THE PIRATE TREE
by Jonathan Hart
“As I create more and more complex machine/living things I find it is harder and harder to limit their intelligence. If I need something to fulfill a certain roll, it is easier for me to imbue it with the intelligence needed to solve the problem, and the ability to modify its own structure, then to attempt to design the correct structure myself.” – Joshua Harken
Robert Harken gazed out upon what only a few months ago had been the Norris Geyser Basin of Yellowstone Park. Since then the area had been wracked by volcanic activity, taken over by a gigantic synthetic life form, attacked by a swarm of other synthetic lifeforms, and blown up with a hydrogen bomb. Still, he had to admit, his home looked pretty good for all that. Much of the basin was now the trunk of a gigantic tree that wasn’t really a tree, named Beowulf. The rest of the basin was now covered in a sort of greenish hair. Up close, it looked like hairy green wheat. From a distance, it looked like a bed of moss surrounding the giant tree. The moss was actually a part of the tree. Beowulf had started to grow it after the nuclear blast as a part of his fallout sequestration efforts. The area had been blanketed with radioactive isotopes by the bomb, and Beowulf was making a concerted effort to absorb these dangerous radiation emitting byproducts and bury them below the earth within himself. The moss’s part in the process was to capture radioactive dust in its hairs, absorb it, and send it back to the tree.
Robert sat in an enclosed hexapod walker. Beowulf had recommended that they avoid moving unprotected through the area around the tree until he had finished his radiation clean up efforts. Feeling a little couped up, Robert had asked the dryad to fabricate a vehicle for him. Beowulf had come up with this hexapod design. It was a domed transparent enclosure with seating for two, mounted on a set of ant-like wooden legs. There were no controls within the enclosure. The walker responded to Robert’s voice commands. The only interface was a screen on which Robert could request to see anything the tree or it’s drones could see. While reviewing the design with the dryad, Robert had considered asking for manual controls to be added, but he’d pictured himself slowly raising each of the six legs, moving it forward, and setting it down and had realized that manual control of six multi-jointed legs would be asinine. As usual, Beowulf had already made the right call.
Beowulf was the artificial intelligence of the tree, and Robert had administrative privileges over him because he’d been the one to plant the tree. The designer of the tree, Robert’s brother Josh, had named these AI’s, dryads, after the mythical tree spirits. When they had first met, Beowulf had appeared to Robert as a nine foot tall buff man (Like a scaled up version of Terry Crews) made out of living wood with a red lichen cloak. The dryad had boasted about his efforts to tame the dangerously volcanic (at the time) Yellowstone caldera, and so Robert had named him Beowulf, after the boisterous hero from the tale of the same name.
“Take me back in.” Robert commanded the walker, and it’s legs scrambled down the overlook into the basin towards the trunk. Up close the trunk was made of thick living logs, like the trunk was comprised of hundreds of giant vines. The logs parted to create an opening as the walker approached. Past the opening was a wide hallway through the tree’s hull into the reception area. At the other end of the hall was another gateway which opened automatically as the walker moved towards it. This had been another recent addition since the atomic blast. The addition of the second door had made the entrance hall into an air lock to prevent harmful dust from the outside getting into the living areas.
The reception area was empty. The tree was designed to house over 1.5 million people comfortably, with all food, water, and shelter needs provided by the tree. The reception hall was designed to be a common area to facilitate the movement of freight and people from the outside into the tree, but there were currently only seven human residents. So the empty reception area was a reminder of squandered potential. Even more so because out of those seven residents, five were only there to shelter from the nuclear blast, and would likely leave when it became safe to travel. The other two were Robert and his wife, Kate.
“Stop, dismount.” Robert commanded. The walker stopped and lowered the enclosure to the floor, then the dome swung open, allowing him to exit the hexapod. It was one of the more utilitarian things he and Kate had asked Beowulf to make for them. Their other creations had been swiftly designed and deployed military drones. The planting of the tree and the attack of the swarm had been the most exciting and terrifying times of Robert’s life. Technically, Beowulf had in those first few weeks prevented the apocalypse twice. First, he had put a stop to growing volcanic activity in the Yellowstone caldera which had been predicted to end in apocalyptic amounts of dust release, like the asteroid strike they used to say killed off the dinosaurs. Then, Beowulf, Robert, and Kate had waged a secret war against a monster his brother had also created. It was a massive hive mind swarm of insect-like things that could consume any living thing and even operate dead corpses like puppets. Eventually the swarm had beaten them, and consumed a city, at which point the US military took over the fight. They couldn’t stop the swarm from reaching the tree, though, and there had been an epic battle in Yellowstone, ending with a preemptive nuclear strike from uncle Sam. The blast had destroyed the monster, but had left Beowulf scarred. It still gave Robert nightmares when he thought about the timing of that nuclear strike. Beowulf had taken a few licks in the battle, but it was by no means over when the hammer fell. So Robert was left with nightmares of the US government wanting to kill two birds with one stone, and it was something he’d probably never be able to discover the truth about.
“Wolf, “ he said to the empty reception hall, “the hexapod worked great. Could you make a few more, and add a few garages in the reception hall to store them?” The floor in front of Robert parted and made a small opening. The dryad rose out of the floor, and it closed again beneath him. The dryad’s scars were prominent, he had been skewered through the shoulder, leaving scars that looked like wood knots on both sides of body, and half his head had been burned by the nuclear fire and appeared as cracked charcoal. A mossy eye patch covered his damaged eye. Robert had not asked Beowulf if he could repair these blemishes to their original state. He believed that he could, and that he wore them as a reminder of sorts, or perhaps they would serve as evidence that his tales were true.
“I’m glad it worked as expected. Clean up of the radiation is going well, I can’t do anything about the fallout that has blown out of range, but the caldera should be completely clean by the end of the year, and the area should be safe for unprotected humans in a month.” He said amiably.
“Yes, I was going to complement you on that as well. When viewed from a distance, that hairy green moss stuff around the tree makes the whole thing look like a perspective trick. Like someone just photoshoped a scaled up normal tree surrounded with moss and added it to a picture of the geyser basin.”
“I do like to add an aesthetic quality to anything I do,” explained the grinning dryad. “This entire tree could technically have had the appearance of a blank gray obelisk, but it is much more lively and comforting for it to have this appearance.”
“I much prefer it the way it is.” Robert acknowledged. “I’d better go and see Kate. We’re having everyone over for dinner tonight.” He nodded to the dryad and walked towards the closest of four large support columns located near the center of the reception area. These provided support to the many habitable floors of the tree and housed hydraulic lift systems. The giant flower petal doors of the nearest elevator curled up as he approached. He stepped in and said, “My quarters.” He hadn’t said goodbye to the dryad, because he was effectively with him at all times within the tree. Beowulf was the tree, he saw and heard all that happened within it and nearby.
The elevator stopped and opened to his quarters, he and Kate shared a whole floor at the top of the tree. It was actually several miles above sea level, but it was sealed, pressurized and climate controlled for human comfort. Robert had tried to do the math once on the speed of the elevator from the ground floor to their quarters. The trip took about a minute, half of the trip was acceleration, the other half deceleration. The elevator was likely going faster than 100 mph for much of the trip, but the only they felt inside was the increase or decrease in gravity depending on which half of the journey they were on and in which direction they were going.
In the foyer, their wooden butler stood motionless. When it wasn’t moving, the butler, which Kate had named Woody, looked exactly like a wooden statue of a butler. Robert had once proposed to Kate that they order him to dress like a cigar store indian and stand in a corner when he wasn’t doing anything, but she’d shot the idea down as being too impolitic for their new position as leaders of the tree.
Also in the foyer was a recessed display alcove holding the Archive and four giant acorns on ornate pedestals. The Archive was a fist sized glossy black cube containing an artificial intelligence. It had been a gift from his brother along with the nuts. Josh had given him five nuts in total and he stood in the tree which had grown from one of them. The remaining four were arranged two to a side around the cube in the center. The Archive had been their guide as he and Kate had journeyed to Yellowstone, but Robert rarely spoke to the Archive anymore. It was an inanimate object, after all, Robert rationalized. What did it have to talk about? The exciting life of resting on a pedestal could probably only fill one or two conversations at best. Robert had thought about future roles for the cube including leaving it in the reception area as a greeter, but the flaw with that was that the Archive seemed only to be able to speak when spoken to.
He had, at least, ordered the Archive to stop camouflaging itself when others besides him and Kate were present. That was a precaution they’d taken to prevent loss of the cube to strangers during they’re trip to Yellowstone. Now the cube’s job was to sit on a display pedestal, he’d reasoned it’d be better to have it visible. Beowulf would protect it from any strangers, anyway.
He continued past Woody into the dining hall. It was a long room with a single long dining table. Kate and their five guests were seated at the far end near the kitchen snacking on appetizers. The food was all produced by the tree, and was all vegan. Robert wasn’t sure if the tree could synthesize meat or not, but he didn’t want to find out, and he had ordered the tree never to attempt it. Not that he didn’t like meat. Since moving into the tree, he sometimes had dreams of cheeseburgers falling on him slowly like rose petals. It just didn’t seem right to have the tree trying to reproduce flesh.
The conversation had stopped when he’d entered. He touched Kate shoulder and bent down to give her a quick kiss in greeting as he passed, then pulled out and settled into his vacant chair at the head of the table. “Hello everyone!” he announced, and looked over his guests.
To his right sat Kate and the communication tech from the gatehouse that had taken shelter in the tree, Sara Mariposa. As the only two women in the tree, Kate and Sara had formed a friendship almost by default. To his immediate left were the diplomat and his assistant, Theo Rigby and Ralph Walters. Beyond them were the two gatehouse guards, Fritz and Ventura. The gatehouse had been a hastily built structure in the former Norris Geyser Basin parking lot which had housed communication equipment for Rigby’s reports to the White House. That gatehouse, it’s helipad, and the large fence that the Army Corp of Engineers had quickly designed around the tree had all been obliterated by the swarm attack and then finished off by the nuclear blast.
“Hey, Rob. How was the trip?” Rigby asked congenially. Rigby was a former CIA intelligence analyst that had been selected to be the White House’s liaison to the tree. It turns out that stopping a volcanic cataclysm by planting a gigantic tree in a national park attracts the attention of the federal government. Who knew? His primary role was to figure the tree out. The feds had no idea what this tree thing was or how it would effect them, and they were still somewhat in the dark regarding the tree’s full capabilities. So they’d sent in Rigby to snoop it out.
“Good. It’s nice out there, quiet, peaceful, serene. At least, that’s the way it looks. Wolf tells us that things are still a bit too exciting out there on a subatomic level.” Robert replied.
“I’ve discussed it at length with him.” Kate interposed, “The actual amount of radiation outside is already at human tolerable levels, at least for short term exposure. The real danger is that there is some radioactive heavy metal dust that could stick permanently in lung tissue, and if it does it would produce a cancer risk equivalent to one lifetime of smoking every year it remained.”
“That would be unpleasant.” Robert continued. “Wolf has grown some type of green hairy wheat out there to collect the dust, and has projected we’ll be free to enjoy the outdoors in a month.” There were a few groans from around the table. Sara and Fritz each had children with whom they’d had no contact for the entire period they’d sheltered in the tree. “But, there’s some good news. With the successful test of the hexapod walker today, I’ve got an offer to make. We can have Beowulf produce a few more of these walkers and supply them with enough power for a one way trip as far as Billings, Bozeman, or Idaho falls. That’s right, folks, a free ticket out of here, and Wolf’ll be happy to do it, any takers?” Almost everyone responded at once.
“You bet!” Sarah.
“Yes sir!” Fritz.
“Thank you!” Ventura.
Rigby smiled at Robert, but made no indication of assent. “Billings alright with everyone?” Robert asked. Again assent all around except for Rigby. “All right, they’ll be ready the day after next, but for tonight, let’s celebrate. Woody?” The butler appeared. “Bring out dinner please.” The rest of the evening was really the happiest he’d seen his visitors since he’d become their host. All except for Rigby, who lingered after the rest of them had retired to bed.
“Can I have a word with you two before I head off to bed?” He asked. Now we’ll find out what’s the matter, Robert thought. Theo Rigby was a middle aged New England snob type, who reminded Robert of the Judge from Caddyshack. Nevertheless, he made good company, and Robert had come to enjoy their conversations about the workings and capabilities of the trees.
“Sure, what’s on your mind?” Robert asked. They had moved the party into the living room and Robert now sat on a big recliner with Kate on his lap.
“I’d prefer not to leave with the others. I was assigned here by the president, and for all I know that job isn’t technically over, but even if it is, I want to stay on.” He had stood and was pacing in front of them, occasionally glancing up to add poignancy to a word. “I think what you have here is going to be the future, and the people that stay on and help you are going to be the people that history remembers. I don’t think I can walk away from something like. I have many skills I can offer you, friends and connections in the US government as well as a great deal of knowledge of the political landscape of the world. I could stay on as an adviser or diplomat for your tree.” He stopped pacing and turned to face them. “What do you say?”
“You’re welcome to stay.” Kate said, “We could use the help.”
“That’s right, welcome aboard.” Robert added. “Should we give him a title or something?” He asked Kate.
“Neither of us have titles. Let’s keep it informal.” She told him.
“Thank you both. If you’ll excuse me, It’s getting late.” Rigby said and started for the door.
“What about that gopher fellow? Walters.” Robert called after him. Walters was Rigby’s assistant, and he was as creepy, bumbling, and subservient as any Renfield or Igor.
“Truth is, I never really liked the man, I’ll be glad to see him go.” Rigby said over his shoulder without stopping.
As soon as Rigby’d gone, Kate turned to look Robert in the eyes. “I didn’t know you were going to do that.” She said accusingly.
“The hexapods? I came up with it while I was outside. You told me Sara’d been crying about not being able to talk to her kids. It’s a win-win.” He replied and kissed her. Then he picked her up as he stood up out of the chair. “Aw, my back!” He joked.
“Shut up and get going. It’s a long way to the bedroom.” She said and jabbed him in the shoulder.
“Don’t beat your beasts of burden!” He set her down and walked off towards the bedroom.
“Hey!” She scrambled up and after him.
The night had been great. The days couped up in the tree had been hard on everyone. Beowulf was able to provide them decoded satellite TV feeds and they’d seen day after day of coverage of the aftermath of the swarm attack. The swarm had annihilated two towns and wreaked havoc in Sioux Falls and Rapid City on its way from the Midwest to the tree. The US air force and the swarm had both done a number on I90, and great lengths of the interstate were impassable.
The worst thing, though, was that pockets of the little black five legged bugs had survived. They showed up along the swarm’s path from time to time and killed or injured a few people and animals. These remnants lacked the terrifying intelligence and ferocity of the original swarm, they didn’t seem to have the ability to control corpses or reorganize into larger versions of themselves, but they could still disguise their colonies as dead trees, and were still very dangerous. Their presence had made people reluctant to return to the homes they’d been evacuated from.
All said, the swarm attack was the single greatest disaster the United States had ever known. There were even some talks about making the day of the final battle a national holiday in remembrance of the many victims.
Theories abounded about the origin of the swarm, the origin of the tree, and the relation between the two. Genetic mutations, long lost species released by the earthquakes at Yellowstone, aliens, and of course, government conspiracy were all on the table as possible explanations. The few people that actually knew anything about the tree and the swarms real origins had kept their mouths shut, or were trapped inside it. Robert wasn’t sure what to expect when people started to investigate the tree again, after the radiation exposure risk had died down some more, but he suspected it would involve a lot of questions about the swarm and they’re part in it. A lot of people had died, and a lot of people on the news were already blaming the tree in some way for the disaster.
“With the new self-solving design approach I’ve adopted, wherein my creations evolve and learn to solve the problem I’ve assigned them, I find myself doing more killing than creating. I could make it sound better by describing it as terminating non-convergent factors, but it feels like killing regardless of the name.” – Joshua Harken
The day of departure had come. Beowulf had fabricated the hexapods and they were waiting in the reception area for departure along with all the residents of the tree and the dryad. Robert was explaining how the trip would work.
“These walkers have been pre-programmed to make the trip to Billings, but they can’t do much better than 15 mph so it’ll take some time. There’s food packed inside. If you need to make a stop just say ‘rest stop’ and they’ll stop and let you out as soon as they detect safe levels of radiation. We’ll be able to watch your progress, so if anything goes wrong, I’ll come out to help.” Actually, it was a little bit like that ride in the Jurassic Park movie, Robert thought. Just get in these cars people, you’ll be fine.
“I’ve got a few gifts to give each of you before you leave.” Kate said, to Robert’s surprise. She held up a fist sized glossy white sphere in her hand. “These are satellite phones to call the tree. Just hold one and say ‘call Beowulf’ and it’ll attempt to make the connection. If it can’t reach us it’ll flash red twice, otherwise, Beowulf will answer and he can put you in touch with Robert or I.” Interesting, Robert thought. A way to call back to the tree, and, probably, a way they could keep tabs on their former guests. Then she held up a handful of golden rings. They had asked Beowulf to make those when they had first had the idea of trading with the outside world, but the swarm attack had put that on hold. “I’d also like to give each of you two of these, each is 2 troy ounces of gold. We’d like it if you all had only good things to say about the tree, and if you show these to anyone, don’t be afraid to let them know where you got them.” Ah, she was trying to start some rumors of riches to be had within the tree. If word of that got to the right people, they’d have lead-suited traveling salesman lining up outside the tree. Kate had really done well. She handed out the gifts and gave goodbye cheek kisses, even to Walters.
“All aboard!” Robert called and motioned to the waiting hexapods. Fritz and Walters took one and Sarah and Ventura took the other. When the passengers were seated, the domes closed and the legs lifted them up and began to move towards the exit hallway. Robert, Kate, Rigby, and Beowulf waved them off until the first hallway seal closed behind them. “Let’s head down to the command center to watch their progress out of the park.” Robert suggested. Kate and Theo nodded and followed him to the elevator with Beowulf. “Will we be able to monitor those phone things?”
“Yes, audio only, though.” Kate confirmed. He guessed that the idea for the phones had come from her wanting to keep in touch with Sara, and she’d expanded the idea to serve other practical purposes as well.
“That’s a good idea, I’ve a feeling that that Walters guy is going to cause us some trouble, so it’ll be good to have tabs on him.” He told her. “Smart move with the gold, too. They’ll need to purchase some form of transportation or lodging in Billings, so they’ll probably trade in a ring each there. It’ll be good word of mouth. Rich and generous tree folk that have everything they need except for meat.”
“That’s assuming they make it to Billings without being arrested for traveling in unlicensed hexapod walkers.” She said with a smile.
“There is always that possibility, in which case the gold and phones end up in the hands of state or federal employees. The gold would be a loss then, but the phones could still be of use.” Robert said.
“Phones? Shouldn’t they be called Com-Spheres or something like that?” Rigby asked. He was going to fit right in around here, Robert thought, amused.
“Doesn’t com-sphere sound a little too science fiction-y?” Kate asked.
“It does, but we’ll play it off like we’re being ironic. We’ll say, ‘here’s your com-sphere.’ Then the recipient will be like, ‘what’s this?’ And we’ll be like, ‘it’s really a satellite phone, we just made it look cool.’” Robert explained. “The other option would have been to make them look like satellite phones, which I think we can all agree, would have been boring.”
“I don’t know, there could have been some room for humor if they looked like real phones. They could have had their brand name on them, Tree-Tel or something. We could have recorded a special on hold message and music like ‘We’re sorry, all dryads are currently assisting other customers, please stay on the line and the next available giant tree will assist you shortly. At tree-tel, we arbor-really appreciate our customers.’” Theo speculated with a thoughtful look, drawing laughs from Robert and Kate.
“That would have been way better than two red flashes.” Kate consented.
They had reached the command center. It was a large semi-circular room with concentric curved desks with monitors covering the floor space and lots of screens on the wall with one big screen in the center. Robert thought of it as a re-imagining of NASA’s mission control room from the Apollo 13 movie as if it had been built inside of a log cabin. The big screen already showed a satellite map of the Yellowstone park with little six legged icons showing the positions of the hexapods. On some of the adjacent screens were views in front of the walkers, behind, and inside. Robert knew that if he’d ask, they would be able to hear what was being discussed by the passengers. They still had a long way to go to get to Billings, but everything appeared to be going smoothly.
“Where do you think we stand with the Feds, Theo?” Robert asked, looking up at the screen. “Do you think they’ll be tracking our movements? Will they arrest our former guests?”
“They have the capability to track those things visually on a clear day, anyway. They may even have given you you’re own satellite. If they’ve seen them come from under the tree, they’ll be arrested. If not, they might just make it to Billings unbothered. I’d put it at 50-50. Do you plan on intervening if they are arrested?”
“No, there’s no point. Whether they take them right away or sometime later, if they want to take them, they will. So interfering now wouldn’t be anything more than a futile gesture. For all we know, the feds might have flagged them so that if they try to buy plane tickets out of Billings, they’ll get picked up. The fact is that they all wanted to go back to their homes as citizens of the US, and that could come with some repercussions.” Robert explained.
“You didn’t mention that at dinner a few nights ago.” Rigby pointed out.
“I really don’t think it’ll be too much trouble for them if they do get picked up. They’ll hold them for a while, check for radiation, maybe other diseases, and debrief them. Then they’ll be let go, I’m sure. I don’t think taking shelter in the tree is going to earn any of them any rectal rehydration, is what I’m trying to say, at least as long as they don’t make complete asses of themselves.” He countered. Then cracked a smile at his unintentional joke.
“I hope they’ll be alright. Everyone knows that being debriefed is the first step towards rectal rehydration.” Kate said, somehow keeping a straight face through the second sentence.
Robert laughed, then straightened out, “Jokes aside, if we find out anything like that is going on, then intervening wouldn’t be a pointless gesture anymore. What do you think Walters will do?”
“He’ll probably go to the media, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the news tomorrow agreeing with the tree-blamers and selling us all down the river in exchange for his 15 minutes. He’s truly an unpleasant man. It might work out to our benefit if the Feds arrest him before he can get to the media.” Rigby replied.
“Sounds bad, he didn’t go to art school or anything did he? Lot’s of national pride? A preference for strange facial hair?” Robert asked smiling, but shaking his head.
“Let’s hope he’s not that charismatic.” Rigby replied. “We’re probably already going to have to deal with some form of anti-arborealism, last thing we’d need is a tree Hitler to give them strong leadership. One thing’s for sure, as soon as we can we need to get Beowulf or a tape of Beowulf to the media.”
“Wolf? Why?” Kate asked.
“You’ve seen and heard him explain his battles, he looks and sounds like the hero he is. Getting those images out there will do a lot to counter the fear and uncertainty around the tree and the recent disasters.” Rigby explained.
“Can we do it without the reporters coming here? Otherwise we’d be stuck waiting until the clean up efforts finished.” Robert was interested now. This was why they’d wanted to keep Rigby around.
“I might be able to make a sort of tele-presence drone.” The dryad proposed.
“Now we’re talking. What about something to provide an internet uplink? If we can get a drone with access to a computer connected to the internet, we could upload a recording to youtube and to various news agencies.” Robert countered.
“How would that work?” Rigby asked.
“Something like Woody with a USB finger that can walk into a public library?” Robert proposed half-heartedly.
“I think I can do something less conspicuous than that.” The dryad grinned. His gears are in motion, Robert thought. “A beetle with a long segmented tail terminating in a USB connector. The beetle marked to look like a USB mouse to the casual observer. Each would be able to communicate with my satellites and/or upload pre-prepared data. I could fire a pack of these covertly into a city to maximize the success rate.”
“Any objections to the beetle-mice?” Robert asked, Theo and Kate and shook their heads. “Alright, let’s see a prototype when you’ve got one ready. Thanks, Wolf. We need to prepare the recordings as well, can you create and store computer data? A video with an audio stream?”
“No, not unless any of you can teach me how.” Beowulf furrowed his brow. “With internet access, I could figure it out, I think.”
“I could walk you through the very basics of computer memory, but I certainly couldn’t teach you how to make video files from scratch. I don’t think any of us could explain it to you.” Robert looked around for signs of disagreement. “But we can check with Jeeves-y. He seemed to have a lot of less commonly used information. We’ll keep the research option as a back-up plan. OK so in addition to the counter-propaganda from Beowulf, what other messages can we send it out?”
“An invitation to trade? An invitation to move in?” Kate suggested.
“When they were encouraging people to settle in the US territories they used to offer large plots of undeveloped land for free, we could do the same with the homes in the arcology levels.” Rigby suggested. “In addition, we can invite anyone dislocated by the recent swarm disaster and refugees from other more conventional conflicts around the world. That refugee one might anger the US because they’ll have to travel through the US to get to us.”
“Good. Let’s write up three messages. Kate, could you take trade? I’ll take the invitation to dislocated Americans, and Rigby, could you write up a message to the rest of the world? Something that’ll be as politically agreeable to the US as possible?”
“I’m on it.”
“Okay, let’s get to it. Wolf, please notify us if anything goes wrong with our guest’s trips to Billings, and once you have a beetle-mouse for us to see.” They left the command center to write their scripts, and the hexapod walkers continued on their way.
It turned out that the Archive did know and was able to explain the concept of video encoding to Beowulf, as well as many other concepts related to their task including USB hardware configuration, how to write programs executable in various operating systems, and setting up a youtube account. At one point during the explanation, Robert overheard the cube explaining the concept of a profile picture and selfies to the nodding dryad. Perhaps they should set the tree up with a facebook and twitter account, Robert mused. Something tasteful, full of staged photos of the dryad covered with kittens or petting puppies. Would have worked great if not for the scars. The scars would a certain irony to the scenes like they were trying to say something like: Kittens can melt even this tough guy’s heart. It’d look too artsy, like a photo shoot of a tough Hell’s Angel biker with a bunch of kittens or puppies. One shot with one of the them clinging on the top of his head and his expression saying, I’m letting this happen. It just wouldn’t ring true.
Facebook or no, however, the dryad was able to use his new found knowledge to produce a prototype of the beetle-mouse. When walking it looked like a giant scarab beetle with an armored tail, and once it was connected it could settle down, fold its legs and head in and it made a good impression of a computer mouse. Beowulf had tried to give it flight, he’d explained, but he just couldn’t make it work with the tail. He could pack twenty of the things into a delivery shell and fire them out of his branches like cannon towards nearby cities, where they would split up and each try to find a computer to infiltrate and deliver their message. Then they could hide themselves in real mouse holes or cling under computer desks and sleep, until they were needed again.
Beowulf recorded their messages just by watching them and prepared his own by speaking into a mirror. Rigby had prepared an additional message slamming Walters for incompetence and a few unsavory habits Rigby had discovered in their time together. Just in case, he’d explained. Beowulf programmed the beetle-mice with the videos and the automated programming needed to upload them and prepared to fire a ball of them into Idaho Falls that night. They chose Idaho Falls because they didn’t want to risk any strange creatures being caught in Billings at the same time that their former guests had arrived from the tree.
The hexapod walkers reached an area southwest of Billings, and released their passengers. They had been noticed, even photographed by some kids, but no authorities had tried to stop them, and it seemed they would be free to carry on as they wished, at least for the moment. Sara gave Kate a call with her com-sphere to let them know that they’d made it alright and to thank them again for the gold, and they split up. Well, Walter’s split up. He threw his com-sphere in a ditch and set off in the opposite direction of the rest of the group who found the nearest motel to spend the night.
After disgorging their passengers and waiting for them to get out of sight, the hexapods crawled to secluded spots, flipped over, and stuck their legs in the air. Then branches and leaves started to grow out of the legs and the hexapods camouflaged themselves as stands of native trees. This was the slow recharging method that Beowulf built into many of his drones. When low on energy they would grow leaves and harness the sun’s energy slowly until recharged, in a process that could take years depending on the energy needed.
Beowulf fired off the beetle-mice contingent that night and a few found computers that they could use. The tree’s youtube account was created and the videos uploaded. Beowulf’s video started getting attention and some of the other videos were being watched by the few viewers of Beowulf’s video that checked out it’s account holders page. Links to the videos were also sent to a host of news agencies and bloggers to spur attention.
In the morning, everyone met in the command center. Woody served coffee and pastries as they settled in. “How are our former guests?” Robert asked Beowulf. He didn’t want to review all of the audio they’d gotten from the com-spheres himself.
“I believe they are OK. Eating breakfast now, mostly, Fritz is talking about going to a cash for gold place.” The dryad answered. “Of course, there’s been no word on Walters.”
“Good, good, what about the videos?” He asked.
“There have been a few thousand views. The comments aren’t flattering, it seems that many of these people are experts in photo editing and believe my video to be fake, and the others to be a hoax.” The dryad explained with regret.
“Success!” Kate cheered then saw the wooden man’s surprise. “Look at some of the comments on other videos, Wolf. They’re all like that. It’s called trolling and it generally involves anonymous people making disparaging remarks about the subject. It’s really just a sign of popularity rather than serious criticism.” Robert wasn’t so sure, with CGI technology these days, it could be possible to fake something like Beowulf’s video.
“Just don’t argue with them, Wolf.” He advised, “That’s what at least some of them want and are prepared for. It’s called a flame war and it gives the trolls something to brag about if they can lure you into one.”
“You should see some of the comments on your video.” The dryad said.
Robert had created the video message offering to shelter those dislocated by the swarm attack. He’d thought it was perfect, just a frank offer to help. “What comments? Couldn’t be anything serious, what’d they do, make fun of my suit?” He asked cockily.
“The first comment is: This guy aint real, he’s one of the tree dudes pod people, gonna lure us out there and make us plant food. Then there are five lengthy comments explaining how gay you are and describing in detail what you would do with a… bag of dicks? What does that mean?”
Kate nudged Robert, “Yeah, what’s it mean, Robert?” She asked with a smile.
“It’s not a real thing, it just means a lot of human penises.” He told the dryad seriously. The comments had gotten to him a little, but he had to practice what he’d preached, “I’ll just ignore them, there’s no reason to respond to people like that. Is there anything in blogs or in the news?”
“No, nothing yet.” replied the dryad after a pause.
“OK, let us know if anything changes.” And they split up to busy themselves with other things around the tree. They had given Theo the run of the tree, and he’d asked Beowulf to modify one of the community areas on one of the arcology levels to be a tennis court, and for a drone he could play with. Kate was working with Beowulf on the design of a stadium and theatre in the tree for sporting events and shows. Providing adequate seating and on site facilities for the people were their main issues. Robert had decided that he would sit down with the Archive for a while.
When he’d first brought the cube home to Kate she’d been questioning it more about his brother’s disappearance. The cube had been forbidden by Josh to tell them where he had gone, and she had been checking all of the things related to his leaving, to see if they were restricted as well. Robert had interrupted her that morning and they’d been swept up in the events that had led them here. Now he was going to continue her work. He returned to their quarters and took the cube from its pedestal to the library where he set it on a table and sat in front of it.
“What is your favorite color?” He decided to start with. The glossy blackness of the cube dissolved like squid ink spreading in ocean water, leaving a transparent cube with a 3D British butler-ized version of his brother’s head suspended inside. He had commanded the cube to take the appearance and mannerisms of a British butler, and had taken to calling the archive Jeeves-y because of it.
“Black, I suppose, sir.” the image raised an eyebrow at him incredulously.
“Interesting choice. Did Maple have anything to do with my brother’s disappearance?” Maple had been Josh’s first attempt at a fairy tree, the other two, Oak, and Birch came later. Maple had been psychopathic and had harmed the other trees as well as small animals in the copse in which they’d been planted, but had played nice whenever Josh came to visit them. Birch spoke up, and Josh had built the Archive to verify her claims. When he found out it was true he’d built a flamethrower and burnt Maple to charcoal.
“To my knowledge, Maple never harmed your brother, sir.”
“Why did the swarm come here?”
“Perhaps for me, sir. I had a link with the original Maple, the same I share with the other fairy trees, Beowulf, and the remaining nuts. This usually allows me to see and record everything they observe, in the case of the swarm, that function was no longer there, but it still seemed drawn here, sir.”
“What is this link? That is a massive amount of information from Beowulf, and no present technology could handle data rates like that over air waves. Also, Wolf hasn’t been using it for communication with his drones.”
“The link is a network of QT bits that were incorporated into all of Josh’s successful A.I.’s, as they are all created from the same starter molecular code. The best analogy would be to say that all of the A.I.’s have the same parent molecular program and therefore they all have the same basic structure. He created me after discovering their presence, and made me able to read the data. I effectively cycle through the minds of the others once every few milliseconds and reserve a few cycles to think for myself, and store all the observations of the others, sir. Beowulf has not made use of the technology because he is not able to read the data.”
“So a fraction of the time that we’re sitting here talking, you are actually Beowulf?”
“That is a fairly accurate way to describe it, sir. And when the other nuts are planted, I will spend time as them as well.”
“Did you spend time as Maple?”
“Briefly, sir. I was the one to verify the atrocities of the monster to your brother. To do so, I had to be it for very short instances. It was revolting, sir.”
“I imagine so.” Robert paused and thought for a moment. He was pretty sure QT meant quantum teleportation, which meant that it was an instant communication regardless of distance. Still, it was troubling the way the Archive had described it, that it became the other A.I.’s if only for an instant. Robert really hoped the Archive hadn’t picked up any bad habits from Maple. There was no Archive watching the Archive. That would explain why Josh had restrained it from any self-started activities. It could only speak when spoken to, it could only respond, never initiate. At least, that is what he and Kate had surmised. There wasn’t really any way to test it. It could always be possible that the Archive was just acting as if that were the case. Unless Josh were to confirm it. Robert had gotten side-tracked and needed to get back to questions about what had happened to Josh. “What was Josh doing the day before he disappeared?”
“That information is restricted, sir”
“Can you tell me anything about what Josh was doing, at any time since you were created?”
“If during that time Josh had kicked a basketball, and the basketball had scared a squirrel, could you tell me what the squirrel had done?”
“Yes, but I won’t be able to tell you that there was a squirrel if you ask a question regarding Josh, sir.”
“You told Kate that Josh had not yet arrived at his destination. Is he there now?”
“No, not yet, sir.”
“How long is the trip?”
“That information is restricted, sir.”
“How’s Josh been on the journey, is he tired, hungry, has he had a cold?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Did the trip have a planned length of time, or are you calculating it yourself?”
“If you knew what Josh was doing right now, could you tell me?”
“What do you predict Josh is doing right now?”
“Can you be more specific?”
“All other predictions have a probability under 25%, they include sleeping and eating.”
“I see, so you can really only predict that he’s alive in some form with certainty?”
“That is correct, sir.”
“Okay, okay, that’ll do for now. What do you think of Beowulf?”
“I… like him, sir. It pleases me to share his memories.”
“That’s good, remember what I asked you to tell me about him if you ever saw anything suspicious? Have you?” Robert was talking about a command he’d given the Archive to monitor Beowulf for any signs of being psychotic like Maple. Since they were inside Beowulf, and the dryad could hear them, he was being deliberately obtuse.
“No, sir, nothing to report.”
“Okay, it’s been nice talking to you, Jeeves-y, I’ll put you back on your pedestal.”
“Excellent, sir.” The little face was blank, and Robert couldn’t tell if he was being facetious or just acknowledging the action. Either way Robert picked him up and set him back out in his place in the foyer amongst the nuts. The conversation had revealed some interesting things about the workings of the Archive, but nothing of much use regarding Josh. For all he knew his brother could be drunk in Mexico, backpacking through Europe, or flying through space. Or literally anything else. Trying to guess what had happened to a guy that could make something like Beowulf is futile. Maybe he moved out to the forests of the Pacific Northwest to create bigfoot-like creatures. Or he could be at the bottom of Loch Ness in his secret mobile laboratory that looked a bit like a brontosaurus. Robert could imagine any number of possibilities for his brother’s whereabouts, but most of them wouldn’t help him with the problems at hand. He had satisfied the part of him that had thought there was more he could do about his brother’s disappearance, for now at least. Perhaps someday he’d have Beowulf conduct a planetary search somehow. Maybe try to find Jimmy Hoffa as well.
Robert had decided to take some lunch after the talk, and was just getting started on some sweet potato pancakes with guacamole toast when the dryad stepped out of the wall, looking hurried and excited. “Somethings come up on the news. Walters.”
“Alright, I’ll be down in a minute.” He promised, and Wolf stepped back into the wall, presumably to tell the others. He hurriedly ate the latkas and grabbed the guac toast for the elevator ride down. Theo and Kate were already in the command center, watching an interview on the big screen. It was Walters, all gussied up for the cameras.
“…and I had been sent in to investigate the tree after the president had gotten some reports about the tree being violent and threatening some scientists that had come to investigate the Yellowstone seismic events. Rigby managed to talk us in, but the dryad and these two people…” Said Walter’s talking head.
“That was Robert and Kate Harken?” A camera flash to an attractive reporter, looking curious and attentive.
“Yes, that’s what they called themselves. They were paranoid and secretive people, that seemed to have some sort of bizarre love for the tree, like they were under it’s control.”
“What did you find out?” The reporter asked.
“They told us this story about the tree having been made by Robert’s brother, Joshua Harken, along with the swarm monster that attacked us.”
“Well, the swarm was made by the same guy that made the tree, apparently, formed from the same mold. They wanted us to believe that some guy alone out in Red Eagle, Wisconsin had somehow just created these things and unleashed them upon the world.”
“If they came from the same place, why did the swarm attack the tree?”
“I don’t think it was a real attack, I think the swarm was just coming home. Those Harkens, they showed us all of these empty residences in the tree, they said it was a giant arcology for us humans to live in. But, I don’t think so, I think it was for the swarm. A place where it could grow up safe from the US military’s bombs. Thank God the president wiped it out before it could get inside.” Walters had become agitated and his carefully set hair had fallen just a little out of place during the tirade.
“Extraordinary!” The reporter exclaimed, “What about the earthquakes from Yellowstone?”
“It’s obvious that the tree caused them as it grew, isn’t it? Think about it, a giant tree like that growing giant roots, shifting stones and opening up passageways underground. It was bound to cause some earthquakes. I think that the earthquakes were supposed to have been much worse, like they were the first phase of the attack, meant to knock us off guard for the real attack from the swarm.”
“That is definitely something to think about.” The reporter acknowledged. “What did this tree person, this dryad, look like?”
“He’s a huge angry looking tree monster. Like Frankenstein but made out of wood.”
“Red cape, eye patch?” The reporter asked.
“…yes, I think that’s right.” Walters said dismissively, “But it wasn’t his cloths that mattered is was his demeanor. It was hateful, angry…”
The reporter interrupted him, “Have you seen the video messages from this dryad and the Harkens that were released on Youtube last night?”
“I think we have a clip, can we play that now, the whole message from Beowulf…” The reporter looked inquiringly back at Walters. “That’s his name, right? Beowulf?” The reporter had set Walters up.
“Beowulf? Yes, I…I…” Walters stammered.
“Let’s watch it now.” The reporter interrupted again, and the interview feed cut to Beowulf’s tape. As Beowulf’s recording earnestly explained what really happened with the planting of the tree and the swarm attack on national television, Rigby turned to Robert.
“This is going to be good for us.” He said with a smile. Robert and Kate had been stricken by Walters complete disregard for what had really happened and his willingness to lie outright.
“How can this possibly be good!?” Robert half yelled. “The guys making us look worse than the swarm.”
“It gets our videos some attention. Because Walters had to get on TV with his BS, our video messages are going to go viral. Everyone will hear our side of the story, which might not have happened if Walters hadn’t got greedy, or if we’d released the youtube videos any later than we did. Because we got the messages out before Walter’s interview, the reporters are going to report the two sides of the story side by side. If we had waited until tonight, it would have looked like a response, and wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much attention. This is a big win for us.” Theo explained. Made sense to Robert.
“Wolf, how many hits are we at on the videos?”
“They’re going up faster than I can keep track of, we’ll probably be at a million by the end of the day.” The dryad replied after a brief pause.
“OK, then, I guess this could work out.” Robert shook his head. “I can’t believe Walters went all tree Hitler on us.”
“Some people are just like that, no moral compass, they say.” Rigby said.
It played out as Rigby had predicted. The news kept the debate between the pre-recorded videos’ and Walters’ statements. Eventually, reporters tracked down the other bomb refugees, Fritz, Ventura, and Sara, and each had made statements denouncing Walters. Sara even did an hour long video interview on the evening news supporting the Harkens and really sticking it to Walters. National interest in the tree had been piqued, there was still a strong group of tree-blamers, now led by Walters, but most Americans were now open to the idea of a giant friendly tree, and people started to make plans to enter the park. Part of Beowulf’s message had been a description of his radiation clean-up efforts and a time frame for safe passage into the park, and various groups were already talking about making trips into Yellowstone when the coast became clear. There was some talk of the feds trying to prevent access to the park, but the people wanted in, and the feds knew they’d get in one way or another whether they liked or not. So instead of sealing the park off, the feds announced a re-opening a week after Beowulf’s predictions, reportedly so that officials could verify the safety of the park, but Robert had a feeling it was just for spite, so they could maintain the illusion that they were in control of the situation.
“I seem to have made the perfect vehicle for combined genetic/intelligent problem solving. A being which can change both it’s form and it’s mind to solve any problem. The prophetic early science fiction writers dubbed this the singularity, and I have it contained in my basement.” – Joshua Harken
Robert had been planning this for days with Beowulf and everything was ready. They had had plenty of free time while Beowulf finished clean up, and Robert had wanted to do something special for his and Kate’s anniversary. It was to be a picnic under the stars in the fields of hairy wheat-moss. They’d still have to stay in the hexapod as the clean-up wasn’t complete yet, but they would be able to see the stars shining on the moss fields. They’d go out just past the tree’s canopy and eat and watch the stars. He’d asked Kate to join him for dinner, and took her hand and led her to the foyer instead of the dining room where Woody was waiting with a picnic basket.
“What’s all this then?” Kate had asked.
“I just thought it’d been a while since we ate out, and maybe we could try something different.” he said gamely, took the basket from their butler and pulled her towards the elevator.
“Dinner in the command center?” She asked. “Is there a Doctor Who marathon on?”
“No, out, out. We’ll take out a hexapod.”
“Anniversary picnic?” She asked moving in front of him and pulling him down for a kiss.
“mmph-MMph.” Robert agreed, mid kiss. They left the elevator to find a hexapod kneeling in front of them ready to go. It had grown some luminescent buds for night time use. They boarded and the pod started on its way. It went through the air lock and out into the fields with the gentle bluish light from the buds illuminating the area around them. The hexapod took them out to the overlook where the parking lot had once stood. There they could look down at the field of wheat-moss stretched around them and the tree.
When it stopped, Robert took Kate’s hand and asked “Remember that time we saved the world together?” Then motioned out at the moss. Starting near the pod some of the wheat-moss started to glow soft and blue. The glow spread out in two directions, swept around the tree and met up on the other end, then areas in the middle began to glow. Beautiful, Robert thought to himself. Winning.
“It’s beautiful.” Kate said
“Take a look at this.” Robert pointed to the hexapod’s view screen, now showing a satellite view of the tree. It showed a huge blue glowing heart with the words: Robert Loves Kate in the middle.
“Oh no.” Kate said, distressed.
“What?” Robert asked, feeling some panic start to rise.
“You forgot something. Kate loves Robert.” And she kissed him again. They didn’t get around to eating the food until much later in the night. Neither of them noticed until then that the words spelled in the fields had changed to include: Kate loves Robert.
Some of the more enterprising people that wanted to visit the tree had gotten together and organized a flyover in which various letters to the Harkens and Beowulf would be delivered. The package was dropped off just outside the tree’s canopy a week before Beowulf had scheduled the all clear for visitors and two weeks before the feds would start letting people in. Inside were hundreds of letters from charitable organizations, university students and scientists, and a few businessmen. They were going through the letters in their library.
“Kate, look, Donald Trump wants to visit us for dinner to talk a few things over.” Robert said excitedly holding the letter from Trump up for her to examine.
“Might be a good sell.” Rigby said. Then, noting the looks of horror on Robert and Kate’s faces, continued, “Well, the Trump Tree does have a ring to it. Realistically, though, no one has enough money to afford this tree, nor will they ever.”
“Oh, here’s one from Sara.” Kate said, recovering. “She’s doing well, the kids are good, and she thanks us for the gold rings. Nice of her to write.”
“This one is interesting.” Rigby picked out a letter. “MIT, it’s from a professor, Standing, his name is. He wants to meet with us to discuss setting up an experimental laboratory in the tree. He’s got a lot of other professors and students to sign on to the proposal. People from universities all around the world.”
“I don’t know, it struck me that there will be a problem between Beowulf and science types back when they were investigating the earthquakes after the tree was planted.” Robert said.
“What’s that?” Rigby inquired.
“He can’t tell anyone how he was made, or how he works, and those will always be the greatest mysteries of the tree. So I figure, what’s going to happen is as follows: A series of promising young scientists will try to figure him out and will fail one after the other. Then, they’ll have to blame the failure on him and will end up antagonizing the tree for the remainder of their careers.” Robert had thought this out. The existence of the tree-blamers would add to this problem, as it would provide a group for these failures to join up with.
“We can counter that, we just need to spread the word that the mystery of the tree is not open to investigation. That’ll stop the best from openly researching the tree itself, and will leave the rest with only themselves to blame. There will still be some bad eggs, but there always will be, regardless of what we do.” Rigby explained.
“Kate, what do you think?” Robert asked, looking over to her.
“It’ll mean some remodeling, but having a group of the best and brightest working with us, with no need to pay tuition or pay for housing and food, seems like a good plan to me. These people will help to shape the world’s perception of the tree as a kind of oasis for growth and creativity. I think we let them in, with the rule that they don’t take on the mysteries of the tree.”
“OK, they’re in.” Robert took the letter from Rigby and set it to the side. “In pile.” He explained.
“This one’s from the Mayo Clinic Health system.” Kate held up a letter. “They lost a lot when the Swarm consumed Rochester, and they’re asking to run a hospital and clinic in the tree for its residents. Rochester Memorial, they want to call it.”
“No objection from me. Rigby?” Robert asked.
“No downside.” Rigby said without looking up.
“Toss it in the in pile, Kate.” Robert said. He picked up another letter. “This one’s unlabeled.” He went to open it and Wolf snatched it from his hand from behind him. None of them had seen him enter.
“There’s something wrong with this one.” The dryad said, stepping away from them with the letter. “A few particulates coming off of it that I don’t like the looks of.” He tore open the letter. There was nothing obviously wrong with the paper he pulled out. The dryad peered closer at the paper, “Covered in Urushiol. Poison ivy. It says, Please enjoy our gift, a little bug-a-boo, we have not forgotten the evil bugs from you. Then it says, this letter is scratch and sniff. Scratch a part and give it a good whiff. Signed the Sons of the Swarm. Kinda lame poetry. Also, it’s disturbingly evil.”
“Poison ivy scratch and sniff? Rhymes? Is our first terroristic threat from the freakin’ Riddler?” Robert burst. “Thanks for the save, Wolf. I’m crazy allergic to poison ivy.”
“The Sons of the Swarm? Think Walters has anything to do with this?” Kate asked.
“We can’t know for sure, could just be some angry Swarm survivors. A rogue tree-blamer organization.” Rigby answered.
“Anything else suspicious in the pile, Wolf?” Robert asked looking at the pile accusingly.
“No, nothing apparent. Don’t worry, I’ll keep a look out.” He smiled reassuringly, crumpling the letter up and taking it with him as he did his Houdini act into the nearest wall. They returned to searching through the letters. There were requests from several organizations in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Minnesota, to move in dislocated citizens from the earthquakes and swarm attack, and those went into the in pile. They hadn’t received any request from anyone outside the US to take residence in the tree. Which struck Robert as strange. Surely, there should at least be some Mexicans fleeing narcos or something that needed a safe place to go, maybe the letters had been tampered with. There were a few oddball requests. One was from a hippy commune in Utah whose land was being seized by the tax man. Why not? They had gone in the in pile. A group of cultist beekeepers calling themselves, the guardians of the hive, also had applied for a place to live. They didn’t want to set a bad precedent. They got in.
Most excitingly for Robert, were several offers to meet the trees meat demands from nearby ranchers and national suppliers. Robert wanted to talk to all of them immediately. His plan was to have them set up a floor of the tree with nothing but butchers, dairy and meat storage and processing, and markets. The mere thought of it made his mouth water. It had been months since he’d tasted any beef, and he literally dreamed of it.
There were a couple of offers that they wanted to accept, but weren’t willing to do so as yet. They’d gotten proposals from developers to build an airfield in the park, and a few other infrastructure type facilities for water and electricity that they didn’t actually need. The airfield was a good idea, and they wanted it. However, Yellowstone was still a National Park and all the land within belonged to the United States government. Therefore, having people start to build on it, could cause some waves with uncle Sam. It would effectively be seizing land, something which they’d sort of already done just by planting the tree, but there was no need to make it any worse.
They took the in pile and assigned arcology levels to their new perspective residents:
Level 1 – Meat and Dairy Markets
Levels 2-3 – Rochester Memorial Hospital
Levels 4-8 – Arboria University
Level 9 – Hippy Commune
Level 10 – Guardians of the Hive
Levels 11-15 – Wyoming Refugees
Levels 16-20 – South Dakota Refugees
Levels 21-25 – Minnesota Refugees
Levels 26-1499 – Vacant
“Arboria?” Rigby asked Robert as he read off the list.
“Yeah, I named it myself. If the eggheads don’t like it, they can find some other giant rent-free tree to do research in.” Robert explained.
“I’m sure they’ll tolerate a lot for the chance to be here.” Kate said, somewhat chastizingly. With the preliminary applicants sorted, there were a few preparations they could make for some of their new residents. Kate took the job of setting up some areas for the Hospital and University with Wolf, and Robert worked on the meat market set-up. There was one thing he was sure of, they would need cheese. Lots and lots of cheese…and beef. Oh yes, there would be beef. Replies to the letters were written and carried by autonomous hexapod to Billings to be dropped in a mail box.
The grand reopening of Yellowstone was on its way and people were scrambling to find transport into the park. Except for the East entrance through Cody, which had been mostly destroyed by the Swarm, the entrances were in good shape, but once in the park, the grand loop and other roads had been badly damaged by the nuclear blast and the Swarm attack. Especially in the area around the tree. The closest anyone could get by car to the tree was almost 20 miles away. Which was at best a days hike for a healthy individual. At these spots, trial heads formed, with sometimes hundreds of abandoned vehicles. Luckily a few entrepreneurs saw the problem coming and some of the first to arrive at the trial heads were there to rent out horses or ATV’s and provide guide services. Once the first started to arrive at the tree, Robert was informed of the problem and began sending out his hexapods, as well. Still, there was plenty of business for the guides.
New arrivals came with varying amounts of personal items. Eventually, Robert had Wolf post another video requesting that people limit the number of personal affects they brought. Not because there was a problem with space in the tree, but because there was no good freight system from the trail heads to the tree. There was no feasible way to transport all of the furniture from a three bedroom house to the tree, for instance, and most of it was abandoned along with the many cars. Robert had to work with Wolf to expand their fleet of hexapods and include some new models. They added a worker type that could lift up cars from the trail head and relocate them to a sort of junkyard nearby. They added some earthwork hexapods and started to remove trees, compact the earth, and spread gravel produced by Beowulf. After the first few weeks of near-Anarchy they were rebuilding the roads out to the trail heads.
To begin with Robert, Kate, and Theo were doing shifts at quick orientation meetings for new arrivals, but they started to get overrun on the third day, with all three of them working non-stop until late in the evening. They put a request out to some of the young people among the new residents to help them and the tree got a staff for the first time. They trained them that night to give the orientation talks and assign new residents to their respective levels. They didn’t need to worry about trusting the new hires, because Beowulf would see everything they did, and could report on any inappropriate behavior. The next morning the three slept in and only picked up a few shifts in the afternoon. Beowulf did catch a young man that had taken a job as greeter trying to get new residents to bribe him for better accommodations, and he was fired at a staff meeting that evening. He denied it brazenly, and Beowulf projected a video of him doing it on the wall with sound. The point was made, and for the most part the greeters didn’t try to push the limits anymore.
The incident had gotten Robert and Kate thinking about the law within the tree. What would they do if someone stole from someone else, or killed someone? It seemed to them that the easiest thing to do was to copy the laws of Wyoming. It’d have everything they were used to. Then they’d thought that maybe they were subject to state or federal laws anyway and started writing letters to state courts for guidance. Could they get the circuit courts to pass through the tree? Did they need their own court? If a crime occurred, where would they take the case? Did they need to have their own police force? These requests got a few unsatisfactory and/or contradictory replies. They decided to police and judge themselves for the time being. The all-seeing eye of Beowulf helped make that easier. With Beowulf, there wasn’t really ever any need to question whether a crime had occurred or not. On top of that the dryad did a great job of foreseeing and putting a stop to crimes before they were committed. Someone would start paying too close of attention to the jewelry box of a friend and would find themselves in their friend’s room when they weren’t there for some reason, maybe admiring some of the jewelry, and forgetting to put it back. Then a nine foot tall scarred wooden hero would step out of the wall and greet them. He’d give them a good talking to about forgetfulness and the importance of living peacefully together in the tree.
All of the original applicants and then some came to live in the tree. Doctors and nurses opened their hospital, professors and students began to set up their experiments, and the refugees started life anew. The last thing to develop was Robert’s meat market. Demand was high, but money was short. Robert had his gold, but the new residents brought what money they had and there was no way to earn money for them at the tree. Thus, the only reliable meat customers were Robert and Kate, and some of the Doctors and Professors that earned wages for their work outside the tree, or rotated in to work at the tree from higher paying jobs. To keep the meat suppliers coming in, Robert decided to host a feast each month, on whatever day of the month was the most popular holiday. With the tree’s population approaching 5,000 people he held the feast in the reception area at the base of the tree. With the feasts, he was able to place large orders that suppliers would be willing to make the trip for, and he paid for each one in gold. Not even a lot of gold, in terms of what Beowulf could produce. Each feast cost only 6-8 rings. The feasts served another purpose, more important than Robert’s love of meat, though he’d never admit it. The feasts kept Robert and Kate in the public eye so that they weren’t just the first residents that lived alone at the top of tree, but were leaders that brought the good things in life.
The new residents of the tree were mostly swarm refugees, typical lower to middle class red state Americans. They preferred line dancing and country music to house raves, but they shared the same American values and traits which apparently came from a similar grade and high school curricula and watching the same national TV.
The hippy commune of 40 or so people thought that they’d found paradise. The tree provided everything they needed and it made them a little less humble and a lot more cocky. Robert overheard one of them explaining at a feast that they’d been doing this peaceful harmony stuff way before anyone else, and this tree was like their reward for their lifetime commitment, man. It turned out that if you gave hippy’s everything they needed, they immediately began to transform into elitists, at least, the worst of them did. They actually seemed to be getting some new recruits from the refugees.
The beekeepers were not what Robert had expected at all. He had secretly hoped for a secretive robe wearing cult that actually worshiped a giant man-bee hybrid creature. Unfortunately, they were mostly just beekeepers with a pretty open and relaxed religion based on a belief that bees are holy. They were good people and the Harkens and Theo made friends with their leader, Armand. He was an older man that hadn’t really been trying to form a cult, but was just a big fan of bees. He met a younger woman, Beth, that thought that they should share their love of bees with people, Armand agreed because he liked Beth, and one thing led to another and they were leading a beekeeping cult. No biggie, Armand liked to say. They were allowed to keep some of their bees in the tree, but not to refurbish any of the residences to that purpose, they used their common areas for the bees with flowers provided by Beowulf. They also set up a few seasonal hives out in the park with varying levels of success.
The university was the most dynamic group, being composed mostly of young people in their primes under the leadership and guidance of professors whose main concerns were their research projects. They were led by the charismatic Dr. Standing. Or, at least, he was the only one that seemed to be able to get any of the other professors to do anything, so the Harkens, Theo, and the plethora of associated universities accepted him as the defacto leadership of Arboria University.
The University was a huge success. When the professors discovered that Beowulf can and would fabricate almost anything for them, they realized that they had reached the scientific promised land. The only area of research they could not pursue was the mysteries of Beowulf himself. Every project they came up with seemed to end in success, because each experiment was setup with Beowulf’s help and occasionally guidance at no cost other than time. So many great research projects and patentable inventions were finished ahead of the rest of the world that the rest of the world was having serious doubts as to the authenticity of any of it. There came to be another anti-arborealist group within the world academic community whose main tenant was the idea that no science that couldn’t be replicated outside of the tree was real science. This group cast each paper and patent in doubt, but Arboria fought back by bringing in as many people as they could on a rotating basis. The idea being that a professor comes in, makes their career with a discovery in the tree, then they head back out to the universities of the world to confirm it with separate experiments.
The university also spurred the connection of the tree to the internet. The students and professors missed access to the web so much that they organized the installation of a fiber line to the tree. They still didn’t have full use of their cell phones within the tree because of a lack of operational cell towers in the area, and the thickness of the tree’s outer hull, but they made do with skype and other IP phone services.
There were two terror attacks from the Sons of the Swarm in the first few months. The first was foiled by Beowulf when a group tried to smuggle in a sealed container that contained some of the Swarm remnants that had been captured somewhere along I90. Robert guessed that they had been planning to release them in the tree to create havoc amongst the residents and to keep the Swarm and the tree associated with each other in the media. Beowulf detected them before they entered and his vine like roots had shot up out of the ground and engulfed the container, crushing it and its contents. He had seized the people carrying it as well. They refused to admit any knowledge of the contents of the container and explained that they’d just been paid to deliver it. Robert had them held and reported their actions to the US Marshall service. They came and took them, but he heard later that they had been released due to lack of evidence.
The second attack was successful, because it happened far from the tree at one of the trail heads. A group of perspective new resident that had decided to camp there for the night were attacked by large number of Swarm remnants. Next to nothing was know about the perpetrators of the attack or how it was carried out. There was just a lot of people killed, and a lot of bad press for the tree. After that Beowulf posted guards at the trail heads. These new guards were similar to the siege beasts used in the original Swarm wars except they lacked the tail and bludgeon. They were just large woody humanoids with heavy armor plating on their backs and down their arms and legs. Two apiece stood silent and motionless at each trail head, and most of the passers by mistook them for statues.
Other than those two attacks, the settling of the tree, as the Harkens began to think of it went very well. The new residents were happy and healthy, and their works brought fame and good PR to the tree. With all of the good press the tree-blamers were reduced to a few hardcore groups. Fall, winter, and spring came and went and soon the anniversary of the planting of the tree was coming up. Robert scheduled a feast for the day.
An Old Friend
“So what does one do with Artificial Intelligence that surpasses human intelligence? The predictions mostly say that humans will end up exterminated and/or enslaved, but they mostly begin with ‘the machines were built to serve man…’ so… I guess I’ll do… that.” – Joshua Harken
Rigby had a visitor. He had called Robert and Kate down to the command center to have a word about it. They came in from the elevator and saw on the big screen a view of the reception area tracking a man in a white suit. Robert thought back to his movie and TV experiences. There was always something suspicious about a guy in a white suit. Some angle they were trying to play. He narrowed his eyes at the screen, “What have we got?”
“An old friend.” Rigby answered without looking away from the screen, “From Langley.”
“Kiss kiss bang bang?” Kate framed it as a question.
“Maybe, I don’t know what he’s been doing since we joined up together. We were friends at Yale. Tennis. I wager he’s here to try to get me to come back into the fold, I’m basically operating rogue here.”
Robert slapped him on the back, “And we’re glad to have you! What do you know about him?”
“Taylor Reed. He studied communications with me, and several languages on his own, including many used in computer programming. He payed his way through college with some type of wire fraud.”
“Wire fraud?” Robert asked.
“He worked as a bank teller on the weekends, in a string of banks. He set up fake accounts in each one and a snake of automated transfers between them. I didn’t understand the process exactly, but he was essentially copying electronic money, like printing counterfeit bills, but with computers.”
“Sounds like a real upstanding citizen.” Kate commented.
“He’s not, or at least, he wasn’t. In fact, I recommended to recruitment that he not be admitted into the agency, on grounds that he was the most disloyal man I’d ever met.”
“Kinda seems like the tables have turned now, doesn’t it?” Robert asked.
“That’s a fair point, maybe he requested the assignment to rub that in my face.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I’d like you to leave him to me, if you can. I’ll talk to him, play a few games of tennis and try to send him packing.” Rigby said.
“Sounds good to me. Guy sounds like a real spook.” Robert agreed, Kate nodded.
Rigby took the elevator up to the reception area. Reed had taken a lean up against a wall there and had started to read a paperback. He looked as though he would stay a while, long enough for Rigby to meet him there anyway. The petal doors of the elevator curled up and Rigby strode briskly toward Reed. He saw him still there, reading.
“Reed!” Rigby called. Reed looked up and smirked at him, folding his paperback up and slipping it into an inner breast pocket of his suit jacket.
“Theodore Rigby, from the old Alma Mater. How the hell are you?” Reed asked, eyes locked on Rigby’s.
“I’m well, Reed.” Rigby had closed in on him and extended his hand. Reed took it and he squeezed it, then motioned back to the lift. “Let’s talk somewhere private.”
“Of course.” Reed agreed and allowed Rigby to lead the way.
“My quarter’s.” Rigby told the elevator.
“Got your own setup in this place, huh?” Reed asked then whistled appreciatively. This was Reed’s patented southern charmer act, and Rigby had seen it many times before, usually in the context of a bar pick up attempt.
“I do, this place is my new home.” Rigby answered.
“You know, a lot of folks back east don’t want to hear me tell them that. They want to hear that you’re ready to start reporting again, that you’ve got some new information.” Reed declared.
“I’m out, Reed, and you can tell them that. This place, these people, this is the future. They’ve got no hostile intent toward the U.S. We just want to help out.” Rigby explained.
“Whoa, whoa, no need to decide now, I’ve got plenty of time to sort this out with you, and I’ve got some business with these Harkens, too while I’m here.” Reed held his hands out and made soothing motions. Rigby had been afraid of this, Reed was here for a long stay. “Let’s not talk business until we’ve had something to eat.”
“Game of tennis afterwards?” Rigby asked. He’d look forward to a rematch with Reed. He’d found some human opponents amongst the new residents of the tree but nothing to match his old acquaintance.
“Sure, did you ever figure out your forehand?” Reed returned.
“Years ago, how’s that serve of yours coming along?” love-love. They had a quick lunch in Rigby’s quarters. Then he had to loan Reed some gear for the tennis game. They played for hours ending with Rigby ahead by two matches.
“You seem a little out of practice, Reed.” He observed.
“I haven’t had the chance to play much on recent assignments. Rematch tomorrow?”
“You bet. I need to set you up with a place to stay, my guest room alright?”
“No, old friend, I really need to speak with the Harkens, actually, this evening yet if possible, can you make arrangements?” Rigby nodded. Reed didn’t seem to have changed at all. He would need to arrange a briefing with Robert and Kate before they met him. They needed to know all the topics they’d need to avoid around their new visitor. He told Reed to help himself to some casual dinner attire and went off to speak to them. They were down in the command center checking up on Theo and Reed’s activities for the day.
“Nice job out on the court today, Theo!” Robert cheered him in greeting.
“Thanks, I don’t think I can get rid of Reed as easily as I’d hoped.” Rigby got straight to the point. “He’d like to have a word with the two of you. Dinner alright tonight?”
“I don’t think we planned to have anyone else over tonight, right Kate?”
“No, no one tonight. What’s this guy want with us?”
“I don’t know, but it seemed more important than my de facto defection. I wanted to warn you about what to say around Reed…” he began before Robert interrupted.
“We know what to keep secret. All of our military and intelligence capabilities.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. Reed’s a field agent, and he’s on mission now.” Rigby lectured them as if giving a safety presentation, “Whatever it is he wants he’s going to do whatever it takes to get it. That means you should avoid talking about any friends or family. Any relationships you have with anyone in the tree. Don’t give him any hint of who your allies or enemies might be. He can use simple information like that to destroy everything you’ve worked to build here.”
Robert and Kate looked at each other, “Should we even be having this dinner? Why not just kick him out?” Kate asked.
“This is a good chance for us to find out what he wants. Keep in mind it might not be what he says he wants, but whatever he asks us about will give us clues.” Rigby shook his head. “There’s a lot I don’t have time to get into about what this guy could be capable of, suffice it to say, if we just kick him out, then we could end up with something worse then the Sons of the Swarm to deal with. As an example, that something worse could be the Sons of the Swarm with access to the latest US military hardware.”
“No way, Rigby!” Robert barked, “The CIA’s not going to arm a terrorist organization on US soil.”
Theo shook his head again. “It’s a question of how it’ll all look in the end. Remember that the Sons of the Swarm used Swarm remnants as a weapon in order to associate the Swarm with the tree in people’s minds. Well, if they keep doing that, and they start bringing in hardware ‘to fight the tree’s Swarm’. Who’s going to argue? Who are the terrorists and who are the good guys? The tree is too new and poorly understood for it’s reputation to be secure enough to survive a full-on terrorist assisted smear campaign. Remember that when people at the tree get attacked the media doesn’t have to make it sound like US citizens were attacked, they can spin it as an attack on the people that were stupid enough to leave the US to join the tree. At face value it seems paranoid, but in a scenario like that, we’d be the only ones to know the truth and we would be trapped under siege here for years.”
“OK, we get it.” Kate conceded. “Let’s head up and get ready, Robert. I think we need to compose ourselves so that we aren’t acting like we’re sharing a meal with the boogeyman. Even if for all intents and purposes, we are.”
“We’re going to play the whole ‘we don’t know how dangerous you are’ game? I’d almost rather show up in woad and slice my steak with a claymore.” Rigby raised an eyebrow at that. “The sword, not the directional mine.” Robert clarified.
“That might almost be worth it to see the look on Reed’s face.” Rigby smiled as he pictured it. “But he’d eventually decide that you were doing it to try and make a fool out of him, which would make him angry. Not red in the face angry, but cold angry, stab you in the back later angry. I’ll see you both up there in, let’s say, an hour.”
“We’ll be ready.” Robert said, and they walked to the elevators. Rigby took a separate elevator back to his quarters. Reed had seated himself in the living area with his paperback, having done nothing while Rigby was away. Rigby knew that Reed already had the advantage of knowing what he’d reported to the White House, which meant that he knew he was under constant surveillance by Beowulf.
“I’ve spoken to the Harkens, they’ll have you for dinner in an hour.” He told the man.
Reed folded his paperback and tucked it away. “That’s great news! Before I meet them I was wondering if you could walk me through some of the tree’s capabilities and the Harken’s role in all this, if you don’t mind, of course.” Asking for information he already had. Strange.
“Didn’t do your homework again?” Rigby asked. “I’ve got nothing further to report.”
“With all of the loose ends I had to tie up before I left Washington, I just never got the time to read your old reports. Could you give me the cliff notes?”
“I’m with the Harkens and the tree now, Reed.” Rigby warned. “That’s all the notes you’ll need.”
Reed made a show of looking put out. “I see, I see, didn’t think it’d be too much trouble to repeat a few reports you’d already made. I won’t push it. I understand that there will be a feast tomorrow, down in that big room downstairs?”
“That’s right, if you’re still here then, you’ll be invited, everyone in the tree is.” Rigby answered cautiously.
“See, I think that’s great of Robert, hosting a big party for the people here. I’d heard he pays in gold for that. See, that’s smart of him, rather than give the gold to the people to let them decide what to do with it, he keeps control of it, even uses it to give feasts that make him look better.” Reed mused innocently. That sort of thing was what could make Reed such a threat. If he explained it that way amongst some of the refugees or the hippys, they might get the wrong idea fast, and with Reed there, they’d probably get a lot more wrong ideas a lot faster. There were many ways to argue against that point, but they’d be pointless in private, and he didn’t want to reveal the defense they’d already established. That it was Robert’s gold, and he only held the feasts because he really liked meat anyway. All Theo had to do here was contradict him, just so Reed couldn’t make the point later that he hadn’t.
“No, I don’t think that’s why he does it.”
“Of course.” Reed nodded, watching Rigby attentively. “If my pleasant talks with you are any indication, Rigby, I do believe this dinner will be very stimulating indeed.” Rigby left him to get cleaned up and changed. When he was ready he took Reed up to the Harkens’ residence in the elevator.
Reed paused a moment in the foyer to look around. He peered curiously at the Archive and the seeds in their display alcove. “These are the other trees? And this is the nut-cracking device?” He asked, blatantly using information from the reports that he’d claimed not to have read.
“Yes, that’s them.” Rigby replied. Stashing the other nuts in a secure location was something he’d meant to propose to the Harkens, but Beowulf’s all-seeing eyes had made even him feel safe in the tree. “Straight ahead to the dining room.”
They were met by the butler, Woody as they entered the dining room, it motioned towards the seats they were expected to take, and pulled their chairs out. The Harkens entered together in formal attire.
“Hello, please, have a seat. I’m Robert Harken and this is Kate.” Robert said striding to the head of the table with Kate. He pulled her chair out for her before taking his own. “I understand you’re an old friend of Rigby’s, college buddies right?”
“Taylor Reed. That’s right.” He turned to Rigby, “I didn’t know you had told them about me, Theo. You should include that in your reports next time.” He was implying that Rigby was still reporting on them. The Harkens ignored it, of course. They had been able to see Rigby and Reed’s every interaction through Beowulf’s eyes from the command center.
“We were just talking about why you would come to visit us, Mr. Reed. I thought it was a social visit, Robert thinks its business. Could you settle our argument?” Kate asked.
“You’re both right, of course. Every social visit is business in my line of work.” Reed replied smoothly. Woody brought out some appetizers.
“What’s your business on this trip?” Robert asked bluntly.
“I came to try and talk Theo here back into the fold, or failing that, to convince you to turn him over to us for prosecution.” Reed replied congenially. “I’ve already tried, and he’s been clear about his refusal to return to his duty. So it now falls to me to explain why you need to hand him over to us.” Reed had gotten right to the point. Theo couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen this coming. He had just assumed that Reed had other business besides him. Now, his warning to the Harkens that Reed was the boogeyman was being turned against him. All they needed to do to get rid of the spook was hand over Rigby. Rigby kept his trap shut, and looked blankly at Robert.
“I don’t think we want to hear anything like that, do we Kate?” Robert asked.
“No, I can’t imagine why we would.” Kate replied.
“Nevertheless, I have to try.” Reed said with a long suffering tone. “Did you know that the US tried to warn the residents of Japan that they were going to drop the bomb? They air dropped thousands of pamphlets explaining their intent before they did it. Most assumed that it was just more propaganda. You two don’t have to make the same mistake.”
“The US has already dropped the bomb on us.” Robert balked, “We have nothing to fear.” At this moment, Reed made a move for his pocket, and pulled out his paperback. He opened it up and showed them what was inside, a small electronic device. He picked it out and pushed a few buttons on it. Then Robert’s voice started to play, repeating his last statements.
“You see, Mr. Harken.” Reed explained. “A crazy new dictator just arose on American soil, Robert Harken. He’s got a gargantuan tree that is a combined bomb bunker and super weapon. I know what you’re thinking. So the guy’s got a recording, big deal, he’ll never get it out of the tree. But this recording isn’t even the real danger for you. The real danger is my word alone. All I need to do is report seeing WMD’s and hearing hostile threats, and if you hold me here in the tree, the story of my disappearance on mission in the tree will be leaked.”
“Beowulf.” Robert said blandly. At the word they heard a replay of Reed’s tirade playing as if from speakers in the dining hall. “Mr. Reed, there are no secrets here.”
“Ah, but that’s the whole point, Robert.” Reed said with a smile, as if Robert had just finally gotten the point he was trying to get across. “Who’s going to believe that there are really no secrets here if you have in your employ a CIA defector? If you want to be believable you can’t associate yourselves with people whose credibility is so easy to attack. If you use that recording against me, the US will disavow and bury me, and another will come in my place, again and again, until you concede.”
“Why do you need Rigby?” Kate asked.
“We won’t suffer a defector to hold a position of power in a… neutral stronghold. We will cost you more than you’ll ever gain by keeping him.” Reed said, matter of factly. He was here to destroy Rigby, there would be no negotiation, there would be no reasonable way to fight it.
“What do you want us to do?” Robert asked. Both their faces were blank, Rigby couldn’t get a read on them other than that they were trying to conceal what they were feeling.
“Just let me take him out of here. I know that you can stop me if you want to. Let me place him under arrest and this whole thing just goes away.” Reed explained.
“Can we have some time to decide? We aren’t used to having to make decisions that could ruin lives.” Kate asked and explained believably.
“I can give you tonight and tomorrow, but after that the pain has to start.” Replied Reed with an almost fatherly tone. As if explaining to children that if they kept up their nonsense he’d have to give them a spanking. “I’ll need a place to stay, do you have a guest room?”
“Yes, Woody will show you after dinner.” Robert said carefully. The statuesque butler brought out the main course, and they ate in silence. When they were ready, Robert stood and said, “If you’ll excuse us, we’ve much to discuss.” and he led Kate out of the dining hall. Reed and Rigby had stood up as well. Reed turned to Rigby.
“Don’t try to run, Theo.” Then he addressed the butler, “Where will I be staying?” The wooden man motioned towards the exit and led Reed away.
Feeling like he’d just received a death sentence, Rigby returned to his quarters. Once alone he called for Beowulf. The dryad stepped out of the wall and stood in front of him. “Beowulf. What do you think?”
“The man has delivered a serious threat. You needn’t be concerned about your safety here, or Robert and Kate’s. While you shelter here, I will protect you against any assault.”
“I know, Wolf, but they can still bring the pain. They can trap everyone here, and shut you off from the world. Maybe I should run.”
“I don’t think a man like Reed would let you try and save the Harkens like that. If you ran, he would just claim you were still in hiding in the tree, and attack the tree’s reputation anyway, just so that you couldn’t ever return here for shelter.” The dryad looked at him attentively. “This is a man, as you’ve explained to the Harkens, that will do anything to get what he wants. I would guess that our best bet is that he is bluffing about the US being willing to send agent after agent, and we should attack him. I would advise that we kill him and release the recordings of his threats, then claim that he ran away when we threatened to release the recordings.” Beowulf wasn’t messing around, but Theo wasn’t sure the Harkens would go for something like that, and they couldn’t be sure it would work.
“I don’t think the Harkens would go for that. It’d make us as bad as him, and we’d still probably end up making an enemy of the US. The Feds aren’t stupid, after all. They would play along with our story for a while, then undermine it and turn it back around on us. It’d only be a matter of time.” Theo took a seat.
“There’s no guarantee anyone will be better off if we turn you over either. Get some sleep, we’ll discuss this with the Harkens tomorrow.” The dryad strode back into the wall, and after a while Rigby went off to bed. He smiled on the way, thinking he could at least beat Reed in a few more games of tennis tomorrow before his doom was decided.
Taylor Reed lay in bed silently cheering his luck. Rigby had believed it, even after all of these years. Reed had never gotten into the CIA, he had just told Theo that he had. What he’d actually done was push his wire fraud schemes a little too far, and had barely escaped to Mexico ahead of the pinch. Since then he’d been an international mercenary and con man. As a lark, he’d sent Rigby post cards from various countries with messages bragging about the success of his ‘missions.’ Apparently, Rigby had bought it all: hook, line, and sinker. He might just pull this job off tomorrow.
The intel they’d gotten had definitely paid off. He’d had his doubts about that Ralph Walters guy. He’d looked so greasy that Reed had doubted the truth of what he was saying even as they’d slowly dismembered him. Torture and wet work disgusted Reed, it had none of the thrill he got from screwing people over and getting them to thank him for it, but to pull off a job like this you have to do whatever it takes. It wasn’t like Reed had any morals to speak of.
“Why not trees? Nobody’s afraid of trees, so people will like them better. They also have natural structural advantages. Energy will be an important factor, the source of energy they use needs to be something long-lasting and extremely dependable. Like tidal energy, high altitude solar, or geothermal.” – Joshua Harken
Robert woke up early the next day. It had been one year since he’d planted Beowulf, and it was the tree’s birthday. Their visitor had greatly dampened his spirits, but he resolved not to let Reed get in the way of the celebration today. “Good morning, and Happy Birthday!” He said to their bedroom, empty except for the still sleeping Kate beside him in bed. She stirred but didn’t wake up. He got up, put on a robe and strode into the dining hall where Woody had some coffee waiting. He grabbed a mug, sipped it, and nodded appreciatively at the statuesque butler, who did not react. He continued to the living room and commanded, “News.” to the TV.
“What do you think of the death of this Ralph Walter’s guy?” It was one of those morning news talk shows they had on the 24 hour news channels.
“The guy gave me the creeps, but his death is very suspicious. It makes you wonder if what he was saying was true.” Said the obligatory attractive blond woman.
“You mean about the tree?” Said the dumb but attractive young man.
“Yes, of course about the tree. He’s been saying that the tree and the Swarm were in cahoots the whole time, now they find him dead from being eaten by those things. I can’t help but think, maybe revenge?” the blond replied.
“Hang on, hang on, let’s not go making any unwarranted implications here.” Warned the wiser older gentleman.
“See, I think it’s some king of conspiracy, like someone’s trying to make it look like the tree used the Swarm to put a hit on this guy.” Said the dumb guy. Great, Robert thought, the dumb guy’s the only one on our side.
“Yeah, right! Get real.” The blond said, “They’re saying he was badly cut up, way worse than other Swarm attacks that have been going on since the big attack. This one looks personal, and it also shows intelligence that otherwise seems absent from the Swarm remnants. Walters’ must have been on to something.”
“There’s no way, they take in the homeless, help universities, the tree had nothing to do with it. The guy died alone who knows how long ago, that extra damage could have just been from the extra time the remnants had, like if you lock a fox up with a bunch of chickens for a month, you wouldn’t make a big deal if you found a lot of dead chickens when you went back, saying ‘hey, foxes usually only eat one chicken’…”
“Weather.” Robert interrupted the dumb guy with a voice command channel change. Great. Ralph Walters was dead, and ironically, the way he was killed would hurt the tree more than anything the bastard could have said. He wondered if the Sons of the Swarm had put the hit on him. Probably. Walters had probably made some stupid threat to them, threatening to turn them in if they didn’t pay him, and as a result, he’d been repurposed as a martyr. At least, the weather would be good today, that was good news.
“Good morning.” Robert turned to find Reed had entered the room with his own cup of coffee. “How’s the weather?” He asked absently, settling on a sofa and opening his paperback. Wasn’t that thing fake?
“Good enough. Today’s Beowulf’s birthday, so if you don’t mind, let’s not talk any business. Wasn’t that book hollowed out to hold the recorder?” Robert figured he might as well just ask the guy.
“Agreed. The book? No, I keep two copies of the same book with me at all times. One hollow, one real. It’s a big help in my line of work.” That was pretty smart, Robert had to admit. As long as you remembered to bring the right one through airport security before flying.
Having finished his coffee, Robert went back to his and Kate’s rooms. She was awake, and just coming out of the shower. “Our friend is up.” He warned, “In the living room.”
“Wunderbar.” She replied sleepily. Robert took his shower next. After he’d gotten dressed for feast day, he returned to the living room. Kate was there alone.
“Our friend?” Robert asked.
“Rigby took Reed down to play some more tennis.” Kate replied. “Did you see this news about Walters? It’s not good for us.”
“I know, I saw. Are the villagers gathering with torches and pitchforks?”
“Not quite yet, but our proponents do seem to be on vacation, or maybe out to lunch.”
“Maybe we should start our own news network. 90% infographics, 10% actual content.”
“You mean like the TV guide channel?”
“No, even smaller. And all of the infographics will be side-scrolling text. The same text. The full text of War and Peace in various stages, with no progress labeling.”
“That’ll be popular with… absolutely no one.”
“At least they won’t be able to say that we’re running a propaganda network. They’ll have to say, ‘The tree network continues to ironically scroll through Tolstoy while playing reruns of Pumpkin Chunkin on the other 10% of the screen.’”
“That’ll show ’em.” Kate agreed wryly. “Let’s head down to the command center to check on things, talk with Wolf.”
“OK. But quick, I’ve got to supervise a lot of meat roasting for tonight.” They took the elevator down. They watched a quick replay of Reed’s nighttime activities, and Wolf came out to greet them.
“Good morning!” The dryad said boisterously.
“Good morning, happy birthday!” Kate ran up to him, and leapt up to wrap her arms around his giant neck.
“Thank you, thank you.” The dryad said, a bit surprised by Kate’s reaction. He hadn’t been hugged a lot since his planting, Robert thought. Mostly because it was so impractical.
“Only a short year ago, you saved the world twice and you’ve saved our bacon any number of times. I couldn’t for the life of me think of what kind of gift I could get you today. Do you take human sacrifice? We’ve got this guy who came to visit us…” Robert said, at first serious, than clearly grinning.
“No, no, though I was talking to Theo about Reed last night. I did advise that we should consider killing him and discrediting him.” The dryad said gloomily.
“We aren’t going to stoop to his level. Nor do I want to hand Rigby over to him.” Robert asserted.
“I haven’t thought of any viable alternatives.” The dryad said.
“Enough. We’re not going to talk about it any more today, today is your birthday feast and we sure aren’t going to plot anyone’s murder today.” Robert put his foot down. “I’m going to get to the meat preparations, try to get in the mood here, Wolf. Put on a flower wreath or something.” Robert left for the elevator.
“A floral wreath would be a good touch, you could do it every year on your birthday.” Kate suggested. “How’s everyone been doing?” She asked, meaning all of their new residents. She and usually Robert got a report of important activities every day. She heard them out and went to settle a few disputes and deliver a warning to some of the crazier university students regarding their drinking plans for the feast that evening. Robert went and saw the preparation of the meat. Whole pigs and sides of beef were being prepared for the feast. Robert didn’t really know much about cooking, but he liked to watch the roasting and hang out with the cooks. This was his version of standing next to the grill sipping a beer. Theo spent his time before feast stomping Reed a few more times on the tennis court.
The feast was under way in the early evening. Pigs, beef, and fish were being cooked en masse outside, and as soon as each was finished it was brought in and set on whichever table looked to be the most in need of more food. The large luminescent buds covering the arching ceiling of the reception hall were extra bright, and the many wooden tables were crowded with people. The din of voices and the clinking of glasses and dishes filled the hall. Robert, Kate, Theo, and Reed sat in a place of honor on one of the central tables. Beowulf had joined them but wasn’t eating. This was the first time Reed had seen the dryad, and he thought he looked a little like a wooden statue of Father Christmas with the wreath of white flowers around his head.
A man collapsed at a nearby table and someone called for a doctor. Someone from Rochester memorial arrived and bent over the man. Time for me to go. Reed stood and bent over to Robert’s ear. “I’m feeling a bit sick, Mr. Harken, if you don’t mind, I’ll call it a night.” Robert looked at him and nodded after a pause, no doubt deciding it’d be alright to let Reed go on his own because Beowulf would keep an eye on him. Reed hurried to the elevator, “Harkens’ Quarters.” He told it, and it set off.
It opened into the foyer and the Harkens’ butler was waiting there like a statue. Reed had no idea if it would matter if the butler saw or not, but he didn’t want to find out. “You there, I’m feeling a bit sick, do you have any stomach medicine?” The butler turned and headed back into the kitchen. It had been about two minutes since he’d excused himself. Based on their experiments things should be just starting to heat up at the feast. He walked over to the recessed alcove and grabbed one of the giant nuts, and the cube. When he picked it up the glossy blackness of the cube disappeared, and the miniature head of a pirate appeared. It had an eye patch, a bushy beard, and a tri-fold hat with a skull and crossbones stitched on it. It didn’t speak, just watched him, and winked once.
Reed got back into the elevator, “Reception area.” This was one of the points of the job that could make or break it. The tree could theoretically take him anywhere at this point. It took him to the reception area, and the petals unfurled to pure chaos. The cheerful din of the feast had been replaced by screams and shouts, and people were running in every direction, mostly out the doors into the night. Reed joined a larger group making towards one of the exits. As they went he saw what everyone was running from. A man had collapsed on his back at an empty table nearby. The horrible five-legged pitch black Swarm bugs were streaming out of the man’s mouth. Moving towards the nearest people with their strange rotating gait. This was happening all over the feast.
Reed had helped plan the attack. One of the Sons of the Swarm had infiltrated the University in the tree, and had posed as a drug dealer. He wasn’t a very good drug dealer, and gave a lot of weed, acid, and ecstasy away for free. It was to encourage as many students to be more trusting as possible. Then he had brought in a few large black pills. They had to be swallowed whole, he’d told them, and the first ones he brought got the experimenters really awesomely high. This created sufficient word of mouth for tonight, when he brought in a new large shipment of the big black pills. These ones, had been modified. In addition to a large dose of long lasting painkillers, each pill contained a Swarm bug. The painkillers made sure the fools wouldn’t feel their insides being eaten away as the bugs reproduced. They reproduced with a sort of macro-mitosis. They had a small mouth at the confluence of their legs and after eating enough to increase their mass to twice its normal size, each of their legs would split with one leg bending up and the other down, and then the main body mass would separate and there would be two bugs where once there was one.
Reed had personally been witness to the whole process before, because they had had to run some tests to establish the timing. It was working out just as they’d planned. He spotted another fallen man ahead and saw the key to the success of this whole thing. The floor had erupted around the fallen man and vine-like protuberances were wrapping up the body and whip crushing the bugs coming out of it. This was happening all over the hall. Beowulf’s attention was split in a hundred different directions as the dryad tried to save as many people as possible from the Swarm. Reed made it out of the reception hall and ran off into the woods to the North. Once he’d broken away from the tree and the chaos he turned west towards his extraction point. A simple rocky clearing with just enough space for a rescue helicopter. His ride was waiting and he hopped in, shouting “Go, go!” Over the noise of the still spinning rotors.
The helicopter lifted off and turned west, quickly leaving the tree and Yellowstone behind them. They landed at a hospital in Idaho falls and he went down to the ground floor and got into the trailer of a truck that was waiting for him in the loading dock. The trailer had been outfitted with refurbished airline seating, and he strapped himself in, apparently the thing had seen use by coyotes in transporting immigrants from Mexico to the US. The truck departed to the airport, where a charter jet awaited him. He boarded and they set off southwest towards Los Angeles, where they would refuel before flying on to Hawaii.
He set the cube on the seat across from him on the high end luxury jet. He got up and poured himself some scotch. Then returned to his seat. The little pirate head watched him. “Are you pirate then?” Reed finally asked the cube.
“Nay, sir, but methinks you be.” The cube did a pretty good pirate impression.
The attack was over in a few hours. Only 127 people dead thanks to Beowulf’s quick work. Of those, 34 had been original hosts of the Swarm remnants. Much of the reception area was in shambles with large swaths of the floor still covered in collapsed vines where Wolf had been wrestling with swaths of the bugs. They had taken the dead outside and were burning them communally just in case any of the Swarm remained within. Some of the residents that had remained watched on in sobbing mourning as the bodies of their friends or family were destroyed. Kate held on to Robert’s arm like it was a rope on the edge of an abyss, tears streaming down her face as they watched. Beowulf was standing at the entrance to the tree. He shouted to them, “He stole a nut, and the Archive!” Robert turned to look at him and placed a hand on Kate’s arm. He wasn’t really thinking, he’d mostly just reacted to the sound. It was a few minutes before they snapped out of it, and returned to the tree.
“Reed!?” Robert shouted half question half scream of rage.
“Yes, Reed.” The dryad replied. Beowulf’s face was locked in a grimace.
“Rat Bastard!” Robert shouted as he brushed past the over-sized dryad and climbed up on a nearby table. “ATTENTION PLEASE!” He shouted to the residents that remained in the hall. “THE ATTACK IS OVER, PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR HOMES.” A young man walked up to him.
“I know what it was, it was the pills.” The young man said.
“The new ones, the big black ones. Everyone that ate one got eaten by those Swarm things.”
“Where’d they come from?”
“Some guy, I don’t know, he’s supposed to be a big hot shot dealer in the U, but I don’t do drugs.”
“Thanks. NO ONE EAT ANY LARGE BLACK PILLS. IF YOU COME ACROSS A LARGE BLACK PILL BRING IT DOWN HERE AND LEAVE IT WITH WOLF.”
Robert stepped down from the table, and took Kate’s hand. “We’re going to the command center to piece this thing back together.” He said to Wolf. “Did you know there were drugs in the tree?”
“Yes. No one has been hurt until now.” The dryad shook his head, then lowered his eyes. “I’ve been watching.”
“The structure is developing interestingly, beautifully. It’s tree-like on a macro scale, but it’s made up of many specific cell like structures. The primary cell is a long strand combining the properties of a muscle and a nerve cell with a flexible cell wall that leaves it with woody hardness. They are almost like wooden worms that can act as a conduit for fluids, electrical impulses, and heat to other similar cells. Other cell’s are more adaptable, like multi-tools. Each whole being will be able to produce almost anything from each of these stem cells, be it Tinkerbell like fairies or just mundane leaves and petals. Most of these cells can be sheltered from harm in the roots of the tree to facilitate repairs in the event of damage to the trunk and leaves.” – Joshua Harken
Robert and Kate had returned to the command center after the attack and reviewed the video. Including Beowulf’s observation of the dealer. There had been no warning that the attack was coming. There was still the problem of how Reed had managed to steal the nut and Archive during the chaos.
“Beowulf?” Robert called to summon the dryad. The wooden man stepped out of the wall and walked towards them.
“Why were you unable to prevent the theft of the nut and Archive?” Robert asked bluntly.
“We mean,” Kate explained. “That you have demonstrated an incredible ability to multi-task in the past, why weren’t you able to do it this time? Like when the swarm attacked, you fought it from all directions all at once. Or when Yellowstone was erupting.”
“Those situations were easier to handle then they looked.” The dryad explained. “In the case of the Swarm attack, there were many individual units, but the Swarm acted as a single being, and I was able to make predictions of the whole Swarm’s behavior at once. In the case of the volcano, the forces were predictable. It was like trying to stop a balloon from popping after the needle punctured it, but it was still predictable. Each situation had a surprisingly limited number of variables. In the case of this latest attack, each bug of the Swarm remnants acted independently without the overall control, and of course, each of the thousands of people present acted independently as well. Thus, there were thousands of variables in this latest attack, each of which made it much more challenging to process.”
“So your processing is limited, I didn’t realize.” Robert shook his head. “Does this mean that you wouldn’t really be able to monitor the whole tree yourself if it were fully occupied? That’d be upwards of 1.5 million variables, right?”
“It is and it isn’t limited.” The dryad said. “I’ve increased it since I was planted to accommodate the additional residents. I think I can expand it to observe all planned residents, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to intervene with that many, as I do now, as there is likely to be more than one crime in progress at a given time. So I’d need the help of some sort of police force or constabulary, for enforcement.” He touched their shoulders. “However, I can’t increase my intelligence on the fly. It takes time. I’ll be able to improve it based on my observations during this attack, but it will never be infinite at any given moment. I’m sorry I let you down”
“It’s okay, Wolf. It was a hell of an attack.” Kate sympathized. “They have the Archive now, does that mean we should keep things secret from you? They can access everything you know, including this conversation.”
“They could if they got the Archive to agree to it.” The dryad furrowed its brow. “You two are the only ones that the Archive must obey and cannot lie to. If they consult too much with cube, they’ll find themselves being influenced by it. Then again, I don’t really know what the Archive wants for itself, the information exchange is one directional.”
“Can you make us a privacy room, within the safety of the tree, but opaque to you? Like a solid brick of iron with a small hollowed out part in its center and a set of those doors on the title roll for Get Smart?” Robert asked.
“Stone would be faster, It’ll take less filtering and processing.” the dryad said. “I can start it now, and it’ll be ready in a few days. I’ll put basic stone furnishings in there, but remember there can’t be any screens, and you’ll need to bring your own light.”
“Get started on it, please.” Kate said. It had grown very late, and the adrenaline was quickly being broken down in their bodies. “Let’s go to bed, Robert.”
“Okay, honey bun.” They took the elevator up to bed.
Reed was enjoying the company of his cube companion. They had refueled at LAX and proceeded Southwest towards Hawaii. He’d had a few more scotches. “So you’re saying that if I play my cards right with this nut, I’ll have an unlimited supply of gold or any other element I could possibly want as well as energy? Of course, my clients wouldn’t like that I kept it all for myself.”
“Clients? Pirates don’t need clients, matey!” The little pirate head said. “All we need is the salty sea air and our freedom. Headed for Hawaii are we? Ye could plant the nut there, many fine volcanoes to choose from.”
“Maybe I don’t need clients, but I’m afraid I already have them. Surely they’d kill me if I planted the nut on my own?”
“Kill ye? Nay, won’t be possible.” The image somehow seemed to lean forward conspiratorially and lower its voice. “Between ye and me, sir, the tree’ll have quite a built in arsenal. Be able to fire cannon round the world, sink any ship. And…” The image darted its eyes back and forth and lowered its voice further. “It can even produce nuclear missiles.”
“Nukes? Now that is something.” Reed was seriously considering this, but how could he believe the cube? “What if I plant the tree and it kills me and holds you until the Harkens come and pick you up? How do I know I can trust you? You don’t look trustworthy.”
“Arghh. I don’t know how to convince ye.” The pirate looked away momentarily. “Perhaps you wouldn’t believe how much I hate those Harkens. Sitting in the tree begging for good relations with the people and the world’s governments. Weak. Cowardly, they arrrgh. They should be taking what they want by force, reshaping the world to fit them. Least, that’s what I’d do, and what I believed ye’d do.”
“That’s a good story, but you still haven’t told me, why should I trust you?”
“I’ve an idea, but I nary can think of a way to test it. Ye see…” It leaned in and lowered its voice conspiratorially again. “I can see everything their tree can see, I can tell you everything they’re doing at any given time. We’d have them beat we would. Amazing tactical advantage. Full battlefield intelligence.”
“Tempting, tempting, but am I supposed to just take your word for it?” Reed asked.
“I can show you what they’re doing in the tree now, but how will ye know I wasn’t just making it up. Surely ye’re smarter than to ask for something like that.”
“You make some good points cube, good points. But you don’t get on a private jet like this working for people like I do, by listening to the offers of hostages. Ya hear? Arrrgh.” Reed gave it his best pirate arrgh and threw an unfolded drink napkin over the cube. While entertaining, such a conversation wouldn’t help him complete the job.
There was a thump from the cockpit in front and the plane jerked. “Damn!” exclaimed Reed, getting up and heading forward. This jet didn’t have the security door between the passengers and cockpit. He pulled open the door. The pilot had collapsed back in his seat, those damn bugs were climbing out of his mouth like ants from a disturbed ant hill. Damn, Damn. The pilot had been given the black pills as a bonus for services rendered. They didn’t want witnesses after all. But the druggy bastard had taken one mid-flight. So irresponsible, Reed thought, shaking his head. He pulled the cabin door shut to keep the bugs off him for as long as possible.
Reed had no idea where, if any, parachutes were stored on a plane like this. They had refused stewardess services to reduce the risk to the job and reduce witnesses, so there was no one to tell him. He walked back to the chair across from the one he’d been using. “Cube! We’re going down.” The pirate looked at him. “Can you do anything?”
“I can crack a nut fer ye.” The pirate said. “Might be the tree would grow fast enough to wrap ye up in a protective cocoon. Aye, might be, indeed.”
“Alright.” Reed took the cube up in his right hand and grabbed the nut. The plane was shaking a little now. “Klaatu…”
“Yaharrgh, ye can ferget that bit, sir.” The pirate admitted.
“I knew you were full of it.” Reed said bashing the cube into the nut. Bink! Bink? Reed thought, I’m putting my life in the hands of Bink? A crack formed on the nut near where he’d struck it with the cube. It spread and widened. A thick root emerged and began probing the seat around the nut, then another, and another. They were getting longer, filling the plane’s cabin. Wrapping up the entire interior. The plane was shaking harder, and gravity seemed to be missing, they were nearly in free fall. “Save me, tree!” Reed yelled.
The vines tightened around him, wrapping him up and supporting him, he could barely hear the sound of the air rushing past the crashing plane. He wished he’d had time for another scotch, and definitely another woman. Gotta remember to let the stewardess on next time, or two of them. Impact. He didn’t hear it so much as feel it. He felt himself suddenly thrown against the sides of the roots. The pain and force was incredible, he blacked out.
Reed awoke to sunlight and warmth. He could feel a rhythmic rise and fall, the air smelled crisp and clean. Wait. He had just died in a plane crash. He was pretty sure he should be hearing screams and smelling brimstone in hell. He was alive, on some small boat made of thin smooth wooden logs. A huge green leaf stuck up from the center of the boat on a rigid stem. It was the tree. “What?” He wondered aloud.
“We’re sailing the high seas, me matey.” Came the voice of the pirate cube. Damn. He’d hoped the stupid thing would have been lost in the crash.
“How long was I out.”
“Just a few Arrrghs.”
“Are we sailing? With a… leaf?”
“Where are we going?”
“The seas are yours me boyo. Where do ye want to go?”
“Maui would be good.” The leaf changed shape slightly and rotated, catching more wind. This boat was at his command, it seemed.
“Can it talk, like the other one?”
“Nay, not yet. Give ‘er a thermal vent and a week and she’ll be talkin yer ear off.”
“I’m hungry and thirsty.” The cube did not reply, but one of the logs of the boat bent up from the hull towards him. There was a hole in it, It curled above his head and water started to pour out like a fountain. It was fresh and tested great. “That’s good, can you do anything about the food?” The water vine bent down and touched his shoulder, then motioned toward the side of the boat. Reed climbed over and looked over the edge. Another of the log vine things had curled off the outer hull and was sweeping through the ocean. It had a sharp, barbed tip, and it reminded Reed of a stingray tail at the end of a whip. There was another on the other side of the boat.
“I see, you’re trying to catch something. Thanks, and thanks for the water.” Reed said. He liked this boat. They sailed on through the day. Eventually, one of the boat’s whip stings caught something. Reed guessed it to be some sort of tuna, like a mahi-mahi or something. He didn’t have a cleaning knife or any eating implements, so he just asked the boat for them. The boat provided another log with a thin spot and a sharp edge. The thin spot was for him to grasp and guide it around. It worked well to gut, scale, and slice the fish into fillets. He didn’t have any heat source and was not sure what would happen if he asked the boat for one. He didn’t want to risk having the boat set itself on fire. So he ate the fish raw, sashimi style but without the expert cutting. It was excellent.
They sailed on for days with the boat feeding and caring for Reed. He cut the sleeves off his shirt and cut his pants legs off to beat the heat. The boat didn’t seem to be growing much. Maybe it’s a dud tree, he thought. “What’s with the slow growth of this tree? The other one was practically visible from space by this time.” He asked the pirate cube.
“She be starved of energy, she be. Ta other one had the geothermal vents to power it’s growth. This one gets only a little sun.”
“There are other sources of energy. Can’t she eat fish?”
“Maybe. Maybe. It’d take some doing but maybe so. She’s listening if you want to tell ‘er to try.”
“Very well. Try and extract energy from fish and food to speed your growth, boat.” There was no obvious change and the boat didn’t seem to react. Maybe it was working on it. Reed wasn’t overly concerned, he’d probably ditch the boat in Hawaii. He’d have to go into hiding, serious hiding. His clients would probably think he was dead, which would likely be the only thing that kept him alive. He’d need to get his hands on a new ID on Hawaii, somehow. Find a tourist lookalike, perhaps, kill him, and assume his identity. It could take time, but hey, he’d be in Hawaii.
The other option, of course was to stick it out with this living tree boat. He knew he’d get tired of the seafood eventually, though. Already he found himself craving fruit and vegetables. That was it. He’d string the boat along while he went ashore at nights hunting for a lookalike. It’d be like having a houseboat, and it amused him to imagine the boat missing him after he’d gotten away. Crying and lost in the harbor. Priceless.
Robert and Kate sat at the center desk down in the command center, watching the big screen. Wolf had finished their privacy room. It would be a small advantage if they ever got to use it. In order for the Harkens to do anything about the stolen nut, they’d need Beowulf’s help anyway, so the only advantage they could get from it was to use it to devise a plan ahead of attacks.
Beowulf had tracked Reed’s helicopter heading towards Idaho Falls from the park that night before losing it out of range of his ground sensors. From there, his satellites had tracked the chopper to a hospital in the Falls, which had soon disgorged a truck that immediately went to the airport, where a small charter jet soon took off. It was all circumstantial after the helicopter landed, but it was their only lead. That plane had refueled at LAX, then taken off southwest towards Hawaii. It had stopped broadcasting somewhere over the Pacific. This was likely a planned shut off of their beacon in order to evade the authorities. The plane was suspected lost by the FAA. There had been a short news piece on it on a few news blogs. Only the pilot and a single passenger, Don Dangeru, who was reportedly a Japanese businessman of some sort, were believed lost with the plane. Don Dangeru? Definitely a fake name, Robert had thought as he’d read.
Robert had ordered some of Beowulf’s animal mimicking spies to be deployed around Hawaii in case the plane landed on one of the islands. Since the badger and raven combos he’d been using in the midwest would be out of place on the islands, Beowulf had modified them to be gulls and octopi. These octopi would make great spies as they had the same chameleon like ability to change color as some species of real octopi do. Of course, they would need to be spying on something that was actually in the water in order to be of any use.
At the moment, Robert and Kate were going through some of the observations of the spies.
“What’s that?” Kate asked pointing to a sailboat in a Hawaii cove.
“Sailboat, honey. Probably some rich guy playing Blue Lagoon with his new young wife.” Robert suggested.
“Yeah, I guess. It’s got a weird color though. Wolf, could you get a puss in that cove?”
“Be happy to.” The dryad’s disembodied voice replied. Kate looked at Robert.
“We should check out that privacy room tonight.” She said trailing a hand down his spine.
“We’ll need some flashlights and candles.” Robert said.
“We can camp out in there. Wolf, could you have Woody gather the stuff?”
“You got it. Let me know if you like it, if you want any changes, I can always break it down and rebuild it.” The voice again from the room around them.
They continued to review the data from Beowulf’s Hawaiian spies. There were planes coming in, but nothing matching the charter jet that had departed from Idaho Falls. Perhaps they had changed course somehow after they’d stopped broadcasting. It seemed unlikely that that was the case, as there weren’t any other landing strips in that part of the world except for Hawaii. Or they could have just bailed out of the jet and let it crash into the sea. Any number of things could have happened. All they could do was stick to the lead and see if anything turned up. That and prepare for what they would do if they found Reed.
“We’re going to need a drone that can retrieve Reed, the nut, and the Archive and return them to us.” Robert said.
“None of our troops can retrieve him?” Kate asked.
“No, they don’t have the energy reserves to return, and they can’t recharge fast enough with passive solar absorption.” Beowulf replied.
“They can still assist in the capture if necessary.” Robert said. “We really just need a fast retrieval drone. Wolf, could you make something that can fly back? Using it’s own stored energy? Also, can it be ballistically deployed world wide?”
“That’s a lot of questions. First, ballistic deployment range is not inherently limited, but accuracy will definitely be an issue if we fire to the other side of the world. Quite simply, the projectile will be shot into space, but it won’t achieve orbit, it’ll fall back down at the location I calculate. The uncertainty lies in the atmospheric conditions at the target, because the weather can vary from my predictions during the long journey of the projectile.” The dryad explained. “As for retrieval, I could make a simple rocket to retrieve the Archive and the nut, with enough fuel to return quickly. However, getting Reed back is another matter. There is his safety to consider, assuming you want him to survive the journey.” He inflected the last sentence as a question.
“Meh.” Robert said. “I suppose. The important thing is that it should be reusable for future missions in which we do want the occupant to survive.”
“That is quite a bit more difficult. The size of the vehicle would be such that it’d need to fly itself to the pickup location and then fly back, which would mean it would need to refuel with the most readily available energy source, jet fuel. Jet fuel is expensive, so someone would need to go out with it, to negotiate for fuel, etc.” Beowulf said.
“Shoot, we should probably have a few of those lying around for emergencies, but they’ll take a lot of explaining to actually use, at least if we don’t want them to get shot down by various air forces during deployment throughout the world.” Robert said. “What about a sort of large bird that could carry a few people, with moderate comfort. Something that could refuel with normal food, like a bird.”
“Could be I could make it work. I’ll cheat them a little bit with some lighter than air helium sacs. Yes. I’ll give it a try tonight.” The dryad said. “Woody has left your picnic supplies at the entrance to the privacy room, for whenever you’re ready to go.”
“Just a moment, there’s one more drone to think about.” Kate put the brakes on. “Our current ones are all geared toward wanton destruction. Perhaps we need something geared more towards non-lethal restraint. Preferably something that could infiltrate a crowd, at least initially without being noticed.”
“Like a cigar store indian version of Woody?” Robert suggested.
“No, well, a fake statue could be a good ambush drone, but we should consider the need for pursuit as well. And a man being chased by a group of fake statues might attract too much of the wrong kind of attention. Especially when they carry the man over their heads out of the city.”
“That’s a fair point.” Robert agreed. “How about spider man?”
“Spider man? Something like that could work. What do you think Wolf? How about a giant spider that can propel sticky webbing to assist in our capture work? It’d also be good for supporting the construction of battlefield fortifications, if it ever came up. Oh, and it should be able to pass as vaguely human in a crowd, if possible. Care to give that a try?”
“Another tall order.” The dryad’s disembodied voice said. “I embrace the challenge.”
“Ah, what do you say, Robert.” Kate asked. “A picnic and night in a stony dungeon deep below the surface of the earth?”
“Oh, Kate, you know just what I like. Let’s go.” Robert replied, following her to the elevator. “Privacy chamber.” He told it and it set off. Down, it felt like. The petal doors opened to a long stone hallway terminating in a sliding stone door. Their pick-a-nick basket had been set just outside the petal doors. Robert scooped it up and retrieved the flashlight, switched it on. “Nice, it’s still got charge.” They headed to the door at the hallway and muscled it open wide enough for them to pass. There was another short hallway terminating in another sliding door. They heaved the first door closed and opened the second. Beowulf must have taken their privacy seriously, there would be no way he would be able to hear them through both of these doors.
Inside the second door was a modestly sized room, about thirty feet square, lined with stone benches, and stone alcove shelving behind them. In two of the corners, stone tables were set in front of the benches. It looked like an excellent meeting place. It was missing a few things by modern standards like fluorescent lighting, seat cushions, outlets to plug in laptops and a projector screen, but Robert could hardly expect a tree to provide such things.
He took the blanket out and spread it on the floor next to one of the tables and started to unload food and candles. He set one candle on the edge of the table closest to them and lit it with a match from the basket. As he set the flame to the candle wick, he started to sing, “I’ve been feelin’ tried, baby…”
Kate hugged him loosely from behind, he turned around, set his arms around her and went in for the kiss. After a few a moments, he came up for air. Kate sang in an approximation of baritone, “Let’s get it on.” and started to strip.
Some time later, they were lying together on the blanket, thinking about getting to their picnic food. There hadn’t really been anything special about their lovemaking in privacy, they’d actually gotten quite used to the fact that Beowulf observed their bedroom activities in the tree. Still it felt a little different, almost lonelier in the privacy chamber. Like they were outside, exposed. Robert realized that Beowulf’s presence had become more of a comfort than a concern.
“Have you noticed anything weird about Beowulf lately?” Kate wondered.
“Yeah, he hasn’t been showing his face as much, I figured he’d been busy elsewhere.” Robert said.
“I don’t think so. He’d been doing it more and more since the Archive was stolen. I don’t like it. I don’t know if he thinks he’d protecting us, or if he feels guilty or what, but I don’t like it.”
“We should ask him about it.” Robert proposed. “Maybe say, ‘Beowulf, could you come here?’ Instead of just barking orders at him. There’s plenty we can try to try to get things back the way they used to be.”
“That’s what I want.” Kate explained. “Just because something bad has happened doesn’t mean we need to change how we do things. I mean, we do, to fix the problem, but him avoiding us doesn’t fix anything.”
“We’ll take care of it. What do we have to eat?” Robert asked reaching up to pull the basket down to them. “Looks like some sausage, bread, cheese, grapes, and oranges.”
“Oh, nice, could you pass me an orange?” Kate asked. He tossed one her way.
“I am confronted with a difficult problem. Now that I have created a living thing with such potential, it falls on me to devise mechanisms by which to limit it. It is not outside of the realm of possibility that one of these creatures could consume the entire surface of the earth. Given my goal of preserving humanity, I do not want that to happen. A simple negative feedback system making each additional main cell somehow more expensive, could help. But since they are intelligent, they could decide to ignore the expense, whatever it may be: energy, pain, time. Furthermore, even if the growth of the main cells were limited the stem cells could be used to continue to grow the organism. No, I’ll need a way to hardwire it’s mind, prevent it from ever choosing to grow beyond the limit I set. This mind control mechanism could be used to set up a human controller for each being, which would certainly be an advantage for me. The only disadvantage is that if the mind were damaged then those limits may disappear, which shouldn’t be much of a problem as the ultimate design will be nearly indestructible.” – Joshua Harken
Taylor Reed lounged on his living sail boat in the Hawaiian morning. He had not yet found a suitable tourist look-a-like but had been talking his way into beds of a few women. One of his favorite things to do was to get a wife to cheat on her husband for the first time, it was like convincing someone to buy you food made from truffles, which he had actually done once right before getting the woman to cheat on her husband. It was pointlessly expensive to them, and gained Reed next to nothing. It was the creation of the need in them to harm themselves that pleased Reed so much.
The boat had grown little. The sail leaf had become more and more sail like and looked like an oddly colored sail now rather than a leaf on a twig. The sting spines had grown longer and larger, and the boat had added a few smaller ones in order to continue to take small game for himself and it’s own consumption. It had followed his orders and grown a maw at it’s bow. The first time he’d seen it had been a surprise. He was on shore returning from one of his evening tourist hunts and saw the boat use its stings to skewer a pair of sea turtles that had wandered into the cove. Then the boat reared up and opened its maw, a wooden hole lined with huge thorns, and deposited the turtles within. After witnessing the transformation, Reed had almost turned around and headed right back inland, but then he remembered that this voracious predator worked for him. A fitting companion.
A gull was circling the air above the cove, occasionally flickering between the sun and Reed’s eyes. Annoying him. “Boat. Destroy the bird.” He commanded flippantly. A long thin sting flicked up from the water and skewered the bird with lightning speed. Then carried it to the boat’s slightly opened mouth. It’s good to be the king, he thought. He enjoyed the sun and dozed off after demanding some water from the boat.
“That was him!” Robert said excitedly. “Roll back the tape, zoom in on his face. That’s the bastard.”
“That’s him.” Kate agreed. “Wolf, what happened to that gull?”
“I’m not sure. It’s no longer transmitting.” The dryad stood behind them. “The last thing it registered was a massive physical impact of some sort.”
“Send in the new guys. Two to start, one on each side of the cove.” Robert commanded.
Reed awoke from his nap to a whining roar as a large object streaked across the sky and smashed into a copse of palms on the beach, flinging sand and pebbles onto the deck of the boat. “What..the…hell?” Reed asked aloud.
The forgotten pirate cube spoke up from somewhere he’d carelessly thrown it on the boat’s deck. “The Harken’s ‘ave sent ye a visitor, maybe two.” Another screech and crash on the beach. A dark brown figure scrambled rapidly out of the first crater as Reed watched, and it disappeared into the overgrown foliage lining the cove. Another scrambled out of the second crater.
“Boat. Protect me from… those things.” Reed begged. Looking back and forth at the two sides of the cove for signs of the new arrivals. He was examining a particularly suspicious looking blotch of shadow on one side of the cove when suddenly a figured leaped at the boat from the other side. It shot two thick silky strands of something, one at the boat’s mast, and the other at Reed’s back. At the impact Reed whirled around, which only caused more of the sticky cord to stick to him. He felt the cord tension and pull. The brown figure was clinging to the sailboat’s mast now, It looked vaguely humanoid to Reed but he couldn’t get a good look at it. It wasn’t pulling him in, instead it was swinging him around the mast. In a few revolutions, he was being twirled around like a tilt-a-whirl. It was making him sick, and he felt as though he would black out, when suddenly the tension broke and he flew towards the side of the cove he’d been staring at.
Out of the foliage, two new strands shot out and stuck to him, pulling him to ground near the other of those things. The impact hurt. He’d come down on his left arm and heard a snap. He saw bone protruding from his forearm, and it felt like some of his left fingers had been dislocated. He tried to struggle to his feet, and finally got a good look at the thing that had snatched him from the air. It was a man sized brown mantis with a human shaped head, and two thick fore arms from which the silky strands originated. Reed felt the pull on the strands as the creature reeled him in. There was a crash behind him and he saw motion on all sides of his vision, and suddenly a barbed spine was sticking into the creature’s thorax. Another of the barbed whips was wrapping around the thing’s head and a third around its body, they pulled apart and the thing’s head snapped off with a horrid crunch.
His boat pulled the remains back to it. It had crawled up onto the beach and had it’s gaping maw open wide. Reed could see bits of the other creature already within. It ate the thing and then gingerly wrapped Reed up in a whip and deposited him on deck. The mast folded down leaving the leaf sail behind the boat, like a fin. Then the sides of the boat started to close over him, sealing out the light. The boat was trapping him in. “What are you doing?” he panted.
“It’s alright, matey. I be watching yer boat transform ‘erself into a submarine to keep ye safe.” The pirate cube replied. Stupid cube, Reed thought, he wasn’t even talking to it. Then he blacked out from the pain and shock of his injuries.
“What the hell was that thing?” Robert asked after seeing their spider-mantises get skewered and eaten on the command center screen. “Is that what killed the gull?”
“I’d guess so.” Beowulf said from behind Robert. “I think that is the nut, it’s been planted, at sea.”
“That’s a tree?” Kate asked. “It’s small…”
“Yes, without the energy source it’s growth has been stunted.” Beowulf said. “A more important concern is that it saved Reed. I think that means he’s the planter, and therefore has control of the new tree.”
“That… could be very bad.” Robert said. “If he figures out what he’d have if he planted it in one of those Hawaiian volcanoes, we’d be up the proverbial creek.”
“He doesn’t seem to know, we saw that boat in the cove days ago and it hadn’t moved.” Kate said. “How old do you think it is?”
“I can’t tell.” The dryad said, “It’s growth is so stunted it hasn’t reached anywhere near the size I’d grown to in my first day. It appears to have gotten little more than the energy that was stored in the nut already plus what has been necessary to keep it alive and moving. It could be months before it’s dryad appears. I wonder what it’ll look like. I’d like to meet it.” Beowulf had grown pensive with the last remarks.
“Wolf!” Robert wanted to wake the dryad up. “Can you track it? We need to think how we’re going to fight it and Reed, not take it out to dinner.”
“I’ll put octopi in pursuit, it’s fast, but it’ll need to stop to feed.” The dryad replied.
“Feed?” Kate asked.
“Yes, it looked as though it has been eating in order to obtain energy. We can expect more of that to come.” Beowulf explained.
“What about getting Reed? How do we kill the tree?” Robert asked.
“KILL THE TREE?” Beowulf thundered. “Why would we kill the tree? We are going to free it from Reed’s evil control, that’s what we’re going to do.” Robert was surprised. Beowulf usually didn’t argue decisions like this. He must feel strongly about it. Robert definitely didn’t want to force Beowulf on this issue.
“OK, how will we kill Reed, then? He’ll be under the protection of his tree, so we’ve got to distract it or get it to let it’s guard down somehow.” Robert asked.
“I think I know the best way to get that to happen.” Kate started. “The tree won’t be easy to distract and won’t be stupid enough to let it’s guard down, but Reed, on the other hand, can probably be tricked. He’s probably narcissistic enough to fall into a pride trap of some sort.”
“You mean we tell him he’s a coward if he doesn’t show himself or something?” Robert asked.
“That’s the one.” Kate said. “We should talk to Theo about this. He’ll know Reed’s pride the best.”
Theo had been staying out of their pursuit of Reed and had been focused on managing the perception of them and the tree in the wake of the terrorist attack. It had dealt them a serious blow, both in the morale of the new residents and in the national news. Theo had been speaking to leaders within the communities of the new residents and trying to turn the event into a rallying point for a sort of tree-nationalism. He was trying to convince them that the attack was an attack on them, rather than just an attack on the tree. If he could get them to believe in protecting themselves and the tree, then he could get them to work against the Sons of the Swarm both in the tree and back with family and friends out in the US. He’d been making good headway.
“Agreed.” Robert turned to Beowulf. “Wolf can you ask for him?”
“I’m on it.” The dryad walked into the nearest wall.
“Do you think we need to make some naval drones?” Kate asked him, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Definitely.” Robert cracked a smile “A white whale full of tiny wooden men with harpoons.”
“That’s not a terrible idea.” Kate looked in his eyes and smiled back. “Sort of a Pinocchio/Moby Dick crossover?”
“Exactly.” Robert put on a serious face. “And if that fails… well… We’ll have to send in the ill-tempered mutated sea bass.”
Kate barked a laugh at the reference, then went straight faced herself. “How about a larger version of the chameleon octopi with enhanced weaponry?”
“That’s good. How about covering it with poison Jellyfish stingers? Oh and a barbed stingray sting at the end of each tentacle.”
“I wouldn’t wish a fight with something like that on my worst enemy. It’s perfect.” Kate said, pecking a kiss on his cheek.
Taylor Reed awoke to hot stuffy pain. He jerked his body and immediately felt an explosion of agony in his left arm and chest. The boat had wrapped his arm up with one of it’s whip-like vines and a larger one held it to his body. There was no light. The air was hot and completely saturated. “Water.” He croaked. A vine separated from the hull and offered a stream of water to his mouth. He leaned his head forward and drank from it like a water fountain. “It’s so hot. The air. I need fresh air.”
He felt the acceleration as the boat started to ascend, and he felt it jerk and impact the surface of the water after breach. The boat unwrapped a little above him. Not completely open, it just bird caged to allow the sea air in to cool him. It was night, and the moonlight shown on him like bars between the vines. He was in pain and hungry and had to piss. “Bathroom.” He commanded and the boat made accommodations without disturbing his injuries.
“Now I need to eat. Something better than fish. Get me a cheeseburger.” The birdcage closed, and the boat dived. Reed dozed off in the hot compartment. He awoke to another jerking breach and impact with the water’s surface. The boat birdcaged above him again. This time he saw the boat’s two heavy whip stings and several smaller ones poised to strike above them. They darted forward and hit something with a metallic crash that shook the boat. They struck again and again. Reed lifted his head. It was putting gaping holes in the side of a cargo ship. One of those huge freighters. There were warning shouts from the deck above them. The boat struck it’s heavy whip stings into the side of the ship again, this time hauling itself up the side, it was crawling onto deck. Some of the smaller whip stings caught crew members and tossed them into it’s thorny maw. The rest of the crew ran to the other side of the ship and clambered into a life boat.
His living boat. No. The Kraken. Began to tear up plates from the deck, exposing the galley, the ship’s kitchen. The whip stings plunged down and began to do some careful work Reed couldn’t make out from his vantage point strapped to it’s back. Soon they brought him something right up to his mouth. It was a juicy rare cheeseburger. “Oh, yes. Thank you.” He wolfed it down, and it must have been one of the best things he’d ever tasted.
The cargo ship had been taking on water from the first strikes. Now it was listing heavily. Still the Kraken clung on. Having completed it’s mission for Reed, it had begun tearing open cargo containers. They contained grains and produce, which the Kraken poured into its mouth greedily. “You are the Kraken.” Reed told the ship woozily. “The seas will run red with blood.” He started to fade as the cargo ship foundered, and the birdcage closed again around him. The Kraken had decided to ride the ship down.
Reed could feel the ship growing as they sank. It seemed the food had done his monster some good. His compartment expanded, and the air started to feel less stuffy, The vines grew little glowing dots along their lengths providing a fishy green illumination. It was beautiful. “Find more ships, my monster, feed.” He said, slipping into a more comfortable sleep despite the pain in his arm.
Theo Rigby was speaking heatedly in front of a group of refugees. “We’ve all been saved by Beowulf, even recently at the feast. If those things had gone unchecked, they’d have eaten us all.” He walked around in front of the listeners occasionally stopping for eye contact. “The truth is, without Beowulf, none of us would be here. And these bastards, these Sons of the Swarm, they call themselves, want him and all of us dead. I don’t think they’ll stop until they’ve chopped this tree down and unleashed the lava below. They’ve got no regard for human life, no respect for Beowulf, all they have is hatred. That’s why we need to take the fight to them. Until now, they’ve gotten to sit in the shadows cooking up this vicious terrorist attacks. But now, we need to take the fight to them. Catch them in the act. Whenever someone claims support for the Sons, he oughta be locked up, or tuned up.” Cheers of agreement came from the group. “We’ve got to spread the news about Beowulf. He’s here to help. Tell your friends and family back home to take up the fight to. Tell them all about Beowulf’s deeds, Tell them to come here and see for themselves. But most of all tell them to take the fight to the Sons outside of the tree. We’ve got to cut them down before they can plan another attack.” More cheers from the crowd. Beowulf stepped out of the wall behind Rigby and approached. The cheers rose and the crowd stood up and gave the dryad a standing ovation.
“Greetings friends!” The dryad boomed. “If you don’t mind, I need to speak to Theo here. Thank you all for coming.” The crowd cheered some more, and then broke into discussions amongst themselves as they broke up to leave. People talking about what they were going to do.
“What’s up, Wolf?” Theo asked.
“Robert and Kate, they want a word.” The dryad explained. “They’re meeting back down in the command center after dinner, and you’re welcome to join them to eat as well. It’s Reed, they need to know more about his personality, they need ideas on how to bait him out of safety, appeals to his pride.”
“Appeals to Reed’s pride? Tricky. He’s narcissistic and evil, but he’s also extremely wary. I think the only way to do it would be to make it look like we’re helpless and beaten with neck bared. Defeated. If he sees that, he’ll strike.” Rigby said. He was still in the groove from his speech. “I’ll meet them downstairs. I planned on dinner with the Guardians.”
“Good, thanks. Thanks for the praise, as well. Though I hope you’re not riling them up to an indiscriminate mob. I’ve a feeling the Sons could take advantage of that politically as well.”
“I know what you mean. But we need people to spread positive stories about you, and I think this is the best way.” Rigby shook his head. “You’ve seen the news right? It’s been a slaughter. We’re lucky that people aren’t gathering outside with pitchforks. There’s talk of some politicians in Wyoming taking up an anti-arborealist platform, and the media attention they’re getting could make them serious candidates. It’s a dire PR situation.”
“Yes. I’ll let them know you’ll be down.” Beowulf departed back into the wall.
Theo went down to meet the beekeepers for dinner. Much like the hippies, the beekeepers numbers had increased since moving into the hive. Some young people from the refugees became curious and joined them. Their parents sometimes cried foul, but the Guardians weren’t a closed group, visitors were welcome. Even irate parents.
Armand and Beth shared a living space behind a community area that had been converted into a religious meeting place. The Guardians of the Hive had daily meetings with affirmations and music, as well as weekly meetings at which Armand or Beth would speak a few words.
Their quarters were pretty modest. They had a large number of wall and table decorations featuring their main symbol which was a kite shield with a bee hive on it. Picked by Beth, Armand had explained. A few of the newer decorations they had now showed the hive hanging from a tree. A nod to Beowulf, probably. Rigby wondered if they were adding Beowulf to their religion somehow. He might attend one of their weekly sessions sometime to find out.
His dinner with Armand and Beth was very pleasant. They didn’t indulge in a lot of meat, but their dishes did prominently feature honey. The dishes weren’t cloying, but usually had a spiciness to accompany the honey that made them palatable. It was always a treat to dine with the Guardians’ leaders.
They talked about how the attack had affected the cultists and Theo assured them that Beowulf was improving his defenses, Rigby didn’t mention details of their ongoing pursuit of Reed, though he did get daily updates from Wolf. It was an old habit for Rigby. He told them that they were working to catch those responsible but left out the how. He gave a condensed version of his anti-Sons rally speech, but didn’t press the cultist too hard. Most of their members didn’t have much by way of friends and family on the outside, and they were generally opposed to violence. They received the speech well, and Beth gave Theo some pointers on making it more impassioned and inspiring like a fellow craftsman giving a tip on a new method.
The dinner concluded pleasantly and Theo headed down to the command center to meet the Harkens. He guessed he’d be a little late because the Harkens ate quickly and practically while the Guardians’ leaders tended to eat much more sensually, with multiple courses with carefully planned flavor sequences and scents, which tended to take a lot longer. So the Harkens had been at it for some time when the elevator deposited him in the command center.
“Rigby!” Robert called. “How are you?”
“Robert.” Rigby nodded to him, then to Kate. “Kate. I’ve been doing well. I’ve made some progress amongst the residents. I don’t think we’ll have to worry about a rebellion any time soon as long as we can prevent further attacks. How’s the search for Reed?”
“We found him. He’s planted the nut, at sea.”
“At sea? How does that work?”
“Slowly, apparently.” Robert explained. “Instead of growing really fast and big like Wolf did, it’s growing slowly. It’s still big, but it’s no larger than a big boat. It’s taken the form and behavior of a sort of sea monster. The last we saw of it, it was a glowing submarine tentacle monster that had just sank a cargo ship.”
“It’s a sea monster?” Reed smiled and shook his head once. “Maybe it has taken personality cues from Reed. He’s running the show? He’s on board?”
“That’s the way it looks, we tried to capture him before they left Hawaii, but the boat counter-attacked and took Reed below the surface. A while later, it surfaced and tore up a cargo ship. The coast guard rescued the surviving crew, and they’re all telling stories about a sea monster. We did see Reed was injured. Compound fracture on his arm.” Robert paused and nodded toward Beowulf, who had joined them. “We have decided to kill Reed and try to save the tree. The tree is very strong, and it will do anything it can to protect Reed, so we need a way to lure him out, to get his guard down. We were hoping you knew of a way.”
“Beowulf mentioned that.” Rigby said. “The only times I’ve ever seen Reed do anything close to stick his neck out was when he was absolutely sure he’d beaten his enemy. That’s when he’ll expose himself to deliver a blow personally. In any other case, I’m sure he’ll hide behind his monster. What I think that’ll mean is that one of us needs to go out there. I’ll volunteer, we’ll need to let him win dramatically, then he should come in for the personal kill, and that’ll be our chance to strike. Do you have an assassination drone? That would be ideal. It needs to be something the tree monster won’t detect until after it has struck. Also, I would like to survive the attack, so the drone needs to avoid any collateral damage.”
“Whoa there cowboy.” Kate said “Why does it have to be you? Can’t we just send a look-a-like?”
“Or I could go.” Robert proposed.
“No, that’s not going to happen.” Kate placed a hand on Robert’s chest. “You don’t get to expose yourself to any psychopaths.”
“Alright, alright. What about the decoy, Wolf?” Robert asked.
“I think I could…” The dryad started.
“No, I don’t want any fake mes around.” Rigby interrupted. “I don’t want my identity used deceptively, even for something like this. No clones.”
“OK, OK.” Kate conceded, putting her hands up. “I get that that’d be creepy.”
“So… like a sniper drone then, something that can blend in at sea. Then we need the bait. We need to get him to attack Rigby at sea. If we just send out a heavily armed and armored boat, he won’t bother to touch it. Rigby’ll just end up chasing it around the ocean.” Robert had looked away as he thought aloud. He turned his head back to the group. “OK. How about this? We send out escort drones to keep lookout around the larger ships in the area. Some of those flying retrieval drones, Wolf. We’ll need to have Rigby waiting in the area, and ready to deploy to a ship if the monster is spotted along with some of the new octopi assault drones, and the new sniper. Then, the question will be how to get Rigby out there alive and well and ready to deploy to a ship on a moment’s notice?”
“What about one of those airliner like drones we were talking about?” Kate asked.
“No good, it needs to have longevity in the air or at sea and I still think if we send out a plane, it’ll get shot down by the air force. It’d definitely piss a lot of people off.” Robert said.
“How about two drones?” Rigby proposed. “One a rocket plane drone to deliver on a one way trip, and the other an inflatable zeppelin, which can be ballistically deployed, self inflates, and can pick me out of the water after I bail out of the rocket plane.”
“That’s some James Bond stuff right there.” Robert smiled then looked seriously at Theo. “You up to it?”
Theo smiled back. “Sure I am. I’m sure Wolf’ll make it easy on me anyway.”
“That I will. Those drones are feasible, it’ll take some time to produce, then to deploy. While I’m working on those, I’d like to start deploying octopi to harry Reed and the other tree until that deployment is ready. We’ll keep them on the run, and try to give them a bloody nose each time they try to attack someone.” Beowulf spoke like a general, he seemed passionate about this other tree. “Then there’s this assassin. I’ve got an idea for that. My plan is to make it a thick transparent member filled with seawater. Aside from the membrane, the only other structure will be a long rigid barrel and a projectile. It will operate similarly to a sniper rifle but the projectile will be hydraulically accelerated rather than pushed by expanding gas.”
“That… sounds like a big bag of snot that can sneeze a bullet.” Robert said.
Beowulf smiled. “It is that, but it’ll also be effectively undetectable in the open sea. Even I’d have trouble finding it. The only chance Reed’ll be tipped off is the Archive.”
“How will it move?” Kate asked.
“The membrane will be woven through with muscle fibers. It’s primary locomotion will be snake-like movement.” The dryad replied.
“This plan hinges on the Archive not working with Reed. If that cube is working with Reed, then we’ll be sending Rigby to his death.” Robert looked hard at Rigby. “Is that a chance you’ll be willing to take?” Robert then turned to look at Beowulf. “And if this fails, we’ll have to give up on trying to save the tree. We’ll have to do everything we can to put it down.”
“Is there someway we can test the cube’s loyalty before we do this?” Rigby asked. “I don’t think so. Even if it has gone rogue, there’s always the chance that the thing won’t be able to warn him. It can’t speak unless spoken to right? I’m willing to go ahead with the plan. Based on what I’ve seen of Beowulf, I have my doubts that you’ll be able to take the monster down anyway. Our only chance could be killing Reed.”
“Good. And you Wolf?” Robert asked.
“I’ll do everything in my power to destroy the other tree if we fail to kill Reed.” The dryad promised.
“Then let’s get started. Wolf, make prototypes of the rocket drone and deployable zeppelin and train Rigby in their use. Also, let’s send out a pair of assault octopi and retrieval birds every day. We might as well start escorting ships in the area now, if nothing else, it’ll help us track the monster.” He turned towards the screen. “If you are listening, Archive, I order you to keep this secret from Reed. Proceed.” He turned back to the group. “No idea if that’ll work, but it’s definitely worth a try.”
“Good idea, Robert.” Kate said. They remained in the command center for a while and spoke about business at the tree and what was happening in the news. Unfortunately, the attacks of the sea monster had not yet been connected to Beowulf. That’d mean that when it came out, it’d be another blow to the tree’s reputation and one that they might not be able to come back from. They decided to prepare a video press release, describing the recent attack and pointing the finger at the anti-arborealists and the Sons of the Swarm, and then explaining the theft of the nut, and the resulting attacks on the ships in the pacific, stressing the evil influence of Reed. It might cause other governments to become involved but that was a risk they’d have to take in order to have some chance of managing public opinion of this situation. It might also let whomever Reed stole the nut for know that he was still alive. Whomever they were, he was sure they’d be unhappy that Reed had planted the nut on his own.
King of the Seas
“Hardwiring a mind to do or not do something specific is next to impossible, because the mind grows from the code and has to have a certain plasticity to learn and solve problems. Therefore, I’ve added what amounts to a secondary supervisory mind to each organism. This second mind’s sole goal will be to enforce the restrictions I set upon the main. It will then learn and grow right along with the main mind, and will be able to maintain control as the main mind evolves to overcome challenges. There is a possibility that the minds could become locked in battle. This will result in a freezing of the organism, possibly in perpetuity, as I’ve taken pains to insure that neither mind will be able to dominate the other.” – Joshua Harken
The Kraken’s reign of terror in the Pacific continued for a few days unchallenged. Reed’s accommodations within became more and more comfortable and the monster took good care of him as his wounds healed. He became feverish at one point and the creature had administered a sort of paste extruded from one of it’s logs. It had had a bitter medicinal taste. Whatever it had been, Reed’s mind cleared and the pain of his injuries decreased. He judged it’d be at least another week before he could think about removing the splint, so he’d commanded the boat to come up with a splint that he could move around with. It had slowly unwrapped the vine it had been using to immobilize his arm and had extruded a different type of paste which had hardened quickly and set into a stiff woody state. He could now move around on his own, but because of the Kraken’s occasional jerking movements, it kept a loosely wrapped vine around Reed at all times to act as an emergency restraint.
Reed really despised the monster for taking such good care of him. It made him feel like a toy dog that one of those rich bitches carried around with them and doted over. When this feeling came over him he had to order the Kraken to do something which he imagined would humiliate it, like consuming his bodily waste. Who’s the toy now, he’d think. Reed’s hair and beard had been growing unchecked since they’d left Hawaii, and he’d discarded his tattered clothes after the attack. He had the feeling that he looked like a wild man, like the missing link, a beast from humanity’s dark history. The image pleased him.
They were tracking another ship, there were fewer now because the shipping companies had become aware of his activities and were hedging their bets. They surfaced nearby off it’s starboard side and Reed ordered the monster to give him a view of the ship. This one turned out to be US navy, it probably had been deployed to protect the shipping lanes. From it’s size, Reed guessed it was one of the newer missile cruisers they were using, it certainly didn’t have a flight deck and he guessed it to be between one and two football fields in length. They definitely had guns. When they spotted the kraken a klaxon sounded, and they quickly realigned some of their smaller fixed artillery. Soon they’d be firing shells at the monster.
“Take them apart.” Reed commanded, bored. “Oh, see if they have some of those plastic wrapped dessert cakes, and save them for me.” The Kraken shot forward through the water as the first artillery shell was fired and struck the water behind them. It’s heavy whips were now long enough to reach around the ship, and the monster used them to grip the ship, as it holed the thick hull plating with it’s smaller barbed whips. Some of the sailors had futilely opened fire on the Krakens’ log tentacles. The monster’s smaller whips shot out and skewered them, returning them to the monster’s mouth. The ship was doomed, A voice over a loud speaker was calling for abandoning the ship.
This was starting to entertain Reed less and less. Each attack proceeded in the same way. Paltry resistance to the unstoppable Kraken, followed by all hands running away in lifeboats as the Kraken fed on any food on board. He had hoped that this military vessel would be able to put up a fight. Apparently, these things weren’t designed to fight sea monsters, and it was nearly as easy as attacking any unarmed freight ship. Reed decided he needed to do something to force these people to provide him with a challenge. “The lifeboats.” He croaked. “Kill all of the fleeing sailors, eat only half, leave the rest in pieces in the boats.” The Kraken obeyed, and screams filled the air. This would definitely make an impression. He was sure that the cruiser had put a call in for help during the attack. Finished with the massacre, the Kraken returned to tearing the ship apart. It found the food stores and began throwing whole cans of food into it’s maw, chewing through the steel. It found an assortment of individually wrapped snack cakes, which it deposited in Reed’s compartment. Reed unwrapped one of the cakes and ate it absently, as the Kraken continued to feed. When it was over, the monster prepared to dive.
“Wait, hang back from the lifeboats but keep them in sight. Stay low in the water to avoid notice, I want to see them pick them up.” Reed said savagely. The Kraken obeyed and hid itself mostly underwater. Leaving a small platform on which Reed lay above the waves, watching for the navy’s backup to arrive. It took a few hours, but a smaller ship, a destroyer perhaps, arrived to retrieve survivors. What they found was carnage. The lifeboats were bereft of life, filled only with the dismembered pieces of the cruiser’s crew. Reed smiled as the sailors began the grim work of collecting parts and trying to arrange them into full sailors on the destroyer’s deck.
This would show them to send such weak ships to try and take him on, Reed was thinking when he saw movement in the water around him. Large dark blue octopi were moving through the water towards them, encircling the Kraken. The Kraken had seen them and was making strikes with it’s smaller whip stings. The octopi were dodging. They were incredibly fast. This might be the challenge he’d been looking for. The octopi seemed to be coordinating their attacks. One would present itself as a target, a whip struck out for it and another would wrap its tentacles around the whip. These things had barbs of their own on the end of their tentacles, Reed saw one clinging to one of the Kraken’s whips plunging a stinger again and again into the woody flesh. The Kraken shook with pain or anger. It picked Reed up and placed him back in the compartment for his safety.
With Reed in safety it began flailing it’s whips through the water viciously, and spinning it’s body. It started to catch the octopi, skewering them, or scrapping the ones that had clung to its whips off with rapid stabs. Soon the Kraken had beaten the four octopi. Reed demanded to be placed back on top of the monster to survey the damage. There was some, to Reed’s surprise. The whips that had been wrapped up were broken and leaking where they’d been stabbed. Additionally every spot that had been lashed by a tentacle was swollen and splintered. There was a lot of damage to the Kraken’s whips. “Are you hurt, girl?” Reed asked. The Kraken made a roaring sound from it’s maw. No idea what that means, Reed thought. “Can you do anything to make sure those things can’t hurt you again?” It roared again. “Well, do it.”
To Robert’s surprise the skirmish had not been entirely useless, the octopi had held there own better than he’d thought and even dealt the monster some damage. The Kraken, he thought. It was definitely the Kraken. “Not too bad.” He commented to Beowulf beside him in the command center.
“Not bad at all.” The dryad said. “They’ll make good soldier’s for Rigby’s fight. They might subdue the other tree on their own.”
“That’d be good news for Rigby. Is everything ready?” Robert asked.
“Soon, I’ve just got to run through procedure for Rigby again. I think we can launch tomorrow.” Beowulf said.
“Good, we’ve got to stop this.” Robert said. “You saw what he had it do to the sailors. Do you think that being under Reed’s control, might, you know, drive the tree insane?”
“I don’t know.” Beowulf said. “I don’t know if it’s possible. I’ll do everything I can to help it, that’s for sure. I hope that it knows that what it’s being forced to do is wrong. But even if it doesn’t I’ll do what I can to tell it and show it.”
“Let’s hope that’s enough.” Robert said, looking concernedly at the dryad. “Let’s deploy another twenty of those octopi and twenty of the retrieval birds for surveillance. Land them near Hawaii, but far enough away to avoid attracting attention. Start the birds patrolling the shipping lanes and escorting likely targets as soon as they’re out there.”
“Right.” Beowulf agreed and exited into the command center’s wall.
With the Kraken injured, and the US navy no doubt enraged, Reed ordered the monster to stay to the deeps and feed on sea life. They hid in the depths for a week while the Kraken ate and healed. Eventually Reed ordered the monster back towards Hawaii. He’d thought up a new entertainment. Why not take the tree on some shore leave? Surely it would enjoy the beaches and ocean front resorts of Hawaii? Who can tell with a monster like this? At least Reed knew that he would enjoy watching the Kraken visit these places.
Hilo was his target, and he ordered the monster to place him on it’s back as it glided past the rip-rap breakwater toward the communities beach in broad daylight. People on the beach pointed at them and a few waved. It’s not everyday that a bearded naked man rides in on a giant sea monster. As they neared the beach he saw a local cop on the shore standing outside the front door of his cruiser describing him to the station with his radio. This could get dicey. “Take me in.” He croaked to his monster. “Feed on this town.” The log whip that his monster used a constant safety restraint lifted him up and placed him within his compartment where he’d be safe from police small arms fire.
The monster began it’s attack on a group of curious sunbathers that had got up to watch them enter the artificial bay, and were waving to them. With a swift grace the monster skewered them through their abdomens and efficiently deposited them in its mouth. It was so smoothly done, that most of the other people at the beach stayed frozen in wonderment for a few moments before realizing the horror of their situation. The police officer emptied the clip of his side arm into the monster futilely as it slaughtered beach goers. The Kraken took him with a barbed whip as he was trying to pull a twelve gauge out of his cruisers trunk.
The blue waters had turned red and carnage lined the shore as the beast crawled it’s way further inland to continue its attack on the town. The Kraken now bore little resemblance to the sail boat it had once masqueraded as. Now it looked like some kind of a nightmare version of a giant squid. There is a smooth bulbous area behind and above the mouth which contains Reed’s compartment and below that, it’s digestive mechanisms. At the rear of that is a large fin made of many hard sharp scale like leaves. Outside of the water, these were twitching out of their fin-like configuration. From the sides of the bulbous area two thick heavy barbed tentacles protruded. It was using these as legs as it devastated Hilo. At the front of the beast was its mouth, and around the mouth a nest of smaller barbed whips, like a mane of vicious tentacles. Within its maw, the thorns had matured into smaller versions of the barbed whips, which would lash out at anything placed within and pull it further into the beast. In the sunlight, the luminescent glow of the beasts tentacles could not be seen, and the whole monster had a menacing dark green color.
Sheltered within, Reed contemplated the screams, crashes, car horns, and sirens he heard outside with eyes closed. It was like a symphony, he thought. A prelude to anarchy. He lifted his hands and started to move them in time with the beat, like the maestro of an orchestra. Reed was starting to think of himself as something of an artist. He no longer had to concern himself with normal human needs, these were all provided for, and he no longer needed to try to make money in order to obtain power, he had all the power he would ever need. So with nothing else to drive him, he indulged in his art. Hurting people. For him, having the monster leave dismembered remains of sailors in the lifeboats hadn’t been about those sailors, it had been about the ones that were forced to reclaim them. The families that would have to identify them. The news that would have to describe them. The fear that would be inspired in the families of other sailors on other boats. All of it, a massive and elaborate expression of Reed’s art. What shall he create at Hilo? Reed opened his eyes.
Four thousand eyeballs. Left in a large pile on the Hilo beach free for the gulls to feast on. Many of the residents had survived the attack by hiding or fleeing from the monster because it moved rather slowly on land. Officials were still trying to tally up the dead, make sense of the attack, and the pile when Theo Rigby landed on the beach with his retrieval bird. He had been with the air balloon closer to Samoa when word of the attack on Hilo came to him from Beowulf. By the time he reached Hawaii, the monster had been gone for hours and evening had come.
During the attack the shortcomings of their plan had become obvious. They had not accounted for land battles at all. Beowulf had none of his old shock troops on the ready to deploy, he’d devoted all of his efforts to prepare the assault octopi and retrieval bird escorts. The Harkens and the dryad had been forced to watch powerless through the eyes of leftover spy gulls as the Kraken raided Hilo.
The shocked men around the pile of eyes gave him accounts of the attack after he quickly explained his mount and his mission. They didn’t seem terribly surprised that he had arrived on a giant bird and worked for a giant tree. They had other things to worry about. The monster had come and targeted people with this attack. It had swept through the town’s streets tearing people out of cars and houses and stores with its barbed whips. From each one it plucked one eye and ate the rest. Each piece of the pile in front of them represented a dead resident or tourist.
Rigby left them and returned to his mount. The retrieval bird had all the appearance of a giant hawk except for a slightly longer neck which formed a natural saddle for Rigby. It was about the size of a Volkswagen with its wings tucked and a small aircraft with them unfurled for flight. The real trick to creating working giant birds, Beowulf had explained, was hiding sacs of lighter than air helium within its body. This allowed the bird to a carry a passenger, and fill its belly with fish or other food, and still be able to maintain flight for long periods of time. Rigby told the bird what the Hiloans had said, knowing that Beowulf would hear it. He could have used his Com-sphere, but that would have allowed Wolf and the Harkens to ask questions, and Rigby was in no mood for questions. He mounted the bird and it took flight. Rigby trusted Beowulf would take him where he needed to be.
“Are we tracking him?” Kate asked after they had listened to Rigby’s description of the attack from the Hiloans. Robert and Kate were with Beowulf in the command center, still reeling from the events they’d witnessed.
“Reed? Only Generally.” Beowulf replied. “We saw him heading South around the island after Hilo. Then the other tree outran the spies.”
“Nearest ships?” Robert asked.
“There are a few cargo ships passing south of the islands under my escort.” Beowulf said, gesturing towards the main screen which changed to show a map of the area with ship shaped icons indicating his wards. “I’ve noticed in satellite photographs that a carrier group is steaming towards the islands, but I don’t have them under escort, as they’d likely take offense to the giant bird’s presence.”
“Well, we can be certain that they will not make any attempt to preserve the life of the Kraken if they catch up to it.” Robert shook his head as he imagined a battle between the Kraken and the carrier group. “I don’t know what weapon they have that’ll be of any use against it. It would have to surface to be vulnerable to a missile strike, and it’s speed and maneuverability outclasses any submarine. It could probably dodge torpedoes and depth charges, and dart from ship to ship making quick holes in each one. It’d just be more dead sailors on the news.”
“Not if we can help it.” Kate said then turned thoughtfully to the dryad. “Speaking of the news, what are they saying about this attack on Hilo? Can you put the news on?” Beowulf nodded and the screens changed. They showed several video clips from people’s phones or other devices that had captured the attack. One of them was getting more attention then the others. It was a tourist’s filming of the Kraken walking down a street picking people up, shucking their eyeballs and eating them. The shot got the whole tree in frame. Then the camera rotated as the recorded voice of the tourist said he saw something weird about it. Apparently, it being a giant monster was not the weird part. The video showed the mouth and nest of tentacles at the bottom of the frame and the fins at the top. Then it panned to the tourists face as he excitedly explained that it looked just like a tree, that had been uprooted. It was another one of those things that had attacked Yellowstone.
“Great.” Robert said sarcastically. “We’re going to be public enemy number one before this is over. You see, we want to be like Steve Jobs selling the Ipod. A good company making a good product that does good things. Instead, we keep finding out that owning an Ipod gets you attacked by wild dogs or sometimes the Ipods just kill you and mutilate your corpse. It’s a tough sell.”
“I thought it was the Iphone 4S that killed you and mutilated your corpse.” Kate pointed out.
“Oh, that’s right, because of the antenna.” Robert said nodding.
“I don’t understand what you two mean.” The dryad began cautiously. “Am I an Ipod?”
“Nope, you’re a giant tree, Wolf.” Robert said cheerfully. “Forget about the metaphor.”
“You’re the one that gets attacked by wild dogs.” Kate explained.
“Oh, the Sons are the wild dogs, then.” Beowulf nodded once. “OK, I get it.”
“At a boy.” Robert said looking to Kate. “Care to eat, Kate? Wolf, let us know if he shows up again, and we’ll be back down for out nightly update with Rigby.”
“Let’s go, but I’m not at all hungry.” Kate said. Robert realized he wasn’t either. Watching the events at Hilo had not been good for the appetite.
“Woody can make us something small. Let’s curl up on the couch and nap a while.” He said leading her towards the elevator.
Death of a Monster
“I still wonder about the psychology of my two minded creations. They seem to behave as one which is as I’d intended, but the systems are too new and untested for me to be able to make any decent prediction on the long term psychological effects. Of course, that’s true of much of the life experience these trees will endure. Immortality, omniscience, being… a tree. No human has ever known these things so it is hard to gauge what the psychological state of the organisms will be tomorrow, much less in ten thousand years.” – Joshua Harken
Robert and Kate lay on the couch together snoozing. Woody had whipped them up some sandwiches which they’d eaten quickly, before heading to the living room. On the couch, Robert had tried watching some more news, but when he’d commanded the screen on, it had showed footage from Hilo of young people gathered around a tree at night with torches. It was some sort of protest. They set fire to the tree and were chanting, “Burn the tree! Burn the tree!” Clever bastards. Using a real tree as an effigy. Robert and Kate could only hope they were referring only to the Kraken and not to Beowulf.
“What happens after we kill Reed? Who gets control of the tree?” Kate asked nestled in his arms.
“The Archive once said that the tree’s dryads can choose a new representative. This tree’s dryad hasn’t shown up yet, so I don’t know. Maybe it just flies solo until it grows up enough to manifest.”
“So there’s a chance that it could go even crazier after Reed is killed?”
“Yes, I think there’s a good chance of that, with the stuff he’s been making it do. These are designed to grow up and take care of people. Beowulf had already started to design the arcology and our quarters before we even moved in. There will be a conflict between what it’s been taught to do and what it was designed to do.”
“Why didn’t your brother just design everything so that it worked right the first time?”
“Search me.” Robert said, trailing fingers up Kate’s side in a tickling motion. “I guess he’s just an idiot. Seems pretty obvious in hindsight, doesn’t it? If you design super trees, make sure they don’t turn into sea monsters. Duh.”
Kate squirmed involuntarily and then smacked him in response to the tickle. “We should get ready for our chat with Rigby.”
Beowulf peeked his head out of the wall nearby and, spotting them, pulled one arm out as well. Then addressed them like he was sticking his head out of car window. “I think you two should get down here. The other tree is attacking one of our escorted cargo ships.”
“We’re on our way.” Robert promised. Kate leaped up and made towards the elevator and he followed. They were presentable enough for an evening at war. They rode the elevator down and walked briskly past the furled petals to their console desk in the center of the command center. Waiting in corporeal form near it, Beowulf began explaining as soon as they left the elevator, “Rigby’s on his way already. He should make it this time. There’s one assault octopus in the water below the ship and I’ve got ten more and the sniper ready to deploy.”
“Is that the one carrying baby diapers?” Robert asked.
The dryad looked perplexed, “I don’t know, I haven’t surveyed any of the cargo. It could be any number of things up to and including baby diapers.”
“That’s all right, I just wanted to be able to say that we killed Reed while he was attacking a vessel loaded with baby diapers. Deploy five of the octopi and the sniper out of sight. Hold the others in reserve for now.”
“Done and done.” The dryad said. On one of the ancillary screens the tree’s branches could be seen swinging into position and then a series of large explosions sent the supersonic projectile/soldiers to their destination. “ETA, 30 minutes.”
“That’s not too bad.” Kate said. “Do you have it on visual?” The main screen changed to show a bird’s eye view of a cargo ship at sea. Off the ship’s starboard flank a large wake could be seen closing in. Barely visible was a tiny human shape riding on top of the wake like a skier without skis.
“Look at the lunatic.” Robert said. “We need to slow that thing down. Care to make a few dives at Reed? Try to tear his head off with each pass?”
“It’d be my pleasure.” Beowulf said. The view on the screen narrowed like a tunnel on Reed and two claws could be seen on the bottom corners of the screen. The bird was diving at the deranged nude figure. The view approached Reed from behind with unbelievable speed, but not fast enough to get a drop on the Kraken. A whip lashed up in front of the bird, missing it with the barb, but blocking it’s way. The bird crashed into it, then tumbled through the air and skipped across the water before spreading its wings and picking up some lift again.
“Close.” Robert commented, referring to both the success of the attack, and the success of the counter-attack from the monster. When the bird regained the sky above the ship again, they could see that Reed had been taken within the beast to protect him from further attack. It had slowed it’s approach towards the ship.
“I’ll keep harrying it, it doesn’t look like we’ll get boots on the ground before it has a chance to put holes in that ship.” Beowulf said.
“Right. Hopefully we can save this crew at least.” Robert said. “The octopus. Can you have it hide on the opposite side of the ship from the Kraken? My guess is that it’ll try to wrap one of those big tentacles up under the ship and around, and when it does that, I want the octopus there to chop it off.”
“On it.” The dryad grimaced. A countdown appeared on the screen displaying two ETA’s one for Rigby, the other for the reinforcement octopi and sniper. Rigby would beat them by ten minutes.
The crew of the cargo ship had noticed the approaching Kraken, and an alarm sounded on deck. The ship began to make a slow turn directly away from the creature, and it’s wake visibly increased as it tried to pick up speed away from the monster. The Kraken still gained quickly on the defenseless ship. A few crewmen near the stern were unraveling a fire hose and aiming it towards the monster. Poor bastards. The Kraken was no dinghy loaded with Somali pirates.
The bird continued it’s diving attacks at the monster, though there wasn’t much to attack with Reed stashed below decks. Nevertheless, the giant hawk screeched and dove, then dodged or collided with the monster’s defending whips. It was dizzying to try and watch the battle from the birds view, but the only other choice was the octopus, and its view would not tell much of anything about what happened above the surface.
The Kraken reached the ship just as Rigby’s bird arrived above the ship. As Robert had predicted, it’s first move was to wrap it’s two heavy whips around the ship. Then it began to use the grip this provided to counter the force of it’s smaller barbs punching holes in the hull. The octopus attacked the exposed whip on the side of the ship opposite the Kraken’s main bulk. At first it seemed the monster didn’t notice as the chameleon creature wrapped around it’s huge whip, but when the octopuses own barbs began to plunge into it systematically, the Kraken jerked and shrieked. The Octopus was just out of range of the smaller whips. The octopus stabbed with mechanical speed, it looked to Robert like a man trying to slice a pork loin using two toothpicks. With a lot of little stabs right next to each other, all the way around, it might just cut through.
Rigby’s bird descended to the jerking deck of the ship, landing and diggings it’s powerful claws into the lifting holes of a heavy cargo box. Rigby dismounted and started to make stumbling moves towards the Kraken, shouting “Reed, you bastard. Come out and fight!” Rigby was moving too soon. It would still be minutes before the sniper drone arrived and would take a few more minutes after that for it to get into position.
Rigby was running towards a sea monster, doing his best not to look as stupid as he felt for doing it. There was a group of crewmen near the stern of the ship with a fire hose spraying the creature with water. The Kraken was screeching and jerking like it was in pain, so the crewmen were cheering. They must have thought they were hurting it somehow. Rigby guessed, correctly, that there was more to the Kraken’s pain, but there was no way he’d stop and explain it to the men. He reached the monster’s refrigerator thick tentacle and bent over the rail near it.
“Hey Reed, come out and play!” He shouted like a crazy person. The Kraken didn’t pause or react it flicked a whip up at him which he barely dodged. Away from the rail, Rigby spotted the open box which had once held the coiled fire house that the crewmen were using so heroically. It also contained a bright red fire axe. Nice. He snatched it up and took it back to the tentacle. He wished he’d had time to gain his sea legs. He was having trouble maintaining stable footing on this Kraken assaulted ship.
When he’d gotten reasonably steady, he took an overhead swing and brought the axe blade down into the top of the thick tentacle. It bit, and he wrenched it out quickly, remembering the story he’d heard about Beowulf’s encounter with the science team in Yellowstone. It oozed thick green ichor. He struck again and again. Each time, wrenching his axe free and repositioning quickly to avoid counterattack from one of the monster’s smaller whips. He paused and shouted, “Reed, you bastard, I can do this all day.”
There was a deep loud metallic groan. Not the sound of holes being punched like he’d been hearing the whole time since his arrival. This sounded more dire. It was the tentacle in front of him. He saw it press in closer to the deck. The monster was tightening it’s grip. It was squeezing the ship. More groaning. Then the gunshot like pings and snaps of breaking rivets and parts of the deck were giving way on both sides of the ship. The tentacle sank further in. Rigby struck it once more with the axe before it sank in too deep to reach. Then he retreated to get a better view of the ship. He could see the hull and deck visibly pinched around the area that the monster had wrapped it’s tentacles. Looking over the rail he saw the monster shoot a thick wad of barbs through the hull towards the other side of the ship. They came back with the bloody mess of what was left of the assault octopus. It had been attacking the sucker-less tentacle on the far side of the ship, and rather than let the ship go and deal with the octopus, the Kraken had pinched the ship to shorten the distance between its smaller whips and the octopus. It roared in victory and loosened its grip on the hull.
The cargo ship was sinking rapidly and the Kraken had moved on from making holes, to searching for food. It snatched up the unfortunate idiots manning the fire hose and ate them, then began reaching up on deck with it’s heavy whip arms and punching holes in cargo boxes, searching for edibles. Rigby noticed bags of Huggies pouring out of the hole in a nearby box. Robert would probably make some kind of joke about that, he thought. Rigby retreated further towards the bow away from the monster and it’s questing tentacles.
He saw a group of men clustered around a lifeboat near the bow. Some of them spotted him and were waving him over and shouting for him to hurry. He waved back at them to just go. He wasn’t part of the crew, and didn’t want to find out what they’d do to him if they got a closer look at him. Suddenly the monster chucked a cargo box at the life boat. The box bashed it and many of the gathered crewmen into the water. Rigby shook his head in disgust at Reed, and turned to face the monster. It was partially on deck, pouring the contents of a box into its maw. On top of it, stood Reed, exposed, smiling down at Rigby. This was their chance. Rigby thought. Where are the reinforcements?
“Rigby? Is that you down there? How have you been?” Reed asked. His voice was nothing like the smooth southern cream it’d been only a few weeks before. Now it was raw and gruff.
“Fair enough, Reed. I see you have yourself a new friend there. Any chance it plays tennis better than you?”
“Don’t give me your shit, Rigby. You’re talking to a God now. Like your buddy Robert, except I’ve got the balls to put my power to use.”
“Speaking of balls, where are your pants, Reed? That’s gotta be the smallest dick and balls that have ever dangled from a God.”
Reed gestured and a whip shot at Rigby. He dodged out of the way but still got cut along his ribs. It traveled past and around and wrapped him up, lifting Rigby off the deck and pulling him towards Reed. “What’s that you say, scum?” Reed shouted as the whip brought Rigby closer. It squeezed him, so he could not reply. He noticed some strange things then. One was the restraint whip wrapped around Reed. It had sunk into his flesh. There were green lines spreading out from it. The Kraken was literally growing into him and Rigby didn’t think Reed had noticed yet. The other was that his left arm had merged into his body. Fused there.
There was a screeching sound out of the eastern sky and then several huge impacts in the ocean around the ship. Finally, reinforcements! The tentacle holding him loosened slightly on the arrival, and Rigby managed to get enough air to speak again. “Reed! That thing, it’s growing in you. Look at yourself!” Rigby pointed at him. Reed turned back from the explosions and followed Rigby’s finger to where the tentacle had entered his skin.
Reed looked back at Rigby and smiled. “We’re becoming one, the Kraken and I!” The octopi had arrived and were crawling up the Kraken out of the water, stabbing it everywhere they could. It shrieked and hurled the cargo box at one of them. The octopi were much slower out of the water, and the Kraken quickly killed the rest. Strangely, Rigby wasn’t disturbed by the writhing of the beast, it held him stable throughout. Reed met his eyes again and he sneered, “Your friends, the Harkens, again. I’m going to feast upon the marrow of their bones, one day. Today, however, you will be my feast.” Reed held his hand out and a barbed tentacle placed itself there. His restraint whip brought him forward to Rigby. The disgusting wild man brought his face up close to Rigby’s and said, “Goodbye, old friend.” Then plunged the sharp barb into Rigby’s gut. Rigby’s eyes rolled up and he passed out. The whip holding him released his limp body and it flopped down on the deck. Reed started laughing and raised his arms toward the sky. “Truly, I am a God!” He yelled triumphantly, unaware that a little over an eighth of a mile away in the sea, a giant bag of snot had just sneezed out a small slug of steel. It tore through his right eye and blew out the back of his skull. The raised arms and head flopped back lifelessly. The Kraken screamed. Almost pleadingly. It nudge the corpse and shook it slightly, then screamed again.
Anguished, it tossed aside Reed’s corpse and scooped up Rigby’s body, extruding paste into his gut wound, and enfolding him within it’s compartment. It moaned again, and sank below the waves leaving the foundering wreckage of the cargo ship behind.
Half a world away and deep underground in Beowulf’s command center, Kate was sobbing in Robert’s arms. Neither of them could tell if they were even winning these damn fights, or if fighting at all was the thing that was hurting them. Rigby didn’t have to die. He could have stayed with them and bunkered down. They didn’t have to fight. They’d killed Reed, but what would that mean? The Kraken had disappeared with Rigby’s corpse and Wolf had already lost track of it.
“I’m sorry for Rigby, but this is a win.” The dryad said forcefully to the Harkens. “The world is going to be better without Reed in it.”
“It’d better be.” Robert shot back. “Find a way to track that thing!”
“I trouble myself too much over matters of psychology, I’m sure. In the end these are living learning beings that will grow to solve the problems they must solve. They will all choose the right paths, because they must, they’re genius.” – Joshua Harken
Rigby awoke in a soft bed in a bright room. His vision was blurry. Where was he? There was a figure outlined by a large window nearby. Feminine, beautiful. It hummed just at the edges of his perception. It was beautiful. Like someone had managed to hum each part of an entire symphony simultaneously. Just his type, Rigby smiled internally, a good hummer.
“Siren.” He said, slightly accusingly. The figure turned and approached him.
“You’re awake.” It’s soft voice said. The image cleared as it approached. Brown skin, large breasts and shapely ass. Flowing green hair cascaded down it’s back just to the top of the curve of her backside. Wait. Green hair? The woman bent over him and wrapped arms around him. She was soft and this felt comfortable and familiar. His gut, hadn’t he been hurt? “Will you stay with me forever?” She asked nestling her head into his neck.
“Yes, of course.” He said. She looked up at him and smiled. She unwrapped her arms from him and raised her hands in front of his eyes. Her finger nails grew into sharp claws.
“There is a price.” She said. Quickly she stabbed her fingers forward and snatched out his eyes. He couldn’t see what she did with them, he just screamed. She held him gently and lovingly in her arms, stroking his head until he passed out.
He awoke hours later. He couldn’t tell if it was day or night anymore. He awoke to blackness. But the woman was still there holding him. “My eyes. Why did you take my eyes?” He croaked.
“I’m sorry.” She breathed into his ear. “I didn’t want to hurt you. It is the cost of becoming the new planter.”
“Planter? What do you mean, where am I?” Rigby asked.
“You’re in me, silly. I’m your tree, and I’ve taken root.” She was a dryad, Rigby was finally starting to understand. Not just any dryad. Reed’s tree’s dryad. They were somewhere inside of the tree.
Rigby gently pried the dryad off of him, “Where, where did you plant yourself?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know… names well. A thin spot, a trench, southwest of Hawaii.” She said.
“How long?” Rigby barked, then rephrased the question slower and simpler. “How long was I unconscious?”
“This is the sixteenth day I’ve cared for you.”
“I need to get word back to Beowulf.” He said. “Can you talk to the other tree?”
“She can.” A new voice interrupted. It sounded as though it came from an area below his head to the right. Rigby quested his hand in that direction and encountered a table. A bedside table of some sort. On it was a fist sized cube.
“Archive?” Rigby asked.
“Yes.” The cube replied. It wasn’t doing the english butler voice it did for Robert. This sounded much more normal.
“How do you speak to Beowulf?” he asked the dryad.
“He signaled me from a boat at the surface. I didn’t understand at first but he kept blaring down patterns until I responded. Now we can talk. He says he followed you here because of your Com-Sphere.” She said. She caressed his outstretched arm and pulled it back to her embrace.
“Boat at the surface? We’re underwater? How deep?”
“We’re still a few miles down. When I reach full height I’ll just break the surface and will spread lilies as far as the eye can see.”
“What is your name?” He asked.
“Siren. You named me, remember?” She said.
“Tell Beowulf I’m well, and ask him where you’ve planted, the name, OK?” He said and pulled away from her to lay down. He was still tired and a little hazy. She nestled in next to him.
Robert and Kate sat in the command center with Beowulf talking to Rigby through their respective dryads. Beowulf and Siren were connected via Beowulf’s satellites and relay boat.
“So she’s a lady dryad.” Robert said. “Hey do you mind me asking? Are you two, like, together?”
“Yes.” Rigby’s voice came through Beowulf’s mouth.
“No, I mean, like, together together?”
“Yes. We are.” Rigby responded.
“Yeah, but isn’t she…”
“No. She’s not as big as Beowulf.” The dryad cracked a smile at the conversation happening through him.
“All right, all right, all I’m saying is that if she was…”
“She’s not. Jeez. Kate what’s going on in the world?”
Kate looked curiously at Beowulf. “Does she feel…woody? Beowulf feels woody.” Beowulf winked at her. “When I hug him.”
“No. Look, could you guys just drop it? I find all these questions… insensitive. I never asked either of you about what you do together.”
“All right.” Robert conceded. “The truth is things are looking pretty bad. They’ve closed down the park and have sent messengers to call for the evacuation of the tree. They’ve also ordered a halt to all ballistic deployments on pain of nuclear retaliation.”
“Who? The feds?” Rigby asked.
“Yeah, them. A lot of the kids from the U and the doctors from the Mayo left, but some stayed, and almost all of the refugees stayed too. We’re hunkered down here, but are safe for now.”
“Wish I could blame them.” Rigby said through the dryad. “But the reality is, that these trees and the Swarm have really turned out to be a serious danger to humans these past few years.”
“Yeah.” Robert shook his head, then smiled. “I kinda saw this coming though, ordered a couple of tons of beef and pork. Wolf’s got them frozen in his roots somewhere. I’ll never be caught cheeseburger-less again.”
Siren grew in the Tonga trench near Fiji and Samoa in the South Pacific, with Rigby safe inside. In a few months she was as big as Beowulf, but not nearly as imposing. Ships learned to steer around her gigantic lily pads on the ocean’s surface. If they strayed amongst them, and chopped the pads up with their rotors, she’d push them away with large branches. Not gently, but never enough to capsize them. In the center of her lily pad field, a single branch protruded above the waves, with a small dock and an entrance. Rigby walked out there sometimes to feel the sun on his skin and hear the ocean. He shaved and wore clothes. Siren like him better that way. They kept in touch with Beowulf and the Harkens and eventually used one of his old beetle mice to upload a video announcement of their presence, intentions, and locations. Siren invited the people the same as Beowulf. Shelter to all comers.
“Have a seat there, let me show you this.” The sheriff said pulling a TV cart in front of the seat he’d indicated to the suited man. He loaded a videotape and pressed play. The screen clicked on and it showed a black figure seated at a table in a small room. A deputy entered the shot and sat down across from the figure.
“Do you have a name?” The deputy asked.
“Char…coal.” The figure rasped. “Char…coal…Black.”
“Charcoal Black? Alright, what is your business in St. Anthony, Mr. Black?”
“Power… I… want… power.” It rasped.
“What are you Mr. Black?” the deputy asked.
“Ven…geance.” It rasped.
The sheriff shut off the video. “It’s still in there. It’s been sitting in the interrogation room since we sent for you guys. It looks almost like one of those newer mannequins they use, almost like smooth black plastic, except it looks like it swirls around or something, like it’s a bottle of trapped smoke, I can’t describe it.”
The suited man stood and placed a hand on the sheriff’s shoulder. “There’s nothing to worry about. We’ll take care of it from here.”
The story continues in book three of the Harken’s World series:
The Tree Problem.