Author Topic: Part 42: Summit  (Read 71 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 42: Summit
« on: March 31, 2023, 08:55:31 AM »
The Speaker for Hightop was called Allain, and he wasted no time connecting them up, as soon as they arrived. Char was startled at the haste, but didn't really complain. If the trejuns knew about Sharpcrag, they probably knew about the rest of the sandkin as well. This situation affected the entire nation, and thankfully, they now had the means to debate what to do as a whole.

She was still getting used to all the mechanical changes here! She'd never visited any actual sandkin oases back in the day, but the images she'd received over the years had shown simple people living simple lives. Messages sent between oases would take hours, not seconds, and therefore a public referendum had been impossible. Now, thanks to the copper wiring linking all the oases, the entire sandkin community could listen in or chip in at will!

There were some formalities to observe, naturally, but nowhere near as many as those in the Union. Here, all that was required was that each oasis be recognized one after another, with a Speaker to represent them. Figurative representation only, she reminded herself. Any person in any oasis could raise any objection or put forth any suggestion at any time.

For a moment, she wondered if this meeting might take several days or weeks.

According to Allain, this was the third such meeting in history. The people were getting accustomed to it, and therefore streamlining the process. However, most people didn't know that there was a trejun sitting in Sharpcrag right now. That would be revealed in the next few minutes, and it would no doubt cause a stir.

She and Moss were linked to Hightop, and therefore to the network at large. He was uncharacteristically silent for a change. Char was just grateful that they wouldn't need to be bonded for this. Trem had sent word from Sharpcrag, and would be there at the meeting, in case anyone challenged Moss' right to be here. Perhaps he was nervous. He was no diplomat, as he'd said repeatedly, and was about to have to speak on behalf of his entire nation. It was understandable.

Allain connected Hightop to the rest of the sandkin, and everyone in this small community braced against the sudden cacophony of voices and personalities that came swarming in at them! It was unlike anything Char had experienced before, and Moss sent out some tremors of fear and pain. Belatedly, Char remembered that he'd been very insular and isolated, even back in his home grove. She sent some comfort his way, and then focused on the gathering.

The discordant noise of minds quickly divided itself into groups. Each oasis had a cluster of people, all bundled together, but watching the others intently. Eighty-seven in total, or so she guessed. It would have been eighty-eight, but for Kulik being… ashes now. Allain spoke up, into the darkness surrounding them. "I am Allain, of Hightop, and we are ready." As the person who initiated this meeting, it was his responsibility to go first.

"I am Ceera, of Clearbough, and we are ready."

"I am Garas, of Claywater, and we are ready."

"I am—” She tuned them out at that point, watching instead of listening. As each representative spoke their piece, their own oasis grew slightly dimmer as an indicator. Slowly, the bombardment of light from the sandkin society became less harsh. No doubt they would flare up again when the debates began, and people began to speak their minds freely.

Still, Moss was silent. Even to her. His fear and pain had faded, but his aura was one of distraction and nervousness. The two of them were technically part of the Hightop group, but Allain had put them far enough apart that others could observe them as separate. Already, focus was being shifted away from the roll call and towards them. Char tried to send out only confident calm, and wished Moss would do the same.

When the formal introductions were finally complete, Char realized someone was missing. Well, aside from Kulik. Even though they were on the edge of the green lands, they had still been sandkin. No, neither Sanoro nor Trem had spoken up for Sharpcrag. She peered around in the darkness, but all the oases were now dimmed. Everyone who was here had been announced.

Was Trem avoiding this meeting to keep information away from their trejun guest? It seemed like a reasonable precaution, if a little harsh.

Allain spoke up. "My friends, I must begin this gathering with saddening news. Yesterday, just after Coredown, Hightop lost all contact with Sharpcrag. We have checked the wiring network, and determined that there is no flaw on our end. However, there was an enzyme recording stored in the relay station, which we recovered this morning. I intend to play a portion of it now, but I warn you: what you are about to see is graphic, and unsettling."

Char felt a chill run through her, and focused on Moss briefly. His output was strictly controlled, revealing nothing new. Hightop's Speaker connected the message, and someone's memories flooded into the network.

She recognized part of Sharpcrag from the view, and perspective. Someone young from the low angle, and limited in view. It seemed he was recording a message to a pen pal of his in another oasis. He ran through a short list of the most recent happenings, including the arrival of their trejun guest. Char was surprised that no one in this meeting seemed upset by that. It seemed that they'd already been informed. Whether that meant the meeting would end quicker, or they wouldn't find in Moss' favor, Char couldn't say.

At any rate, the recording message continued, ending with the arrival of her and Moss the other day. The young sandkin making it hadn't been one of those to meet with them afterwards . Then, just as he was giving final greetings and preparing to send the message off, there was an explosion in the distance behind him!

Hungry red tendrils streaked out in every direction from its source, racing and intertwining as they sought out life to consume. Streek Fire burned outwards rapidly, and fear and pain burst from each person it touched, before they fell quickly silent. The person making the recording, in an amazing show of foresight, sent off the message in the last few moments. Just before the image went black, Char could see the Streek Fire closing in on the poor sapling.

Confusion rippled through the entire network, like the waves she'd seen from distant shores. People conversed with each other, and then put out questions to the group, but none were clear enough to distinguish.

"We were just there!" She said to Allain, who had just played the recording back and paused it in that last moment. "We spoke to Trem, one of Sharpcrag's elders! She said they were well defended, and we saw thunderers and stormers there to protect them. How did this happen??"

"Peace, everyone," Allain put out, with a great deal of emphasis on the first word. Slowly, the noise and voices faded. "We're still gathering information. We've sent one of our own out to Sharpcrag to investigate, but at this point, it seems there are no survivors. As for how this happened, we all know that there was a trejun ambassador recently planted in Sharpcrag. We've analyzed the recording, and determined that the explosion started at exactly where he was set. It appears…" he trailed off briefly, sending out just a trace of outrage and anger. "It appears that he was the source of the explosion. This was a suicide bomb."

Again, confusion and cacophony burst from all corners of their meeting space, but Char wasn't paying attention to them right now. Everyone here was leaking emotions in every direction, except for Moss. He was still tightly controlled, as impenetrable as a flat stone surface. "Moss?" She put in quietly, faintly enough that only the two of them could hear.

Abruptly, he spoke up into the network, as loudly as he could manage. "Sandkin! I am belhiera'torkalm'oss, of Grove Praska, of the Continental Union. I ask to speak on behalf of the Union, if you will hear me!"

It was a good move, she realized. His legal status was still ambiguous, given both his identity as an outsider, and the fact that he was bonded to a sandkin citizen. If he had just started making observations and requests, he might have been met with people questioning his right to speak, but asking to be allowed to speak early on would whet people's curiosity.

Slowly, the confusion faded, as more and more conversations turned inward. It wasn't technically a vote, as the sandkin had done many times, but people started treating it as one. One by one the oases dimmed again, until a majority were giving their assent to let him speak.

"Thank you," he said, leaking a little relief. "As all of you know, Trejuna has been waging a war on my people for the better part of a year now. They have burned nearly a third of our groves to the ground, killing thousands. Whether soldiers or ordinary citizens, it doesn't matter to them. They kill indiscriminately. As they have now killed yours.

"We also had trejun ambassadors in our own groves. I met one personally. He pretended to be interested in me and my work—to be building a lasting friendship between his people and mine—but it was all lies. All he wanted was the chance to cripple us, in preparation for this… extermination they had planned! I witnessed the attacks as they happened. I saw through our network the people near my own home burn to death, in the very same Streek Fire they just unleashed on you!"

He let out some rage, but then tamped it down. "We have tried to communicate. We have tried to end this war peacefully, but they won't have any of it. They're intent on ridding Tarn of us entirely, and I believe they mean to do the same to you. They place no value on any of our lives, and they were so willing to end yours, that they went one of their own people to you with enough Streek Fire to wipe out an entire oasis!"

A sapling from over in Tallsprit spoke up, near the other end of the network. "But why? We've never done anything to them. We've made every effort to stay hidden, both from your Union and from Trejuna, for thousands of years! What possible threat could we be to them? Why would they want us dead?"

Moss sent out some sympathy, and pulled up his own enzyme recording. "Just after the initial strikes, the enemy sent us a message of hatred and domination. This is what he had to say:"

"To the treqar citizens themselves, I make the following statement. Trejuna is the apex of all civilizations. We have achieved a perfection of form and purpose beyond anything you could ever understand. As such our superiority over you and all others is manifest. Destiny will have us rule over this world, now and forever."

Silence reigned through the network for a change, as people everywhere absorbed this new information. It shouldn't have been news to them, given the information Char and other spies had been sending south since the start of the war, but clearly her people hadn't done much thinking about it.

Sandkin life had never been easy, but it had always been peaceful. Char could understand how they could observe the conflict to the north with sadness, even sympathy for those dying, but with no real impulse to help or stop it. They could claim to be unwilling to give up their secrecy, or to be maintaining their nonviolence, or that they were too far away to help, or that interfering would be playing Core, or that they had no right to intervene, or any number of a hundred reasons they might have to stay out of it, but the result was the same. They didn't care what happened to anyone who wasn't them.

Just… like the trejuns.

"My people are still unaware of you," Moss said into the darkness and quiet. "We've been so busy holding the line, that we're unlikely to ever become aware of you. If you wish, you can destroy me, and keep your secret from them for the rest of time. But Trejuna does know about you now. They've spilled the sap of your people, and I can assure you that eventually, they will find a way to do the same to the rest of you! Whether my people survive or not, your people are now a target as well.

"I urge you. Form an alliance with the Union! Reach out to them! They will welcome any ally in this fight. We have the numbers, and you have the technology. Together we can face this genocidal threat to both of us!" He hesitated for just a moment there, and Char could tell why. It was technology that he and the rest of the Arbormass had invented, and then she'd stolen, but it was still in sandkin control for the moment.

"I know that you are not used to war. I know that the idea of using these marvelous devices to kill and destroy seems like a perversion of everything they were built to do. It does for me as well. I started my career as an inventor to help people, not destroy them! But both of our nations face an enemy who is determined to destroy us. Until that changes, we can't show mercy. No matter how much we want to."

Garas put himself forward. "There can be no doubt that the trejuns have hostile intent. But how can we be sure your Union will be any better? We've had a chance to look over Union history. Only four hundred years ago, the green lands were occupied by dozens of different clans. They were compelled to join together, under the threat of force. Hundreds of thousands of qars were trained, equipped, and sent out to destroy anyone who refused. Hundreds of your own people died in this so-called unification. You ask us to join with you, but we cannot ignore your own violent past!"

There it was. Garas had no idea, but suddenly the pieces fit together for Char. His own violent past. Searing rage built up in her, and Char was barely able to keep it under control. Moss had known! He'd let this happen on purpose!

Moss didn't respond at first. He was probably aware of her anger, but was apparently ignoring it for now. When he did speak, it was slowly and deliberately. "I can't excuse the actions of my ancestors, Speaker Garas. Nor would I even try. They conquered and forced others into the Union for their own selfish reasons, because they wanted more power. They spread their borders as far as they could in every direction, out of an arrogant need for control. But the ones who did that, have passed into memory by now. Also I have recently been educated in sandkin history. Isn't it true that your ancestors did the same? That they killed others of their own kind from time to time, and told themselves it was for the greater good? We all have marks on our ancestry, and therefore on ourselves. I ask you to consider allying with the Union as it is now, and not as it was in the past."

Through her rage, Char did have to concede that point. Individual leaders who'd refused to give up power had to be girdled and killed off, though it was rare. It hadn't happened in centuries, thankfully.

It seemed Garas was thinking on the same lines, because he didn't seem to have much else to say. An elder female from Shimmerpond did speak, though. "How can we be assured that your Chancellor will hold to any agreement we make, though? Individual leaders are fickle and frail, which is why we have none. Who's to say she won't go back on her word the moment the war turns in her favor? You?"

"Chancellor ath'qestarlo'morha rules with the permission and favor of her people, ma'am," Moss said respectfully. "Any treaty she signs with the sandkin will be upheld by those same people. If she breaks it, she will be punished accordingly."

"After the fact, though!" The Shimmerpond resident responded. "We would require assurances that the treaty could not be broken in the first place! Can you guarantee that? Can any Union citizen?"

Moss hesitated, and for the first time in this meeting, Char could pick up a sense of doubt from him. "The sandkin have all the advantages right now! You can swoop in like a bird and save the day, and then negotiate terms with her at your convenience. If it's done publicly, word will get out, and my people will be so grateful to you that they will force her to hold to any agreement. All you need to do is provide us with the technology to become mobile. Then we can start pushing back. Eventually, we'll retake the whole continent, and force the trejuns back across the sea. Technology which, if you'll remember, you wouldn't even have if it weren't for Char, myself, and others who died inventing it!"

There was a burst of emotion from many at that, and Char thought that maybe he'd made a mistake. The sandkin were proud of everything they had, and didn't like reminders of outside help. Still, the memories of Streek Fire consuming Sharpcrag were still vividly recent. It might be enough.

"I believe we have enough basic information to vote on a course of action," Allain put forward, and the emotions faded. "As always, every sandkin citizen will have an equal say in how we proceed. That includes you, belhiera'torkalm'oss, if only because of a technicality for now. Perhaps if formal relations are established, your citizenship might become more… settled."

Moss didn't answer, but he did send out some appreciation.

"All in favor of breaking our long silence and extending a treaty offer to the Continental Union, cast your vote now."

She cast her vote quickly, and saw Moss do the same. The odds were definitely in his favor, but it still took a few minutes for the last holdouts to make up their minds. Perhaps rules would be put in place later to set a time limit on how long people had to choose.

Char used that time to resume private communications with Moss. "You knew, didn't you? You knew that trejun in Sharpcrag had Streek Fire on his person! You knew that he would set it off the moment he found out we were leaving. That's why you told Trem not to say we were leaving until after we were gone—so that he would destroy the whole oasis!"

"That's right."

Rage blossomed inside her mind again, and this time Char didn't particularly care if some of it leaked into the network. There was certainly plenty there already. "How could you? You sentenced them all to death!"

"They were dead the moment that trejun landed, Char!" He responded severely, letting out frustration for once. "I didn't set off those explosives; he did! As soon as he found out we were there, he was going to destroy Sharpcrag to kill us. And he would have found out eventually, no matter what we did!"

"You don't know that! If you'd warned them, Trem and the others might have been able to stop him. They could have delayed him long enough to douse him with water, maybe. Enough to stop him from setting off his Streek Fire."

"If I'd warned them, he would have found out immediately. We'd both be dead right alongside them."

How dare he defend his cowardice! He was acting as if he'd done the right thing, and using excuses to pretend like Sharpcrag had… had it coming! "That wasn't your decision to make, Moss! They deserved the chance to decide for themselves. Why would you just let them die like that?"

He hesitated. "The few for the many."

At first she didn't understand, but then she noticed how the votes were tallying up. Already more than half had voted, and mostly in favor of his request. "You… sacrificed them? So that the vote would go your way?"

"Our way. This is as much for the sandkin as it is for the Union." He let out some more frustration. "If Sharpcrag hadn't fallen, your people might not have even been willing to hear my petition, much less consider it. At the very best they'd debate it for days, or even seasons. All while more and more of my people are being exterminated! All while the trejuns are finding ways to kill your people too. Now, they've already started voting on it!"

"And that makes it right? You're not the Core, Moss! You don't get to decide who lives and who dies!"

"Let me be clear about this, Char. Nothing makes what I did right. I'm directly responsible for the deaths of twenty-three people, including that trejun himself. If I have a soul, it's probably going to the Void. But if my actions saved both of our peoples, and all it cost me was my soul, my self-respect, and your regard for me, it was well worth it."

He spoke with such certainty; such finality, that Char didn't have an immediate response. What had he become?? She remembered an insular, fragile introvert from the Arbormass. She remembered a desperate and excited sapling, trying out new inventions, all while worrying his bark off about his people back home. When had he changed? Was it because of her? Had her training as a spy changed him, when they bonded? She'd been taught to be calculating and cold—to view people as assets to be used and spent, rather than viewed as actual people.

Vaguely, off in the distance, she was aware of the final vote tally. It seemed that for the first time in history, the sandkin were going to war.