Author Topic: Part 44: The Price of War  (Read 9613 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 44: The Price of War
« on: April 14, 2023, 10:04:50 AM »
There was a saying among some rural areas of the union: sapset. It meant that home was always where the sap set the easiest. For most treqars, it was a moot point, given that so few of them traveled. But Moss had. He'd traveled further than any treqar in history. Possibly any person anywhere. No, wait. Trejuns could fly, and had no doubt covered much greater distances.

Moss hoped that he could get into sapset here. He hoped that he hadn't changed too much to return to his old life in Grove Praska. Now that his task was complete and his nation saved, he might actually get that quiet life after all.

It was strange. It had barely been a year since he'd been in this very spot, secretly corresponding with Noq, and hoping to be a famous inventor known throughout the Union. Now his dreams had come true, and all he wanted to do was forget all about them and be that unknown country sapling again.

News of Moss' survival had spread like Streek Fire throughout the surviving Union groves. He'd only been back a day, and already he'd gotten several hundred messages from other groves. He didn't even bother examining most of them—sent by rabid fans, or just appreciative strangers. He did respond to one, which had come from Tobor's parents. He expressed his deep condolences over their loss, and told them, quite truthfully, that Tobor's work had helped save all of their lives. Even Rax, traitor though he had been, had helped them. And his family had died before he did.

The twins had no family on record, being military seedlings with an… unusual physical deformity. Aysa's family records had been destroyed years ago, to keep her safe from retaliation. There was no one left to contact.

Other than Char, of course.

She was rooted on the other side of the grove for now, no doubt being chatted up by the ever-gregarious Tressa. She had stayed behind like him, though she still wasn't speaking to him. Not that he could blame her. Twenty-three deaths were hovering over him like a cloud, and he doubted it would ever dissipate.

He had meant what he'd said, though. One grove's destruction and the resulting guilty conscience were a small price to pay for the survival of the Union and the sandkin. As far as he could tell, Char hadn't told anyone what he'd done. Or rather, what he'd allowed to happen.

They'd been alone together for several weeks. From the ashes of the Arbormass, to the ashes of Kulik, into the desert to Sharpcrag, across to Hightop, and then north again heading home. He'd grown accustomed to her company, and now he missed it. No matter how brutal and forced the circumstances had been.

Before the sandkin had continued north, they'd equipped both him and Char with those ring-shaped devices. He could sense qars all over Praska still fixated on him, even after he'd been here for a full day, wondering what it was, and what it did. His friends and family had been polite enough to not ask questions, when he'd first connected to greet everyone and explain things, but they had to be curious. The qars were their surreptitious attempt to gain information.

Reluctantly, Moss sent the enzyme commands, and the articulator limb on the ring began moving again. It reached down under his direction and connected him to Praskas network again. Several dozen minds flooded into his own, shattering the peaceful solitude he'd been trying to cultivate. No matter. He had to talk to them eventually anyway.

His father was the first to 'approach' within the network, with the others still hanging back. "How are you doing, son?"

"Better, thank you. The soil here is much better than what we had in some places down south, and there's enough water that I'm healing nicely. I should have a full set of branches again in a season or so."

"I'm glad," his father responded, with emotions matching words. "Your friend Char has been catching us up on the new treaty. I could hardly believe it at first. Dozens of groves, all inside the Desolation? It's amazing!"

Moss sent out some assent. "I had the same reaction. They're a very hardy people. Still, they used the secrecy of their existence like bark for millennia. Now that their secret's out, I imagine they're feeling quite vulnerable. I suppose it's no surprise that they were quick to build the Qarier and other machines like it. They want to prove to everyone that they're not brittle and fragile."

"They certainly proved that to us," his father said with a subdued sense. "So many thunderers on that one machine, and dozens more smaller ones around it! I saw what just a twigful of thunderers could do in defending Praska."

"What has Char told you about the state of the Union?" Moss changed subjects abruptly, not wanting to think about his part in building all those weapons. "Or have you gotten news through the interroot about the course of the war?"

The old man hesitated. "I'm sure you know more than I do, what with you being an advisor on the negotiations and all. We did get confirmation about the casualties. The restrictions on the interroot have been lifted following the treaty with the sandkin. We're now sure: about a third of the Union has been destroyed. Grove Praska is now the westernmost settlement in the entire Union."

Moss had suspected as much, but it still felt like his heartwood was freezing, hearing it described like that. "But no more, right? Now we're pushing back."

"That's right. The Chancellery is still being evasive about the details, but our friends in other central—or now I should say western—groves, are all sending in their own perspectives. They all describe convoys like the one you came in on, pushing westward into areas destroyed by the trejuns. With the aid of the sandkin, our people are finally able to strike back against those flying monsters!"

Moss carefully held back his disappointment. His father was speaking truthfully, unlike his usual political persona. He'd come very close to being killed by the trejuns, and it was natural that he wanted them to pay for what they'd done. But he didn't know the fullness of what war did. Moss had only had a sample of that horror, and it had practically broken him. Those soldiers out there, controlling sandkin war machines and equipped with weapons capable of blasting enemies out of the sky, they probably felt vengeful and hateful—perhaps thousands of times worse than what his own father did!

Another presence tentatively approached. It was Rane. Moss let out a burst of appreciation at seeing his old friend. "Hey!"

"Hey, Moss. I wasn't sure I should interrupt, especially with you being Big Hero Guy and everything, but—”

"No, I'm glad you did," Moss responded immediately. "I'm sorry I was a bit too overwhelmed when I first got back, to greet you properly. How have you been?"

Rane seemed encouraged. "Pretty good, actually. I mean, having most of my qars confiscated wasn't exactly great, but the idea of our mobility being a real possibility… that's just unreal. Pardon the pun."

"Wait, your qars were confiscated?"

"Yeah, about two weeks ago. All of us are down to just eight qars apiece. All the others were taken off eastwards to help with the construction efforts. From what I've heard, pretty much every grove on this side of the Union is in the same situation."

Moss should have seen that coming. Regretfully, he thought over the reasons. Before the qar queens had been obliterated, personal use of qars was considered a universal right. Afterwards, with qars now being reduced to a doomed species, it made perfect sense that the Chancellery and military would take more and more to fill their ranks as their own died off.

This was a sticky situation for him, actually. Back in Hightop, after the vote had gone his way, the sandkin had held days of meetings, nonstop, over their interroot. All the details for the expedition to meet the Union were planned out, with Moss being less of an advisor and spectator, and more of a pawn and tool. After all, he was just one, and they were many. One of the things they'd expected of him—insisted on, really—was that he keep the existence of their qar queens a secret. As such, when the Qarier had come to a stop next to grove Praska, and he and Char had been planted here, it had been done without any qar labor at all.

It made sense in retrospect. One of the big reasons the trejuns had been so effective in wiping out the qar queens here in the Union, was because they weren't being hidden. The species might still be doomed: he had no idea if only five qar queens could rebuild a population that had once numbered in the millions. Still, at least this way there was a chance. He kept the secret gladly.

Rane went on about local gossip for a little longer, still sending out signs of his disquiet. Apparently getting the message, Moss' father excused himself. "I'll let you two chat for a while," he said quickly, and withdrew his presence over to where Char and the others were gathered.

Rane let out some relief at that. He'd never really been comfortable around the old man. Possibly because Moss' father was so formal and serious, and Rane was at his heartwood a relaxed country seedling. "So you've traveled more than anyone I've ever heard of!" He said excitedly afterwards. "You must have experienced some incredible things!"

"You could say that," Moss responded, bemused. "But Char's traveled more than me, just so you know."

"No kidding. I heard her talking this morning and last night. The stories she tells, about the sandkin living all the way down there in the Desolation, are amazing! Most of us didn't believe her at first, not until she shared some of her memories of the desert groves. Oases, I guess I should call them. I only hope I can find stuff half as interesting when I head out."

Moss paused. "What are you talking about? Where are you going?"

His friend let out some surprise, and then followed it with realization. "Oh, right. You wouldn't have heard, because you haven't been connected since yesterday. This morning an announcement came in through the interroot from grove Heirach. The Chancellor and Council of Ministers are calling for volunteers to fight in the war. Now that we can build carts and move thunderers around, they need people to control them. I'm sending in my application today. I'm going to be a soldier! At least three others are doing the same, as far as I can tell. It would be more, but they're only taking saplings for now because we're the only ones light enough to get around."

Moss felt a freeze creep in, deep inside himself. Rane, out in the field, risking his life? Killing people?

He tried to moderate his response, and keep his shock and disgust from leaking out. Fortunately Rane didn't seem to have noticed. "Rane, are you sure that's a good idea? I mean, you're one of the gentlest people I know. You didn't even send your qars out to work on the aqueduct with the others, because you were afraid they'd get hurt! You kept them close to yourself, tending the people in the grove, because it was safer."

Rane responded with a burst of confidence. "I can do it, Moss. Trust me. I've got what it takes to be a good soldier for the Union, like you. I'll make you proud, and I'll be proud of myself, too."

"But… I'm not a soldier, Rane. I never was. Sure, I designed the weapons, and used them when I had to. But only because I had to. If you do this, it will change you. Even if you survive to come home again, you won't be the same. Are you prepared for that?"

His friend paused, and his sense was one of confusion and hurt. "What are you talking about? You're a hero to the Union! You may have saved all of us from being destroyed! I just want to do my own part to protect my people, like you did."

"I did what I thought I had to, but even now I'm still not sure it was necessary. Even if it was, it definitely wasn't right or good. Killing is bad, no matter why you do it, Rane. I… don't want you to make the same mistakes I did. I'll have to live with them, and you shouldn't have to do the same." His actions in Sharpcrag came flooding back into him, and the personalities of those sandkin flitted through him once again. All the people he'd sentenced to death.

He tried to focus on the matter at hand. "I understand your desire to explore, I really do. Even without the war I would have wanted to experience new things. Even knowing that I probably would die, traveling into the Desolation was a wonderous thing for me. But you don't have to become a soldier to do it. I'll make a cart for you. Two, if you want me to come along. We can travel the Union together, or go south into sandkin territory if you want. Anywhere, as long as it's away from the fighting."

Rane seemed subdued at that, as if the ground had been taken away from underneath him. His initial hurt and indignation at Moss' reaction had been replaced with shock and surprise.

Moss supposed it was only natural. For seasons now his friend had been stuck here, hoping against hope that the Union would be able to hold off the trejun attacks, and helpless to act in any way. Now they had mobility and the means to strike back. Unsurprisingly, Chancellor Esta had taken that fear, and the sudden freedom that followed it, and used it as a tool to generate patriotism. 'Yes, defend yourselves against the trejuns,' she might say, 'but do it as part of the Union's forces. If they're bad, and we know that they are, then we must be good. If they're wrong, then we must be right.' Unfortunately, it was just a very short distance away from, 'if them killing us is evil, then us killing them is not evil.'

She'd taken advantage of the fear and frustration to recruit young people, probably all over the Union. Not just to defend these people, and perhaps not even primarily because of that. No, this was to solidify the Union's power and authority. And by extension, hers.

"Please, Rane. Don't send off that application just yet. Think about what being a soldier will be like, and why you want to be one. Think about my alternative. You've always been kind and considerate, and I like the person you are. I don't want that person to change."