Author Topic: Part 50: Under New Management  (Read 1681 times)

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Part 50: Under New Management
« on: June 09, 2023, 11:12:00 PM »
Char's arrival at the Union war camp was virtually unnoticed. She didn't feel that surprised, though. It looked like convoys were joining the huge group, and leaving it, all the time.

The war camp was actually a misnomer. It wasn't stationary like any grove or oasis she'd been to. It was physically moving, but very slowly by her standards. She did some quick calculations after her group joined up, and estimated that at this rate, the war camp would reach the sea in about three seasons.

At the center of the group was a huge rolling monstrosity large enough to put even the Qarier to shame. It had dozens of wheels, and was effectively, a mobile outpost capable of supporting fifteen or more treqars. Including the Chancellor, if Char's information was correct. Allain had gotten back to her about a day before, with instructions on where to go. It had been difficult and annoying getting them over the radio, but until the sandkin and Union interroots were connected, this was the only way to communicate at a distance.

She felt some trepidation at meeting the Chancellor in person. Not out of hero worship or anything—she felt that the very title was pretentious and arrogant. No, she wasn't used to having this much responsibility hanging on her every word and her very aura in the network. Even designing the thunderers and carts had been an intellectual exercise, not a social one. This was well out of her area of expertise.

Char had been made the temporary ambassador from the sandkin oases to the Continental Union. Until Allain showed up (he was the one the majority had chosen to interact with these authoritarian weirdos), it was her job to speak in his stead. She would have to be respectful, despite her feelings, towards Esta. Once again, Char wished that Moss was here. He'd actually spoken to the Chancellor before, and he was a native-grown Union citizen. She had neither advantage.

Something else caught her attention, to the south edge of the rolling war camp. A small group of carts had detached, in close military formation, from the main group and were making a slight detour. Curious, Char altered course away from her escorts to find out what was going on. Her own security escort of Union guards were probably confused by her actions, but they stayed with her. Their job was to protect only and to follow her closely. Nothing else.

Surprisingly, there were treqars growing here! Char could sense them as she approached, growing out of the ground not twenty spans away from the edge of one of the destroyed groves. They weren't that old, either. Two seasons at most. As she watched, the four carts that had separated from the main group moved close to each one, watered it, and then moved on. It took maybe ten minutes for them to cover all the seedlings.

Why were they doing that? There was a river flowing right next to this area—it wasn't like the seedlings needed any more water than they had. Was it a blessing or benediction of some kind? She'd adopted belief in the Core from her upbringing inside the Union, but she didn't remember any kind of rituals like that. Those kids were just lucky to have avoided the burning of the nearby grove in the first place.

Then she sensed it. A slight tang in the air, barely detectable over the burning fuel from the nearby carts. A sour taste. That hadn't been water at all—it had been some kind of acid! She was sure of it now—it was acetic acid, the results of some forms of alcohol being left to open air for too long. She'd studied alcohols as a fuel source back in the Arbormass, but nothing had come of it. That stuff was toxic!

"What are you doing?" She demanded, before realizing that they didn't have a radio to communicate. Fumbling with her articulator, she turned the mirror to signal them, and the one who looked like he was in charge came to a stop. He signaled the others, and they moved onwards back to the main group. Then he turned towards her, and his own articulator began reaching out with an artificial root. Still seething, Char extended her own and connected to him.

At first, she sensed only disquiet and uncertainty from him through their two-person network. He introduced himself as Lieutenant orso'valhsi'thron, of the Third Contingent, and politely asked her name in return.

"I'm Char, the, uh, temporary ambassador from sandkin lands. Are you aware that the 'water' you just put on those kids is toxic? You have to get actual water in there right away, and wash it off. In a few hours that stuff could poison them, and they don't have any qars to remove it!"

"Uh, ma'am, those were my orders. We were to come out here, spray each of them, and then return to the group. I'm expected back even now, if you don't mind."

Char was shocked. They'd been ordered to do that? Surely they could sense the acidic compound for themselves—they had to know it wasn't water. "You… were ordered to kill treqar children?" She asked faintly. "Bomb victims, who barely survived the destruction of their home grove itself??"

There was a burst of understanding through the network. "Of course, you wouldn't know, being from down south. Those seedlings didn't survive the bombing, ma'am; they were seeded here after it happened. They're trejuns, not treqars. The enemy did that all over the place actually; seeding their own kind in territory they'd just burned to ash. My squad is just one of dozens who've been tasked with getting rid of this infestation."

"Infestation?" Char echoed, horrified. "These are people we're talking about, not tarka-worms! It doesn't matter if they came from Trejuna or not; they're seedlings! They aren't old enough to be a threat to anyone! You have to wash them off, right now."

"I'll do no such thing, ma'am," the Lieutenant responded, hostility leaking out from him now. "Seedlings or not, they don't belong here. We're at war, and our enemy has done far worse to us for far longer. Our orders were to clear this area of enemy presence, and that's what I've done."

"Then I'll do it myself," she said firmly, and took in the location of the nearby river. Her secondary tank of fuel was nearly empty. She could dump what was left, and replace it with water. It would take some effort to use the tubing to wash off the seedlings, but it was doable.

Hostility had been replaced with outright anger now. "I can't let you do that, ma'am," he said respectfully despite his feelings. "I realize this is new to you, and I know the sandkin may do things differently, but those are enemies down there. I can't let you aid them, in any way." His thunderer was pointed at her cart directly now. In response, her two escorts, who had no idea what the conversation was about, aimed their own at him.

Thunderers were unlikely to kill any people here, but they might disable a cart or two. But if shooting started, others might join in. There were almost certainly sandkin up in that group, training the Union soldiers in how to use their new weapons. Besides, she couldn't believe that the entire Union war group was agreed that killing children was a good thing to do!

"Think carefully about what you do next, Lieutenant," she warned him. "I'm going to help those seedlings now. If you want to stop me, you'll have to cause a diplomatic incident to do it. It might even end the treaty between our two peoples. Are you sure you're willing to risk that?"

Anger was mixed in with uncertainty again, and she did feel some sympathy for him. He was just a soldier, after all. He probably felt like she did right now—underwater up to his topmost leaves. Fortunately for him, he was spared the need to respond.

"Is there a problem here?" A new voice put in, moments after joining the network. Char let out some surprise—with her ire and determination, she hadn't even noticed the other cart approach. It had linked up with the Lieutenant from the other side, apparently.

"No sir," the Lieutenant responded immediately. "Just a slight… difference of opinion, sir."

"I'm Sergeant ken'hroahen'vol of Chancellery Security. Enrho, if you prefer, Ambassador."

So he knew who he was talking to. That made things a bit simpler. Quickly, Char explained what the Lieutenant's people had done, and how she planned to respond.

He didn't answer at first, but then finally sent out some agreement. "Very well, Ambassador. Do as you see fit, but after that I must insist that you return to the war camp to meet with the Chancellor."

The Lieutenant was clearly astonished. "Sir?"

"I'll take responsibility for her actions, Lieutenant. You're dismissed."

"Yes, sir." With a subdued sense, the Lieutenant disconnected, ending the small network, and rolled his way back uphill towards the others.

Char took the opportunity to do as she'd promised. Strangely, the Sergeant helped her, filling one of his own backup tanks and following her example in washing off the seedlings. It made no sense, until she realized he was probably just trying to hurry things up so that she wouldn't keep Chancellor Esta waiting. Well it was still the right thing to do, even if he had all the wrong reasons.

It took them maybe twenty minutes to wash everyone off and get back to the camp, but they sent limited messages using mirrors during that time. On the way back, they linked carts so that they could speak during the journey. It seemed the Sergeant didn't have a radio, either.

"I'd heard you were a firebrand," he said informally, on their way back. "I suppose it makes sense, given what you did for a living before and during the Arbormass. Still, a lot of our people won't approve, just so you know."

"Trust me, I'll be having words with Chancellor Esta about this," she promised darkly.

He let out some discomfort. "Actually, you won't. Ath'qestarlo'morha… is no longer the Chancellor of the Continental Union. She resigned her position about two weeks ago, while you were on your way here. I'm sorry if you're saddened by that news," he offered as an afterthought.

"I'm not," she said automatically, trying to deal with this new information. "I never even met her, to tell the truth. Who's in charge now? Or are you people finally learning to move away from blind obedience to authority?"

She regretted the words as soon as she'd uttered them, but the Sergeant only sent out some amusement. "I'd heard you had some strange ways down in the Desolation. No, the Council appointed hath'xelvra'snna as the new Chancellor just last week. His installation ceremony was very unorthodox, given that it was done literally on the move, and officiated by radio reception, but it's official now. He's our new leader," he said, as if he'd just commented on the Core rising.

It was that simple to them, wasn't it? It didn't matter if this new Chancellor was a saint or a monster: he was in charge, and that was that. It was like travelling with very young children. They didn't want to think about why someone was in charge, so they just didn't!

Trying to hide her frustration, Char started asking about the new Chancellor, trying to get a feel for what changes she might have to expect. Allain had given her a lot of information on Esta, back in grove Praska, but all of it was useless now. Unfortunately, the Sergeant didn't know much. Apparently this 'Vras' person was an experienced military commander, having organized attacks and defenses in the chaos following the founding of the Union. That meant he was old, at least two hundred, and probably had a great respect for military tradition. Not good at all, if he used that respect to order the deaths of children.