Chapter 27 -- The Trouble with Trade Quibbles
On my various journeys as a Swabber, and later Crewman, of the trade barge, I saw many places in the Matoran Universe, and beheld many quarrels over prices. But none were quite so severe as the time I witnessed the Brotherhood of Makuta's negotiations with Xia over the price of weapons.
The weapons merchant Shonin had returned a few times to Metru Nui since the incident with the Rahkshi of Anger.
This time, I felt intuition calling me to visit him.
After waiting in line for a while, I entered. He looked relieved to see me, and closed the door hastily.
"I was thinking of sending a messenger to you," he said. "I'm in trouble."
"I'll help if I can."
"It's the Brotherhood," he said. "I've been getting more and more unsure about them. They keep showing up on other islands on my rounds besides Destral, always demanding more and more weapons. I almost ran out and had to keep driving the price up."
"You're wondering if I still think they're good? I don't know about all of them, but I think there's one or two that are... misguided."
"Well, I just got word that they're putting together a group to go over my heads at Xia and demand low prices. I can only carry so much per trip. This'll drive up my fuel costs -- I'll have to go back to Xia more often rather than my efficient round trip. That'll mean I can't offer as many weapons. And yeah, I'd love to refuse them, but how do you say no to a Makuta?"
"I don't know," I admitted. "What can I do?"
"Go to Xia, and see if you can somehow influence my bosses to stand their ground. Maybe even assign a Vortixx or three to my boat to protect me." He was referring to the native species of Xia.
"I'll see what I can do," I said. "When will this be? You should talk to our leaders and ask them to send one of our trade barges to get involved. If the prices go down there'll be shortages and that will affect us. Recommend they send Maglya's boat." For Maglya had indeed become a Captain now.
"Good idea. I guess you'll be a stronger influence if you're there 'in person,' huh?"
"Yes. It's public knowledge that I know you, so I should be able to convince Maglya to let me speak on your behalf."
"And if I may ask, could you close up shop now, to save what weapons you have now for our crew? I wouldn't want to send the others in with me unarmed."
"But we'll pay full price," I added, winking.
I left to await word. There was no answer that day, but in the morning, Maglya showed up knocking on my door and ordered me to get to the barge early.
When the barge headed out for Ga-Metru, Captain Maglya called all the crew to the main deck except one who remained in the wheelhouse. He explained the mission to us.
I made sure to speak up at the mention of Shonin and hold up my sword, saying I knew him well, and I'd love to help any way I could. Sure enough, Maglya offered to let me do the speaking at Xia. He would accompany me.
We stopped off at the water region's docks and met up with Shonin. We purchased almost his entire stock.
I even bought another weapon I'd had my eye on for a while, called an Energy Extraction Rifle, and a clip-on holster to attach to the back of my scabbard belt next to my backpack.
This would send out a beam of red energy to drain a target of energy, and I could then use that energy as needed, such as to charge my orbs' batteries or perhaps amplify a bolt of light. I would only be able to test and then use that last idea if there were no witnesses, though.
Maglya bought an Impact Crystal Launcher, which fired Knowledge Crystals -- the same that the Knowledge Towers of Ko-Metru were grown out of. Those grew to incredible size only because they were placed in pools of rich ingredients, similar to how the Great Beings had made protodermis, but these would only grow large enough, on impact, to imprison a target.
We proceeded to the southeastern tunnel out of our dome.
Xia was situated not far from the exit of this tunnel, though we had to circle around a small but long barren island with only a few Rahi living on it.
The island still had some grass and trees on it in those days, but the signs of the pollution that would one day decimate them were already present. I didn't recall seeing images of this from my vision, but it was simple logic -- the Vortixx were ramping up their production, clearcutting, and pumping out more pollutants than ever with no sign of slowing down. It simply wasn't in their personality.
The style of the buildings here was unique -- dull rust colors and yellows, matching the rustlike appearance of the earth and stone, and the brownish-yellow sky.
I recognized a boat docked nearby as one that had been docked at Destral during a previous visit.
"The Makuta are here already," Maglya said, pointing out that boat, which he must have also recognized.
We docked and went ashore.
We were greeted by a Vortixx. She was colored black and gray, with a lizardlike head, blue eyes, and a ponytail-like decoration hanging down the back of the head.
"My name is Roodaka," she said. "I'll be directing you to your quarters for your visit. May I inquire as to your reason for visiting? I see you already have a good supply of our weapons, but trust me, we have plenty more, and much better ones to offer!"
Maglya explained that we were here to join in the negotiations.
"I see. I will bring your request before our leaders."
"May I ask who was sent from the Brotherhood?" I put in.
"Of the Makuta, Mutran and Icarax," she said. "And a high-ranking ally named Pridak."
Not Teridax. Good.
Mutran I knew. Icarax I would probably recognize if he was important enough to be sent here for this mission. I'd have to wait and see about the servant. I considered coming up with some excuse once we were seen to our quarters to go spying, but Roodaka explained that she would return soon to summon us to a meeting that was already taking place.
"I'd like to go to the meeting now," I said. "If you're going to ask whether you should summon us, know that Metru Nui's leaders are serious about our position on the prices. We won't accept being ignored."
She narrowed her eyes, but a hint of a smile appeared on her lips. "Perceptive. But we have our rules and they are to be obeyed, at least if I want to have any chance of being promoted, you understand."
"Did I mention we support Xia's position on the prices?"
I caught that old familiar twinkle in Maglya's eyes as we did just that.
Roodaka did make us wait outside the actual meeting room.
Soon she returned with an orange-eyed Vortixx. "This is Durva. She's in charge of the negotiations."
Durva was an oddity among Vortixx, in that she did not carry a weapon, though her left hand was replaced with a Catcher Claw that could stop most projectiles. I politely asked about this.
"Durva is an expert in martial arts," Roodaka said.
"Everything can be a weapon if used intelligently," Durva added. "Now, what is Metru Nui's position on our pricing?"
I summarized it.
"You have failed to take many things into account," Durva said. "You consider our prices reasonable, because your only contact with us has been Shonin, an outcast among Matoran who receives only our clearance weapons. For the real deal, people travel to Xia, and for those we charge much more."
"Not too much more," Roodaka added. Durva gave her a look that said she should go scrub her quarters' floors or something, and Roodaka nervously eased her way out of the room.
"You also failed to take into account that Metru Nui is, virtually bar none, the richest collection of naïve Matoran in the universe. Not everybody can so easily afford what you can."
Maglya started to reply, wondering the obvious, "Why are you defending—"
I interrupted. "She's playing Brotherhood's Advocate," I said.
"Exactly," she said. "The greatest weapon at the disposal of the smart are those very things thrown at us by an enemy."
"As a matter of fact I have considered those things," I continued. "It's no coincidence we're rich. We're good, and we deserve what we've earned. Now an argument can be made for some other places, but our perspective is not quite the same as Xia's neutral perspective. I intend to make this clearer to the Brotherhood, and I'd like to get started."
Durva gave a slight nod out of the custom of neutrality. One did not display impatience toward a Vortixx in just any situation, but when it came to customers, it could actually be a good thing. After all, an impatient customer is more likely to accept a bad deal rather than search for a better one.
Even so, I could tell she was aware that I'd just made her seem brash and foolish in the eyes of the Ta-Matoran with me. Maglya was a much better ship's captain than a judge of character and it was written all over his face. The others were often even more naïve.
We walked in.
Mutran was standing in front of a huge blue screen with large hexagonal pixels, well away from the sets at the back of the room -- the door came in on the left side.
From the seats, Mutran would appear very tiny -- the screen was enormously massive. I guessed it was normally used to help sell weapons by emotional persuasion. Mutran had apparently been using it to present a slideshow that explained the math of his argument because a slide of this was paused onscreen.
Seated against the back wall was a four-winged Makuta I did indeed recognize from Destral, though I hadn't happened to hear his name then. This would be Icarax. He wore a Mask of Scavenging, which enabled him to absorb the life energy from deceased Rahi or people.
He was tapping his fingers loudly on his chair's arm. As soon as he saw us, he blurted out harshly, "Can we get on with it? Who are these people?"
"This is Captain Maglya of a trade barge from Metru Nui," Durva said, "and a crewman familiar with our merchant Shonin, Koronga. He will be representing Metru Nui in this negotiation."
"Why should Metru Nui be involved?" Pridak put in.
He was standing behind one of several podiums on the right wall, which I guessed were used for helpers of a weapons designer to explain things about a weapon during a presentation. The other chairs at the back of the room were empty, as it would be hard to see each other there. We were directed to wooden chairs that other Vortixx had hastily set up around the door on the left wall.
Pridak looked like a land version of the aquatic species I'd seen created long ago, colored white and dark gray, with red eyes.
On the way here, Roodaka had explained that he had gained a high rank among his people and worked with the Brotherhood often, but he was actually here representing the other peoples of the universe besides the Makuta.
So, prior to our showing up, he would be presumed to speak for Metru Nui as well as the others. Given that he was siding with the Makuta, it was a very good thing we'd come.
But I tried to avoid that implication in my response. It was possible I could win him over to my side, as far as I knew. "I would really rather everybody be involved, if it were possible," I said. "Perhaps we are not essential to these negotiations."
"Understatement, a classic trait of Matoran," Icarax said.
"Even so, our leaders have a firm position on the issue and wished us to convey it. But I'll explain after you finish your presentation." I almost said Mutran's name, but caught myself at the last second. Koronga the Ta-Matoran worker on a random barge had no reason to be so free with that name or necessarily even know which Makuta was which.
Durva picked up on my hesitation, and thankfully misinterpreted. "That is Makuta Mutran," she said.
I nodded my acknowledgement.
Mutran was standing behind a podium on the right of the screen, so Durva took her position behind another pedestal on the left.
"Shall I start over?" Mutran wondered aloud.
"I think not," Durva said. I had to scold myself a moment later because I smirked. Thankfully the room was only dimly lit so the screen could be seen more easily -- I don't think Mutran noticed.
He continued, showing a long series of economic equations that meant nothing at all to me, and then restated a series of bullet-point arguments in the slideshow.
Essentially it boiled down to, 'we can't afford your prices, so lower them.'
He tried to prove that the materials used to make the weapons weren't worth enough to add up to the final prices, but Durva interrupted to point out that this failed to account for the most valuable ingredient of all -- the skill of the designers and manufacturers, which the Brotherhood implicitly acknowledged by asking Xia to make things for them in the first place rather than making them on their own.
Mutran stumbled past a few more points along these lines, then concluded with complaints about Shonin's inconsistent policies about who he sold weapons to, which did not at all fit with Xia's neutrality position.
Durva thankfully shot this down as well. "Shonin has a license to sell our products, yes, but he is his own agent who must first buy the weapons from us and then sell them at his own profit and discretion. He is not our employee."
Mutran just looked at Icarax and Pridak as if hoping they would know what to say in response, but Icarax just rolled his eyes at him, and Pridak seemed content to let him squirm.
I raised my hand enough to be noticed.
"I'd like to add that Metru Nui recommends that some type of guard contingent be assigned to Shonin, for reasonable wages which Metru Nui and other agreeing locations can contribute to, to make sure his personal sales policies are upheld."
Icarax slammed a fist down on the arm of his chair. "We're here to negotiate lower prices and less restrictions! I will not tolerate this being hijacked to make the opposite happen!"
Mutran coughed, then added in a gentler tone, "Shonin can make whatever policies he wants if he's not an employee, but I consider this to still be a point of contention, since you admit he has a license for what he does. He everywhere markets himself as the direct representative of Xia."
"And in a sense, to the average lowly Matoran out there, he is," Durva said readily. "With him and a handful of other roaming merchants like him, the customer gets more direct access to our weapons rather than needing to go through the trouble of arranging a boat ride here."
"Semantics," Pridak said. "The point is, the distinction between licensed salesman and employee is blurred, and this is actually hurting your own profit, if you think about it."
"There's much more to this than profit," I countered. "Weapons can be used for good or ill, and Shonin has strong morals, as I'm sure all of us in this room do. That's why he sells to all of us. He simply wants to make sure the weapons don't fall into the hands of some wannabe tyrant or your average petty criminal."
"We are not here to debate Shonin's personal policies," Durva said. "And that's final. This is really about our own price levels. If we were to lower those uniformly it would affect Shonin's prices as well as he would spend less to buy ours. But our own leaders do not believe our prices are unreasonable."
"But your customers do," Mutran said.
"Not all of us," I said. "Consider this. By making the prices higher, it is more likely that those who have earned a higher amount of money will be able to buy them, and less likely that those who have done nothing to earn such money will. This means that good people like the Brotherhood, your people, Pridak, Metru Nui, or countless other cultures in our world will get weapons, while those who harbor ill will get far less."
Nobody seemed to have an answer to that.
Mutran finally said. "I'd like to request we continue this meeting tomorrow. I would like to take time to consider a well-researched answer to these points. Unless you have a more detailed presentation to give?" he asked me.
"I don't have anything for the screen," I said. "For now, I'll just add that it's an honor to meet all of you, and whatever is decided, I'm sure it will be for the best."
Icarax stormed out of the room, followed by a thoughtful but obviously bothered Mutran, and Pridak whose face I couldn't seem to read well.
Roodaka greeted us again at the exit and showed us back to our quarters, just in case we wouldn't recognize the way while heading in the opposite direction.
"Gotta say you surprised even me in there," Maglya told me. "You told Metru Nui's position on it even better than I told you. It was like you were there when they told me!"
I smiled. "That's probably because I suggested some of it to Shonin in the first place."
Maglya grinned widely. "Ha!"
"I knew it," one of the other crewmen said.
"But they'll cook up some clever comeback for tomorrow," another added. "Where do we go from here?"
"Shortages didn't even come up," I said. "I'm saving it for tomorrow. Fuel costs factor into it too, for Shonin, but it seems we're no longer allowed to debate his policies. I'll bring that up only if they press the point anyways."
"Most of it went over my head," Maglya said. "But fuel costs make a lot of sense to me. I'd bring it up regardless if I were you."
"Maybe you should bring it up," I said. "It is in your area of expertise."
"Maybe I will."
"And now," I said. "I've got to be well-rested for tomorrow."
I locked myself in my room and shapeshifted to seek out the Makuta's quarters and spy on them.
Mutran was working on a point I honestly feared I hadn't taken into account -- the possibility of a criminal organization being successful enough at gathering stolen funds that my 'moral equals rich' argument would utterly fall apart.
It was a good point indeed. I had been thinking of trying to influence Mutran to think more about right and wrong, and praising the Brotherhood because I felt this was the best chance to steer them away from temptation. My concerns were so much larger than anyone else here realized. In the attempt, I'd missed the obvious.
The real irony, of course, was that I knew the Brotherhood could become just such an organization.
How could I defeat this argument, and at the same time try to steer them away from thinking of that themselves?
Or had they already? Was this all just a charade? Teridax had apparently ordered those Rahkshi to execute me, when I had committed no crime, certainly nothing legally befitting the death sentence.
But I found myself unable to focus, because I kept thinking I was hearing someone screaming in another room.
Mutran and Icarax were seated around a table with similar blue hexagonal pixels for a computer screen surface. Mutran was working on a second presentation on his half and asking now and then for Icarax's input. Icarax was playing a primitive computer game simulating firing a weapon at 'enemy pixels' on his half and nodding absent-mindedly to Mutran's questions, even when they weren't yes or no questions.
The noise seemed to be coming from one of their rooms. Pridak was making some kind of meal in a kitchen room that smelled like seasoned meat.
I tried to ignore the sound, figuring I must be imagining it.
I watched Mutran's plans for a while, but I was soon so tired I had to go back to my room and actually sleep. I could have used the Antisleep power, but I had realized by now that it wasn't quite as effective as real sleep.
The next meeting went horribly for me. Mutran seemed to have a great answer ready for every point I made.
He forced my attention through one of his equations which showed that while temporary shortages might come about, in the medium long term, sales would increase and so would total profit, which would drive further manufacturing to meet the higher demand. In the long term, weapons would become more numerous and demand would lower again, making shortages nonexistent. He even had quotes from famous Matoran economists on both continents, who considered Metru Nui's position unrealistic.
I had no answer for this, and made a similar request to take a day to think through "the response I am preparing" as if to imply I had any at all.
But before I could get to this, Maglya lamely tried to rescue me with a stuttering, rambling diatribe about fuel costs that only served to confuse Icarax as to how it was relevant and insult the others.
I resisted the urge to wince, and silently admonished myself for not being clearer about how I wanted him to go about it. In all honesty, I should have advised him to let me do all the talking.
I tried to spy on Mutran again to learn more about those economists. We had no computer like his -- the great irony here being that while we were being labeled as the rich, we were just ordinary citizens who couldn't afford the luxurious quarters the Brotherhood elite could. We were rich only in comparison by our relatively even wealth to the highly centralized wealth of the Brotherhood -- its servants were usually dirt-poor.
But that screaming was earshattering by now, and I could ignore it no longer.
Turning into an odd patch of carpet, I oozed into what I guessed must be Mutran's room, judging by the neatness of the sheets and luggage.
I'd almost expected to see a Matoran being tortured or something like that, except the screams took no pause to breathe. This was clearly some kind of strange Rahi.
But I couldn't see anything.
I moved around, trying to pinpoint the noise. That didn't take long.
It came from a fairly small decorative box, locked tightly shut.
My arm formed the shape of the key, and I opened it.
It looked like a rock. But it had several tiny mouths all around it. One would scream, then pause to suck in air, and scream again. The mouths timed their screams randomly so they sounded like one continuous, wavering shriek.
Now I activated a power I had been afraid to try on the Makuta.
I had mixed this power myself -- it was not known to the Great Being who had written the protodermis guide, nor to any other Matoran I was aware of. I called it Mind Skimming.
It enabled me to sense just the most intense surface thoughts and emotions of a target, so that the act of sensing them was difficult for the target to detect. I could not call forth thoughts at my own choosing -- that would alert them to the presence of a being who was forcing those thoughts up. But it could still be useful.
Of course, I'd only had myself and Rahi to test it on, so I wasn't really sure a truly intelligent being couldn't sense the intrusion anyways.
There was one overpowering thought from this screaming rock. "FEED ME!"
I closed the lid, realizing I had let the volume of the screams grow much louder, and locked it again, shrinking down into the carpet. But Mutran did not come.
He was ignoring it.
I had known he could be jealous, prideful, and was probably working with Teridax to subvert Miserix -- or worse, working with both of them to subvert Mata Nui. But I hadn't imagined animal cruelty to be among Mutran's vices.
I saw a box of treats nearby. Strings were tied around the box with no discernable knot or other way to re-seal it; they would have to be cut -- and hadn't been. He hadn't fed it on this trip at all.
I couldn't risk blowing my cover, but I could and did demolish Mutran's arguments the next day as if I had a personal vendetta against him. He seemed quite at a loss as to explain my suddenly Icarax-like behavior. Durva had to shut me down a few times as well as Icarax who leaped to Mutran's defense.
Pridak stayed mostly out of it, with a definite air of it all being beneath him.
I left that day's meeting ashamed of how I'd acted, though some of the other Matoran seemed to think it was the best day yet. I retreated 'to my room' again and spent as much of that night as I could watching to see if Mutran would feed the poor creature.
He did not.
It was like he'd spitefully created his own version of the Mata Nui stone to neglect the way he must feel neglected by Mata Nui, I thought. But the rock was an innocent in that mess.
The next day ended in a stalemate, with both of us agreeing reluctantly that the other had reasonable points, but Durva was adamant that the prices needed to remain in place.
That afternoon the rock was screaming so deafeningly I expected Pridak, at least, to say something, but he didn't.
Icarax was actually humming along to the chaotic 'tune' of the screams.
Mutran drew up a quick argument, but soon he seemed to relent. "Let's take the rock for a walk," he said.
Icarax agreed. Pridak said he would rather prepare another meal -- more meat.
Mutran stuffed the metal box and the box of treats into a thick cloth bag, somewhat muffling the screams, and walked out. As soon as anyone came near, he used his Mask of Silence on the poor thing, so it couldn't be heard at all -- the power both deafened a target and made it mute. Now it couldn't even hear whether he was about to take it out to feed it, much less scream.
I didn't dare risk the Mind Skim power with two Makuta nearby, as I followed, but I imagined its thoughts ran along the lines of desperate pleading for its life.
The buildings of Xia followed a meandering muddy stream that roughly encircled the island. In the center there was a wide stony plain with some sparse brownish vegetation remaining. Mutran took the rock to a spot of wide bare rock and opened the metal box with his key.
He let the screaming rock roll out onto the ground. Then he rolled it around a bit as it continued to scream for a few minutes. Finally, he opened the box of treats, littered them around the ground, and rolled the rock over them, carefully avoiding putting a finger in any of the mouths.
The creature had actually shrunken in size since I'd last seen it. It looked like it was about to waste away into nothing. But Mutran would not let it get off so mercifully. Now it would survive -- it actually fell silent for a moment. But he would torture it for the rest of its life.
I tried to think of some way to fix this, as Mutran and Icarax talked strategy.
It was clear to me now that the Brotherhood had sent the wrong ambassadors for this job. I felt confident Teridax would have already gotten the prices lowered. He was much more savvy than these two. Mutran had his head in a computer or tablets all the time, I guessed, and Icarax had no people skills at all.
"So stubborn!" Icarax said. "I could snap them all in two and I'd still be angry!"
"Now now," Mutran said. "Remember we're the good guys."
The rock seemed satisfied for now as Mutran packed it away, and I returned to my quarters, not so tired now. I really tried to apply myself to my task now.
I thought of a few good arguments, and made them the next day. All three of the Brotherhood representatives dismissed them outright as nonsense at first, but Durva praised them as among the best yet. One of them was a re-attempt at Maglya's fuel argument, which I said I'd thought about and decided the point needed hammered home.
Honestly, I didn't think Durva even understood most of what was being said now. I thought it was odd that a martial arts expert was assigned to this job, although her obvious tactical skill helped explain it. But now it became clear her strategy was to simply begin to agree more wholeheartedly with everything I said as the negotiations went on, forcing the others to compromise.
I only feared the strategy was too transparent, especially when Icarax himself accused her of it outright. Or maybe he was smarter than I was giving him credit for.
I didn't watch the Makuta that night -- I spent it actually talking strategy with the other Ta-Matoran. I felt that the only way we'd win this would be if it was more obvious we were all on the same page. It couldn't be all me anymore.
I was about to go to sleep when Roodaka knocked.
"I'm afraid there's been a ruling in the Brotherhood's favor," she announced.
"What? I thought Durva was in charge, and she seemed decided against them."
"There was... ah... an incident earlier tonight," she said. "One of the Makuta... er... lost his temper, understandably so I'm sure, and... there was some property damage. In light of the contentiousness of the issue, we decided to reach a reasonable compromise and lower our prices."
I glanced out a window as she gestured that way. Several buildings had been utterly leveled. I'd thought I'd heard a noise or two as we'd talked but our voices had drowned it out too much for me to be sure it was anything unusual.
Translation: Icarax smashed things and you gave in.
I should have seen it coming.
The three Brotherhood reps had already left, Roodaka added.
I asked what the new policy would be, and she explained that at least my arguments had helped, in Durva's opinion, settle on a compromise that was more comfortable than what Mutran had originally asked for. The new prices seemed somewhat reasonable to me, if I understood the scholarly Makuta's economic formulas correctly.
I had no idea whether those could be trusted, but at least I could report some kind of partial success to my superiors. Ultimately the failure was not mine, anyway.
It was too late to set out for home, so we stayed the night. Before turning in, I felt intuition guiding me outside. This confused me greatly, until I felt drawn toward the center of the island.
Sure enough, there was the rock.
In the confusion of Icarax's attack, Mutran must have closed his metal box, going through the motions, without realizing he'd forgotten to pack the creature inside.
He'd notice eventually when he didn't hear the screams, but I wasn't inclined to do anything about it.
Several of the treats were still laying on the ground, and the rock was ever so slowly rolling around to pick them up. It was twice its earlier size now, and there was no screaming. It was also rolling toward the grass. I decided to test whether it could eat the plant, and laid a piece in front of it. It swallowed it eagerly.
I smiled. It might not last, but for now the creature was happy.
The next morning, I decided to ask Maglya to wait a bit before we left. I asked around for where I could find Durva now.
When I did, I asked her if Shonin could get those guards I'd suggested. The Brotherhood might still bother him, and given how Icarax had just learned he could get his way, I was justifiably concerned.
She seemed confused, as if she hadn't recalled this request. "I'm sorry, I've been distracted by the disappearances."
"Several people have been reported missing this morning," she said. "At first we assumed they were in the rubble of the buildings Ic... ah... that were lost."
"We have an advanced scanner that can detect bodies in the rubble, and we found nothing."
Icarax? Mutran? Or even Pridak?
Any other explanation was possible but the timing seemed too coincidental.
"I'm sorry to bother you, under the circumstances," I said. "Can you let me know as soon as there's a decision? I'll ask the Captain to let us stay until then."
It was mainly for Shonin's sake that our superiors had wanted us to come on this mission in the first place. We were no fools -- this was becoming a more and more dangerous universe and he was one of the best sources of weapons for self-defense. Many people felt like they owed him.
Of course, his suppliers were also a part of the reason self-defense was becoming more necessary.
But when you had Makuta, Rakhshi, and beings like Pridak populating the universe, not to mention the many dangerous Rahi beasts, you really appreciated having anything to help even the odds.
Not for the first time in my new life, I wished Mata Nui would have just been patient and allowed the Matoran to overcome their inefficiencies with technology, rather than resorting to these more powerful beings. It was like watching the error of the Element Lords all over again, although so far things hadn't gone that far bad.
We waited two days before hearing anything.
When Roodaka did come to us, she brought several other Vortixx, all armed.
"You are all under arrest," she said simply.
We exclaimed our surprise and outrage at this turn of events, and Maglya demanded to know why, but they refused to answer. They marched us to a collection of cells and threw us in.
I left my cell at night, using the Antisleep power, to try to figure out why they would have done this.
I found a room where they were questioning Durva.
"And then he said they'd stay for a while," she said. "Awaiting our decision."
"And what implication did you take from this?"
She shrugged. "He seemed genuinely alarmed at the news. I didn't read the threat you seem to want to imagine."
The other Vortixx shook her head vehemently. "I'm not imagining anything here. The two Makuta and Pridak left. The Matoran remained. Nothing else has happened that could explain the continuing disappearances.
"But did any of the Matoran head toward the center of the island?"
"I admit that's a weak point in the explanation."
I almost gasped out loud, understanding what must have happened.
It was my fault in a sense.
I hurried back to my cell, afraid they might come to us for questioning next, but I was certain that rock creature must be to blame. I should have found some way to alert them to it earlier.
But they didn't come that night. I waited until I was satisfied my cell would be left alone -- none of us could see the other cells as their side walls were solid; only the fronts had bars, luckily for me.
Even so, I used an Illusion Echo orb I'd designed that would leave an image of me in the position I was in when I hit the button -- laying on my cot, apparently asleep with one hand happening to have fallen onto the scabbard belt on the floor.
Flying out to the center of the island, I beheld the rock.
Except it wasn't a rock now. It was a small hill.
It must have rolled over to the dirt and sunk roots into the ground, eating soil and plant material alike.
Vortixx who liked to hike in the central wilderness for fun must have encountered it, and touched it out of curiosity. Later others could have tried to walk over it and been consumed. I could see feet and hands poking out here and there, but they were all clearly dead.
Horrifed, I flew back, wracking my brain for a way to explain this without blowing my cover. I could save lives if I came forward now... but then, how could I keep from still looking guilty in some way for knowing what had happened?
No. No! I had a much larger purpose than this. I had to consider the whole reason I'd built this cover so carefully. If I came forward now I'd lose all that potential trust, and maybe make myself a more direct target for Teridax's hatred.
Mutran wasn't neglecting the rock, I realized.
I'd made a reasonable assumption with limited facts, but if I'd encountered him in my 'real' life I could have simply politely asked, and he would explain that the rock's screaming was deceptive. If you fed it as much as it thought it wanted, it would grow and grow and grow with no upper limit.
It wasn't his smartest design and thankfully it couldn't reproduce, but he must actually be fond of it to put up with it given the risk.
This only showed all the more why my cover was so important. I could feel free to ask normal questions as 'the Ta-Matoran barge crewman' that the mysterious shapeshifter could never ask. And in this case likely Mind Skimming wouldn't have helped, as Mutran would have been used to it by now and wouldn't be focused so clearly on it.
Two more days wore on as I found myself unable to think of a way out of this mess.
I slept for the first night, but as it was looking more and more hopeless, I used Antisleep again the second night and decided to explore Xia and try to learn about some of the projects they were working on, so at least the extra time here would be useful.
I found many designs that were just being tweaked, or projects that were too new to tell where they might lead. Others were in prototype form and had not been decided on yet. But finally, I found a few with working final models that were not yet known to the public.
First, there was the Cordak Blaster, a six-barrel gatling gun that shot red mini-rockets which exploded on impact.
Its design actually came from a secretive outside source that was left unnamed. It seemed that the Xians were placing prime investments in its production, because it would fill a gap in ability that had been quite glaring for a while, made up for only by Toa of Fire and Plasma.
I wasn't sure I liked this direction.
The next weapon I found was being designed by a group of Matoran from an island in Mata Nui's right arm, called Nynrah. They had been competitors of Xia for a while, but eventually some had gotten the idea of working with the Vortixx to produce even better inventions, of the weapons category. A few even lived and worked on Xia.
Nicknamed the 'Nynrah Ghosts', they were all Matoran of Iron, highly skilled at forging metal components for the weapons.
The weapon in question was called the Nynrah Ghost Blaster because of this -- it was their first successful invention, the records showed, having been sold in many places already, though I had not heard of them, probably because they were too expensive for Shonin.
But it seemed that somehow the Vortixx had gotten their hands on the design and were now mass-producing knockoff copies by the same name.
The Ghost Blaster fired blunt-tipped arrow-like projectiles. They would give the user the ability to control any mechanical or most electronic devices that they hit. They could even give limited control of biomechanical beings' metal components.
I was most interested to find several prototypes and a finalized design of the Exo-Toa, the robotic suits I'd heard Mutran and Teridax talking about once on Destral.
In its robotic mode, it was essentially a titan standing about the height of a Toa and a half. A head was folded forward so its cameras could operate.
To be used as a suit for a Toa, the head folded back, appearing as a backpack of sorts, and the body of the robot would open up slightly so the Toa could fit inside.
It had a frontal armor plate to protect the Toa inside. On its right hand it had powerful punching claws that could also grip things. On the left, it could fire electro-rockets.
This was in the process of mass production now.
Ironically, this time the Nynrah Ghosts and the Vortixx actually worked together to aid the Brotherhood in designing it, probably thanks to the idea that Toa would control them. The Matoran made the designs based on specs from the Makuta, while the Vortixx focused on manufacturing.
I discovered a few more interesting things that night, but none more worth mentioning here, and returned to my cell.
Thankfully, Mutran himself returned the next day, telling the Vortixx that he'd forgotten a pet of his.
As soon as he was told of the disappearances, he put two and two together and assured the Vortixx that we were not to blame.
We were released, and word went out to avoid the strange multi-mouthed living rock.
I 'slept' that afternoon as well so I could witness Mutran arrive at the small mountain that the creature was becoming. It was so huge he had to crane his neck up to see it all.
He tried the power of Rahi Control on it, and a few others, to no avail.
"I'm afraid it's too deeply rooted," he told the Vortixx who had accompanied him. "I'm sorry for the mistake."
"Sorry enough to pay damages?" one asked.
With that, he left.
Over the next few centuries, I would return several more times to Xia with the barge. The mountain grew and grew, until it dominated the skyline, and eventually far surpassed it.
The Vortixx only made this worse, because they developed a sick rite of passage, where pairs of Vortixx would actually intentionally climb the mountain. Only those that returned were granted high rank in Xian society.
I once witnessed Roodaka and a green-armored Vortixx make this rite of passage.
At one time, his Catcher Claw got caught in one of the mouths. He could have gotten his hand free of the Claw if Roodaka would have come down to help. He shouted for her.
But she ignored him, using the moment of distraction to climb higher.
She reached the summit, and returned alone, as the mountain dragged the unfortunate male deeper into its gaping maw. Again I deeply regretted my foolish choice, and argued with myself constantly over whether I could afford to intervene. But he was dead before I could decide anything.
There had been witnesses to Roodaka's treachery, which was part of the rite -- telescopes with a Vision power were employed to watch each to make sure they reached the top.
I'd hoped they would punish her, but to my dismay, they awarded her an even higher rank than most ever attained through normal hard work.
Everyone I meet seems to go so wrong, I thought.
If only I could have seen how dark Roodaka would become.
Well, I had. I must have. The vision I'd received on that cliff had been so complete. I wished I'd understood it better.
Maybe something I'd done wrong during the brief time I'd known her had sent her down this path. Or maybe something I hadn't done -- I hadn't treated her like anybody important.
With Teridax, I wished that instead of digging into a cover and working to earn the ability to make powers to defend myself against him if he would ever go bad, I would have asked Mata Nui to introduce me to him, explain everything, and thank him for trying to save my life! The Teridax I'd met that day had been honorable and worthy of great admiration.
Oh how I wished I could turn the clock back.
It was ironic, I thought, how the slightest little rock could turn into a mountain if you let it fester.
Well, not everyone had gone bad. Really, it was only a select few, but they also seemed to be among the most important in the grand scheme of things.
Mutran's prediction about the shortages being temporary turned out to be true. Shonin was assigned only one guard, and only Metru Nui and a handful of other places agreed to pay his prices.
As for me, I found myself reluctant to choose the barge line of work permanently as I'd planned. I continued stealing from my Toolmaking job and experimenting on the side, making more and more Orbs of various powers. I felt that I might need them, but I could no longer distinguish the vision-guided intuition on this matter from my own selfish desires.
But I will have to decide soon.
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