Author Topic: Part 39: Wolf in Sheep's Bark  (Read 9485 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 39: Wolf in Sheep's Bark
« on: March 03, 2023, 06:17:01 PM »
As night fell, the sandkin dropped in on Moss and Char one after another. They weren't connected to Sharpcrag's interroot directly, but the sandkin curiosity was still too great to let them stay away. Moss reflected on just how direct they all were. Back home, greetings were polite, and conversation cultured, even in groves as remote as his own. Every phrase had a secondary meaning, and even the slightest shift in aura while speaking could give away a different intent. It was much much more so in large cities like Grove Hierach, but here… it didn't exist at all!

He supposed it made sense, really. Until relatively recently, all sandkin groves had been on the verge of dying out from thirst and heat. When you had to work that hard just to survive, conversational subtext would seem like an indulgence, if not something outright pointless.

At least Char was here with him. She told him what they'd talked about, but they didn't stay bonded this time. Apparently even sandkin couples weren't expected to stay bonded at all times. That was a bit of a relief. He'd sensed how Char had sectioned off parts of her mind to avoid being overwhelmed by it, and even tried to follow her example, but had failed completely. Unfortunately, if he was allowed to address the entire sandkin nation, he would probably have to be bonded for that.

For her part, Char seemed completely at ease with them. She responded to bluntness with even more bluntness, commenting without any buffer on what she'd seen and experienced up there. When the topic of her punishment was brought up, she handled it with good grace, saying she'd accept whatever they chose to give her. As if either of them had any choice here. Their cart was gone, and with it the only articulator limbs they had. They were helpless as seeds right now.

A young male named Vaal seemed particularly interested in him. He pestered Moss with questions about his life in the Union, and was apparently unaware of Moss' repeated polite clues that he'd rather be left alone right now. As the youngster went on, Moss swore he could sense amusement from Char.

Well, if she wasn't going to help him, he would do something about it himself. "Vaal, I've been wondering about those rings around each of you. When we were making the wheels for our cart, we had to use qars to dig long, circular holes into stone. Then we had them pour molten metal into them, until the metal cooled into a wheel. But each and every one of you has one of those rings around your trunk! How did you do that without getting lots of burns everywhere?"

Vaal seemed exuberant to be answering questions, just as much as he'd been asking them. "We didn't! They didn't come to us as rings. They came to us as two halves of a ring! Here, I'll show you." He brought up a memory of his and displayed it for them. "This is when I had my ring installed. Here they're putting up the metal supports as you can see. Then they rested half the ring on one side, and the other half on the other. Finally, they connected the two before attaching the articulator to my roots."

"Impressive," Moss admitted, staring at the memory as it happened. "I had no idea that metal could be fused together like that, after it had been shaped. How is he melting the two pieces together like that? I don't see a furnace anywhere."

"He called it… a flameblower, I think. He used the fuel from his own cart to keep it burning." Vaal zoomed out his memory a bit so they could get a better view. As they watched, fuel streamed along a gum rubber hose like the ones they'd used back in the Arbormass. As it reached the end, it touched the flame being generated at the tip, and a white-hot mess shot out the end!

"Incredible!" Char put in, and Moss felt the same. Why hadn't they thought of that? A portable way to melt metal and fuse it into new shapes? With the right articulator materials, they could have come up with something similar.

Vaal must have picked up on their disappointment. "Don't feel bad or anything. You were just a twigful up there, and you did most of the work for us! It was just sandkin taking your ideas and developing them from there. This is all still your credit, as far as we're concerned."

Moss gave him some appreciation, still staring at the memory for a moment before remembering something else he'd been wanting to ask. "Vaal, is there anything like the Union interroot here? Char told me that your ancestors grew roots over long distances to connect to each oasis. How fast can you send a message to other oases?"

"That's the really exciting part!" He responded, suiting attitude to his words. "Back before we were one nation, it could take thirty years or more to get a message across the sand. After the roots were grown, it was down to a few hours. Now, thanks to the copper lines strung across the sand, I can talk to thousands of people I'd never even met before, as if they were right here in Sharpcrag!"

So it was as advanced as the Union network. Even more actually, because the 'groves' here were farther apart than villages back home. "So you don't use the root system anymore at all? All communication is done with wiring above the ground?"

Vaal sent out an affirmative. "We don't talk with the roots, but they're still useful." He added his senses to their three-person network for a moment. "See that cart leaving? It doesn't have a sandkin in the back of it. It's one of the carts that brought the latest batch of articulator limbs here. One of us uses a radio to get it moving, and then it just follows the root line to the next oasis. When it gets close enough to the next one, say Hightop in our case, someone there will use their radio to slow it down. Once it gets close enough, they use their own articulators to load it up again, or send it down another path or whatever."

"How do you keep the cart from going off into the sands forever?"

Vaal directed his attention downwards. "The roots stick up out of the sand. Not much, but enough. If the wheels turn too much, they bump into the roots and are put back on… well, the path I guess. We're not used to words like that. We've never had qars like you. All of this is recent. I'm still getting used to moving this thing around," he demonstrated with his articulator limb.

"Looks like you're getting pretty skilled," Moss complimented him, distracted. When Vaal had shared his sight, something had caught Moss' attention. Something out of place, even for a foreign country like this one. "Who is that?" He indicated another sandkin on the far side of Sharpcrag, near the edge of Vaal's sight.

"Him? Uh, he's nobody of consequence," Vaal responded hurriedly, cutting off his senses and returning Moss to his own limited scope. "Pay him no mind."

This time, Moss shared a knowing sense with Char. He might not be a skilled negotiator like Aysa had been, or public speaker like his father, but he could tell when someone was lying. "I didn't see any articulator ring, or limb on him at all. Does he have some kind of moral or religious objection to them?"

That might be a complication. Char had mentioned there were differing beliefs here. If some faiths allowed an alliance with the Union, and other faiths forbade it, it could cause problems for his case.

"Uh, no," Vaal hedged, giving out signs of being perturbed. "I don't really know what he believes. He just doesn't have them, that's all. I can't tell you any more than that."

"Can't, or aren't allowed to?" Moss guessed, and was rewarded when Vaal's anxiety spiked.

"What about me, Vaal?" Char spoke up, following his cue. "I'm a sandkin citizen, remember? By law, anything that the people of Sharpcrag know, I should know as well."

"You will!" He assured her quickly. "Just not right away, that's all! We're not supposed to tell you until tomorrow."

"Come on, does that seem fair to you? How would you feel if your own people kept secrets from you like that?"

Trying to suppress his dismay at how easily she'd slipped into a manipulative role, especially of someone who obviously looked up to both of them, Moss spoke as well. "And is that any way to treat the people who brought you such marvelous machines? None of this would exist without Char and me." He changed his attention slightly, focusing on Char. "You know, I figured the sandkin would be more honorable than that. Are other oases as untrusting as Sharpcrag?"

"I don't know, dear. But maybe we should go and find out. We could take the next cart. Hightop is the closest."

Pretending to consider that, Moss directed his attention out over the sands. "But what will we tell them if we ask why we left Sharpcrag? I don't want to make the people here seem bad or inhospitable. Should we lie?"

"No, that wouldn't be honorable, would it? I guess we have to tell them the truth," Char bounced the conversation back, as the whole time Vaal had been getting more and more upset.

"All right! All right! I'll tell you," he relented, and they both returned their attention to him. Moss tried to hold back smugness, and was betting Char was doing the same.

Vaal took a moment. "I guess it wouldn't hurt that you know, but you have to pretend to be surprised tomorrow, all right? No one can know it was me."

"No one will," Char promised immediately.

"Good. That guy you saw? The one without a ring or articulator arm? He's a visitor like you, Moss. He's not from Sharpcrag. That's why you didn't see him at the meeting. You're not supposed to see him at all until tomorrow."

Moss wasn't sure what to make of that. Mobility was so new to these people, but it was possible this visitor had come from another oasis. After all, they'd had to send people to install articulators. Perhaps relocation was happening as well. "Which oasis is he from?"

"None of them," Vaal said innocently. "He's from Trejuna."