Author Topic: Part 55: Innocence  (Read 6512 times)

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Offline Daen

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Part 55: Innocence
« on: January 20, 2024, 03:13:00 AM »
“So, you and Moss are both People?” The People asked, finally.

Rane let out an exclamation of relief. “Yes! I am my own person, and he is his own person too. I can speak with him, like I’m speaking with you, but I can’t think for him unless he lets me. Not that I would try,” he added with a sour feeling.

It had been over a day since their initial connection, and Rane was finally getting used to these peoples’ way of communicating. More accurately, they were getting used to his way. The People had learned the Union dialect very, very quickly. Moss was back down at the shoreline, trying to arrange the incoming sandkin carts using the radio, which just left Rane here with these strangers. Or this stranger, actually. He was technically talking to just one person, even if there were a bunch of individual organisms here.

The hard part had been getting through to them as individuals. Whenever he and Moss had disagreed, even slightly, it had frightened and confused the People. Since they were so closely connected, even to the point of sharing their very identity, the idea of disagreement was terrifying to them. Even more so than the metal carts, or the very existence of other people out there.

“You’ve really never had any contact with anyone else? Outside the islands, I mean,” Rane asked again, still not quite believing it.

The People sent out a negative. “Not as far back as we can remember. At the very beginning, when we started growing roots to the other islands, we encountered another People there, but very soon we were aligned with them. Now we are the same. As are the other People on the other islands.”

A little freaked out, Rane tried to contain his anxiety. This was unnerving at best. Moss had explained how the sandkin bonded each other, sharing minds. He’d spoken of it with obvious fear and excitement, and that had been only after a few seconds of connection. These people… lived their entire lives sharing minds with each other!

Trying to focus, Rane remembered Moss’ parting instructions. “Uh, how many islands are there? Aside from this one, I mean.”

In response, the People set up an image that Rane didn’t understand. It had shapes, but they made no sense. Some lines were squiggly and others sharp, like on the schematics Moss had shown him years ago, but even Rane could tell that this wasn’t meant to be used to build anything. The People didn’t seem to sense his confusion though. “These are our islands,” they said as if it was self-evident. “You’ve never been found on any of them before, so you must come from others. Where are they?”

“Uh, I don’t understand,” Rane admitted. “What exactly am I looking at?”

The People let out some confusion, and then embarrassment. “We call it a map,” they explained. “The chivas draw them in the sand from time to time, and we copied them a long time ago. It represents the islands.”

There were maps back home, but the Peoples' way of depicting beaches and water and islands was esoteric and strange to Rane. Years ago during the formation of the Union, all movement, first by qars and now by people, was handled instinctively. By the taste of the air, or the firmness of the soil. By the other plants passed by, or in the case of the Desolation, the depth of the sand. Even the sandkin seemed to operate that way, but for a group like the People, who had never traveled anywhere, nor even considered travel, to think of mapping like this? It was like a miracle!

“Um, what are chivas?” He asked, a little hesitantly.

Amusement rippled out from the collection of lights nearby, and a hundred images sprang up from them. All of them were of the mammals that had climbed down from the People a day ago. White-furred and long-limbed, they had returned to their places of rest as soon as the People had become less anxious. They weren’t domesticated like the qars or juns, but they did seem to have a symbiotic relationship with the People. And they were a lot bigger and stronger.

“How… do you communicate with them? Enzymes, like we use with the qars?” As an example, Rane sent out a sample of the enzymes, along with his own images of the qars he’d cared for back home.

“In a way,” the People answered after a moment. Since communicating in this way was a new concept to them, they had to take some time to get used to it. “This island is small, as are the others. We can have only so many of us here, but we still grow fruit, which they consume. Long ago we sweetened our fruit so that they would come here more often. At first, we could only give them simple messages through their food, but now we use audio cues.”

Rane must have still been sending out confusion, because they continued right away. “We expand and contract bark patterns among all of us. A, uh, ‘single’ one of us wouldn’t be able to make much noise, but together we can send out a tone they respond to. We did so out of fear when you first showed yourselves.”

“Huh,” Rane answered mindlessly. For centuries now, the Union and Trejuna had been using chemical secretions to control animal life. Not once had anyone in either nation considered using sound. “That’s just amazing.”

“What’s amazing?” Moss put in, suddenly appearing in the network, and Rane let out some surprise. He hadn’t noticed Moss’ cart make its approach and connect up to the roots, because he’d been so caught up in all of this.

“Those climbers are called chivas,” Rane explained quickly, and could feel rapt attention from the People as he did so. “The People use compressed bark in and out to make noise to speak to them. Together, they can make a sound loud enough for the chivas to hear. Chivas aren’t as smart as qars, but they’re much stronger. Imagine if we could get one of the chivas onto a sandkin sea-cart and send it back across the ocean! Union animalogists would sell their own bark for a chance to examine it!”

“Would it survive the trip, though?” Moss asked with some concern. “Mammals need a lot more food than we do, and they need it more often. Also, they can’t drink ocean water. Or at least I think they can’t. No one’s ever seen one try.”

“I’m sure we could stock up on food and water, right?” Rane pointed out. “The People just said they eat fruit, which the People have in abundance, because they don’t have enough space to grow out from the islands. We can help you with that, by the way,” he added as an afterthought.

It was only then that Rane noticed the whole collection of lights was just suspended in front of them. Confusion rolled out from them in waves, and he realized that he and Moss had just hit them with dozens of terms and concepts they couldn’t understand.

Together, they explained those concepts one by one, and in return the People explained their version of maps again, this time to Moss. He seemed suitably impressed by their version of navigation, especially since it had been learned from the chivas, not taught to them.

The People seemed fascinated by most of them, but they reacted negatively when the idea of moving a chiva off the island came up. Apparently they were very close to their mammalian pets, which Rane could understand. He missed his qars dearly, even this long after they’d been gone. Most of them were probably still alive somewhere, having been pressed into service for the Union. Even if Rane did someday get home, he’d never see any of them again.

As it turned out, there were eleven separate islands that the People knew of. Eight of them were inhabited by groves, or whatever the People called settlements. It seemed to be different in every place, and the trejuns probably called their groves ‘torture centers’ or something. With help from the People, Moss seemed confident that they’d be able to move from island to island safely, and get much closer to Trejuna in the process. When the People asked why they were going there, though… he hesitated to respond. “Excuse us for a moment,” he said quickly, and then cut his connection. Confused, Rane did the same thing.

Once they were in private, Moss was practically blasting fear. “We have to come up with some excuse. We’re, uh, explorers or something. We don’t know what’s out there, but we’re trying to find out. Does that sound plausible?”

“Why not just tell them the truth?” Rane asked, still wondering what was going on in his friend’s mind. “I mean, they’re not trejuns; we know that for sure. Maybe they’d be willing to help us. In some way I can’t think of,” he admitted, realizing that they had no technology, no experience at war, and no way to cross the ocean.

“We can’t risk it, Rane. With those chivas of theirs, they can stop us if they want to. Those mammals can break our articulators and swarm all over the sandkin sea-carts when they arrive. We have to stay on the Peoples’ good side if we can, at least until the two of us are already on our way to Trejuna.”

Rane thought about it for a few seconds, but then sent out a negative. “Somehow, I don’t think lying to them is a good way to gain their trust, Moss. They don’t keep secrets from each other, and they wouldn’t understand it if we tried to keep secrets from them. They might even view us as a threat. If I’d spent my entire existence unaware of anyone outside Grove Praska, and then suddenly two people showed up, I’d be suspicious of them. Void, some of the Union people were suspicious of the trejun ambassadors, even after they’d been trying to ingratiate themselves to us for a century! If only we’d listened to them. Look, the point is, we should be open with them. They’ve been open with us so far.”

He moved his articulator limb to reconnect to the People, but Moss’ one swung around and grabbed it. “Trust me on this, Rane. They’re not ready. I won’t lie to them, I promise, but they’ve never even heard of conflict before. If we tell them about the war with Trejuna, and all the bombings and killings, it could overwhelm them. We need their help. Besides, I got in radio contact with Sprayhaven. I can tell the sandkin about the People, and they can send a specialist over here. Someone who’s actually been trained in speaking to a society like this. We’re amateurs at best, and we could do a lot of damage to the People if we’re not careful.”

Rane didn’t like it, but he sent out a begrudging assent. Moss had a point: in many ways, the People were like seedlings. If Rane had heard about the war, much less experienced it through enzyme messages, as a seedling, he would have been terrified and overwhelmed. They were better off leaving it to the sandkin.

Moss let go, and Rane reconnected them to the People. “We’re not going to tell you the reasons yet,” Moss launched right into it without any hesitation. “Others will arrive here soon, in a few days maybe, and they can answer your question, but we can’t.”

As Rane had predicted, the People seemed confused and frightened by this, but that fear faded quickly. They’d gotten pretty good at recovering over the past day or so, from all the changes. Taking their silence as an acceptance, Moss sent out some gratitude. “If you’re still willing, can you guide us past these islands? We need to go here, I think,” he indicated the northwest edge of the map.

There was a kind of pulse through the People, as happened when they were thinking amongst themselves. Then, without warning, more people showed up! They were very distant though, and Rane could tell that they were from another grove.

The first People communicated with the others with a series of pulses, and then the second People responded. A third group showed up, and responded the same way, like a relay system. Finally, the other groups vanished. “We can help you,” the People concluded. “Your strange metal animal can take you from island to island. If you get lost, the chivas can see you and push you back to where you need to be."

“So you can communicate with the other islands?” Moss said with some amazement.

The People sent out an affirmative. “Many years ago, we seeded most of the islands. We grew roots out, and convinced chivas to take seeds to them. We’ve even grown underwater roots from the edge islands like this one, but the water gets too deep. We gave up long ago. Do you grow underwater or something?”

Rane shared amusement with Moss for a moment. “No, we’re from another island, of sorts,” Rane explained. “It’s much bigger, and that’s why there are so many of us.”

He slipped into explaining, carefully, the details about the Union. He tried to avoid the specifics of how warfare had formed the Union originally, and how they’d used to be a bunch of individual groves. The People responded with their own very boring history. Apparently they’d felt portions of the Great Freeze even this far south, so at least they had that much in common.

They were getting tired, though. Not from the effort of growing leaves, flowers or fruit, but from processing so much information. Rane wasn’t exactly at top form himself, with all he had to think about. When the People finally said that they needed to rest, he gratefully agreed. Moss finished up by saying that the sandkin would have more answers when they arrived, but then they disconnected to get some rest.

By now, cart devices had expanded dramatically. The sandkin hadn’t hesitated to develop articulator limbs and carts, and the two that had been brought over the sea were no exception. Digging a couple holes near the People’s grove wasn’t that hard, even as tired as Rane was. Once they were complete, a ‘lever’ as Moss described it, lifted both him and Rane upwards slowly. They both slid down into the new holes, and then the carts lowered again. They’d be able to suck up some water for now, and get some nutrients. Getting past this island chain wouldn’t be too difficult, but there was no way of knowing how far northwest they’d need to travel in order to reach Trejuna. They weren’t out of the plains yet.