around the trunk, to deal with many situations. It was a genius idea he never had a chance to explore."

"Apparently they took his idea and expanded on it in a big way. Look how that ring spins, with the articulator on the end of it! And then it rises and lowers. It's like we're looking at a huge qar that can grab and move things far off the ground." Amazement filtered through her words. "What I don't get is how they built all this so quickly. I don't see any smelting or refining equipment, much less metal-shaping tools. These had to have been carted in, and installed by articulator-equipped sandkin from somewhere else."

"Why don't we just ask them?"

He meant the two carts that were rolling towards them, each carrying a youngish sandkin. Both came to a stop right in front of them, and Moss was just wondering how they'd communicate without qars to attach roots between them, when that question was answered for him. One of the articulator limbs mounted on the cart itself reached into the bed of it, and came back out holding something coiled. As it extended it towards Char, Moss got a better look at it. It looked like a communication root. At the same time, the second cart extended a similar line over to the first. Apparently they wanted all four people to be able to chat at the same time.

"Agent boli'smarthas'traan, I am Asher Sorfa, and this is Asher Akain," an authoritative male tone put into the new network as soon as it was created. Both of the new presences shone brightly to Moss, but Char seemed unimpressed. The name he'd said must be the one she'd been given as a seedling, back before she'd grown up to be a Combustor. Moss kept quiet, as he'd been instructed to. Despite his brief flood of sandkin information yesterday, he was still an idiot when it came to their full customs and behavior.

"Thank you for meeting with us, Ashers. Please, call me Char. It's the name I was known by for many years, and will make things easier during my debriefing," she said respectfully.

"We were expecting you to be traveling alone," he said pointedly, his interest focusing slightly on Moss instead.

"Yes, I know. This is belhiera'torkalm'oss, and he prefers to be known as Moss. The two of us are bonded."

That sent a shockwave of surprise rippling out from both of them, and Moss could sense a sudden interchange of communication between them, but he couldn't tell what they were saying. "This is highly irregular, Agent. May I assume this is the same belhiera'torkalm'oss who was working alongside you in the Arbormass?"

She sent out an assent, and they went into private communications instead. It went on for a short while, actually, and Moss decided to take that as a good sign. He had seen thunderers on the edge of the… grove? City? Oasis? Yeah, that last one was the right one, now that he could think back on the bonding. It was still so strange to know these things and not have experienced them himself!

Eventually the Ashers stopped, and Sorfa's tone became noticeably angrier. "Please follow us to the edge of the oasis, and root precisely where we indicate. Room will be made for your… bonded."

At that he broke the connection, and the articulator arm removed the connecting wire. And it was a wire, surrounded by insulation, that Moss could sense clearly now. It was exactly like the underground interroot communications used by the Union, but much, much more portable. How had they gotten it so fine? Ingenious!

Sorfa had phrased it like a request, but it was clearly an order. The thunderers on the edge of the oasis had swiveled to aim at Moss and Char, and tracked them as they moved. There were probably stormers inside as well, with enough firepower to blast their cart to bits if they tried to flee. As if that was even possible now—despite their days at the aquifer, the water tank was only half full. They'd never make it out of the desert without a full tank. They'd barely made it in with one!

At least the carts these people were using didn't look any more advanced than the one Char was controlling. She was right: they must have started building as soon as her reports reached them. All of this was new—there was no sign of wear or tear on any of the articulator rings or frames around the trees, nor on the carts themselves. In retrospect, Moss realized he might be able to leverage that over them! They owed him, in a way, for allowing them such freedom of movement and control over their environment.

"Listen, when they root us, they're going to connect us to Sharpcrag's interroot. We'll be visible to everyone living there. They'll expect us to be bonded, and they'll be able to tell if we aren't. I figured you'd want to know," Char said sharply, as they slowed down.

"Way to set the mood," he responded wryly, and she sent out a burst of irritation. But it was tinged with amusement.

They were both forcibly removed from their cart, stripping their water roots of external layers, and then plopped into holes outside the oasis. Naturally, his seemed much rougher than hers. They hadn't been expecting him after all. Moss braced himself as they attached one of his roots to her central cluster, and hers to his.

Just like the other day, suddenly his mind was twice as full! His awareness didn't change that much, because he was used to seeing through her senses, but his knowledge expanded dramatically. Every thought she had, as she had it, was his to see. And the same was true in reverse!

Char seemed to be handling it better than he was. She coolly presented herself to the assembled group—at least fifty people arrayed around them, all intent and listening. Sorfa was the first to speak, but he was clearly not the center of attention. "Agent Char, please explain how this outsider came to be brought before us."

She projected calm confidence into the group, but Moss could tell she was nervous underneath. Or was that his nervousness? He couldn't tell right now. "He's not an outsider anymore. When we bonded, he became aware of everything I know about the sandkin. He knows our ways and customs, and has the same respect for our people that I do."

"How could you have done this?" Sorfa demanded, his forced calm evaporating in the presence of obvious anger. "You know that secrecy has been our only defense for thousands of years, and yet you threw it all away on a whim! What could possibly have possessed you to do such a thing?"

The crowd sent out a conflicting murmur, but all seemed curious as to the answer. "I'm not sure if you've ever fallen in love, Asher Sorfa, but I believe you're familiar with the process," Char responded smoothly. "I made the decision to bond with him, and to bring him here, in accordance with sandkin tradition and law. If the oasis collectively decides to punish me for that, so be it. I will abide by that decision."

Moss had to admire her statements so far. She hadn't lied once, and implied that they'd been bonded for weeks now. The crowd had been so stunned by that, that they hadn't considered she might be misleading them.

Sorfa was about to respond, but another presence cut him off. "Enough, Asher. Your purview is limited to patrolling our perimeter and protecting us from threats, which you have done. You have no training as an interrogator or investigator."

Strangely, Sorfa immediately backed down, and the elderly male who had spoken came into sharper focus. He turned his attention to Moss. "I'm Elder Sanoro, Moss. Tell me, did you bond with Char willingly?"

It had been that or likely execution, but he had made the choice to come here, so… "yes, I did, Elder."

"And did you do so for love, as she has suggested?"

There it was. The Elder was asking straight-out, having seen through the shock of the news without much effort.

This was a foreign interroot, with an integrated society of people who'd known each other for decades. Moss couldn't risk lying to them outright, since he had no way of knowing if they could tell! "I… had an interest in her from the very moment we met, Elder," he answered carefully. "At first it was because she seemed so isolated and alone, but as time passed, I came to know her for who she truly is. Truthfully, the idea of bonding in the sandkin way terrified me at first, but it's an important part of her culture, and therefore part of mine." All true statements, if evasive.

"Do you love her?" The Elder insisted again, bluntly, and the crowd became even more still.

"I don't even know what love feels like!" Moss blurted out suddenly, sending out as much frustration and insecurity as he could manage. "Who knows exactly what that feels like? How many among you have thought you loved someone, and then found out that you didn't, or felt those impulses fade, or saw them change into someone else? How many of you have loved many, many people—so many that it seems to lose its value over time? Can any of you say for sure what love is, or what it feels like? I certainly can't!"

He didn't give them a chance to absorb that. "I don't know if I love her. I don't know if I even can love someone. But I can say, truthfully and openly, that I have never felt for anyone else what I feel for her, and I don't think I ever will. If that's not a good enough answer, then I don't know what is!"

There was another long moment of stillness in the group. Moss expected Sanoro to react angrily, or perhaps punish them on the spot, but instead he sent out a trace of respect. "Very well, Moss. We will deliberate on this, and debrief her. Under the circumstances, I have to insist that you disconnect both from Char and from Sharpcrag's network for the time being. If we deem her to be telling the truth as you have, then it seems we'll have a new legal precedent. Along with an oasis-full of new issues to discuss with you."

The nearest sandkin reached down with her articulator, to disconnect him. In the last seconds before the world went mostly dark again, Moss picked up a trace of gratitude from Char.