Author Topic: Part 49: By the Sea  (Read 9352 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 49: By the Sea
« on: May 30, 2023, 03:28:43 AM »
Rane listened with increasing amazement, as Moss explained the whole thing. Or what he assumed was the whole thing, anyway—Moss was probably holding some things back. Either they were private, or important to the security of the Union, or both. He heard how Moss had met Char at the Arbormass, and they'd worked together for seasons developing new devices with the others. He marveled at how Char had apparently died, and that most of them thought she was a traitor. Which she was, technically, but she hadn't been a trejun agent.

Then it turned out she was a savior instead, pulling Moss' burned trunk out of the ashes and taking him to safety. Rane had never been seriously burned before, but he felt his sap begin to boil at the description of what had happened to the Arbormass. After that came the desert crossing, and their slow drying out in the Desolation. At that point, Moss stopped for some reason. He'd gotten as far as them reaching safety: a source of water. "What is it, Moss? You were just getting to the good part, I imagine."

"Or the bad part. I can't really tell anymore," his friend let out some resignation. "I was interested in her right from the start, as I said. I was intensely curious about her life, and hobbies, and work. She wouldn't give me the time of day.

"At first I thought it was because she'd been hurt by others, for being a Combustor. She had been, yes, but now I know it's because she was a spy. She didn't want to get too close, in case she'd be ordered to betray me."

Rane thought he was being a bit vain at that, but didn't say as much. For all Moss knew, she just hadn't felt the same way. He was no stranger to being rejected himself, and it could easily have gone that way for Moss as well. He simply listened instead.

"Then we finally reached sandkin territory," Moss went on slowly. "She thought that the only way to protect me would be to bond with me in a legal sandkin ceremony. That way she couldn't have been ordered to leave me behind. She was wrong, in retrospect, but she couldn't have known that. She saved my life, for the second time, or so we thought. Then… I betrayed her. I won't go into the details, but I kept a secret from her, and people died because of it."

Ah, so that was it. Maybe Moss had seen it as a bonding of convenience, but a betrayal of trust changed everything. "She was upset, I take it?"

Moss sent out an affirmative. "Rightly so. That's what we were talking about just before you and I left Praska. She said we needed time apart, to figure out exactly what we both want, and why. She needed to think about what I'd done, and what to do about it. She tried to talk to me just before we left Grove Praska, too, but I wouldn't let her. If she was ending things with me, then I was saving us both a bunch of pain. If she was going to try to convince me to stay, then I was better off not hearing it. This mission is too important, and I'm the only one who can complete it."

He seemed to be done at that point, but Rane gave him a few seconds before responding anyway. "Ok, let me get this straight: you worked with her for a long time, all the while interested in her. Then you two were stuck alone for weeks heading into the desert. Then you literally had to bond with her in order to keep yourself alive. And then you betrayed her trust and caused the deaths of some people. Probably her people, given where you were at the time. Is that about right?"

Moss' aura took on a wry note. "That's pretty much it. So, what's your assessment, lovemaster? Are we doomed?"

Rane held back some disdain at the flippant way Moss was treating this. "It's not that simple. All told, I think she's right. The two of you do need some time apart. Think about it; you were both put in terrible situation after terrible situation, for seasons on end! You saw good people die, friends and strangers alike. You were both under suspicion as traitors, and then you both nearly died multiple times. With that much horror all around you, for so long, it's only natural that you'd feel this connection with each other!"

He let that sink in for a minute or so, as he concentrated on keeping the cart out of a particularly choppy area of sand. "You both need time to think about those events. To think about your feelings at the time, and whether what you 'felt' for each other was real, or just a product of your circumstances. If it was real, and you still feel that way for her after you've been apart for a time, then great. Hopefully she feels the same way, and you can be together. If not… well, better that you know that for sure, than just staying with her until those fake feelings dissipate, and you're stuck with each other for the rest of your lives. This is an opportunity, Moss. Not a punishment."

Moss didn't respond for a long time, and Rane kept his attention on the cart. He could feel the Core's rays fading, and soon it would be night. Hopefully that wouldn't make the waves come any closer to the rocks. He would hate to have to come to a stop every time they washed in, to avoid getting stuck in the sand.

"When did you get to be so wise, anyway?" Moss finally asked, leaking out some respect despite himself.

Rane didn't know what to say at first. "I think 'wise' is a bit of a stretch, but I've always had a good insight into the people in grove Praska. It just doesn't show much, because I'm always in the shadow of people like you, your father, and my grandmother. People don't pay much attention to bit players like me, when they've got major players around."

"Well, it's our loss," Moss responded, and Rane let out a little embarrassment. "I'm sorry I never noticed before. I'll think on what you said, and write an enzyme letter to Char. The sandkin should be able to get it to her eventually. Definitely before I can tell her in person."

"Speaking of which," Rane said suddenly, focusing on what was just ahead. It looked like an ordinary rock formation, but he slowed the cart by instinct.

Moss shared his senses and sent out some agreement. "I don't like it either. Wait just a moment." He rotated his articulator and snagged the mirror. Fortunately there was still enough Corelight to reflect, and he aimed it at the section of beach up ahead, and then panned the reflection up into the rocks above.

After a few more seconds, an answering flash of light came through. It was faint, barely enough for Rane's oscilli to pick up, but it was there. "I take it that's a good thing?"

"Should be," Moss said shortly. "Take us uphill, slowly. That recognition signal should keep them from blasting us right off the beach, but we still don't want to startle anyone."

Ah, so they'd reached the oft-touted 'settlement' at last. Rane did as he was told carefully, and wove the cart between rocks and up into the foothills. As they passed the earlier rock formation, Rane became aware of roots grown up behind it, and a well-hidden stormer there as well! It was roughly fifty times the size of a normal thunderer, and it was loaded and aimed at them. If Moss hadn't sent that signal…

He didn't want to consider that possibility. Char had said that the sandkin were peaceful, but they clearly weren't about to be caught unprepared for a fight. He could sense other stormers and thunderers as they continued, but there was still no sign of the people controlling them.

A minute or so later they came around a corner and found themselves inside a grove! The noise from the ocean was muted here, probably by the barrier of rocks. This place was perfectly concealed. The only way anyone would be aware of a settlement here, other than that recognition signal, would be if they flew directly overhead! It wasn't completely protected from the trejuns, but it was as close to invisible as it could be. Rane's opinion of these sandkin jumped up another notch.

The Core had set by now, leaving them in the dark. Still, a small light shone out at them from the western edge of the grove, and Rane followed it. There were two holes in the ground, spaced just about right. He used his own articulator to help Moss down first, so he could start chatting with them right away. Then he followed, placing himself in the second gap. It fit just right—they must have had measurements sent from grove Praska all the way out here.

When he connected to the local network, he found himself in the middle of a heated exchange. Not with Moss this time, but between two of the sandkin.

“—have no idea what the risks might be! If they're captured and interrogated, the trejuns will learn all about this place! They'll send one of their jun squads here, and we'll all burn!"

"We're not exactly helpless, Verask. We have plenty of stormers and thunderers in place, even if they did know. Besides, they're busy enough dealing with the main army up north. This is the perfect opportunity to sneak people up behind their lines and get some accurate information."

"Enough." Another sense cut in, this one muted for some reason. It took Rane a few seconds to realize that this person was not actually in the grove with them. He was communicating from a great distance away, probably through those synthetic roots Moss had told him about. Strung above the ground rather than grown underneath it, for ease and speed of placement. He wondered how new those roots were. "These arguments have already been made, again and again. All the arguments have. It's time for a vote. All in favor of assisting our two guests with their reconnaissance mission, vote aye. All opposed, vote nay."

Abruptly Rane was aware of dozens—no, hundreds—of other presences on their network. Perhaps even thousands! Each one was turning either brown or green, as the counting progressed. Each single sandkin had a say in how all sandkin behaved. This was so weird.

The vote was closer than he would have liked, but in the end the greens outnumbered the browns by four hundred and twelve. They had succeeded. Moss let out a burst of relief, and Rane followed his example. There were signs of disappointment in some of this grove's inhabitants, and some disgust as well, but most of them seemed pleased with the results. They listened to the official tally being announced to everyone from wherever else that person was speaking, and then their connection to the other groves went dark. No one seemed concerned, so Rane assumed it was normal.

Moss was already speaking with one of the locals. "Kolser, this is my friend Rane. Rane, Kolser here is the one who built the cart we're going to be using." He let out some friendliness and encouragement, and Rane sent out a subdued greeting.

"Wait, the cart we're going to be using? What about the one we came in on? It's low on fuel and water, but once we're resupplied, why can't we just use it?"

Kolser let out some amusement, his aura getting dimmer briefly. "It's not exactly equipped for the journey. My cart can actually float on the water. And it's built to carry two people over great distances."

Rane froze, as the implications of that washed over him. "We're going out… on that? He indicated the distant waves, still sending muted repetitive noises in at them.

"That's right," Moss said, clearly enjoying his discomfort. "We're going to cross the ocean, heading northwest, and then straight north, until we reach Trejuna. Then we're going to infiltrate the enemy homeland, gather information about them, and send it back here where it can be put to use." He paused, his sense becoming more serious for once. "Still glad you're coming along?"

"I wouldn't miss it," Rane responded faintly, and they both let out amusement. They were going to Trejuna itself? He'd thought they were just going to observe troop movements or something, maybe try to steal a jun queen if they had the chance. But going to the enemy stronghold themselves? This was a lot more intense than he'd anticipated.

"All right," Kolser went on practically. "You can't actually use the water-wheel to push your way all the way up to Trejuna. You'll have to go from island to island. We've only got vague impressions of how many there are, based on memories from a few sandkin who ended up there as seedlings back in the day. But they'll protect you from the worst of the waves as you continue north."

Moss let out some concern. "The worst of the waves? You mean what we heard on the way in wasn't as bad as it gets? I thought they were worst near the shore—or at least that's what Char seemed to think."

"They're pretty bad, yes, which is why we have an inlet nearby where we can load you up and have you practice using the water-wheel. Unfortunately, once you're out there on the sea, you'll be on your own. Even if we had another water cart to send after you, we don't have anyone trained in how to use them. From what we've heard, neither does the Union. If you get in trouble, you'll have to get out of it on your own."

"But we'll be all right, won't we? I mean, once we're out on the water, the waves won't be as bad, and we can move from island to island safely?" All amusement had faded from Moss' sense by now.

"Sure, as long as the weather holds," Kolser said seriously. "If it's warm and sunny like yesterday, you should have a safe trip. If it rains, things will get more complicated. If a storm starts up, you're in trouble. I equipped the sea-cart with tubes that can be used to get rid of any water that ends up inside the cart with you. You'll have to practice with those, too." He seemed to sense Moss' concern, and sent out some comfort of his own. "Look, if you're having second thoughts, that's perfectly understandable. Eventually someone will have to start taking carts out on the water, but it doesn't have to be you, and it doesn't have to be soon."

Moss sent out a negative. "We can't afford to wait; the timing is critical. If we don't leave soon, the trejuns will begin to fortify their homeland, and we won't even get to the shore, much less close enough to learn anything useful about them."

"You're assuming they haven't already fortified their borders," Kolser reminded him. "Even the sandkin know very little about Trejuna, and we've certainly never been there."

"True, but it's a safe assumption. When they started this war, they had all the advantages. Even now that their forces are being turned back, they still have no reason to fear for their own homeland's safety. Once the Union takes to the water though, that'll change. I think we'll be all right, as long as we leave as soon as we're done training on your… water cart."

Rane couldn't help himself. "Still glad you're coming along?"

Kolser sent out some more amusement, and even Moss joined in slightly. "I wouldn't miss it."
« Last Edit: December 29, 2023, 04:32:12 AM by Daen »