Author Topic: Part 54: Imperial Thinking  (Read 4650 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 54: Imperial Thinking
« on: January 06, 2024, 04:57:11 AM »
The Union war machine was on its way. Hundreds of carts were now surrounding the Qarier, all moving at the same pace. Thankfully it was slow compared the fragile and agile prototypes that Char had developed, but mournfully, it didn’t need to stop. Faster carts were constantly connecting and disconnecting, like insects buzzing around an animal corpse to feed. These were carrying fuel, though, and dispensing it before rolling off to get more. As long as they were within Union territory, the herd of carts would continue inexorably towards the coast.

Behind the Qarier, and dwarfed by its massive size, was a lower and smaller cart carrying five more people. It hadn’t taken Char long to discover that this was the Chancellor’s personal transportation. As a former strategist for the Union military, he’d insisted on coming along for the trip. Even though between the interroot and the radios, he could easily keep track of this group without being here himself. Vras was apparently very roots on.

Char had been trying to arrange an audience with him for days now. Despite the fact that this group didn’t have much else to do but cross mostly flat grassland, somehow their Chancellor was always busy. Naturally. The very idea of needing an audience was root-twisting, but Char was the best person for the job. Even she could recognize that. She’d grown up with these kinds of stupid traditions.

When he’d finally agreed to meet with her, Char had needed to work hard to suggest the right times. Any number of minor situations could distract them, and be used as an excuse to end their meeting early. Now that Moss was gone, Char couldn’t count on anyone in the Union to tell her the whole unbarked truth. She’d have to assume that everyone around her was lying to some degree, and that itself was a depressing thought.

At least she’d made some progress with the military leaders in this conveyance here. Most of them were young, including Vras himself, and had been excited to learn about the sandkin. Multiple times a day during their slow roll to the coast, she was approached by this lieutenant, or that commander, and asked about sandkin life. Char answered all of them truthfully, if somewhat incompletely. The group discussions back in the Orja had been clear: whoever was chosen as ambassador to the Union would have to be very careful about what they said. The Union society was based on unquestioning service to authority. As such, she now had to pretend that the sandkin had an authority of their own, to avoid exploding their tiny, limited minds.

“Yes, I suppose you could call them Grovekeepers,” she responded to her latest visitor, a female named Torsa. “They speak for their oases at each national gathering, so in a way they’re in charge.”

Technically that was true. Each oasis had been ‘spoken for’ by a single individual, but those people were in no way in charge of anyone else. Char had to rely on her long experience hiding her disgust and fatigue with these people. She couldn’t really blame them, as they’d been raised in this slave state, but continuing to pretend that her people and theirs had anything in common at all was starting to get… tiresome.

“Fascinating,” Torsa responded through their little root network. “So that’s how you were able to develop the technology down there? How you were able to build these marvelous rings and articulator arms?”

“In a way,” Char hedged. “We wanted to make sure that we had something of value to provide to the Union before we made contact.”

Torsa continued to prattle on for a while, and Char sent out the occasional flash of surprise or amusement, at various intervals. In truth, answering to a Chancellor of any kind would have slowed down their progress, if not stop it entirely. The only reason they had these ‘marvelous’ things was because they weren’t[/u] like the Union! In time, with Moss' help, maybe these people would realize that having leaders itself was their main problem.

Char had lied many, many times as part of her cover working at the Arbormass. Unfortunately, her deceptions there were nothing compared to the horrific image that she had to project to these people. If Moss had been here, he would have at least been a sounding board for her frustrations. Core above, she missed him. Even with what he’d done, and why, she wished he was still here at her side. Wherever he was now, she hoped he would come back safely. Whether it was so she could cut him again, or forgive him entirely, she couldn’t say for sure anymore.

Finally, Torsa was contented with what she’d heard, and made her excuses to leave. It was good timing, given that Char was due to speak with the Chancellor shortly anyway. Vras wouldn’t appreciate it if she was late.

On approach, Char became aware of three other carts casually moving in parallel to hers. They weren’t just more resupply vehicles; that was clear. They had what they undoubtedly thought were hidden thunderers embedded in their sides, and were tracking her movements carefully. Special security to protect the Chancellor, no doubt. As if any such security were necessary. Before the trejuns had shown up, the sandkin had been entirely peaceful, and never would have made any weapons.

Char’s small cart was forcibly seized by two huge manipulator limbs, and lifted into place next to the important transport vehicle. She started to roll her own ring and bring a limb into position for communication, but one of the huge ones grabbed hers and held it in place. It seemed they wouldn’t even allow her that much freedom here. They had to do everything.

Another ring on the cart spun, and a limb on it connected her up to the five-person network. Carefully controlling her output, Char prepared to encounter this Vras in person for the first time. His bright, shimmering presence appeared in front of her, with the other four in a backdrop conversation.

“Ah, Char. So good to finally speak with you directly,” he started off right away, leaking out enthusiasm. “I’ve been looking forward to speaking with another sandkin for a while now. Your countrymen are most… interesting to me.”

She couldn’t detect it from his tone, but Char was sure he was being sarcastic. Interesting was a nice way of saying primitive or absurd. As if he was one to talk, she thought sourly. “Of course, Chancellor,” she said instead, trying to mimic his tone. “Although you may find me different than the negotiators you met with during the treaty signing. I was raised in this country, after all.”

His carefully controlled output shifted slightly with surprise, but it shifted back quickly. He probably hadn’t been aware that the sandkin had been watching the treaty negotiations carefully, and knew the names and details of every single Union representative there. Unlike these people, the sandkin had no internal politics to get in the way of true efficiency. “Of course, your people have done their research on me,” he covered for his initial surprise quickly. “As I have on yours. Now, what can I do for you?”

“I appreciate your directness,” Char said genuinely, for once. “As you’re also aware, I had an… altercation with some of your soldiers days ago. They were literally poisoning seedlings, apparently on your orders. They didn’t object when I washed the poison off, but only because they’d been ordered not to interfere with me. Now, let me be direct with you, as we are in, uh, private. Did you order the deaths of children, Chancellor?”

He let out a burst of amusement. “Ah, this is why I enjoy speaking with sandkin; no guile! You say it as you see it, without restraint or fear. Yes, I gave those orders, and I would do the same again. Don’t tell me you object to me destroying these invaders on our lands, though. We’re not in the territory that my predecessor ceded to the sandkin yet. You have no right to tell anyone what to do here.”

“I’m well aware of that, Chancellor,” she began, but he let out a flash of impatience, interrupting her.

“Oh, please. Call me Vras. We both know that the sandkin don’t respect authority, despite what you’ve been telling my more gullible advisors. The words just don’t feel right, coming from you.”

Grimly, Char sent out an assent. He was right about that, and apparently she hadn’t fooled him. “Very well, Vras. You’re right. I can’t tell you or your people what to do, but I can at least appeal to your sense of decency. The seedlings you’re destroying may be trejuns, but they’re no threat to you. They have no juns, and are too young to use them even if they did! Why not move some of your own adults to these locations to teach them the truth as they grow up? You have the means now, thanks to us.”

This time, his amusement was laced with scorn and anger. “I don’t know how you do things down in the Desolation, but here, we destroy our enemies. The trejuns planted them here intentionally, to grow up and take over this land in a few decades or so. Just because we routed the trejuns and sent them back across the sea, it doesn’t change what these things are. They carry the enzyme memories passed down to them by their parents, and no amount of reeducation can undo that. Isn’t that how your own ancestors sent messages between towns, before you eventually stole radios from us?”

“Ha! That’s rich, coming from a man who repeatedly claims in his public speeches that the Union alone developed carts, wheel-rings, and articulators! If anything, you stole all of those things from us!”

There was a moment of silence across the entire network, as even the other four in the distance had picked up on their antagonism. Char spared a moment to rebuke herself for losing her temper. This wasn’t the way to change anyone’s mind.

It seemed like the Chancellor was thinking on the same lines. “Perhaps we should distance ourselves from this for a moment,” he suggested, his output changing noticeably to a more stable balance of emotions. “Since you clearly don’t understand, I’ll explain my reasoning as I gave that order. Unlike the sandkin, fully one third of the Union has been destroyed. One in three of our citizens burned to ash by our enemies. Entire groves immolated, as their last messages sent out were ones of horror and pain. I’m sure you witnessed some of those messages, back in the Arbormass,” he added, and for once he sounded genuinely hurt and angry.

“By contrast, the sandkin lost one grove. A terrible tragedy to be sure, but a tiny one compared to our losses. Your people have been observing our war for months, unwilling to get involved. I understand why not, actually. What good could you have done, anyway? Without the right tools to help, you would have just made yourselves into targets as well. However, you yourself may not have thought about the effects that war has had on my people. The anger it seeded within us. The fear that the trejuns may find a way around our thunderers and stormers and carts. The hatred we feel, almost universally, for this enemy who has hurt us so badly! My people need catharsis, Char. Even if it means hurting enemies who are no direct threat to us.”

Part of her could empathize with his suffering. After all, she’d known some of the victims herself, and still felt a twisting in her mind every time she thought of the sound that jun wings made. “It’s not a universal hatred though, is it? Moss doesn’t hate them, and many people listen to him. We can fight the trejuns without becoming like them. It’s just a matter of recognizing the difference between justice and revenge. Or more to the point, between our pain and everyone’s pain.”

“Oh, my dear. You’re staggeringly naïve, I’m afraid,” he responded condescendingly. “How many of your companion’s feelings are actually yours, I wonder? You manipulated him for months in the Arbormass, slowly shaping his emotions around your own. Then you abducted him, forcibly bonded him in the Desolation, and then sent him off Void-knows-where! Yes, I know about that, despite your efforts to keep it hidden. Face it, Char: Moss is your creation now, whether you’re willing to admit it or not. He’s not even a Union citizen anymore, not really. If he’s even still alive.”

“He is,” Char couldn’t help but let out some anger of her own. How could Vras have known? Or was he just guessing? After all, Moss being missing wasn’t exactly something she could cover up. He was a public figure: the war hero and master inventor; survivor of the Arbormass.

There were no other options: she had to go for the truth now, and hope that he could understand. “Moss is going to Trejuna, Chancellor. By now he’s far ahead of anyone who could stop him, either sandkin or Union. He’s not defecting though, or selling secrets. He’s trying to convince them to surrender! Before their destruction becomes necessary.”

Vras was an absolute blank now, giving off no emotions of any kind. No wonder he’d been able to rise to the top post of the Union, with obscuring skills like that. Finally, he spoke again “Did he now? Hm. I must say that in all of the projections that my advisors have given me, that was one possibility that never occurred to any of us.”

“If you think that he’s only doing this because he’s bonded to me, and we’re manipulating him, think again,” Char went on as it occurred to her. “He had doubts about this war even back in the Arbormass, when we’d first met! He built weapons so that we could defend ourselves, but he never wanted to be responsible for the destruction of an entire country! That is what you’re after, isn’t it? Whether it’s your personal hatred for the trejuns, or your desire to appease the rage and pain your people are suffering, you do plan to exterminate them all. We’re being frank with each other, Vras. Remember that.”

There was another long silence between them. “Peace is always preferable to war, my dear,” he responded tonelessly. “Despite my previous occupation, I’ve always believed that. However, we will never be sure of peace until we can be sure that Trejuna has no more weapons. Our goal with this campaign isn’t extermination. It’s occupation. We will cross the sea, hundreds of carts strong, and plant ourselves on Trejuna’s shores, wherever they are. We will monitor them closely, assuming they’re willing to surrender, and make sure that they never have the ability to harm us again. And make sure that they provide appropriate reparations for their unprovoked attacks, as well,” he added, almost as an afterthought.

In an instant, a vision of Vras’ preferred future took shape in Char’s mind. She’d studied Union history, and this was just a more machined version of the conquests that had taken place to form the Union in the first place. On that distant continent there would be treqar overseers, using machines like these rings and carts, to girdle and execute trejun citizens. To steal their resources and transport them back to the Union. To ‘reeducate’ the seedlings planted there so that they hated what their ancestors had done. The actions had been hateful, yes, but the offspring themselves were innocent! In some ways, this was even worse than an extermination!

A distant memory- one which she’d studied long before this conflict had begun- flitted into Char’s mind. It was a history lesson, about her own people’s past. “Have you ever heard of a negative peace, Vras? I don’t expect you have. It’s all about the absence of violence, actually. Peace, like what you’re seeking, but enforced rather than agreed upon. You would put the Union in command of Trejuna for how long? A year? A hundred years? A million? How long would it take to convince you and your successors that they would never be a threat again?

“We both know that day will never come. A Trejuna that can never threaten you is also a Trejuna from which you can profit. You can use their resources and people for your own ends from now until the end of time! Your people want safety from Trejuna, and I understand that. But you want dominance over them. A negative peace, where they are forever controlled by the Union’s will. Those people will never again know freedom for themselves, no matter how many generations pass. The Union will never let them go.”

That actually brought up a different idea in Char’s mind, and she wasted no time bringing it up. “I’m curious how different your vision of the future would be, Chancellor, if the death toll hadn’t been so high. Would you hold off on invading Trejuna if, say, only one fifth of your groves had been destroyed? Or one tenth? Or a hundredth? Would it even matter how many of your people died, as long as the end result was the same?”

Finally, Vras was back to his usual amused tone. “You have a very vivid imagination, Char. It’s no doubt a result of your… interesting way of looking at the world. But you can rest easy: I have no intention of staying there forever. A few years, maybe, to ensure their good behavior. Nothing more than that.”

He was lying and they both knew it; so much for directness and honesty. Char held back her disappointment. She’d hoped to spend a few hours convincing him, but it was clear a few centuries wouldn’t do it. “Thank you for your time, Chancellor. I’ll relay your intentions to my people.” Whether that last sentence was a promise or a threat, she honestly couldn’t tell anymore.

“Of course,” he responded graciously. “I greatly anticipate the day when we have a lasting peace between Trejuna and the Union. One which could be compared to the wonderful peace that our two people share,” he added as she departed, and his meaning was clear. If the sandkin tried to obstruct his plans, in any way, they could expect the same ‘peace’ to be enforced on them!

As she was disconnected from the larger cart, Char thought once again of Moss. It seemed that like him, she was now on an impossible task, and she’d have to somehow find a way to make it possible.