THE TREE PROBLEM
by Jonathan Hart
“Do I want to stay and witness what the world becomes as a result of my creations? Shall I hang around and monitor and maintain these gods become servants or shall I leave and find a way to realize the unfettered potential of my work? Should these creatures even be brought into this world? If I stick around, I’ll have to wrestle with that question every day. If I go, I’ll be able to pursue my work. The choice boils down to a life of existential conflict or a life of fulfilling creation. Not that tough a choice after all, I choose fulfillment.” – Joshua Harken
Robert Harken stood to address the gathered residents in the cavernous reception hall. He and Beowulf had added a raised dais and pulpit for the occasion with a built-in device which Wolf had promised would amplify his voice for the thousands of attendees.
“Hello again, my friends.” He began. “As you all know, today represents two very important anniversaries for the people here. It is a day of celebration and of remembrance. Two years ago today, I planted our host Beowulf here in the awakening Yellowstone caldera, and immediately after his birth he saved us from the volcanic disaster that would have become. Today is his birthday, and that is cause for celebration. Where would we be without Beowulf? He is our shelter, food, and sanitation. Our protector and constant guardian. If I were to ask any of you who your best friend was, you’d answer Beowulf, or at least, he’d be in the top ten.” Robert paused as the crowd laughed politely. “So today we will celebrate the birth of our friend. But today is also a day of remembrance. For on this same day last year, we suffered our greatest defeat. A terrorist attack so foul that it shook us to our very cores. But we rose up together and now we stand more united than ever. Brought together by our common enemy, that very Swarm which destroyed many of your homes and lives on the outside, and those that would use it as a weapon. Today we remember the victims of that attack. To help us remember I’ve asked Beowulf to do something special for us. Some of you, I’m sure, have already noticed that there on the wall are the names of those that we lost on that day along with a carving and description of the attack. We invite you to take a moment tonight and examine the memorial. It will stand as long as Beowulf stands, and that will be a very long time. That’s what we’ll be celebrating tonight! Beowulf Stands! I want to hear it from you! Beowulf Stands! One more time! Beowulf Stands! Thank you everyone! Bring out the food!” He returned to his seat at a nearby long table as people began to carry food to the hundreds of tables around the hall. At the head of his table sat Beowulf, the man of the hour. Sort of a man, anyway. His position was also a practical choice as Beowulf is effectively a giant. Nine feet tall, he is a one and a half scale model of a strong man, except he is made of wood. He was the tree’s dryad. The corporeal representation of the tree’s will and intelligence. He waved to Robert as he approached.
“Robert,” he began when he reached his side. Beowulf made a show of leaning in to speak to Robert conspiratorially but spoke loud enough for the table to hear. “Good speech, but… I’ve been sitting this whole time!”
Robert joined the table in laughing at the dryad’s joke. “Happy Birthday, Wolf. Sorry to embarrass you.” Robert took his seat next to the dryad and next to his wife, Kate. He turned to her and asked with a straight face, “Didn’t some extremely handsome man just mention something about food? I seem to recall that there was supposed to be some sort of feast tonight.”
Kate smiled back at him. “You’ll get your cheeseburger tonight, be patient.”
“Of course.” He said looking down the table at the rest of the guests. At the head of the table across from them sat Armand and Beth, the two leaders of the Guardians of the Hive. After it had become clear that Theo Rigby wouldn’t be coming back, the Harkens had found themselves relying more and more upon the Guardians as advisers. They were an interesting pair. Armand liked to portray himself as easy going and charismatic, with a great deal of success. Beth, on the other hand came off as willful and clever, the brains behind the operation. Armand liked to tell the story of how he had just been really passionate about bees and Beth had been responsible for much of the organization of the cult. Much of that was a show for the public, however, and in private the pair worked together closely and planned everything thoroughly.
Further down the table, next to Kate sat Dr. Edward Standing, head of the University of Arboria. Many of the professors and students of the U had left the tree last year, after the federal government had ordered it to be evacuated and had sealed off the park. The Feds had cut the fiber line which the U’s fund raisers had paid for and installed, and Standing liked to joke that the people that left had left because they couldn’t survive without the internet. The truth was that Standing had stayed because he’d stepped on a lot of toes in Academia because of the advancements being made within the tree, and if he ever left, he knew his career would be over. The few other professors and students that had stayed had stayed to continue their research, because no other facilities in the world could do the work that they wanted to accomplish, at least not in their lifetimes.
Next to Standing was Dr. Greta Wilson, M.D. Dr. Wilson had taken charge of the remaining doctors and nurses of Rochester Memorial. When the evacuation order came through the parent organization supporting the hospital pulled all support and offered to reassign all of the staff to other locations. Most had accepted the offer, but Dr. Wilson and a few others decided to stay and care for the stubborn residents. The hospital was left with a skeleton crew of doctors and nurses, but they met the needs of the population of the tree. Around Christmas, the Harkens and the rest of the tree had discovered that Ed and Greta were romantically involved, when he’d publicly proposed to her during the celebration.
Next down the table were the three mayors, and their wives. Many refugees had come to stay with the tree when the Feds had first allowed passage into the park after the Swarm attack, and most had stayed after being ordered to evacuate. It hadn’t been a difficult decision for most of them, it was a choice between living in a tent city outside with the Feds or staying with their new homes in the tree. Most chose the tree. The few that did leave, did so because they couldn’t stand to be separated from the families they had on the outside. In the absence of any other form of government beyond Beowulf’s all seeing eye, the refugees from Minnesota, Wyoming, and South Dakota had elected mayors to be their community leaders and representatives to Robert’s ‘Government.’ The positions were mostly symbolic, as there were rarely any problems within the groups themselves that Beowulf couldn’t head off. They had proven useful to the Harkens in settling disputes between the factions within the tree and giving them feedback on what the residents wanted.
One of the first orders of business for these fledgling governments had been to choose names for the communities they represented. They had been awkwardly referred to by their state names but as time passed that was becoming less and less accurate as the residents no longer identified themselves with their home states as much as with their new communities within the tree. The Wyoming levels 11-15 voted to call themselves Wolvestown. The South Dakota levels 16-20 went with Newhome. The Minnesota levels 21-25 decided on Harkenston for their name.
Further down the table were a few representatives from the hippy commune and more honored guests from each faction. The representatives of the hippy commune changed often, along with the group’s opinions and loyalties. It wasn’t immediately apparent what purpose their group served within the tree. Armand and Beth had tried to explain their opinions on the matter to the Harkens once. They said that both the Guardians and the hippies offered a place to go for disaffected or disillusioned youth’s from the more standard communities. Those with peaceful ordered minds found their way into the Guardians and those with wild chaotic minds went to the hippies. Thus the hippy group became a place for young people to go, often on a temporary basis, to spin their wheels and burn off excess energy that society had no use for.
The food had arrived. Being as they were in the central group of tables, they were furthest from the servers, so it took a little longer for food to arrive. For the occasion, Robert had supplied all of the meat from his private stores deep within Beowulf’s roots. He’d had large amounts of meat frozen and hidden there when things had started to go bad with the Feds, just before they’d closed down access to the park. He’s debated whether to share his meat with the rest of the residents. He’d thought that this could be the last meat they would ever get and that he should save it all for himself, but Kate had reminded him of the time they’d left a raw steak in the back of the freezer for a year and half once. It had been so freezer burned that it looked like it had already been cooked. Beowulf’s freezer must have been better designed, however, because the meat coming out this evening looked great. They piled a ham, a few roasts, an assortment of sausages on the table with several cornucopia of fruits and vegetables, both raw and roasted.
Beowulf sat at the head of the table watching as people passed food around and ate. He had no need to eat, so the parts of the feasts in which people were mostly eating must have been awkward for him. This time he sat with his hands in front of his mouth with his elbows on the table watching the rest of them eat. Beowulf still kept the scars he’d suffered from the Swarm attack and the nuclear strike which had ended it. The dryad had the ability to heal them away, but he’d chosen to keep them as a reminder. He had wood knots on the front and back side of his shoulder where he’d been punctured through by a giant Swarm monster, and half his head had been burned black by the nuclear blast. A mossy eye patch covered the damaged eye on that side of his head. Robert knew there was much hidden behind his wooden gaze. The dryad was effectively omniscient in and around the tree and it’s drones, and given the events of last year, he would be watching the evening attentively.
The sounds of the feast filled the reception hall. Clinking of glasses and silverware. Voices talking, laughing, shouting, and even a few isolated instances of singing. The only island of quiet was the memorial wall. Groups would break away from their tables and meander their way over to examine it in silence, then return telling stories about their fallen friends. As the night wore on and everyone found themselves stuffed, people started to clear the tables and sing and dance in earnest. There had been a few musically talented people amongst the residents and they’d organized together in secret and had eventually just started doing sets on feast evenings. If the music was right, people would dance late into the night. The music was right tonight and the Harkens stayed to dance, and so did Beowulf. The giant made a comical addition to the dance floor and looked even stranger when a normal size girl would take him as a partner. Eventually, Robert and Kate left to sleep off the festivities in their living quarters. It was a good night, no incidents or problems. Finally, a fitting birthday celebration for Beowulf.
In the morning, Robert awoke next to Kate in their large bed. During the night she had sprawled out, so when he got up and examined the bed she looked like one of those side walk stencils before they’d removed the body, sheet and all. Robert smiled at the image and put on his robe. He walked down the hall to their dining room where their butler waited with coffee. Robert took a mug full, and bid the butler, “Good morning.” Technically, their butler was one of Beowulf’s drones, and therefore a part of Beowulf. He looked like a wooden statue of a butler, an illusion which was only ever dispelled when he was moving. They had named him Woody.
Robert continued on into the living room, and commanded the screen therein to show “News.” The screen blinked on and the talking heads chattered away. There didn’t seem to be anything earth shattering going on today, just some coverage of the presidential race for that November. Robert had made an effort to follow the politics, but since he had been technically trespassing on federal lands since last year, it seemed unlikely that he’d ever cast a vote in the election.
Not surprisingly, the question of what to do with the tree was a hot button issue of the campaign. The general consensus was that the tree needed to be regulated and brought under control. Of course, the reporters and news channels would have no way of knowing that that would never be possible without Beowulf’s consent. The fact was that there was no way to effectively subjugate the tree and bring it under federal control. Thus the US would never have control, and could only ever hope for a mutual agreement of some kind. No one had told the talking heads that, however, and they’d go on for hours comparing the belligerent tree to an Iran or North Korea, and portraying them as an immature group of separatists that needed to start respecting the big boys.
There was a serious breach between the public conception of Beowulf’s power and his actual power. Robert shook his head and wondered how they’d feel if they ever found out that Beowulf could produce nuclear weapons. Ironically, there was no way for him to tell the world that he had these powers without reinforcing the notion that the tree was just like Iran or North Korea. People would watch the announcement on the news and say, “Oh, just another scumbag dictator trying to get attention.” Robert had no interest in creating or using nuclear weapons, however. It made no sense to him. He and Kate were safe in the tree regardless of just about anything the outside world could do, including using their own nuclear weapons. Therefore, Robert didn’t need nuclear weapons as a defensive measure, because there could never be mutually assured destruction. He also didn’t need them as an offensive weapon because he had no desire to try to conquer and subjugate the world. He shuddered to think what would happen if the power he held ever fell into the wrong hands.
They had narrowly prevented a situation like that last year. One of Joshua’s trees had been planted at sea by a psychotic mad man, and if he’d gotten it planted properly and established like Beowulf was then the world would have been in the mother of all Mexican standoffs. Two indestructible trees with access to unlimited energy and the ability to manufacture powerful weapons, if the bullets had ever started flying in that standoff, one could be sure that the rest of the world would have been quickly reduced to a war torn wasteland. That had all been avoided when they’d assassinated the mad man, Taylor Reed, and Robert’s friend Theodore Rigby had taken over control of the tree. Control might not be the right word. The Archive had called it administrative privileges. It was a control mechanism devised by the trees’ creator and Robert’s brother, Joshua Harken. There had been a cost associated with the transfer of authority, however. Rigby had had to give up his eyes. Joshua had built in this cost to discourage the ambitious from trying to seize control of a tree by force, which was exactly what Rigby had done, with the Harkens and Beowulf’s help.
After the dust settled they had ended up with an ally instead of an enemy. Rigby and his dryad Siren lived peacefully together in the Tonga trench in the South Pacific. They were reportedly romantically involved, which left Robert and Kate with many questions. Robert wondered if Josh had foreseen that ever happening. He guessed that the answer was no. Nevertheless, she seemed to live up to all of Rigby’s expectations, and he to her’s, whatever her expectations might be.
Robert tried not to let his mind wander too deeply into the possible psychological implications of their relationship, partly because it was none of his business, but also because it was logically flawed to compare the psychology of a dryad to that of a human. Still, he suspected it was a sort of trauma relationship. Siren had been forced to commit many atrocities when under Reed’s control, and who knew what else Reed had told her or forced her to do. When Reed had been killed, she’d taken up Rigby, the man that had been fighting him and had turned against everything Reed had told her to do. She’d then taken his eyes and climbed into his bed. It had definitely been a hard and fast start to their relationship, but they seemed completely stable, so Robert and Kate had high hopes that it would work out well.
They kept in touch with Rigby through Beowulf’s satellite system, meeting him nearly every afternoon (morning for him with the time difference) since they found out he had survived the battle with Reed. They had assisted Rigby and Siren in putting out a message to the dislocated peoples of the world that they could find shelter and safety within Siren. She, like Beowulf had grown into a giant arcology designed to house over a million people. Beowulf and Kate had provided her with some of the design tips they’d picked up through his practical experience in the arcology biz. Unlike Beowulf, Siren had planted herself several miles below sea level, in the Tonga trench. As a result, her maximum height ended up being only a short protuberance above the waves, and rather than a sky full of massive leaves like Beowulf, she had filled square miles of the sea surrounding her with giant lily pads. A small village worth of homeless and disaffected islanders from the areas around Siren had come to live with her, and a group of oceanographers had come to stay with her on a temporary basis.
The oceanographers wanted to study her effect on the ocean life in the trench, and she had obliged by providing them with a place to stay and resupply their research vessel. To their surprise, she offered to install an access hatch near her base deep within the trench to launch research missions from. She also created an array of undersea drones and diving submarines for their use. The researchers were baffled by this unprecedented access to the trench, all at no cost, and they decided to establish a small research base in Siren, and reassign their research vessel with it’s conventional equipment to a region which didn’t benefit from a gigantic tree with unlimited resources.
The rest of the world academic community, knowing of the possible benefits of working with a tree like Siren had expressed some interest but had ultimately failed to organize anything like the U that had operated within Beowulf. There was too much anti-arboreal sentiment within academia and too much fear of future government sanctions and penalties for working with the trees.
Siren presented a political problem for the world as she had planted herself in unclaimed seas, and therefore didn’t fall within any nation’s control. She had discovered that the US navy had deployed monitoring buoys in the area, and there had also been activities and exercises by other powers. Rigby expected they were just trying to watch for underwater deployments coming from Siren. They knew of Beowulf’s ballistic deployment capability and had determined that Siren’s low above sea height wouldn’t allow for that. They had correctly guessed that any covert deployment by Siren would be submarine.
Robert had zoned out watching the news, he’d finished his first cup of coffee and decided to go for a second to help wake him up after the late party last night. He met Kate in the dining area, awaiting her own mug.
“Anything on the news?” She asked groggily.
“No, just some more election stuff.” He replied.
“Oh, right, that debate is tonight.” Kate had gotten her mug and took her first sip.
“Debate?” Robert sidled up next to her and poured himself another mug.
“Yes, it’s their first big debate. They’ve been talking about it all week. You’ve never paid much attention to politics.” She shook her head.
“Sure I do, you remember, I was excited about that one guy, once. You know, the one with all of the positions on issues.” He joked. “I’m sorry, but it’s never been less important to me which of these guys ends up being president.”
“You don’t know that. Neither of them has presented much of a plan on the issue of Beowulf. One of them could turn out to hate trees or something. You’ll never know unless you watch. The. Debate.” She punctuated the last words with well aimed pokes to Robert’s chest.
“Hmph.” Robert grunted. “All right.”
He returned with Kate to the living room and they watched the news while sipping coffee. There weren’t any signs of either of the candidates being tree haters. But Kate was right. The election could matter to them. Robert tried to think of possible ways they could influence it if it came down to it. They could announce their support for one candidate or the other. Providing funding was out because they couldn’t move outside of Yellowstone without the threat of war being declared. There was the possibility of grass roots work by the residents of the tree, but they’d need to provide them with reliable internet access, and all they had were a few leftover internet hacking drones that they had devised with Beowulf.
They called them beetle-mice and they were beetle like creatures with long tails that terminated in a USB connector. When they sat still they looked just like a computer mouse. They could connect to moderately secured computers and access the internet which they could then uplink to Beowulf’s satellites for a short period, covertly. When inactive they could hide in any nook or cranny within the room containing the computer.
With the limited internet access their only real option for influencing the election that was peaceful was to support or denounce the candidates, depending on their plan for the tree. He would talk it over with Kate and Rigby when they had their meeting this afternoon. Rigby had been a CIA analyst before being assigned as a White House liaison to the Harkens and Beowulf, and he had been their resident expert on domestic and global politics.
Woody entered the living room and gestured towards the the dining room. Breakfast was served. Robert and Kate ate and got ready for the day. Robert beat Kate to the foyer and decided to wait for her before heading down to the command center. In their foyer was a recessed alcove which held cantaloupe sized acorn-like nuts on ornate pedestals. There were five pedestals in total and two were empty after Reed had stolen Siren’s nut and the Archive. Since the theft, they had had Beowulf add a sheet of thick transparent material separating the alcove from the foyer. The only way to open it was an order from Robert or Kate.
As he waited for Kate, Robert thought about the three remaining nuts. What could be done with them? Should anything be done with them? He had been forced to plant Beowulf when he did, because he was the only thing capable of preventing volcanic disaster at Yellowstone. The Archive had explained that Siren’s planting had also been a matter of necessity, as Reed’s plane was going down and he needed Siren to save him. Would that be the fate of the remaining nuts as well? Should they just wait until some volcano somewhere got out of control, and plant the next nut then? Who would do the next planting? The only way Robert could see that the other nuts would be planted is if some terrible disaster needed to be prevented. It’s the only thing that he believed would motivate him to break the peace with the US in order to leave Beowulf, retrieve the Archive from Siren, and plant the next nut. Otherwise, the nuts would stay right where they were.
Kate arrived. “Ready?” He asked.
“Let’s do it.” She replied. They approached the giant flower petals that served as the doors to Beowulf’s elevator system. Their quarters were at the very top of the tree, well above 30,000 feet in the air, and the command center was somewhere deep within Beowulf’s roots. The petals curled up to let them pass automatically. They stepped in and Kate commanded, “Command center.” They felt the acceleration as the elevator started to move. A moment later, deep within the tree, the petals unfurled and they stepped out to the command center.
It was a large semi-circular room with concentrically curved desks filling the space. On the curved wall was one large central screen surrounded with many smaller screens on each side. Each screen showed a different view of the goings on in or around the tree. The desks and walls were formed from logs and it gave the command center the feel of a log cabin. Robert and Kate sat at the central desk and Robert said, “Good morning, Wolf.” The giant dryad stepped out of a nearby wall. Literally. The vertical logs pulled apart and he emerged. Robert realized he’d seen the dryad do that hundreds of times, but still didn’t fully understand how it worked. Did the dryad’s body physically move within the tree? That didn’t make much sense because then the elevators should have been the most efficient way for him to move around. But, that would mean… “Wolf, when you step in and out of the walls, are you assuming control of different bodies?” He asked. Kate looked at him a moment then at the dryad with her eyebrows raised inquiringly.
“Yes. I keep these drones all around the tree.” The dryad said, somewhat surprised by the question.
“Couldn’t you be in more than one place at a time, then?”
“Yes, and no. I haven’t tried it much, I think I could do it with practice, but it’d be hard to maintain full control of each one while interacting normally with people. Each one would seem more like Woody than the fully controlled form that stands here before you.” The dryad said.
“Ah, I see. That makes sense.” Robert conceded.
“But… that means that Rigby and Siren could… If they wanted to…” Kate started.
Robert cleared his throat. “Even if they did, they wouldn’t tell us about it.” He smiled at her. “Anything going on in the world, Wolf?”
“Lots. But nothing much new since yesterday. There’s a lot of talk about the debate tonight.” The dryad replied.
“OK. What’s happening in the tree?” He asked, and Beowulf spent the rest of the morning showing them scenes of events within the tree, including footage of the feast last night. Robert asked him to play a recording of his speech to see how he’d done. Not too bad. The crowd really responded well. Noon came and Woody brought down some sandwiches for them eat as they reviewed the trees business. Eventually, one o’ clock came around. It’d be 9am in the South Pacific.
“Could you contact Rigby for us?” Robert asked. The dryad nodded and closed his eyes momentarily.
“He’s ready, I’ll put him on screen.” The dryad gestured to the main screen, and it switched to a view of Rigby. He’d changed a lot since leaving to fight Reed. He had once seemed a little snobbish and waspy to Robert, a New England ivy leaguer that loved tennis. Now he was like a wise monk. Siren had taken his eyes out as the price to assume Reed’s administrative rights, and he wore a thin black blindfold to cover the sewn shut eyelids. He wore a light robe make of a fibrous hemp-like material. His manner of speaking had changed as well. Robert didn’t know if it was the south pacific climate or just because of all he’d been through, but he now spoke slowly with much deliberation.
“Hello, Theo.” Robert greeted the screen.
“Good morning.” Kate added.
“Good afternoon. How did the celebration go?” Rigby asked. He wasn’t facing the screen but rather looked off and to the right.
“It was great. Everyone loved Robert’s speech No disasters.” Kate said. “What’d you think of your first real birthday, Wolf?”
The dryad smiled, “It was a lot of fun. I’ve got to do more dancing at these celebrations. I can see why you all like it so much.”
“That’s good to hear, Wolf.” Rigby said with a small smile.
“Siren’s birthday is coming up too, you know.” Kate said to the screen, hintingly.
Rigby chuckled. “Don’t worry, Siren and I have a get together planned.” Siren came on screen behind him, placed a hand on his shoulder and smiled at them. She was incredibly beautiful, with smooth skin the color of weathered wood and long green hair. Her eyes were shocks of shining purple. She wore a tight dress of the same material as Rigby’s robe.
“We’ll try some dancing of our own.” She said with her incredible voice. It was hard to describe what made it so beautiful. It was like her voice was composed of several voices almost singing the words, but they were incredibly synchronized voices and one would vary it’s tone only when she needed to add inflection to a word or phrase. Rigby had described how he’d heard her humming once. He’d said it was like a symphony. Rigby placed his hand over hers on his shoulder and smiled.
“Indeed we will.” He paused and went back to his serious tone. “There haven’t been any local developments for us. I met with the oceanographers yesterday and they were incredibly grateful for Siren’s help, they didn’t have anything new to ask for. They must be making progress, they seemed excited about discovering some new species in the depths of the Tonga trench.”
“Did you make the offer?” Robert asked. He was referring to an offer to the oceanographers to assist them with research in other hard to reach depths of the earth. They had discussed this before as a possible means to help restore relations between academia and the trees to the levels they’d seen in the height of the University of Arboria’s operation. Those had been better times for Beowulf’s image, and Siren could definitely use a boost as well. The world knew that Siren had once been a monster that had sunk ships and tortured and killed people at Reed’s request. She had been responsible for a particularly brutal and deadly attack on the Hawaiian town of Hilo. That sort of thing was not likely to be forgotten any time soon.
“I did.” Rigby said. “They said they had plenty of work here, but would promise to speak to colleagues about it. They didn’t sound very hopeful. It may be something to continue to bring up and remind them. There may not be much hope now, but who knows what could happen. One of them may decide that they want to leave and do research elsewhere, or may remember a colleague that is looking for new research to pursue.”
“OK. We don’t have any other new business either. There is the debate tonight.” Robert said.
“It’ll be interesting, they’ve been bringing up a lot of questions about Sterns’ congressional record regarding taxes and Atwood has been criticized for his handling of refugees after the Swarm disaster.” Rigby said. Robert vaguely recalled that Ryan Sterns was the right wing candidate and Brandon Atwood was the left wing nominee. Sterns was coming from a career in the US Senate and Atwood had been governor of Minnesota during the Swarm attack.
“We’ll be watching for questions about Beowulf, and the Yellowstone situation. Hopefully they’ll outline plans. I’ve been thinking about what to do if one of them comes out strongly anti-tree.” Robert started. “With our internet access limited to the beetle-mice, I was thinking that all we could do is release statements denouncing or supporting one of them and/or addressing specific claims that either makes.”
“That may be something I can do something to help with.” Rigby said. “Some of the boats that come around have satellite internet access, and I think that the oceanographers could get me a system and account set up. Then we could have on demand Internet access. It might cost some gold, but Siren can certainly supply it.” Rigby was referring to the tree’s ability to filter nearly any element out of the earth’s liquid mantle. Each tree had a taproot extending into the mantle to provide access to geothermal energy and elemental resources. Robert had had some success before the government blockade trading gold obtained by Beowulf for meat and dairy products.
“That’d be great.” Kate said. “Can we get away with trying to make political statements?”
“Yes.” Rigby said. “I think so. The US government prefers not to block political statements, and it’d cause some backlash if they tried it now. We should be very careful about doing it, though. If we denounce a candidate for not favoring us enough, then we’ll be shouted down by the media and ignored. We should reserve action for if we need to defend against an overtly anti-tree candidate. Then we’ll look like we’re speaking out against oppression.”
“But that leaves us open to more subtle attacks and oppressions.” Kate observed. “They could just say something vague like, ‘we’ll keep a close watch on the tree and maintain sanctions until the residents comply with our evacuation order.’ and it’ll mean eight years of sanctions for us with no foreseeable end in sight. We could end up like Cuba.”
“That is a problem we may have to face.” Rigby nodded. “If they are subtle and maintain sanctions while maintaining peace, then we may need to consider other longer term options. Maybe even just maintaining the peace for the rest of our lives. We could always beg, as well. It might change your situation from subjugation to something more like a protectorate. Like Puerto Rico instead of Cuba. Politically, begging is not out of the question for us because we are peaceful and all we really want is more peace.”
“Now that’ll depend on who we’d be begging to.” Robert warned. “There are people out there that have made outrageous accusations and to my knowledge, all of the Sons of the Swarm remain unidentified and at large. Those people won’t be hearing any begging from us.”
Kate’s mouth drew a hard line. “No, they will not.”
“It’s best to hide those feelings from the public.” Rigby cautioned. “Believe me, I understand what you mean, but we don’t want to create a militant image. It’ll frighten away the type of political opportunists that could be our potential allies.”
“Maybe we could denounce them too.” Kate proposed. “Rather than threaten them, just a scathing attack on them.”
“That’s an option.” Rigby said. “It could come back to haunt us if they decide to retaliate non-verbally, though. Well, there are a lot of things we could do as a result of the debate tonight. For now, I’ll reach out and try to get a hold of a satellite internet system, and we’ll wait and see what they have to say. See you two tomorrow?”
“All right, see you tomorrow Theo.” Robert said.
“Bye Siren!” Kate added. The screen flickered off. She turned to Robert, “A lot to think about.”
“Yeah. What do you think about doing a public showing of the debate tonight in the reception area?” Robert asked. “Invite everyone down, and maybe address anything that needs to be addressed afterwards. I think it’ll be good to see what our people think.”
Kate stood up, bent over and kissed him. “That’s a great idea. Wolf could you set up a large screen on one of the walls? Near the memorial?”
“Of course.” The dryad agreed. “I must admit that I’m curious about these elections. I can tell from the discussions the importance of what’s to be said, but I’m a little in the dark as to the process.”
Robert and Kate looked at each other, and smiled. Together they tried to summarize their shared knowledge of the presidential election process as well as the basic structure of the United States government. It was like a crash course in US elementary school social studies with some real knowledge about past elections mixed in. Beowulf raised an eyebrow at their explanation for the two party system. Robert and Kate tried to explain that the two party system arose from necessity rather than the Constitution or any laws. It was caused by the importance of the elections. So much had to go into the fight for the presidency and other elected positions that people had had to band together and build ever more wide spread political machines in order to remain competitive. The two party system was the result of a sort of political arms race that had been going on since the founding of the nation.
“That is an interesting system.” The dryad said. “Rather than a single oligarchy or king the United States has two oligarchies in the form of the parties which are in constant conflict both internally and with each other. It is a surprisingly efficient way to insure that the candidates for president actually have the necessary support systems in place before they can even run, it sounds like a good way to keep a strong rebellion free government.”
Robert and Kate looked at each other again. “Well… there was one instance in which a large scale civil war took place…” Robert started. They spend the rest of the afternoon filling Beowulf in on more of the history of the United States and got into more of the details regarding its government.
That evening they gathered in the reception hall at the base of the tree. Robert and Kate had sought out the leaders of the various factions within the tree and asked them to extend their invitations to the debate to the residents. Many showed up and filled temporary benches that Beowulf had added in front of a new large white flattened screen on the wall, a short distance from the terrorist attack memorial. Some of those that arrived early, visited it, and would have the memorial fresh in their minds as they watched the debate. Beowulf had a small dais with podium next to the screen and a few minutes before the debate was to start, Robert stood to address the crowd of gathered residents.
“Hello everyone, thanks for coming on such short notice. Tonight we’ll be watching this election’s first presidential debate together, and although its nice enough for us to just have everyone gathered here together to enjoy each other’s company, we may have some business to talk about after the debate. We’ll be listening closely for any plans either of the candidates have for Beowulf and us, and afterwards I’ll open the floor to questions and discussions about the candidates’ positions. The debate is scheduled to start in a few minutes, so Beowulf will start the feed now.” Robert gestured toward the screen and it flicked on to display a huge view of one of the major news networks.
Some talking heads were discussing the the upcoming debate, listing possible issues from the past few weeks which were likely to be addressed in the debate. The debate started and the beautiful blond woman moderator launched directly into the rules. Each candidate was allotted a certain amount of time to address each question, after which they must quit speaking and relinquish the floor to their rival. The questions were to be asked by members selected from the audience. The first few were in regards to recently passed medical insurance laws and the budget. The medical insurance laws were immensely unpopular with the public, and both candidates promised to “fix” them with slightly different approaches. The budget questions were answered more or less along party lines, with Sterns calling for budget cuts, deregulation, and lower taxes and Atwood wanting budget cuts, higher taxes, and additional government programs to create jobs. Atwood took some of his time to call for a national project to repair the damage to I90 and clean up the Swarm remnants that had been left along the way. The plan was met with thunderous applause. Caught off guard by the proposal, Sterns rebutted that the restoration of I90 was a national priority, but not a means by which to balance the budget. The next question concerned them directly.
The camera showed the the microphone in the audience and an older man stood to ask his question. He asked, “The past years have seen the appearance of two new possibly related lifeforms in the form of two giant trees and a bug-like swarm creature. These new lifeforms have attacked US territories and killed US citizens, but very little is understood about where they come from or how to control them. Can you outline your plans for discovering the source of these things and bringing them under control?” The old man sat down immediately after the question. That was probably the worst possible way that question could be posed, Robert thought. The old man couldn’t ask what to do about the wonderful new lifeforms that just need some help getting started out? This was going to go badly. Now it wasn’t even on the table that one of the candidates would support Beowulf, it was only a matter of seeing which one was less willing to harm them.
“Governor Atwood, you have two minutes.” The moderator said and the camera switched to the Minnesota governor. He was a tall man with a heavy frame and a sharp hawkish face which was surprisingly weathered for his age. Too much tanning perhaps.
“Thank you Melissa.” Atwood nodded towards the moderator. “From what we can tell, these trees and the Swarm were all the work of a single man. One Joshua Harken, formerly of Red Eagle, Wisconsin and current whereabouts unknown. I plan to step up the search for this man within our borders and work with our Allies to make the manhunt an international effort. This Joshua Harken has a lot to answer for. Regardless of his intentions, his creations have run wild with a terrible cost to innocent lives and damage to our nation’s infrastructure. The great tree in Yellowstone, that acted as a beacon for the Swarm two years ago, is now contained within the park, with an unknown number of US citizens residing within. It is my belief that the lives of these citizens is of paramount importance, but even more important is the need to bring this Beowulf under control. The tree has demonstrated a potentially devastating ability to fire a sort of massive artillery and launch military drones to seemingly anywhere in the world. Furthermore, the tree has already survived a tactical nuclear strike which would have killed any other known lifeform. Put those things together and we have daunting military force right here on US soil and it is completely out of our control. I plan to step up our own military forces stationed around the park and deliver this Robert Harken and Beowulf a tough message. They must step down from their position of power and disarm. We will accept no less than complete surrender, an unknown man and creature cannot be allowed to sit with their hands on the trigger within our own borders. In addition to the increased forces at the park, we will assign armed forces to patrol the areas through which the Swarm passed and obliterate any of the wild Swarm left in those areas. With these measures I plan to protect the nation and restore the piece of mind that we lost two years ago. No more attacks on US citizens within our borders!” The governor rose to a passionate crescendo with the last line. Robert was impressed but it was some very bad news for them.
“Thank you, Governor.” The moderator said. “Mr. Senator. Your statement.”
The camera switched over to Senator Sterns. A tall thin man with smooth features like an aged cherubim. “On this issue the Governor and I are in agreement. We must step up our military presence around Yellowstone and clear out the Swarm remnants. Robert Harken must step down and surrender control of the tree to the federal government. Beyond being just a threat, it’s military might could become our greatest asset. It could give support to our troops in the field that they have never known before. Furthermore, there have been reports from Academia that the tree is capable of assisting in scientific endeavors with amazing success. We could install a new national laboratory within the tree to find out how it works and master it’s technology. There have been reports that the tree can be used to produce massive amounts of food and even raw materials, all of which can be harnessed by us and used to benefit the whole nation. The current residents must be convinced that this Beowulf must be used for a greater purpose, not selfishly guarded by the Harkens. They have sent out messages, calling for people to come and live with them, on their terms. But I say that the tree needs to be invited to be a part of our nation, on our terms, and that all starts with Robert Harken stepping down. The attack two years ago took so much away from us, many sacrifices were made among our armed forces and citizens, and now, we have a chance to make their sacrifices mean something. We will take this tree as our own and use it to restore the glory of our wounded nation.” Robert was stunned. They both aggressively planned to subjugate the tree. Not good at all. What would be the point in denouncing both candidates, they couldn’t affect the election that much. They were in for a rough four to eight years.
“Thank you, Mr Senator. Governor Atwood, you have a minute for a rebuttal.”
“Thank you, Mellisa.” Atwood said as the camera switched back to him. “I am less confident in the tree’s potential than my opponent. I’ve read the same reports about Beowulf’s incredible abilities and that’s how I find them. Incredible. I believe we should contain and subjugate these dangerous new life forms. We were the greatest nation in the world before they arrived and we’ll be the greatest nation in the world after they’ve been brought under control. I do not trust this thing to provide us food, or military support, or raw materials. Whatever it can do, we must first come to understand and control it before releasing anything to the world. Once it is firmly in grasp, and we know that we’ve contained the danger to us, then and only then will we talk about what to do with the tree.” Atwood’s position was more hard line than Sterns, but they were essentially bickering over what to do after subjugating Beowulf completely. After Beowulf and the Harkens had lost.
After that the debate returned to the other hot button issues for this election. After a while Robert tuned it out. He watched the gathered residents as they watched the rest of the debate. The part which interested most of them directly was over and they, like Robert were just waiting patiently for the debate to end. A small percentage watched attentively. Robert thought about what the candidates had proposed. They had called for Robert to step down and disarm. Not the other residents in the tree. They had made it about Robert and not about them. That would mean that Robert would have to keep them on his side with higher ideals and purpose than was being offered by the candidates. In that regards, Atwood was easy to beat. Sterns’ plan produced a serious problem, however. He had called for use of the tree for the good of the nation. How could Robert beat that? Appeal to the selfishness of the residents? Robert didn’t like that idea. Robert had no leadership credentials so he certainly couldn’t make a good case that he would be better at what Sterns wanted to do than he was. The problem was that Sterns had made a good point. Why should Robert hold the power of the tree? Why not someone that worked for the US government? Why not the president himself? Well, neither of them were president yet. The race could still go either way. Atwood was ahead in the polls but it wasn’t a very strong lead.
What would he say when the debate was over? He held the power of the tree and wasn’t going to relinquish it to government control. He could make a very good case to these people that he was a good man, and whomever the Feds wanted to put in charge might not be as good. He would remind them of Sons of the Swarm attacks, and suggest that there would be no real amnesty for the residents from people like that if the tree was surrendered. Beyond that, he’d need to consult with Kate and Rigby. Probably Armand and Beth as well, they knew how to appeal to people and keep them on their side.
The debate finally ended. Robert stood and returned to the podium, and Kate followed and stood at his flank in support. “Beowulf, please shut it down.” Robert paused as the giant screen switched off. “Things are worse than I expected. Neither of these candidates wants to support us or restore peace with us. They both want us to be subjugated and under federal control. Sterns had some good notions about how Beowulf could help the nation, but all that would come after defeating us and bringing the tree under control. What Sterns has proposed is no different than proposing that slavery be made legal, as long as the slaves had to help everybody. It’s a horrifying proposition and slippery slope that leads to rampant government oppression. I can tell you now that I will not step down from my position as planter, and for as long as I live, the federal government of the US can ask us for help if they want it, we will never be slaves. Not to the people out there, not to the Sons of the Swarm among them.” Robert paused to allow that to sink in, and got applause to his surprise. He raised his arms and lowered them in the well known ‘calm the applause’ gesture. “Now, I’d like to hear if any of you have any questions or concerns that we can address. Go ahead and raise your hands and if I call on you, stand and speak.” There weren’t any takers. After a minute, the mayor of Harkenston stood.
“Mr. Harken, I think I speak for all of us when I say that we’re on your side in this. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard appeals for us to turn against you and abandon the tree. We’ve seen it a hundred times on the TV. It’s empty words and we know it. Just a bunch of rabble rousers that want us to do their dirty work for them. But we’ve seen the dirty work of people like that in action. Its cost us the lives of our family and friends. We know your words aren’t empty, and we’re all behind you all the way. Beowulf Stands!” At that the crowd surged to its feet with applause. Robert gestured for them to quiet down again.
“Thank you, thank you all.” he said. “With your help, we will stand our ground until the government sees reason and comes to us with an olive branch instead of threats and sanctions. Thank you all for coming.” He motioned to Kate and stepped away from the podium and off the dais with her following. He walked down an aisle through the crowd, stopping to shake hands with the mayor of Harkenston He’d been a great wing man tonight. Robert wouldn’t forget that. They entered an elevator and asked for their quarters.
On the ride up, Kate said, “They’re going to try and pull out all of the stops to get us to step down. I think Beowulf can keep us safe here, but he can’t stop them from dragging our names through the mud. You did a great job after the debate.” She put her arm through his and placed a hand on his chest. He bent down and kissed her.
“Thanks. I don’t know how I did it. Maybe it’s just easy to lead when you’re so completely in the right.” Robert mused then shook his head. “It sounded like Atwood wanted to bring Beowulf under control with a flamethrower or more nukes. Dead is easy to control.”
“Flamethrowers have not worked well against trees in the past.” Kate said. “Nukes either, but if his views are popular enough to get him elected, we’ll be up against an entire nation. Our nation.” She looked worried.
“We’ll stick it out, we’ve got our friends in here and Rigby and Siren.” he assured her. “Let’s talk it over with Rigby tomorrow, he’ll have some ideas, I’m sure.” They arrived in their quarters and headed towards the bedroom. At the door Robert stopped and held Kate’s hand to stop and turn her around. He raised an eyebrow and grinned. “How would you like to go to bed with public enemy number one tonight?”
She smiled and moved into his arms. “I’d love to, but only because I know that the public is wrong.” They went into the bedroom and closed the door behind them.
“I’ll plant a few limited versions of these creatures to make sure I’ve got the kinks worked out. Based on in vitro tests, the growth control is working as planned, so they hopefully will not grow out of control and consume the earth. I’m reasonably sure they won’t. I’ll start with three models and see how it works out. Something like a maple tree first, I think.” – Joshua Harken
A week or so after that nuclear strike at Yellowstone two years ago, Charcoal Black had taken the men that had come to pick him up from the St. Anthony police station. He had breathed his dust into their eyes and watched as they’d writhed and clawed at their faces from the pain. If anyone had been watching with even a weak microscope they would have seen that the dust was made up of mite sized five legged insect-like creatures, and that those creatures were digging into the men’s faces. Their target was the brain. Black didn’t want them to feed on the men, at least, not any more than was necessary. So they would leave as much of the men’s bodies intact as possible. However, certain connections within the brain would need to be severed, and the mites would position themselves within and around the cerebellum. From there they could stimulate the areas of the brain used to control the skeletal muscle, though it’d take some practice to control them in any useful way.
They had driven South from St. Anthony to Ogden and the Hill Air Force Base. They’d stopped there and the men took over the base’s small detention facility. They brought Black in with a towel over his head, they were trying to keep him a secret from the regular servicemen. Charcoal Black’s appearance would certainly draw attention. He was humanoid, but the resemblance ended there. He looked more like a black fashion store mannequin then a human being. He had no facial features, and his skin had sort of a swirling appearance like thick black smoke trapped within a bottle.
Once in the prison, they’d removed the towel and led him into a cell where they instructed him to sit. The prison seemed to be empty except for him and the men, so Black had taken his chance. They lay still now on the floor of the cell with occasional twitches as a mite or two got into place.
He started to test his controls over them. Stimulating the same area of the cerebellum for each of them. The one nearest bent his left leg at the knee slightly and the other man’s left leg curled up like a dying spider. Same appendage, at least. He could tell that this was going to take too long. He would have to learn a customized control scheme to control each man. He would go to plan B. The mites would feed and multiply amongst the muscles of the men, limiting internal bleeding or damage to other tissues as they did so. The key brain areas needed to keep the heart beating, the heart itself, the lungs, other organs, and skin would be left alive, but the muscles would be replaced with Black’s mites. The men would be brain-dead but living marionettes. The vocal cords would be replaced as well.
By early morning, he had good control over them. They didn’t move as quickly and smoothly as they used to but much of the same functionality was there. He placed the towel back over his head and had them lead him back out to the van. He got into the back seats and the men took seats in the front. They had left the keys in the ignition, he had them start the car. This would be Black’s first time driving, and he’d have to learn from the back seat while controlling a puppet in the driver’s seat. He had watched enough of the vehicle’s operation when they’d driven him here to have a good idea of what to do. His puppet placed the car into gear, took the wheel, and accelerated the van in a slow turn back towards the gate. As they approached, the guardsmen opened the gate and waved them out. These men had some sort of authority here. That was lucky. Now, where to go? That great tree was to powerful for him to defeat alone. There was an atlas in the glove compartment. He examined it for a few moments, as his puppet drove them around aimlessly. He would head back north and then west. He’d torn up the great road he’d taken to the tree, but there was another further north, labeled I94. St. Paul was his destination. He remembered those lands to the east and they were good feeding grounds.
That had been two years ago. Black’s technique had improved a great deal over the years. Those first men showed signs of being gravely ill with even a basic examination, and there were clear signs of rash and irritation around their eyes where the mites had entered their bodies. They had to wear sunglasses at all times to cover up the damage until it healed. Now, Black’s preferred method to take a thrall was to add his mites to food or beverages and administer them orally. This left all of the invasion scars within the digestive track. He had become so good at it that he’d decided to abandon his own corporeal form and live within a human puppet. Brandon Atwood had been his final choice, the Governor of Minnesota. He had had to jump from body to body to get close to the man, and learn enough about him to assume his identity. All those hosts were now his thralls, along with Atwood, and he kept his sense of self, his consciousness within the Atwood thrall.
He hadn’t been too greedy. He could have tried to create an army of thralls from the population of Minneapolis/St. Paul, but he’d decided that his best strategy would be to avoid detection and try to use the normal humans as weapons against his real enemy, Beowulf. Besides, he could always fall back on the army of thralls plan at any time. The main limitation to that plan was that the thralls all had to remain near each other to maintain the communications network that was Black’s mind. If they got out of range, they would go wild and the mites would consume the thralls, and become just mindless Swarm remnants, albeit smaller. So, with all the thralls gathered together by necessity, it left Black vulnerable to the same attack which had nearly destroyed him in Yellowstone, the tactical nuclear strike. That was not something Black wanted to experience again.
Black/Atwood had experienced great success assuming the Governor’s identity. He had had to take the Governor’s family as thralls, as they had noticed the difference right away. And it had been a challenge to keep some of his thralls from going wild and consuming their hosts when he was forced to go out of range. He had had special containers created, and had converted the Governor’s basement into a sort of coma life support ward. When he had to leave a thrall behind, he would command his mites to exit the body and enter the containers, wherein he sealed them. Then he would hook up the limp, muscle-less thrall bodies to the life support equipment. Occasionally, he did have to abandon a thrall, but he would cover up his tracks by forcing them to ingest some of the larger swarm remnant bugs, and if the thrall had been a person close to governor Atwood, he’d play the death off as a suspicious attack, by tree sympathizers. It was an effective method that had served him well as he traveled the nation on his presidential campaign.
During his tenure as Governor he had secretly formed a group of anti-arborealist humans known as the Sons of the Swarm. Most humans were already suspicious of the tree and its relationship to the Swarm. To form the Sons, he had targeted the humans that had lost loved ones and had had their lives destroyed by the Swarm. He encouraged their anger and directed them to act on it, then he’d bind them to the group by saving them from the consequences of their actions using his political influence. It was the ultimate irony. Black/Atwood was what remained of the Swarm that had destroyed their lives, now they were in his pocket, and they believed that Beowulf and the Harkens were responsible for the Swarm’s actions. Under his guidance they had launched several attacks against Beowulf, his reputation, and his residents. He’d masterminded the theft of Siren’s nut, which he’d planned on using to make a thrall tree. Too bad that idiot pilot couldn’t wait a few hours to get his jollies. Since the failed theft, the Sons of the Swarm had taken the back burner for Black/Atwood as he invested all his effort into his presidential race. Once he won, he would turn Beowulf’s beloved humanity against him, and he’d already decided that he’d win no matter what. If Atwood lost the race, he would find a way to get close to Sterns and make him a thrall.
Black/Atwood’s stomach growled. His filthy meat bag host needed to be fed again. He’d been sitting silently in his hotel room after the debate with the thralls he’d brought with him. They would probably need to be fed soon as well. They had a dinner planned for the evening with some of the more powerful local members of his political party. He hated them all, but he needed them to win the race. So he schmoozed with them and made false promises of things he would do for them as president. He stood and had one of his thralls start making calls to arrange his arrival and see who would be present at the dinner. It was time to eat and make some friends, for Atwood it was just work to keep his thralls’ bodies and his presidential race alive.
Theodore Rigby stood out on his deck overlooking Siren’s dock enjoying the feel of the warm morning sunlight and the caress of Pacific breezes on his skin. There was also a rhythmic sloshing as waves broke on the parts of Siren’s trunk that reached above the water. He brought his coffee mug carefully up to his nose and inhaled the rich aroma, then sipped. Life after losing his eyes and joining Siren had been filled with moments of serene peace just like this. He thought about the divine warmth and love he’d felt while wrapped in Siren’s arms last night and realized that he may well have reached Nirvana. Even when his mind became preoccupied with the problems of the world and the dangers that they faced with the Harkens and Beowulf, he was still at peace. Because he knew that without those problems and the need to overcome them he would become bored and dissatisfied. He had to feel as though he was constantly striving for peace or else he would not feel at peace himself. It was a contradictory part of his nature that he had come to embrace.
His coffee mug was empty. He turned and stepped through the doorway into a short hallway. The doors opened at his approach and closed behind him automatically. On the other side of the hallway was his private elevator. He had felt around them and asked Siren about how they were constructed shortly after he’d assumed his duties as planter. They were nearly identical to Beowulf’s elevators except she’d chosen two quarter circles of delicate lily petals as her doors rather than Beowulf’s large pink flower petals. He stepped and commanded, “Our rooms.” and the elevator started down. He had wanted Siren to place their living quarters above the surface but she had explained that there was not enough space there to have the rooms he would need for comfortable living with walls thick enough to protect him from any attack. She had placed their rooms deep within the tree, near the base. She kept the internal pressure of the living spaces at one atmosphere even at that depth, which must have meant her walls were extraordinarily strong and thick to keep the water from rushing in at nearly five miles below sea level.
When the elevator came to a stop and he heard the whisper of the petals furling, he stepped off into their quarters. He had taken the time memorize every square inch of the space, a necessity for navigation with his blindness. He measured distance in steps to his dining hall and set his mug on the table there. They had a maid drone which would take care of it from there. He turned and walked back out to the foyer and turned down the hall to their bedroom with measured, counted steps. The same steps he took each morning. Siren would be waiting within.
“Hello again.” She said as he entered the room. She came up to him and pulled open his robe then stepped behind him and lifted it off. Then she carefully untied his blindfold and threw it to the side. She took his hand and led him to the shower. He made love to her in the warm cascading water, then she washed him. They left the shower and she dressed him in a fresh robe and blindfold and put on her own dress. They left their bedroom and went down the hall back to the dining room for breakfast. He ate and then they headed to his office. It was his base of operations like Beowulf’s command center, but it was much smaller and more spartan than his. It was simply a twenty foot square room with large desk with two comfortable chairs in front of a screen which filled the whole wall in front of the desk, it was for visitors, Rigby had explained to Siren. He sat.
“Is there any important news?” he asked Siren, referring to the world TV and radio news broadcasts which she monitored.
“Everyone’s talking about the debate.” Her beautiful voice flowed. “Sterns is getting a lot of criticism for not being harder against us. They’re calling his proposal that Beowulf could be used for the good of the nation ridiculous and naive.”
“Its much worse than we’d thought.” Rigby shook his head. “The US public opinion of Beowulf and us is that we are an unknown threat. Any new polls?”
“A few, they show Atwood moving further ahead.”
“I see. Switch on the audio for one of the major US networks and I’ll listen while we wait for the Harkens.” She did. At this time of day back in the states they were running opinion shows on the 24 hour news networks and they were discussing the debate. The main issue of discussion was what was said about I90 and Beowulf. Rigby realized it had become a sort of red herring to distract the public from other important issues like the budget and health care insurance. As Siren had summarized, the leading opinion was that Sterns was coming off as soft on the tree problem. Rigby was stunned at the phrase. The tree problem. It had really come to that.
“I’m ready to connect to the Harkens.” Siren said from his shoulder, he nodded his assent.
“Good morning, Rigby!” Rigby could tell from his voice that Robert was in a good mood this morning despite the debate.
“Good morning.” Kate said as well.
“Good afternoon.” Rigby said. He continued seriously. “From the debate it seems that a cold war with the US is practically unavoidable now.”
“Based on Atwood’s plan, I’d say that a real war is a possibility as well.” Robert said, quickly matching Rigby’s serious tone. “I know we were talking about denouncing candidates yesterday, but I don’t think that’d even be useful now. We’d have to denounce them both.”
“I was thinking about that.” Rigby heard Kate say. “We also talked about denouncing the anti-arborealists in general yesterday and I think we should move ahead with that. Releasing a statement denouncing those that hate the tree could at least help us to keep normal citizens from joining up too strongly with the movement.”
“That is wise.” Rigby agreed. “It could cast just enough doubt on the anti-arborealists to prevent these ideas from becoming a populist movement rather than a government policy.”
“Exactly.” Kate said. “We can all do a piece for it.”
“I’m on board.” Robert agreed.
“Us too.” Rigby said for him and Siren. “Should we talk about our military options?”
“I don’t want to talk about attacking the US.” Robert said a little defensively.
“Not that.” Rigby said. “Our defenses. We know that the US possesses nukes and that we can survive them, but there’s something else we may need to consider.”
“What do you mean?” Kate asked.
“The Swarm remnants, weaponized. They’ve been deployed in terrorist attacks before, what if the government weaponizes them? Can we defend against that?”
“I’ve done it before.” Rigby heard Beowulf say brazenly.
“Yes, but would you have won if not for that nuke?” Rigby asked.
“I… think so.” The giant dryad said with less certainty. “I can’t be sure, though.”
“Right. That’s why I think we should consider designing some defenses to deal with another full on Swarm attack. If we can defend ourselves against something like that then we should be able to defend ourselves from any attack the US government can muster.”
“Not a bad idea.” Robert said. “Wolf, Siren, do you think you can up with some ideas for that while we record some denouncements and pleas?”
“Of course.” Beowulf said.
“I’ll need your data on the attack, Wolf.” Siren spoke from Rigby’s shoulder.
“I’ll send it.” The male dryad said.
“Thanks, it’ll take some guesswork on my part to figure out what the Swarm would have done to attack a submarine tree, but I’ll do what I can.” She said.
“Settled then.” Robert said. “Rigby, how about that satellite internet?”
“I spoke with the oceanographers yesterday, they gave me contact info for the company they use.” Rigby said. “I’ll have to find someone to send to one of the islands nearby to call them and ask them to send somebody, but it’s looking good.”
“That’s good news.” Kate said. “Reliable internet access gives us access to even more of the world’s news and information, and allows our residents to contact the outside and spread the good word.”
“Yes. Well… anybody have any other business?” Robert asked. “No? All right, we’ll prepare our recordings and meet again tomorrow.”
“I’ve ended the connection, Theo.” Siren told him and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Thank you. Any ideas about improving your defenses?”
“Of course.” She said. “Beowulf is streaming me the data already. It was an amazing fight and the Swarm is an incredibly adaptive enemy. Thus, I’ll need to plan an adaptive defense as well. I think that’ll mean adaptive drones. Shape-changing, weapon changing, many sizes. In addition, it looks as though I should increase my own intelligence to control the drones and wage the war properly.”
“You can increase your intelligence?”
“Yes, where’s there’s a problem, there’s a mind that can be grown to solve it. I can adapt to solve any problem that you need me to, my love.” She bent down and kissed him.
“You are amazing.” He told her. “Who can we trust to send to Samoa to contact the satellite company?”
“I can make you a drone to complete the task, and a boat drone for it’s transportation.”
“You mean something like Wolf’s Woody?”
“Yes, or like our drone maid. A basic humanoid under my control.”
“Very well, that’ll do. Please make it innocent looking, maybe even beautiful like you. We don’t want to create an incident with the islanders. Would you like to spend some time practicing languages with me?” Rigby had been studying Polynesian and Hawaiian dialects to be able to speak with the islanders in the area.
“Of course, my love.” She spent the rest of the morning practicing the languages with him. She had picked them up quickly from the islanders that had come to stay with them. Lunch time eventually came around and the drone maid served him at his desk. It was a light seafood pasta. Unlike Beowulf under Robert’s orders, Rigby allowed Siren to send drones out to hunt the surrounding seas, so she always had a fresh supply of new and interesting seafood dishes to feed him. They practiced languages some more after he ate. Then he left the office to exercise in his gym. With his carefully measured steps he made his way there. The gym contained an elliptical machine, a bench and all manner of free weights that had all been improvised by Siren under Rigby’s direction.
He did an hour on the elliptical machine at a light pace while he planned his denouncement and plea video statement. His portion would focus on how Siren’s early actions had been influenced by Reed. Then he’d draw connections between Reed and the Sons of the Swarm and the anti-arborealists. Finally he’d hammer them by saying they were responsible for Siren’s atrocities. Then he’d invite her into the shot to show off her beauty, and she’d apologize and promise that she now only meant well. No, he’d have her in the shot at the start of his video. It would increase the clickability.
Finished with his workout he left the gym and returned to their bedrooms to take a shower and change. Siren assisted him with his clothes but didn’t join him in the shower. Sometimes the mood would take him after a workout, but today he was preoccupied. There would be plenty of lovemaking tonight, anyway. He cleaned himself quickly, stepped out and Siren helped him dress again. He seized her hand and pulled her in for a kiss. “I think I’m ready to record our video, now.” He told her.
“Our video?” She giggled. “What do you have in mind?” He explained it to her.
“I want you in the video to attract viewers with your beauty and I think it’ll add credibility to have you explain how you’ve changed yourself.” He said.
“That’s a good idea.” She said. “Shall we work on the speech?” They did, and after talking it out they recorded a great video. Rigby started with apologetic tones about Siren’s crimes, switched to ironically connecting them to the anti-arborealists, and then dropped all pretense and hit them hard for the terrorist attack, theft of the nut, and Reed getting his hands on it in the first place. All the while, Siren made reaction poses as she listened in the shot. Finally she spoke, and her beautiful tones alone would be a reward to watchers that had stuck through Rigby’s speech. She apologized and promised she’d changed. It was an excellent piece of work. She sent it over to Beowulf for his and the Harkens’ review before their meeting tomorrow.
They had finished the video by late afternoon and had some time before dinner. “I’ve completed the emissary and her vessel. They are ready to depart.” Siren told him.
“What does she look like?” Rigby asked.
“Like me with slightly different proportions, still within the range of beauty.” Siren said.
“Will she speak like you?”
“No she will speak like a normal woman.” Rigby knew that Siren could have made the drone just like her. He wondered if she didn’t want to dilute her unique image. Or maybe, she thought he’d be jealous if she sent out copies of her. Best not to ask.
“She should bring something to trade, gold rings.” He suggested.
“I will place one on each finger.”
“Excellent, I was thinking she should try Tafuna in American Samoa first. I want to hear her progress as she makes contact and negotiates and I know they speak English there. It’s a little late today, let’s send her out tomorrow morning. Sound good?”
“If this works I think I’d like to send out more of these emissaries to the other nearby island nations. Fiji, regular Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Vanuatu, and New Zealand. To be our diplomats and advertise the tree as a good place to live. It’d be good to have a bigger community with us.” Rigby said.
“That would be nice. I love to take care of people.” She said.
“And you’re very, very good at it.” Rigby said wrapping his hands around her waist and bending over. He searched for her mouth with his lips and kissed her. “Shall we have dinner?”
She led him to the dining room and the drone maid served a tuna steak with a side salad. After eating they returned to the office for a while and listened to some of the evening news. Then they went to bed, and he made passionate love to her, eventually falling asleep still entangled with her.
In the morning Rigby awoke to find Siren had pulled away from him in the night and still lay asleep beside him. He wasn’t sure why she slept, he didn’t think she needed it, but he was glad she did. He loved his cup of coffee out on the deck in the morning, when he had his moment to think and contemplate the paradise his life had become. He gently slipped out of bed, slipped on a robe, and took his measured steps to the dining room, where he let his nose guide him to the waiting pot of coffee. He poured himself a mug and headed to the elevator. His morning routine continued as usual and he arrived at his desk to await their meeting with the Harkens just before nine, South Pacific time.
They watched the completed video message together and all agreed to release it. It was decided to upload this one as soon as possible via one of Beowulf’s beetle-mice as it could still take some time to get the satellite internet connection. Rigby brought the Harkens’ up to speed on his plan to test the use of a drone emissary to American Samoa to negotiate the installation and account for the satellite system. They were impressed and in favor of it. Siren and Beowulf updated them on defensive strategies for beating enemies at least as deadly as the Swarm. They’re plans were still in progress. Beowulf informed them that he had been able to upload the video and they broke up the meeting go about their business.
Siren sent out their new emissary. She arrived on the black rock shores near Tafuna. The town is situated on a large flatland between sharp green mountains and the sea. An airport lies next to the sea and the runways have been built out into it. Their emissary stepped ashore and walked along a road into town. She looked human, if a little strangely dressed, and the only thing to set her apart was her long green hair and violet eyes. Thus, she got a few looks as islanders passed her, and a few honks of a car horn and cat calls, but she was otherwise left alone.
She had a small purse with her, which contained two special communication drones. They were similar to Beowulf’s beetle-mice design accept without the tail, and they had chameleon skin built in. They were a means to maintain her communications with Siren when she went into or under buildings or in other places that weren’t friendly to her built in satellite radio. She could talk to them with long wave radio that can penetrate obstructions, and they would route the communications back to Siren through their own satellite radios. Siren had dubbed them Beetle Repeaters.
She found a large store, selling general merchandise to the town. She checked around and saw no was watching, then opened her purse next to the building and the large beetle crawled out and up the side of the building. She would do this as standard procedure before entering any building. With her communications secure, she went in. She asked the clerk near the entrance if she could speak to a manager and a large heavyset Samoan man came out to meet her. She asked to speak with him in private and he agreed to take her back to his office.
“Now, what’s all this about?” He asked. “Are you looking for work? I’m all staffed up, but we may be able to get you something part time.”
“No.” The drone answered. “I’m not here for work, I’m here to sell.” She pointed to one of the rings on fingers.
“Hey, this isn’t one of those cash for gold places.” He quickly explained. “I don’t want anything to do with any hot merchandise”
“It’s not hot.” She pleaded. “It’s completely legitimate, I just need to trade some of these for cash quickly. I’m from off island, and I can’t trade pure gold for a hotel room or food.”
“Well, I’m not made of cash either. It could take some time to sell big ticket items like those on this island. We don’t have a lot of money to throw around here.” He complained. “And how do I know I’m getting real gold? I’m no expert. I don’t think I could do much better than $50 dollars a ring.”
The man was low balling them. Rigby quickly fed Siren a response.
“I can’t accept that.” She said. “Each of these is one troy ounce of pure gold. They come from the new tree in the Tonga trench, they are worth more than $1,000 dollars a piece at today’s prices.”
“Tree gold? I’ve heard stories about that. Are you from there?”
“Yes.” she answered.
“Okay, $200 per ring is the best I can do.” He offered. The man had probably decided that there was some value in the story of having tree gold in addition to the value of whatever gold they may actually contain. He was a shrewd businessman.
“It’s a deal, I’ll sell you all ten.” She handed him the rings and he gave her two thousand dollars in loose twenties from his safe.
“Pleasure doing business with you. Good luck.” He said.
“Can you tell me if there’s a way to get to Pago Pago?” she asked. “I don’t want to walk.”
He chortled and shook his head. “No, you don’t. There’s a bus that runs over there.” He told her the way to the bus stop. She recovered her Beetle Repeater, and caught an evening bus to Pago Pago and asked fellow passengers if there was a hotel there. There was, but it wasn’t really a budget motel, it was a lot nicer. When she reached the capitol she made her way over to the hotel and booked a room. It was more than Rigby had hoped that they’d have to pay, but the man at the desk was kind enough to allow her to stay even though she had no credit card, and could only pay cash.
The drone then found a restaurant and ate dinner. Siren had suggested that the most efficient way to keep her drone powered was to make it able to extract the chemical energy from gasoline which was widely available and energy dense. Rigby had insisted that a good emissary to humans should be able to sit down and eat like a person. Eating, and talking over food was an important part of human relationships. Siren had agreed and gave the drone the complicated digestive organs necessary to extract nutrients from food, and then convert them to energy. Siren had had some practice in designing such mechanisms as she’d need to in order to survive off food in her infancy with Reed. The emissary returned to the hotel and went into a sleep mode on her bed. She would start making calls to satellite companies in the morning and then try to speak with the Governor of the island territory.
Back in the tree, Rigby was sitting at his desk. Siren had been describing the activities of the drone to him, and discussing with him what to do along the way. “She should have a name.” He said after the drone had gone to sleep. “People will want to have something to call her.”
“Sea Breeze? Waves at Dawn?” Siren proposed.
“Those are good names but they may remind people of the names that are usually given to race horses. It should be something simple, but identifiable. One word would be best.”
“Coral?” Siren tried.
“That’ll do. She’ll be called Coral.” He said.
The next morning, after the update meeting with the Harkens, Siren awoke the drone and described it’s activities to Rigby. Coral dialed the number for the satellite company representative that the oceanographers had given Rigby. The company was based in Los Angeles so it would be a few hours later in the day over there.
“Hello this is Derrick Stevens, Intelli-star Communications Corp.” The voice on the other end of the line greeted.
“Hello, this is Coral, and I’m interested in installing a satellite internet system at a location in the South Pacific.”
“Well, I can certainly help with that. Where are you based in the South Pacific?”
“What country does your ship come from?”
“Oh, it’s not a ship.”
“OK, it’s for an island residence? To which country does the island belong.”
“Not really anyone. Let me explain. I’m calling on behalf of Siren, the giant tree which has planted itself in the South Pacific near American Samoa.”
“Well, I guess we’re going to have to ask your company for some special treatment, because we aren’t really affiliated with any nation or recognized as a nation ourselves, also, we’ll have to pay in gold.”
“Pay in gold? Is this a joke?”
“Not at all, sir.”
“OK, well what kind of communications do you want? Bandwidth, hours of operation, what do you need?”
“The largest bandwidth plan you offer, with the most hours of operation.”
“That’ll be expensive, you know.”
“Yes, and I’m sorry, but we have to pay in gold.”
“All right. I’ll have to talk to some higher-ups in the company, what’s a good number I can reach you at?” She gave him the phone number of the hotel room.
“The best time to call would be at this time tomorrow. Thanks for your help.” She said.
“Thanks, I’ll give you a call tomorrow.” Said Derrick Stevens. Rigby smiled. That must have been the strangest call the man had ever gotten. But, then again, he was a maritime satellite internet salesman, so maybe not.
Coral left the room then and went off to find a place to eat breakfast. After eating, she set off down the road to the American Samoa executive building and chamber of commerce. She greeted the receptionist inside the door, introduced herself and asked to speak to the Governor. The receptionist rolled her at eyes at Coral and motioned for her to take a seat in the waiting area. Clearly she did not think that this was a momentous visit. She made a call upstairs to the Governor’s secretary, and Coral waited for half an hour. Finally, a stiff looking older Samoan in a suit appeared and spoke a word to the receptionist. She pointed at Coral, and Coral stood. The man approached and held his hand out to her.
“Hello, I’m Fuaga Tiilsi, governor of American Samoa.” the man said. Coral took his hand in a light grip.
“Hello, Governor, I’m Coral, emissary from the great tree, Siren.” She replied formally.
“Please, follow me upstairs to my office.” He led her to his office at the top of the building. It was a formal but utilitarian office. “Please sit down.” He pulled out a chair across from his desk for her, and after she’d settled, he went around his desk and sat. “What business would you like to discuss today?” He asked.
“We would like to extend an invitation to your people to come and live with us in the tree.” Coral began. “We have room for over a million people, with plenty of space for families to grow and thrive. We can supply food. Fresh water. Shelter. Anything your people could need.” She paused.
“Our people have everything they need here, thank you.” Fuaga jumped in as Rigby had expected.
“I understand one of the tuna canning companies shut down their business here, and the other company is laying people off.” Coral laid it out for him. “Your unemployment here is skyrocketing and that must be a strain on support and welfare programs. Please, we can help. Let us give these people a new home.”
“Our people are proud of their land, and are willing to stick out through some temporary hard times to keep it.” Fuaga stood up and leaned forward across his desk. “We don’t need sexy tree women coming and luring us away to some murderous leviathan. That’s right, I know about this Siren’s past. Everyone knows.”
Coral bowed her head. “That is behind us.” She raised her chin, met his eyes, stood up and extended her hand. “I’m sorry things have not gone well. Siren has asked me to ask you one more thing. You and any of your people are always welcome to visit us if you wish. We’d be happy to have you.” Fuaga relaxed a little and took her hand in both of his.
“I’m sorry if I’ve been harsh. Where are you staying? Perhaps you would join my wife and I for dinner tonight? There is an excellent Korean restaurant in Pago Pago.”
“Yes, thank you Governor.” She said and he released her hand.
“Wonderful, wonderful.” He said. “Now I really have to be going, I’ve been invited to guest lecture at the university. I’ll walk you out.”
“Thank you, Governor.” Coral said she turned toward the door and offered her arm. He took it and they walked out. He left her at the door and walked to his car. A high end silver Lexus. She waved as he drove off, then set off back towards the hotel.
Back in the office of their living quarters, Rigby said to Siren, “Well, it seems Coral has some free time until dinner. Perhaps we could have her talk to some people of the island and see if they agree with the Governor. That can be her mission until the money runs out, then she can return. Maybe she can even convince some people to catch a ride with her to visit us. While she’s walking, I think I’ll have lunch. You should have her stop somewhere as well.”
“She will eat and await further orders at the hotel. What are the best places to talk to people?” Siren inquired.
“That can be a tough one.” Rigby began. “It can depend upon the time of day and the general mood. A good place to meet people one day may be a hostile environment the next. She can always talk to people in bars, or people that she meets during the day at restaurants or in the hotel, and there may be public meetings to discuss local issues that she could go to. There are options, it just has to be done carefully.”
Rigby ate his lunch and spent some time practicing languages with Siren. Then he took his exercise, showered and returned to the office. They took Coral around and spoke to people. The islanders told stories about the hardships after the canning companies closed but they found that many people felt the same way the Governor did. They would stay at their homes and make it work. Rigby respected their views. He had Coral change tactics and portray it as a temporary visit. They could return to their home on the island whenever they wished, which was something Rigby would have desired anyway. There must be people, new families perhaps, that would desire to live in the security of the tree until their situations could be improved back on the island. Rigby knew that moving to the tree could end up working out to be a permanent move for people like that, after all, living in the security of the tree wouldn’t necessarily give them any job skills that would help them find work on the island, but he also knew they’d be safe and would thrive with Siren. A young single mom agreed to join Coral when she came back to Siren, she would spread the word to her friends as well.
Dinner time rolled around and Rigby ate in the office as he listened to Siren describe Coral’s meeting with the Governor at the Korean restaurant and their conversation. The Governor’s wife was with them and she spoke at length about her pet projects around the island. Coral and the Governor didn’t speak much business but they got along well and Coral made a good impression on the man’s wife. This was more of a get to know you better meeting. Thus the important thing for Coral was to avoid making any mistakes. Rigby helped to make sure she didn’t. The evening wore on and the meal ended. Coral complemented the Governor’s choice of restaurant, said her good byes and headed back to the hotel. She would visit a few bars tonight before entering sleep mode, but Rigby left that in Siren’s hands.
Back in the tree, he told her, “This is working out very well. We’ve avoided conflict, and have begun establishing connections. Do you think you can control multiple emissaries at once? I think we should move ahead with sending emissaries to the other nearby nations as soon as possible.”
“I can, but it’ll take some time.” She said. “Maybe a few days.”
“That’s perfect.” Rigby said. He spent the evening listening to some of the US news networks, then took Siren to bed.
Over the next few months they worked out a deal with the satellite internet company and got a dish installed at the top of the tree. The Harkens applauded the new internet access, but there were bandwidth limitations. They had to ration it to Beowulf’s residents or it would get hopelessly bogged down. Still, it made them happier.
Coral continued to operate in American Samoa, and Siren created emissaries and sent them off to Fiji, regular Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Vanuatu, and New Zealand. Their New Zealand emissary became the money changer for the tree. They had found a reasonably honest buyer for their gold there and it became a waste to sell it anywhere else. Thus, the New Zealand emissary would take gold out and bring cash back in. Usually, US dollars which would then be exchanged or used as is in the various other nations by the other emissaries. They all made weekly trips back to Siren to get more money and sometimes to drop off new residents or temporary shelterers. The first single mother that Coral brought back from American Samoa was named Morgan Atuafago.
It had turned out that her husband was abusive and she’d been forced to leave him for the protection of herself and her son. She was passionate about protecting other women from the same fate, and asked Siren to have the emissaries spread the word that Siren would be a sanctuary for women in similar circumstances. Siren agreed, and Morgan became leader of Siren’s women shelter. Islanders from all nations came to join her and they took a level of Siren’s arcology to live and meet. They shared their stories and looked out for one another, and of course, enjoyed Siren’s protection from any hostile influences back home. Rigby was pleased with the development and grew to respect Morgan and included her in some of the decisions he was making with Siren for the tree.
Others came as well and joined the dislocated that had come in response to their original video. These were similar unattached people, like the homeless and outcast that had already come to Siren, but they hadn’t had the means to make it to the tree on their own. Some of them even approached the emissaries for a ride back to the tree, rather than needing to be convinced.
As November came around Siren’s population had grown to nearly two thousand people from the surrounding nations, in three of her arcology levels including Morgan’s shelter. Rigby had thought that some of these would be temporary residents, but so far no one had decided to take the trip with an emissary back to their home island. Unfortunately, they were getting a slight reputation for stealing away women and children. The abusive men that were left behind by the women seeking shelter would sometimes begin spreading vicious rumors about the tree and its motives. This infuriated Rigby, but he took the high road and asked Morgan to prepare a video statement. She would spread the word about the sanctuary she was creating and show all of the women gathered together, safe within Siren. Once released to the internet that video helped to shut up those men that had been left behind.
The presidential election was coming up and the Governor of Minnesota, Brandon Atwood stood far ahead in the polls. He looked like a shoe in. In his campaign speeches and statements he continued to stress his plans for Beowulf. Eventually, he had just started to refer to the tree as The Enemy, and the people had accepted it. Robert had become frustrated at the statements being made and the way things were moving, but Rigby urged caution and patience. They would be able to defend themselves, so they could ride out the fervor without going on the offensive. Worst case was that they would let Atwood wear himself down on the trees’ defenses and then strike off the head and seize control of the government, at least temporarily. To the victor goes the spoils, and if they wanted history to remember Atwood as the villain, he would eventually need to be defeated.
“The testing is going wonderful. I’ve planted three of the model trees, and the growth limitation mechanism has worked great. They are no larger than the normal local trees. They’re intelligent, as well, they made flocks of drones which help them to manipulate the world around them and communicate. They remind me of fairies. Interestingly, they’ve developed distinct personalities. I would have expected them all to be the same as they were all raised by me and live in essentially the same environment.” – Joshua Harken
Black/Atwood had rented out a local hall to await the election results with his supporters. They weren’t all thralls and there were news cameras present so he had his human act in full gear. He gave a short speech as the polls opened. He played it cool and said that despite his massive lead in the polls it was still anyone’s race. His gathered campaign volunteers laughed at that like he had told a joke, and they kicked off the celebration party officially at the start of the polls. The only thing they held back on until they heard the outcome was the champagne. Atwood sat at his table near the stage with his thrall family and met people to accept their congratulations and receive some last minute ass-kissing. It was like he was a king holding court in a nightclub on a Friday night.
He was so disgusted with these humans. It would be such a pleasure to consume them all after defeating Beowulf. He would sweep across the world and wipe the slate clean of them. Then, perhaps, other worlds. Black knew he was the greatest the thing in the universe, the only thing which deserved to live. Everything else remained solely by his discretion or ignorance.
His staff thralls provided him with continuous updates on the progress of the vote. Atwood tuned it out. By all estimates, he would win as Atwood, but even if Sterns pulled ahead somehow, Black would still win. He would make up a pretense to meet the man and turn him into a thrall. It would mean letting his current thralls all go wild, but he had had an explosive device installed in his home anyway. Even if he won, he would leave no sign of what had gone on in the basement during his time as Governor, and if he lost, it would be a convenient means to clean up some unneeded thralls. He’d come up with two speeches to cover for each eventuality. Both would accuse Beowulf for the destruction and call it a terrorist attack.
The day wore on. After the polls finally closed, they set up a projection screen with a map of the US states and were tracking which candidate had won the states as the votes were counted. Atwood was blue, and Sterns red. Almost all of the states were swinging blue. Even the core Midwest and western states that were often referred to as red states were voting for him. They started calling it around 10 pm. Atwood had won the presidency. He stood and gave a short speech which all of the big news channels broadcast.
“By many estimates, it appears as if I’ve run the race and will be the next president of the United States. I can tell you that I plan to jump right into action in my presidency, and we will have troops mobilized along I90 and at Yellowstone by the end of Spring. I mean to start bringing pressure against this Beowulf, The Enemy, and restore the security of our nation. No more, will parents have to worry about letting their children play out in the woods, for fear of Swarm remnants. No more, will sailors have nightmares about unstoppable sea monsters. No more, will all of us have to worry about a man with his finger on the trigger right here within our own borders. No more, will we tolerate any fear from The Enemy. We will be in control!” Atwood’s voice rose throughout the speech and he practically screamed the last line, to the thunderous applause and cheers of his supporters in the hall. Idiot scum, he thought, rising his arms in the air with palms up and open and looking upwards towards the ceiling. He let them down slowly and walked away from the podium. The cheers and applause continued.
One of his aide thralls approached and told him that he’d gotten a call from Sterns. Black/Atwood already knew that, as he was in control of the thrall, but here in public, he was very careful about being sure to make it look as though he was getting information like a normal human would need to. He placed the phone to his ear and Sterns gave him a long, obviously prepared speech. Atwood barely listened, when Sterns shut up, he said. “That’s great, Sterns, it’s been a great campaign, we should meet for lunch sometime.” and hung up without waiting for a reply. He stayed at the party for another hour or so then left with his thralls back to his home.
The next morning, his official secret service detail arrived at his home and he invited them in. His thrall wife served them coffee, despite their protests. She stayed and looked at them expectantly until they drank. He would need these agents to be his thralls. He invited them to sit and started to tell them a long and boring story, they looked a little bit sick but didn’t want to interrupt him. Soon they went limp as the connections between their brains and their bodies were severed by the mites that had been in their coffee. It would take a few hours until the mites could consume their muscles and take full control. That was one thing he missed about the larger version of the Swarm bugs that he had once been. Those insect size bugs ate faster and were stronger. It was only a matter of minutes for them to chew into a person and turn them into a puppet, though, the process was much less subtle, and they’d never pass for living humans.
His presidency did not officially begin until January 20 of the next year and he had to prepare an inaugural speech and then a State of the Union speech to deliver before Congress shortly thereafter in early February. He had his people contact the current president and his people to arrange when they’d switch ownership of the White House, a week or so prior to inauguration. Atwood planned his demolition of his current residence for a day or so after they moved out.
With no more campaigning to do, and plenty of time to prepare for assuming the presidency, Black/Atwood decided to call a secret meeting of the Sons of the Swarm. They should do something to keep the pressure on Beowulf, who had for so long been left safe and unmolested in the sealed Yellowstone park. Something to rattle his cage, and perhaps bait him into lashing out.
They would meet in a warehouse that he had purchased through a sham holding company. His method of calling a meeting was a sequence of ads placed publicly on Craigslist. The first was an ad for a used lawnmower. The ad text included a pass phrase which marked it as the signal ad, and the address of the meeting place was encoded in the pixels of the image of the lawnmower in the lower right hand corner. Similarly, an ad went out for a food processor which contained the date of the meeting and finally an ad for a used truck plow attachment contained the meeting hour. There was no acknowledgment of the meeting, it was by invitation of existing members that new members could join, and the warehouse was designed to be a death trap for anyone that came without knowing the meeting rules.
Those rules were designed to protect Black/Atwood’s identity. He and his thrall guards at the meetings wore black hoods and used voice modulators, the remaining members were forbidden to hide their identities in any way. They were forbidden to ask who Atwood or his guards were, and could not ask him any direct questions. They could discuss things and argue amongst themselves, but never with him. If he spoke, then his word was final. He had obtained an almost God-like status in their minds. He was a myth. He had overheard some of them talking about who he might be once. They told wild stories about him being some billionaire who’s family had been killed by the Swarm. Or that he was some powerful politician or judge. That one was not as far from the truth.
The meeting time came and Atwood was waiting at the podium in the meeting room. The meeting room was a second structure that he had built within the warehouse. It had a hallway built around it that turned left three times before the entrance of the meeting room. At each turn were two guards. Each pair manned a .50 caliber machine gun which could turn each straight run of the hallway into a kill zone. There would be no undesired visitors and no escape if anything went wrong with the meeting. In front of Atwood’s podium in the room were two sets of folding chairs providing seating for about a hundred people. The people started to file in and take their seats, often greeting each other and shaking hands with acquaintances from previous meetings. They were almost entirely men, but showed no signs of being members of a terrorist organization. They looked like normal men from all walks of life, but mostly low to middle income. The start time of the meeting came around and a bell began ringing automatically from behind Atwood’s podium.
“Greetings, Sons of the Swarm.” Atwood began. His modulated voice warbling. “This is our finest hour. The government is finally turning against the tree, and we have never been closer to victory. But what will we do? Will we sit and watch others do the job that we started? Should we hand over the reigns and return to our Swarm broken lives? NO! This is our fight. We called for war and now we have it. Now is not the time for us to pack up and leave the battle field. We will not hang up our swords and take up plowshares!” He paused, and the gathered members murmured their agreement. “I called you here today because I think we’ve been letting The Enemy rest and recover for too long. Why should the tree have peace, when our friends and families have none? It’s not right. I’ve called you here because we’re going to give Beowulf a black eye. We’ll kick off this war right and set the tone for the destruction of The Enemy! I want no traitorous man or woman taking shelter in that tree to be able to sleep without nightmares of us. I want revenge!” He paused as members stood up and cheered. “The mission I have planned will accomplish that goal, but it will come at a great cost. I will need five volunteers, and these brave few cannot be faint of heart. These men must be willing to lay down their lives for the cause. We know that Beowulf can detect almost any threat, and each successful attack we’ve launched has made him more wary and clever. Thus we must send in men that will take their weapons in inside of their very persons. They will infiltrate the communities within this tree and then detonate their weapons, forever destroying the traitors’ sense of peace. Is anyone willing to volunteer?” Eight men jumped to their feet, eager for the mission.
“Very good, meet with me after we break and we will discuss the details.” Atwood said. “Brother Peters will now lead you in the oath.” Atwood stepped away from the podium and sat at his chair off to the side on the stage. Peters would handle much of the rest of the meeting. The members would take their oath, and discuss old business and allow members to bring forward new issues. Atwood would not participate again until the close of the meeting unless there was issue an brought up that it was to his advantage to deal with.
The election had gone in Atwood’s favor as the Harkens and Rigby had expected. Since then they’d been bolstering their defenses and preparing for whatever onslaught the hostile new government might try. It was mid January, and Robert and Kate Harken were in Beowulf’s command center reviewing footage from some new drones made for Beowulf’s defense of the Yellowstone. These drones disguised themselves as pine trees but provided the tree with 360 degree visuals and audio. Unlike the older version shock troops, these drones would not slowly convert into trees during sleep. They were always tree-like in appearance. To move into position from the tree or reposition themselves later, they would uproot themselves and trundle around like Tolkien-ian ‘Ents. Dronents, Robert had named them.
They had offensive capabilities as well. Each dronent could open the top of it’s barrel trunk and fire three rounds of high explosive artillery. After those shots, they would have to rely on bludgeoning the enemy with their limbs. They had been placed at every major entrance of the park, and Beowulf was working on moving them into possible foot or horse back entrances, as well as just a ring of evenly spaced dronents, to monitor the skies.
It was one of these new drones moving into position that first caught sight of the hikers. They were scrambling through the deep snow away from the Beartooth mountains behind them.
“Can you zoom in on them?” Robert asked Beowulf who stood behind their desk in his dryad form.
“Yes.” The view of the main screen zoomed in. They saw the looks of fear and desperation on the men’s faces. The one behind kept looking behind them, seemingly at their tracks. The hikers seemed almost to be fleeing.
“What’s that guy looking at?” Kate asked. The screen panned back behind the hikers and showed the snow that they had just torn up in their flight. It was shifting, Like something was pushing up on it from below.
“What…” Robert started, but Beowulf interrupted him.
“Swarm remnants. I’m sending in the dronent.” On the screen, the camera zoomed back out and showed the hikers in the distance, but the view was now shaking and shifting rhythmically with the dronents’ rapid strides.
The hikers were keeping the separation between themselves and the Swarm, as long as they held up the pace, the dronent would make it in time. As the dronent approached, the hiker in the rear tripped and fell. The dronent leaped the rest of the distance, a good fifty feet, and came crashing down on top of the shifting snow. It stomped the ground rapidly and they saw dead and dying Swarm bugs flying up along with the tossed snow. It was a short fight. The dronent had killed the bulk of the bugs in the first minute and had spent five or so minutes after that chasing down bugs that had broken off from the main body.
The hikers had stopped running and were sitting or lying on the snow where they’d been when the dronent showed up. Beowulf sent the tree-like drone over to where they were resting. They were panting, and one of them looked as though he had actually fainted.
“Can we speak to them?” Robert asked.
“Go ahead, they will hear your voices now.” The dryad replied.
“Hello.” The hiker’s looked up at the human voice coming from the tree monster in front of them. “This is Robert Harken from the tree. Please stay where you are, and we’ll send you transportation back to the tree, along with some food and water.” One of the men stood and looked at the others, then grabbed a man near him and said in panicked panting tones.
“No, we can’t, we’ll be trapped here. I told you we’re not supposed to be here, we have to get back across.”
“We can’t, Gary.” The man he was grabbing said between breaths. “We can’t even make it back to camp before nightfall, and they ate the supplies.”
“So we’re stuck here with these crazy tree-people!” Gary hissed.
“Looks that way.” he said quietly to Gary then turned back to the dronent. “My name is Corey, this is Bill, Neil, Adam, and Gary.” Corey pointed to each man in turn. “We were hiking in the Beartooths and got attacked by those things. We’re out of supplies and would greatly appreciate any help.”
“It’s on the way.” Robert looked pointedly at Beowulf and raised his eyebrows. The dryad nodded his understanding. “You folks just stay warm out there until your ride arrives.” On one of the ancillary screens Robert could see the bay doors open and two hexapods start to crawl down the hallway to the exterior of the tree. Robert made the ‘cut it’ signal to Beowulf. “How long?”
“Two hours at top speed.” The dryad answered.
“They should be all right.” Kate surmised.
“What in the hell, were they doing hiking out there?” Robert asked, baffled.
“Thrill seekers?” Kate guessed. “Maybe they just wanted to do something they could brag about. Extreme sports dudes are like that.”
“Maybe. Wolf, could you let the Doc know we’ve got hikers coming in in unknown condition?” Robert was referring to Dr. Greta Wilson, head of the Rochester Memorial clinic.
“Of course.” They watched a satellite map view of the park as the symbols representing the hexapods moved towards the hikers which were represented by a little stick figure man on a red triangle. “She’s been notified, she wants to see how they look when they get into the hexapods.” Dr. Wilson had been invited down to the command center once or twice, but didn’t have unescorted access.
“Bring her down when the time comes.” Robert ordered. “Wolf, keep an eye on those hikers with the dronent, but send out a few more to retrace their steps. I want to check up on their story, and make sure there are no more Swarm remnants wandering around in the park.”
“Good idea.” The dryad said. “They’re on their way.”
The hexapods arrived at the hikers’ location. The six legged walkers bent their legs and lowered their bodies. The transparent dome on each one raised open, allowing access to the two seats per walker. The hikers took the hint and started to load themselves into the seats. They placed their unconscious friend on the floor in one of them. The domes closed, and the hexapods began pumping heated air into the riding space. Each hexapod had a small screen in front of the seats.
“Put me on their screens, Beowulf.” Robert told the dryad, turning towards him. “Hello, this is Robert Harken, again. These hexapods will take you back to the tree automatically, where we’ll have a doctor waiting to look you over. Under your seats you’ll find some food and fresh water. Otherwise, you can sit back and enjoy the ride.”
Dr. Wilson entered the command center from the elevator. Beowulf had summoned her. She walked up to the main desk. “Hello. We have some hikers? Possible frost bite, dehydration, exhaustion, or hypothermia?” She stared intently at the big screen showing the hikers riding in the ‘pods.
“They look mostly alright. Can you put me through them?” She asked. Beowulf nodded.
“Just turn towards me and address me as if I was a TV camera.” He instructed.
“OK.” She turned to him. “Hello, this is Dr. Wilson, I’ll be examining you when you get back to the tree. It looks like your friend is unconscious. Can you check if he’s breathing, also feel his forehead and tell me if it’s cold?”
“He’s alright, ma’am, I think he’s just exhausted from the run.” The one named Neil said.
“That may be, but I need to check for severe hypothermia, can you please verify that he’s breathing and tell me if he’s cold.” She insisted.
“All right.” The man bent over and put his ear to the unconscious man’s mouth. “He’s breathing.” He then placed the back of his hand on his friend’s fore head. “He’s really cold, but that’s no surprise. We all are.”
“OK, he has some symptoms of hypothermia. Could you please remove all of his wet clothes?”
“What? Seriously?” Corey asked.
“It could mean your friend’s life.” Dr. Wilson said seriously.
“All right. You owe us one, Adam.” The two men stripped off their friend’s wet clothing and positioned him more comfortably.
“OK, thank you.” Dr. Wilson said. “You may want to start removing some of your own wet clothing. Please keep an eye on Adam and make sure he keeps breathing. I’ll be here if you call.” She turned away from the dryad, and he cut the feed to the hexapods.
“Thank you, doctor.” Kate said. “You can take a seat anywhere.”
“No thanks, I’m going to prepare a room for the unconscious one. I’ll send someone down to wait for their arrival in the reception hall.” She said.
“All right, thanks.” Robert said, and she turned and headed back towards the elevator. Robert looked at Kate after she’d gone. “Always business with her.”
“Not everyone gets to sit around, watch TV, and order a giant tree around all day, honey.” Kate chided.
“I suppose not, but… somebody has to do it.” Robert sat and leaned back in his chair. They rarely did this sort of thing anymore. Banter.
“You know…” Kate began. “Sitting around all day is supposed to be bad for you. Maybe Wolf could put a stair climber here instead of the desk to help keep you in shape while you work.”
“Well… I…” Robert did his best to look sincerely concerned. “I am a public figure now. I really should watch my weight and keep healthy. You know, I saw some of the kids wearing those skinny jeans the other day, and I thought that if I got a pair of those and one of those metrosexual haircuts…”
“No. Forget it. Nevermind.” Kate said. She leaned back in her chair beside him.
Robert thought more on the hikers’ predicament. From what he could tell, they had been camping somewhere and had been attacked by Swarm remnants. Since that attack, they’d been running just ahead of the bugs for who knows how long. Why would anyone hike across the Beartooths in winter? Robert had lived most his life in the Midwest, but he guessed that hiking through mountains in the winter was risky at best. Avalanches, blizzards, dead falls, wolves, all seemed like real risks to Robert. That one guy, Gary, had seemed to be afraid of the tree. So why the Beartooths? There were other mountains to risk your life climbing. Lots of them. And most of them weren’t blockaded by the US National Guard. They’d have to at least be thrill seekers as Kate had suggested, but Robert suspected that there must be more to it. Still, they didn’t look anything like soldiers or spies, other than being physically fit.
He leaned forward. “Wolf, do you detect any weapons on the hikers, or even gunpowder residue, stuff like that?”
“They have climbing tools and utility knives which could easily be used as weapons, and that Corey has a small axe.” Beowulf said noncommittally. “No guns, explosives, or signs of either.”
“Hmm.” Robert paused and thought again. “What about on the news or web? Any mention of lost hikers?”
It took Beowulf a moment to respond. “I’m not seeing anything on the major networks, but I’ll keep an eye out.”
Robert leaned back, and turned his head to look at Beowulf “Could you prepare a space for them on an empty level, maybe Theo’s old rooms?” The dryad nodded.
Nothing to do then until they arrived and he could hear their story. Would they stay at the tree or risk returning to the outside? They’d have to turn themselves in at one of the guard posts, and unlike the first guests of the tree, these guys could be in for some serious questioning. They might be better off staying until things quieted down a bit. Still, Robert would respect their wishes, if they wanted to leave, they could leave.
When the time came, Robert and Kate went to the reception hall to await the arrival of the hexapods. They joined a pair of orderlies from the clinic standing next to a wheeled stretcher. Beowulf stepped out of the wall and announced. “They’re coming down the hallway.” He was referring to the long hallway connecting the reception hall inside the tree with the outside world. It was one of a few penetrations through the tree’s incredibly thick outer hull. After a minute, the logs of the wall next to them spread apart revealing a huge hallway wide and tall enough for the hexapod walkers. The walkers entered the hall and lowered their legs for dismount. The transparent domes flipped open, and the orderlies moved forward with the stretcher to recover the unconscious Adam. The other hikers stood and picked up some of their shed cloths, then approached the waiting Harkens.
The one named Corey stood in front of the rest. It wasn’t hard to see that he was the group’s leader. “Hi. Thanks for the save.” He extended his hand to Robert. Robert took his hand and shook it firmly. Corey stepped back then and looked at Beowulf appraisingly. The other hikers were staring at the giant intimidating figure of the dryad. “You must be Beowulf, hello, we’ve heard of you.”
The dryad nodded to them formally. “Hello.” He smiled. “I hope you’ve heard good things.”
Corey didn’t return the smile. “Some.” he said.
“Glad we could help.” Robert could see they were tired. “We’ve got a clinic here in the tree, and the doctor would like to take a look at you all. Please follow your friend and the orderlies to the elevator. After she clears you, we’ve got a place set up for you all to rest for the night. Beowulf will show you the way. Tomorrow morning we can talk about your circumstances and what you want to do.”
“That sounds good. Thank you for your hospitality.” Corey said. The group took off after the orderlies that had already begun wheeling their friend towards the elevator.
Robert turned to Kate. “They looked tired. We can question them tomorrow. Beowulf will keep an eye on them until then.”
“It’ll be fine.” Kate said. “They looked freaked out by Beowulf. It’s been a while since I’ve seen someone meet him.”
“Well, It’s getting late. What do you say we grab a late supper and hit the hay?”
“That sounds divine, Robert.”
The orderlies exited the elevator quickly at Rochester Memorial’s lowest floor and the hikers followed. The elevator opened into a hallway which curved all the way around the massive support columns which contained the elevator shafts and back towards the center of the floor which contained a large comfortable waiting area. In the center of the room was an office with a long desk in front that served as reception for the clinic. A bored looking young woman sat at the desk and Dr. Greta Wilson stood in front of it waiting for them. The young woman perked up when she saw the hikers and waved to them and Dr. Wilson waved the orderlies and their patients down a hall sandwiched in between the curving hallways which lead back to the elevators.
She directed each of them to a different examining room and instructed them to wait until she came back to them. She then examined the unconscious Adam. He was a physically fit young man, mid twenties, she guessed. His breathing was shallow and his heart rate ok. His oral temperature came back as slightly below nominal but not dangerously so. The heated hexapod and time had restored him well. She examined his hands, feet, face for signs of frost bite, but found none. She instructed the nurse to cover him in blankets and administer intravenous saline to rehydrate him. He would be fine.
She checked in with the other hikers in their examination rooms, gave them the good news, and checked each of them for signs of injury, dehydration, and frost bite. The other hikers all came back with a clean bill of health. No signs of frostbite, and they’d rehydrated in the hexapods. She cleared them to leave with Beowulf when they were ready. When they gathered in the waiting area, the giant dryad emerged from the wall and greeted them. They jumped when he emerged. Greta remembered the first time she’d seen the dryad do his entrance trick, and smiled. Beowulf spoke to them cheerfully and motioned toward the elevator, they left to whatever quarters the Harkens had assigned them.
Corey didn’t like their chances against this dryad if things got dicey. They’d been briefed on the giant’s strength, his ability to summon powerful monsters, and his ability to see everything they were doing at all times. While inside the tree, they would never be able to drop character until the mission was complete. He had come to trust the others, but Gary really was prone to emotional outbursts at times even though that bit out in the park had been faked. The whole being lost hikers running away from the Swarm remnants that needed to be saved had been a fake out, intended to attract the tree’s attention and lend credence to their cover story. They were the Sons of the Swarm, here to shatter the false peace the residents of the tree were enjoying. They had until noon on the day after tomorrow to get into position.
They had cleared their mission’s biggest unknowns and been admitted into the tree as guests. The leader of the Sons had warned them of all of the ways they could accidentally reveal that something was wrong during that crucial part of the mission, and he’d instructed Corey to handle one of the most important tasks. The leader had given him a small device which he’d described as a special sort of radio. It was the result of tireless research into their enemy and it sent some very basic commands to Swarm remnants, causing them to follow whomever held the radio, but not to approach any closer than thirty feet. That had been how they’d staged the fake escape from the Swarm. They had really been safe the whole time. His task had been to drop the radio and stomp on it before they were rescued, but not until the Swarm remnants had been brought under control by the tree. He’d apparently done this sneakily enough to avoid detection. It hadn’t been hard, he just dropped it and then jogged is legs in position like he was trying to keep warm.
The rest of the mission was much simpler. Before they’d left, they’d all been put under and had had weapons surgically implanted with special implements through the mouth or colon so as to avoid leaving any tell tale marks on the skin. These weapons each had a timer and would detonate at the appointed time in just under two days. Their mission was to avoid detection and find a way to be with as many residents of the tree as possible when that happened as well as to be as far from each other as possible to maximize damage. Their leader has suggested finding large communal meals to be a part of.
The dryad had lead them to a set of large comfortable looking lodgings on another level. It felt like a long way up from the length of the elevator ride. There was a small foyer, which split off into hallways to a TV room, a kitchen/dining area, and a hall with five bedrooms, each with a private bath. These were some posh accommodations, at least. The men split off to get cleaned up and prepare some dinner. Corey stayed back with Beowulf in the foyer. “Nice place.” He said.
“Thank you.” The wooden giant smiled at him. “If you need anything, just give me a call. I’ll come and get you around 8 am tomorrow to meet with the Harkens.”
“How do we use the elevators?” Corey asked. “I mean, if we need to use them unescorted. I didn’t see any controls.”
“They are voice activated. If you know your level number, or even a description of where you want to go, speak it, and I’ll be able to send you where you need to go.”
“Excellent service.” Corey cautiously extended a hand to the dryad. Beowulf took it with his thumb and middle finger, and they awkwardly shook hands. Corey faked a smile to him. “Thank you for you help.”
“Good night.” The dryad stepped back into the elevator and the petal doors spread closed behind him.
Corey went and grabbed one of the two remaining rooms and got cleaned up, then joined the men in the kitchen, already sitting to eat. They had kept mostly silent with a few words exchanged to assist with whatever cooking task they’d been working on. Corey came in and kicked off the fake conversation. “Well, I guess we’re inside of that ‘evil’ tree they talk about on the news. Seems friendly enough to me.”
Gary took the hint first, “Yeah. Free health care, free luxury lodging, and free food. Hard to see the evil in that.” They continued with the bullshit conversation while they ate. They would need to keep it up for the next few days. it went on until they’d eaten and found their ways back to their rooms for the night.
In the morning they got up early, got cleaned up, and ate. At five to eight, the dryad called them from the foyer and they followed him into the elevator. It started up, and arrived in a few seconds. The petals curled up to reveal another, larger foyer. The hikers followed the dryad out and straight down a hall into a large room with a long table. The aroma of coffee filled the room. The Harkens were waiting near the head of the table next to a pot of coffee.
Robert was the first to look up, “Good morning! Please have a seat.” He swept his arm in an arc above the table. “Would anyone like some coffee? Have you eaten?”
Not surprisingly, the group deferred to Corey. “I’ll take a mug. We ate this morning already, all vegetarian though. What’s with that?”
“Ha. I once felt your pain. The tree produces only vegetarian food. Our meat has to be imported. Luckily I’ve still got some left in my stock pile from before the government closed the park. I think we can bring out some bacon and sausage.” He walked back towards a door which lead to the kitchen and opened it a crack. “Woody! Bacon, sausage, and pancakes for five please.”
“Thank you for sharing the good stuff. An all vegetarian diet could take some getting used to.” Corey said smoothly when Robert had returned to the head of the table.
“Right.” Kate began, pulling out her chair and settling herself. “That’s why we’ve called you here. We need to know what circumstances have brought you to us, and whether you plan to stay.”
Gary took the lead on the story. “This is going to sound stupid, but… I suppose it sort of is. It was supposed to be fun. Listen. A couple of years ago, Corey wanted to marry his girlfriend of seven years, Stephanie, and she was in to all of the hiking and climbing that he was into. So he planned this big thing for his proposal to her. He climbed up into the Beartooths and planted a Geo-cache with a ring in it. He would take her with him to retrieve it, and then propose when she opened it to find the ring. After he set the thing, but before he could ask her to go, he found out she was cheating on him. It was a huge breakup. Screwed up our whole group of friends as people took sides. In the chaos the ring was forgotten. Now, Corey’s found himself a new girl that’s not into the climbing and hiking, and we figured that we’d all come up here and help him get the ring back so he can propose to her with it. It was just supposed to be about setting things right. The whole trip has cost us more than the price for a new ring, and now we’re stuck on the wrong side of a government blockade. We had made camp after searching for it, and in the morning, those bugs came. Luckily Neil spotted them and we were able to get out of there before they were on top of us.” Robert and Kate had listened intently throughout the explanation.
“Well, did you find it?” Robert asked.
“No, It must have been buried in a rockfall or something during the earthquakes.” Corey said, trying to sound dejected.
“You silly boys. Does anyone know you were up there?” Kate asked.
“No, We kept it a secret, planned the whole thing using code names because it involved sneaking into the park. I mean, people know we’ve gone hiking, they just think it’s in the Crazy mountains.” Corey explained.
“Crazy ring retrieval trip, eh?” Robert said, then raised his eyebrows in surprise at himself. “I guess that’s just crazy enough for me to believe. With that out of our way, there’s the question of whether or not you’ll be staying with us. We can shelter you here, you can turn yourself in at one of the blockades, or, I suppose you could still try to sneak out.”
“We need to wait for Adam to recover for sure.” Corey said.
“Oh, you’re friend is fine. He’ll be joining us shortly.” Kate said.
“OK.” Corey started. “I don’t think any of us is keen to turn ourselves in to the guard after trespassing in the park. At the same time, we just can’t leave our lives behind, and I’ve got to get back to Lynn. So I think we’ll want to try to sneak out again.” Adam had walked into the room and when Corey had finished he greeted them, and sat down. An animated wooden statue of a butler brought out the food and they dropped the conversation for a while to eat and fill Adam in. It must be Woody, Corey thought. When they’d finished, Robert returned the conversation to business.
“If leaving is your decision, then we can have supplies ready for you tomorrow. Just fill Beowulf in on anything you need. We’ll even loan you a hexapod to take you back to the mountains. We don’t want to risk taking you much further in as we don’t want to spark an incident with the soldiers.”
“Hold on.” The one named Bill said. “This is kind of a once in a lifetime situation. I’m something of a journalist, and, since I’m here, I think I want to stay and find out more about you.”
“Who do you write for?” Kate asked.
“He does entertainment news for a Minneapolis news blog.” Corey said annoyed. “I’ve got to get back to Lynn, man.”
“Listen, we’ll still go back, but let’s stay for a few days, while I do some research. This could be a huge story. Think of it. Behind the Barricades, inside the tree under siege. It’d be huge for my career.” Bill said. “Besides, we’re all stuck here because of your crazy ring idea. Let me try to benefit from this. You owe me.”
“Yeah, okay.” Corey conceded. “I guess you’ve got a point there.” He looked back at Robert. “Can we stay a few days, while Bill does his thing.”
“We’d be happy to have you.” Robert said. “Some good press wouldn’t hurt us either, we’ll show you guys around.”
“That would be incredible.” Bill said. “I want to meet everyone.”
“What about the rest of you?” Kate asked.
They looked at each other and each nodded after a moment’s deliberation. “We might as well come along. Make sure Bill gets his facts straight.” Corey said.
“Well all right then. We’ll show you around and introduce you to everyone.” Robert said cordially with a smile. It was obvious to Corey that they’d won them over. If everyone in the tree was going to be this easy, this would be a cake walk.
The Harkens first took them down to see Harkenston. The elevator opened into a large square space. The ground was covered in grass, or perhaps because there was no sunlight, some type of turf. Corey bent down to feel it with his hand. It felt like grass. Paths of wooden flooring carved through the grass in loops around the support columns with the elevators and then in a larger loop around the hall. In the center of the park like space was a soccer field, some kids were playing on it now as their parents watched from surrounding benches. Overhead, the space was illuminated by large bud like structures that glowed brightly. The whole space felt like it was outdoors.
“This is the central park area.” Kate explained. “It’s here to provide the residents with a feeling like they are outdoors even when they can’t leave the tree.” She led them along a branch walkway off the main loop towards the exterior of the tree. “These doors ahead will take us into one of the residential areas. They are separated into four blocks, one in each cardinal direction.” The heavy doors were propped open and they could see into the hallway beyond.
Kate lead them through and they saw rows of doors broken only by branching hallways. Each hallway had been assigned a street name that was displayed on signs at each intersection. The hallway they were looking down was named North Ave. “These are the residences, each door leads to a separate family living space. Let’s see if the mayor is home, now.” She lead them down the hallway until they reached a door that had a sign added to it which simply read, Mayor. Kate knocked politely.
“Come on in.” They heard the muffled voice of a woman through the door. Kate turned the knob and held the door open as they filed into the living room. It was not a huge room and the seven of them crowded the space. There was a sofa and a few chairs offering seating for five. A woman stepped into the room from the single hallway holding a towel. “Oh, Mr. and Mrs. Harken, hello, I wasn’t expecting you.” She looked put out.
“I know, I’m sorry, Barbara.” Kate explained quickly. “We’ve got some visitors to the tree and are looking for your husband to introduce him.”
“He’s coaching the basketball team in Northwest 4. He’ll be back in an hour or so, and if you stay that long I’ll have some cookies to offer you.” Barbara said.
“Oh, thank you, Barbara, but we’re giving a tour as well, we’ll show our visitors the rec rooms when we meet your husband.” Kate said. “Thank you. Let’s head back out guys.” She said motioning them towards the door.
“Goodbye, then.” Barbara said from behind them. Out in the hallway Kate lead them West down one of the branching hallways. At the end it ran into a perpendicular hall which had only five doors along its entire length.
“These lead to the recreation/general purpose rooms.” Kate explained leading them towards the door labeled with a giant number four. “Each community in the tree can decide for themselves how to use each of these spaces. The whole Northwest and Southeast corners of this level are full of these rec rooms.” She pulled open the door and they could immediately hear the sound of squeaking shoes and bouncing basketballs. She motioned for the hikers and Robert to enter, and then followed behind.
There was a full basketball court and younger kids were lined up in front of one of the hoops, taking turns shooting layups, and the teens were lined up on the other side practicing a more complicated rebound recovery and then layup drill. The coach would overthrow a basketball at the backboard and the player needed to recover the ball make a move and then dribble up and shoot. After completing his shot, one player pointed them out to the coach and he turned to them and waved then walked over after passing the next ball to the player. They continued the drill without him.
The man strode over to them, and held his hand out to Robert. “Mr. Harken.” Then to Kate, “Mrs. Harken.” Then he appraised the five hikers. “Who might these young men be?”
“Mayor Conrad.” Kate said. “These men are hikers that came to visit us for a few days. They want to get to know more about the tree for the press. This is Bill, the reporter, Corey, Neil, Gary, and Adam.”
“Hello to you all. I’m Chip Conrad, Mayor of Harkenston. You came to find out about the tree? Well I could talk your ears off about life in the tree. We have everything we need here all thanks to Beowulf.”
“Is it true that Beowulf can see everything going on in the tree?” Bill asked. “I remember hearing a story about that shortly before the government opened the park’s doors to the public a year or so ago.”
“He can. It takes some getting used to the thought that you’re always being watched. If you know what I mean. But after a while, you get used to it. Beowulf doesn’t tell tales about anything done in private, unless he thinks its criminal, in which case, he’ll show up and tell you to knock it off. That’s why we’ve got no crime here. Beowulf almost always puts a stop to things before they start, and even when he doesn’t, he’ll break it up before anyone gets hurt.”
“So its a good thing then?” Bill asked, skeptically. “What does he think is criminal? If someone has anti-arboreal ideas and starts talking about them, what happens to him?”
“Its definitely a good thing.” The Mayor said. “He watches for stealing, crimes of passion and anger, tries to stop revenge plans, that sort of thing. As for talking against the tree, honestly I’d be more likely to say something to you about that than Beowulf would. Talk like that is what made the outsiders kill all those people last year. A lot of us here in the tree don’t appreciate that sort of sentiment.”
“Are you sure you’re not just saying that because you’re being watched all the time?” Bill asked. Jesus Bill! Corey thought. Don’t piss the guy off.
Corey stepped up before the Mayor could respond. “I think he’s said his piece about freedom of speech here in the tree, Bill. These are normal people, with strong beliefs. If you say things they don’t like, they’ll let you know it. There’s nothing sinister about it.” The Mayor visibly relaxed.
“Now, there’s a young man with some sense. Corey was it?” The Mayor offered his hand, and Corey shook it.
“You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, son. If you were one of us, I’d be watching out for you in future Mayoral elections.” The Mayor said.
Robert had stepped over and stood next to the Mayor, looking concerned at Bill’s line of questioning. “Bill, I understand you don’t necessarily want to do a puff piece, but I’ll ask you to refrain from asking questions that the residents will find offensive. Steer clear of asking them the same question twice, even if it’s in different words, don’t phrase questions in a way which makes someone look stupid if they don’t answer the way you want. Think journalism, not Dr. Phil.”
Bill looked annoyed but nodded his consent. “Sorry if I offended you, Mr. Mayor.”
The Mayor smiled good naturedly, “Bygones. You’re all welcome here in Harkenston anytime. Now, if you excuse me, we’ve got to change drills.” He looked at Robert.
“Yes, thank you for your time Mayor.” Robert said to him, then turned back to the hikers. “Let’s leave the Mayor to his coaching.” He motioned for them to head back out the door into the hallway.
“Would you like to see where Beowulf grows the food?” Kate asked, less cheerfully and more businesslike. Bill had pushed it to far, and they’d lost the innocent appearance that they’d had before. They nodded and she led them back east down a hallway. “In the Northeast and Southwest corners of each level, there are fields and orchards in which Beowulf generates all of the food that the population needs from corn to carrots.”
“Is it like Star Trek’s replicators?” Adam asked.
“No, nothing like that.” She started to explain as they walked. “Each fruit, plant, or vegetable is really one of Beowulf’s cells that has been customized to copy the appearance, taste, and nutrients of the real thing. They grow quickly, as fast as overnight. So you can harvest all of the wheat one day, and it’ll all be back the next. The food never rots on the vine either, so it has become a harvest when needed system so the fields are almost like grocery stores.”
“So it’s not real food then? Kind of like GMO?” Adam asked, worried.
“Sort of, but it’s completely safe.” Kate said. “We’ve been eating the food everyday for years with no ill effects.” They had reached the other end of the hall which terminated in a wall with more large propped open double doors. Through them they could see a Willy Wonka like farm/garden/orchard with a staggering variety of plants growing within, each one a different food. Kate lead them in and retrieved a convenience cart from a row of them just inside the door. “Well, what would you like for lunch?” She asked.
“All veg again? How about some of those giant mushroom burgers with a side of sweet potato fries?” Corey suggested and received general agreement from the group.
“No problem.” Kate said and lead them around as they wondered at and fiddled with the plants. They came to a hallway with walls made of soil from which grew mushrooms of every size. She grabbed a bunch of the large ones. Then she found them some tomatoes, lettuce, and yellow onion. She lead them to a field of plants which when uprooted revealed large sweet potatoes. Finally she took them to the grain and soybean areas. “These crops of wheat, oats, rice, and soybeans require a tedious amount of extra work to make them usable in the way the residents are accustomed to, so Beowulf has set up processing centers run by drones. This gives us the flour and vegetable oil that we’re used to.” She lead them over to a barn like enclosure, inside were various processing machines being monitored by what looked like a wooden farmer. On the wall, were sacks of rice, rolled oats, flour and bottles of oil. She took a sack of flour and a bottle of oil. “Alright, guys, let’s head back upstairs and give this to Woody, he’ll take care of the cooking for us.”
“I know I’m hungry, already.” Robert agreed. She steered the cart back out into the hall and through the park to the elevators.
They sat in the Harkens’ living room chatting and watching TV until Woody completed their meal. Robert had to admit that the mushroom burgers could make a good substitute for the real thing if he ran out of meat again. He hoped that Bill guy would take the message and go easier with the questions. If he didn’t, these hikers could end up antagonizing everyone which could lead to a worse story when they hiked their way back to civilization. After lunch, they split up, and Robert went down to the command center to meet Rigby while Kate took the Hiker’s down to NewHome.
Robert filled Rigby in on the hikers’ situation and then followed up on the dronents sent out to find their campsite. It was just as they’d described, the Swarm remnants had raided the place, and there was no evidence contrary to their story. Satisfied, he rejoined Kate and the hikers on the tour.
Showing the hikers around the tree and trying to make a good impression on Bill was the most exciting thing going on at the tree for the rest of the day. They made it through Wolvestown, the Commune, the Guardian’s of the Hive, the University, and back to Rochester Memorial, where they’d started. They saw every public level, met everyone, and got the most complete picture of the tree that any outsider had ever had.
The next morning, Corey announced that they had decided that they would like to set off in the afternoon. It seemed strange to Robert, to start so late in the date on a long hike, but they knew more about it then him. They had finished breakfast with the Harkens, when the reporter, Bill stood up.
“I think I’ve got enough to write the story that’ll make my career and give my friends here at least some big interviews, if they’d like.” He said. “Thank you so much for your hospitality and tolerance of my questioning. But I was wondering, if you couldn’t ask everyone to have a big send off lunch party with us in the reception hall. I’d like to say my goodbyes, and it’ll be a nice bow to tie my story up with.”
“We’ll ask. Everyone here likes an excuse to party and get together, and I’ll bust out some barbecue for the occasion which’ll be sure to attract even more.” Robert grinned. “If you don’t mind, we’ve prepared a few gifts for you, which we’ll give you at the party.”
“Gifts? Oh, surely you’ve done enough for us?” Corey replied.
“I couldn’t resist.” Robert said. He had asked Beowulf to prepare a diamond ring to replace the one Corey had lost in the mountains. Now that would be a finishing touch to their story!
The impromptu party got a good turnout, maybe a quarter of Robert’s feasts usual attendance. Everyone was chatting or eating. He had a few grills set up and was grilling with the Mayors. A hole had appeared in the ceiling of the reception hall far above them to suck the smoke out. The hiker’s were wandering through the party goers, sometimes stopping to talk. Chip Conrad, turned his shoulders from his grill to look at Robert.
“This’ll be a hell of a send off for them, don’t you think? I can’t wait to hear about this on the news instead of all that BS.” He said loudly over the din.
“You got that right.” Robert yelled back. “It’s also a damn good excuse for a barbecue.” Was what he’d meant to say. What actually happened is the whole party went to hell as soon as he’d gotten the word ‘damn’ out. There were two explosions, from in front of him and from his flank. He felt the pressure waves pass through him, and it left his ears burning with pain and useless. He tried to turn his head towards the blast and almost lost balance, the quick motion somehow made him feel as though he were falling. His view of the blast was obstructed by fleeing party goers.
Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a massive blur of movement and turned to look. He saw logs shooting up from the floor in a circle with some people within. The logs sealed off the area quickly. What the hell was Beowulf doing? Deaf Robert started to form some words for the dryad when he was knocked over by a pair of fleeing people that were not concerned about grills, Mayors, or him. They were flailing at themselves as they ran. After they’d past, Robert tried to get up. He felt a terrible burning on his cheek and shoulder where one of the runners had hit him. Beowulf appeared above him and braced Robert’s back with his right hand, then looked into Roberts eyes as raised his left hand.
Beowulf’s mouth moved like he was saying something important but Robert still couldn’t hear a word. Then the dryad’s hand darted forward twice leaving explosions of pain on Robert’s face and shoulder. He saw some pieces of red in Beowulf’s hand, and the dryad crushed them and mashed them into the floor. He scooped up Robert and took him to an elevator. He set Robert down in it, and went back to the party. The flower petals closed the door behind him and the lift started up, stopping at the entrance to Rochester Memorial. Robert managed to get to his feet and walk to the desk, where an orderly intercepted and called for the doctor.
He was deaf, but he tried to form the familiar sounds of words without the usual feedback. He told them to send people downstairs. There were injured. Where was Kate? He wondered. Was she all right? The doctor pulled him down the hall to an operating room. He tried to explain that he had to go find Kate. Dr. Wilson showed up and tried to say something to him. The other doctor stopped her and explained something to her. Dr. Wilson came and looked him over as he struggled and yelled at the orderlies. She went and got something. It was a mirror, she held it up to his face. Through the blood he saw his cheek was gone. It’d been torn off his face, and he could see the teeth behind. He looked down at his shoulder and saw the skin was missing there as well. He stopped struggling, and the doctors gave him a shot of something which put him under.
Kate was down in the command center going over the attack with Beowulf. She’d been in to see Robert, but he was still unconscious and the doctors refused to let her in as they operated. So she had returned to the scene to help direct clean up. Beowulf was moving the bodies himself with the help of a few other drones because of the mites. They had done the most damage. The bodies were taken outside and burned communally. The death toll was 300+ including Chip Conrad, who had succumbed to the mites.
She had been on the far side of the nerve gas hiker, close enough to see, but not close enough to be dead. It had been the reporter, Bill. One moment he was talking to someone, the next the explosions hit and he fell to his knees. At first it’d seemed a reaction to the explosions but then thick white gas started to spray out of his mouth. The people around him started falling over, and someone shouted “Gas!” Chaos ensued. Beowulf had raised a wall around the reporter to contain the bulk of the gas, but they’d all probably had some degree of exposure.
As she reviewed Beowulf’s footage from the event she saw that the explosions had come from two of the hikers. Practically vaporizing their flesh and sending chunks of rib bone shooting out into the gathered party goers like shrapnel from grenades. The blasts killed the nearby residents instantly, and others died or were badly injured by bone shrapnel.
All the attacks happened exactly at noon. The other two hikers had started spewing swarm when the time came. One of them the normal kind of bugs that they were used to and the other a black cloud of these new mites, which clung to all the nearby residents and started to eat into them. They were spread by contact. If someone infected touched someone else, the mites would be transferred and it had been a death sentence for each and every one of them except Robert, who’s infected face and shoulder had been torn off to prevent their spread. Blessedly the mites weren’t able to penetrate the tough skin of Beowulf’s logs or they’d surely all be dead.
She kept looking back at the faces of each hiker just before the weapons detonated, looking for some signs. The one named Gary, who had exploded had checked his watch a few times and seemed nervous. But the one named Corey had looked down at his watch at 11:59 am and looked up and smiled. A minute later he was spewing the mites into the air. She went further back and check their faces as they showed them around the tree and talked.
She felt a hand on her shoulder, a huge one. “There was no sign. Believe me, I was watching.” The dryad said.
“I can’t believe the whole thing was an act.” She said, her voice breaking.
“You have to believe it.” He said, changing the screen to a news station with a wave of his hand. “Because it’s not over yet.”
“…had reports that there were five hikers lost in the Beartooth mountains, and today, the government is releasing satellite images indicating that the hikers were chased out of the mountains by Swarm remnants and then carried into the tree. Possibly against their will.” The serious reporter droned on. “The outraged families of the hikers are demanding that the tree return the hikers to one of the National Guard checkpoints around the park immediately. The White House has released a statement saying that continued holding of the hikers by the tree will not be tolerated by this or the coming administration.”
“Enough.” Kate said, and the screen turned off. “I see. Try and contact Rigby.” After a moment the man appeared on screen, looking a little rushed.
“Kate. Beowulf let us know what was happening. Are you OK?” He asked.
“I’m fine, but Robert’s in surgery. He got hit with their new weapon, but he’s in stable condition.” She said.
“That’s good. It was a hell of an attack plan. I’m glad you two made it out at all.”
“We made it through this part of the attack, but have you heard the news?”
“Yes, I was just listening. This could be our Gulf of Tonkin incident. The tipping point that moves this from sanctions and posturing to all out war.”
“Can we stop it?” She asked.
“We can try.” A little bitterness crept into Rigby’s voice. “We could release the full footage of the hikers’ rescue, their stay in the tree, and finally the attacks. But, I know what they’ll say. They’ll say we put the weapons in the hikers somehow, in the food maybe, and that’s if we can release them at all. Private companies like Youtube now have a real reason to deny us service, so we’d be forced to try to get it in the hands of reporters who would then have to take the risk of bringing our side of the story out. We should try and do that, but it’s probably not going to put this to bed.”
“So it could really be war then?”
“That’s the way things are heading.” He paused. “Can you tell us about this new weapon?” Kate explained the new Swarm mites and their devastating effect. Beowulf described the problems with fighting them.
“They are a tiny version of the normal swarm bug, nearly the size of a dust mite. They can be spread in the air or by contact and they immediately begin reproducing when they come into contact with human flesh. Consuming it and moving ever deeper. The incident today left me unsatisfied with my ability to fight these things. I’d like to create a specialized medical drone to take them on and perhaps provide other forms of more delicate emergency care. It’ll be a machine that has hundreds of fine, highly actuated needles which can follow the mites into the flesh and eliminate them with minimal damage to the afflicted. I’ve already got the design worked out. I’ll send the plans to Siren.”
They signed off and Kate went to see Robert. Dr. Greta Wilson had performed graft and reconstruction operations and he was awake but heavily medicated and bandaged. The bandages would need to stay on until the grafts took, and started to regrow, which could be weeks. All the while they would have to fight infection, and keep the graft areas as immobilized as possible.. He couldn’t speak but his eyes followed her when she came into the room. She sat beside him and took his hand. Tears formed in his eyes, and soon in hers. She struggled to regain her composure and then brought him up to speed on everything she’d learned about the attack and about what was going on in the news. Then they set up a temporary system of communication by blinking once for yes and two for no. Late in the evening he fell asleep and she went to bed herself. It had been a long time since she’d last slept alone.
World Demand for Nuts
“One of the test trees, Birch, has been saying some troubling things. I’ve decided to create a system which can monitor the trees more closely. I’ve discovered the perfect way to do it, taking advantage of a quirk in the structures of the minds of these creatures. I should be able to make special one which can monitor the others. It’ll need to be much more heavily restricted, though, both in form and function.” – Joshua Harken
Black/Atwood wished he could see the damage done by the detonation of his pawns’ weapons within the tree. He wished he could watch the suffering of the injured and anguished cries of the mourning. But, one of the drawbacks of his plans had been that he wouldn’t necessarily ever know what damage they’d caused. He could only see the results of the secondary attack on the tree’s reputation which was demanding the safe return of the men he knew were dead. He supposed that would be enough to satisfy him.
He and his thralls had moved into the White House a few days ago and his Inauguration ceremony was today on January 21st. As planned, his old home had exploded under suspicious circumstances after he’d received numerous threats from people claiming to be tree sympathizers but were actually his own Sons of the Swarm men. No one would discover his secret thrall preservation facility, and it fueled the growing rage against Beowulf.
He had plenty of material to choose from for his Inauguration speech, so he wouldn’t have to resort to setting domestic or foreign policy goals. Instead he’d talk about the attack on his former home, the lost hikers, and the past crimes of the trees, and then he’d describe his military goals for subjugating it. It would be a waste of time for him to discuss domestic policy anyway, because once the tree was his, he would consume this pitiful nation.
He was in his bedroom putting on his suit for the ceremony, and his thrall wife sat on the bed behind him staring blankly at the wall. When he was ready he would head over to his office and await the outgoing president for their scheduled departure. In accordance with tradition he’d have to march down to the Capitol Building with the man, give the oath at noon, and then he could make his address, followed by a lunch at the Capitol. He’d requested some personal touches for his ceremony. He would swear the oath upon a bible recovered from a Swarm destroyed church in Albert Lea. Rather than the chief Justice of the Supreme Court administering the oath, it would be a trio made up of two high ranking generals and an admiral. The whole ceremony would be laced with symbols of war and revenge. There would be no mistaking him for anything but a wartime president.
Kate sat down in the command center with Beowulf waiting for the inauguration ceremony to begin. Rigby was connected live with them and would listen along with them as they watched. Robert had requested that the ceremony be played on a screen in his room but he was still a week or so away from being able to speak or leave hospitalization. Kate had had many other duties to attend to, but had spent every evening with him filling him in on the goings on in the tree, sometimes requesting simple advice from him via their blinking communication system to keep him engaged. He was heavily medicated for the pain, and Dr. Wilson said that the pain commonly lasted for months even after the new skin had closed.
The day after the attack she had made the rounds in the tree and gathered it’s communities leaders together to share with them the full details of the attack. She and Beowulf had edited the footage of the hikers’ rescue, their tour, and the attack down to a half hour video including narration by Beowulf. She showed this to the gathered leaders and asked them to hold group viewings of the movie in their respective communities. This was important because people might eventually start to think that the attack could have been prevented somehow, so they needed to show them just how perfectly it’d been carried out. There was still some risk of criticism. Wasn’t Bill’s line of questioning to Mayor Conrad a clue? What about Corey’s initial wariness of the dryad? These were not reasonable signs that a massive terrorist attack was imminent, but not everyone would be wise enough to see that. Still, it would help to keep the people from forming more creative conspiracy theories because the Harkens had spent a lot of time with the hikers.
The ceremony began with the outgoing president and Atwood making their appearance outside of the White House and parading to the Capitol through fenced off spectators. The outgoing president said a few words and Atwood took the oath of office. The news commentators made sure to point out the changes he’d made to the ceremony including the Albert Lea bible and the tribunal of officers. He began his speech:
“The Enemy, America, lies within our very borders and continues to be a threat to our peace and our lives. Never before, has this been clearer to me, then when my own home was destroyed with explosives. If not for a last minute change of plans that attack by tree sympathizers would have ended our lives and would have been a great victory for The Enemy. The incident with the hikers, five young men in their primes captured by the tree and being held without explanation or demands, makes me grateful to my predecessor for his wise closing and quarantine of Yellowstone Park. Who knows how many have been saved by his decisive action. But it is no longer enough, to just try to contain the menace posed by The Enemy. No. You elected me to protect and fight for you and that is exactly what my presidency will be about. To accomplish this, my first act as president is to announce the formation of two new Army divisions the 1st Special Airborne division and the 1st Special Armored division and one new Air Force squadron. These brave men and women, armed with the most advanced technology we’ve put into the field to date, will be our guardians against the The Enemy and will systematically clean up the Swarm remnants still running wild in the Midwest. For my second act as president I am calling for the Congress to make an official declaration war against The Enemy to free us to go on the offensive. We cannot afford to sit and wait around for The Enemy to strike at us. No. Down that path lies pain and defeat. We must bring the fight to them. My fellow patriots and warriors, today we take the first steps on the path to victory.”
There was a long and thunderous applause, then the news commentators chimed in repeating key notes from Atwood’s speech. It’ll be war then, Kate thought. She thought of Robert and felt a flash of anger. Robert had ordered Beowulf to take no hostile action against the US years ago, and for a moment Kate wished he hadn’t. Then she could have ordered him to fire a few of the snatch and grab spider mantis drones they’d developed to hunt Reed, and put an end to this Atwood. But that probably wouldn’t solve their problem, unless they could figure out a way to massively discredit him at the same time, and she didn’t know of any way that they could.
“It’s war on us for sure, Rigby, but you and Siren weren’t specifically mentioned, and he didn’t announce the re-tasking of a carrier group.” She spoke to the screen.
“War on you is war on us, one way or another. We’ve been discussing ways in which Siren could assist Beowulf if you were ever under attack. Unfortunately, the ballistic method is not available to us, but she has come up with a rocket delivery system which can deliver reinforcements to you within three or four hours. She’s already begun a small stockpile in the event that day ever comes.” Rigby’s voice answered from the room around her.
“I hate that it’s come to this. We didn’t want war with anyone, never wanted any more power.” It was time to talk seriously. “Do you think we’re going to have to defeat and subjugate the United States, at least temporarily?”
It took a while for Rigby to respond. “That depends on them. With what we know of their technology, they can’t do much of anything to harm Beowulf. If that remains true, than you can hunker down for years if need be, until the war cools and perhaps eventually, is forgotten. If, however, they devise a means to harm Beowulf, then we’d have to go on the offensive… or let Beowulf die.”
“That’s not an option.” Kate said flatly.
“I feel the same. Do you agree Beowulf?”
“Of course. This Atwood is clearly a warmonger. Sacrificing myself would not end this war.” The dryad said.
“Then, Beowulf” Kate began. “We should be prepared to wage a war on the US in the event that their weapons become harmful to you. You should have troops on the ready if that happens, because we’ll need to counter attack as quickly as possible. Can you get on that?”
“Yes, but I’ll still need the order from Robert to actually carry out the attack.”
“Greta says he’ll be able to speak soon.” She said.
“Perhaps I can see if we can obtain allies.” Rigby jumped in at the pause. “I’ve been monitoring the world news and many nations are critical of Atwood’s war. They were much more in favor of Stern’s ideas or even letting the tree’s be. Some have gone so far as to say that the remaining nuts should be planted, and many countries have opinions as to where those plantings should be made. I can reach out to them, and perhaps ask for aid in the fight, or at least ask them to pressure Atwood to end the war so that the remaining nuts can be planted peacefully.”
This was all news to Kate. She and Robert had been focused on issues within the US. “They want our nuts, eh? You’re right about one thing. If Atwood gets what he wants, none of those nuts will ever leave the US. I think it’s worth a shot, but I doubt any of them will really stick their necks out in support of Beowulf. Maybe you should send them the footage of the hikers’ attack as well. The US news may not be willing to take it, but many foreign news companies won’t mind at all.”
“That could be a good way to make contacts. Send them the video and mention that we’d like to discuss the fate of the nuts with world leaders. That could get word to the right ears, we’ll start that tonight.” Rigby said.
“OK, if that’s all, I’ll speak to you tomorrow.” Kate said.
“Right. Signing off.” Rigby responded.
Trying to get the rest of the world on Beowulf’s side was one of the few moves they had left to play. Kate knew it wouldn’t be much help in the near term, though. The US has always been notoriously uncaring about international opinions regarding its policies, and since this was an internal problem, they’d care even less. Still, it would help to keep history from forgetting the truth about the matter. As long as someone out there was still listening to them, there was hope that there could be peace.
After the meeting, Rigby worked with Siren to compose an email and to identify the best recipients in international news agencies. They included Kate and Beowulf’s hiker footage, and attempted to set the story straight on the situation with Beowulf. Finally, they mentioned the remaining three nuts. Saying that letting things of such power fall into a man like Atwood’s hands would be a foolish waste. The nuts should go where they are needed to provide seismic stability in earthquake prone areas, and/or shelter in impoverished or war torn lands. They sent the message out en masse and it made top story in papers, blogs, and broadcasts around the world. That night there was an outpouring of international criticism for Atwood’s warmongering.
The next morning Siren detected a large submarine twenty miles west of her. It approached to within ten miles and then stopped. While still submerged, and hidden from the sky, the submarine began launching missiles, twenty of them, towards open waters back in the direction from which it had come. The missiles exploded in the sky and at the water’s surface harmlessly. The submarine then submerged and retreated out of Siren’s range. Soon after the odd display, the US released an official story that they had detected missiles fired in the vicinity of Siren and speculated that the tree was doing long range missile testing. They speculated that the mostly underwater tree would be unable to use the ballistic system used by Beowulf, and was therefore developing its own missile system. The explanation was absolutely correct, but the actions they’d been accused of were a complete set up. The world news ate it up, though, and the criticism of Atwood lost the wind in it’s sails. The statement from the White House said that the missile demonstration and yesterday’s release of the hiker footage were just posturing and anti-US propaganda. They said that upon forensic analysis of the video tapes, the footage showed signs of being manipulated. For one thing, there was no sign of any sort of lens aberration, which always occurs to some degree in real footage. It was almost as if every image had been computer generated, they said. This was partially true, of course. The trees do not use camera obscura eyes, but rather parse images out of the entire hodgepodge of incident light on their skin. Thus, the images that they display for human viewing were always, in fact, heavily processed.
By noon, the US company that supplied Siren with satellite internet service had closed her account and revoked access. They were cut off. Rigby visited the oceanographers and inquired into whether there might be Russian or Chinese alternatives for internet service but they claimed not to be familiar with any. Even if there were, they would probably make use of shared satellites that they shared with US companies, an arrangement that they wouldn’t want to risk by providing aid to the trees. While he was there the oceanographers announced that they had been recalled by their respective institutions for safety reasons. Their old research boat would be coming by to retrieve them in a few days.
The bad news kept coming. Coral was arrested by police on America Samoa and was escorted back to her boat, with a stern warning not to return to the island. The other emissaries received ear fulls from official’s of the other island nations, mostly threats that if the hostile actions like the missile testing didn’t stop, then they would no longer be welcome. Rigby couldn’t blame the islanders. They were not equipped to be involved in any sort of war, and some of their peoples’ had enjoyed prosperous times when the US had operated military bases on their islands. He considered showering them with gold, and buying their loyalty, but decided that that was a move to be reserved for when open war came. Like the Harkens and Beowulf, he would hold off on any hostile action until they were under attack with weapons that could actually hurt them.
In a single day, they’d been transformed from a peaceful refuge to a belligerent nation with a powerful enemy. There was hope, though. The world would want the remaining nuts. It would be harder to establish contact now, but Siren was able to send out emissaries. Rigby asked her to begin fabricating long range emissary transport submarines and new emissaries to Japan, Iceland, Chile, Peru, Italy, and Russia specifically to discuss the fate of the remaining nuts. She had them completed and en route within a week, just before the US navy carrier group arrived and began circling the seas around Siren. They didn’t seem to just be passing through. Rigby ordered their previously established emissaries to remain in their respective countries until further notice to avoid capture.
Black/Atwood was not at amused by the release of the footage of the hikers from the tree. It had been a personal insult, an outright attack on his credibility and he had responded in kind. Unfortunately, this Siren and Rigby had pointed out the issue of the remaining three nuts to the rest of the world, and the world had started to ask: What would happen to them if Atwood got his way? Russia’s current leader had already denounced Atwood. Saying that it would be selfish and wasteful for the US to keep all of the nuts for itself. Other nations with active volcanoes were less aggressive but had still begun to ask questions. Japan and Italy had sent private inquiries into the matter. Atwood needed a way to get them on his side until he had defeated the trees. He did have a big advantage in this because he wouldn’t need to worry about making good on any promise he made after the trees were dead. He decided to reply to each of the nations privately. Tell them that the ultimate fate of the nuts had not been decided as yet, but that the US wasn’t planning on keeping them. Also, point out that the US had received inquiries from many interested parties around the world. That should be good enough bait to start. It might even start a bidding war, but it wouldn’t be enough to turn these nations against the tree.
Part two of his plan would take care of that. After they’d received his first message and responded, perhaps with offers or requests, he would send out a second message indicating that the only offers that would be considered would be offers to provide military assistance against the trees. Most of these nations weren’t anything like military powerhouses, but the point was to get them to turn against the trees, not to actually get help from them. Russia might be able to promise real aid. Japan, as well, to a lesser extent. Italy and the South American countries might be able to promise soldiers.
Since he had eliminated the tree’s main communications channels, and blockaded and besieged Siren and Beowulf, he expected that the trees wouldn’t be able to undermine his deals with these nations by offering them the nuts on their terms. After all, how would they get the nuts to their clients? He would make sure to point that out in his second letter. He wouldn’t want any of these other nations falling on the wrong side of his war.
There had been some rumors of some kind of diplomats from Siren operating on nearby island nations in the South Pacific. He had sent word to the Governor of American Samoa to take care of any such vermin on his island. The other ones could present a challenge, however. It stood to reason that Siren had some means of communicating with them, which would mean that he’d have to deal with them in order to completely isolate the tree. He resolved to call a meeting with the director of the CIA to see what they could do about capturing or killing them all. He wouldn’t mind interrogating one of them himself.
His own new military units were still in the process of recruiting and assembling. The 1st Special Armored was to be supplied with a specially modified M1 Abrams tank designed to be Swarm Remnant proof and equipped with anti Swarm weaponry. In addition to the standard 120mm main gun, the tank would have a motorized turret, controllable from within, on top. The turret would have both a 0.50 caliber machine gun and a long range napalm spraying weapon. He placed an order for one hundred of these tanks to start with, a rush build job that would line the pockets of the defense contractors.
The 1st Special Airborne was receiving special weaponry, armor, and training as well. The new body armor was designed mainly to be Swarm Remnant resistant, but offered some protection against low powered conventional weapons. It was a suit of hard plastic plate armor with a layer of ultra hard ceramic chain mail beneath and under the chest plating and mail the suit included a Kevlar vest to protect the core from small arms fire. The total weight of the armor system for an average grunt came in at 30 lbs. These soldiers were being trained in the use of flamethrowers to eradicate Swarm and grenade launchers to contain and control the Swarm remnants. In addition to those weapons, some units would be outfitted with a special “sample taker” system which was effectively a large powerful vacuum that could suck up Swarm bugs and contain them in special canisters. These canister would be sent to the 1st SA’s military research facility. Where Atwood was devising something special for them.
The 1st SA would get some heavy vehicle support as well in the form of modified Black Hawk and Apache helicopters. Like the tanks, flamethrowers or flamethrower mounts were being adding to the designs, and Atwood had ordered a large number of both for rush production.
To accommodate these new divisions, Army bases were being constructed at each major entrance into Yellowstone. An additional base was being constructed for military research and Swarm cleanup east of Rapid Falls on I90. The bases were being built near the towns of Livingston, Red Lodge, Cody, Jackson, Dubois, and Gallatin Gateway. To cover the west a base was built next to Henrys Lake.
For his new air force squadron, Atwood had ordered ten each of the latest fighters, F-22A’s and F-35A’s, as well as thirty of the latest Predator drones. He hadn’t commissioned any additional strategic bombing aircraft, but would reassign a pair of Spirits for the job. The Hill Air Force base in Ogden, Utah, where Black had visited just after the nuclear strike on Yellowstone, would be expanded to accommodate the new squadron.
All in all he was gearing up for one hell of a fight. Of course, it wouldn’t go down exactly as he planned with his secretary of Defense and their military advisors. For thing, they were interested in things like keeping the soldiers alive and protecting innocent civilians. Atwood played along with this nonsense, because the plans they were making now wouldn’t really factor into his final assault on Beowulf. He just needed them to move all of the pieces to the right places on the board, then he would take command.
It had been over a month since the attack and Robert’s face had more or less regrown, and he no longer had to stay in the clinic. The skin of his new cheek was still red, and painful. It and the graft on his shoulder would require frequent moisturization as the new skin lacked pores. The skin on his face looked indented and somehow stretched out. Well, it’ll be less to shave, he thought, preparing to do just that as he looked into the bathroom mirror. In the right light, he could probably make his scar look villainous. He’d save that one to try on Kate sometime, maybe combine the lighting effect with a Russian accent. Unfortunately, Halloween would always be an awkward time to meet new people from now on. Is that your costume, they’d ask. Nope, its just my face, he’d say. Oh, God, I’m so sorry, they’d apologize.
Being on painkillers had started to bother him during his stay at the hospital, as Kate would sit and explain everything that was going on in the tree and the world, and he would sometimes have trouble staying focused and remembering. As soon as he could talk, he told the Doc he wouldn’t want any more. He started to regret that decision an hour later as the pain started to gradually ramp up like a gondola up sadist mountain. But he resisted the urge to go back on the painkillers by imagining that there would be some kind of reward for staying off of them. In a way there was. When he got focused on tree business, he could easily ignore the pain, but if he had been on the pills then he would never be able to achieve that level of focus, and thus would be in a constant muted pain.
Finished shaving, he showered and returned to the bedroom to dress. Kate was seated on the bed waiting for her turn to use the bathroom. The first night he’d left the hospital they’d made love, carefully. She told him she’d been lonely with him away, and she’d been extra attentive to him since his return, like she was playing nurse. He didn’t mind at all. It was certainly better than some of the alternatives, like if he’d come home and she’d burst into tears and run off. Or if she had done the whole, ‘I’m putting on a brave face’ shtick, that would have been the worse. Come to think of it, what she’d been doing was perfect. He approached her and held his hands out to her. Still seated on the bed she took them, and he pulled her up and into his arms for a quick hug. After a moment he lifted his head up and pulled it away.
“OK, I’m going to take a shower.” She said.
“Right.” He let her go, and turned and started to walk towards the door, humming. Before leaving the room he started to sing made up lyrics to a made up song. “I’ve got the best wife in the wooorld, honey. ’cause she’s the best wife in the wooorld, baby.” So he wasn’t much of a songwriter, but he bet Kate was still smiling at his back as he left.
They were getting ready for a brunch with the Guardians of the Hive. They had made it a weekly appointment a few months ago. Armand and Beth had good political minds and Robert and Kate liked to bounce ideas off them. They were also excellent cooks, always experimenting with new tastes, textures, and smells especially with their favorite ingredient, honey. Kate had described the brunch as being like eating at a five star tapas restaurant. They would be discussing the ongoing US military buildup and news from Siren’s emissaries.
Kate finished her shower and they headed down to the Guardians’ level. The place had taken on a reverent feel to it over the years. Everyone tread carefully and spoke quietly. It reminded Robert of how people would act in church before and after the sermon. The Guardians’ signature symbol, a kite shield divided into four quadrants with a beehive hanging from a tree painted in one was displayed prominently in the halls and residences of the level. Like the other arcology levels, the Guardians’ level had a park space around the elevators. They had commissioned a large bronze statue to serve as the center piece of the park. Beowulf had constructed it for them. It was four knights with the Guardians’ kite shields standing around a tree. Each knight faced in a different cardinal direction towards the doors to the levels main hallways. It was a beautiful piece of work, and Beowulf had appreciated the opportunity to work on it.
They walked to Armand and Beth’s quarters behind their main hall of worship. Armand greeted them at the door. “Kate, Robert, it’s good to see you again.”
“Good morning, Armand.” “Good morning.”
“Come in, make yourselves comfortable, we’re ready to begin.” He herded them towards the table, then called towards the kitchen “Beth, the Harkens have arrived.”
Beth emerged from the kitchen with plates and utensils and set four places. When she came out, Armand went back into the kitchen to retrieve several hot food dishes ready to be served. Robert and Kate settled into their seats as the hosts brought out an array of foods. They set the dishes in the center of the table and everyone served themselves. Robert chose to try a few breaded and deep fried honey sweet potato hashbrowns, and smothered them in what turned out to be a honey hummus that had been placed on a dish along with fried potato chips. In his time in the tree he had learned to eat both of the two main vegetarian food groups, Starches and Beans, in every meal.
“Interesting choice, Robert.” Beth began, smiling winningly. “Let me know how those work together. I mean, the tastes should blend well, but how did you know without sampling?”
“I didn’t,” he admitted. Robert wasn’t sure why but he sometimes just had the urge to resist the well constructed presentations that Beth and Armand put before them. He realized it was sort of like sitting down an artist and photoshopping one of their paintings on top of another and claiming it was somehow better, and he felt guilty. “After I’m finished with this, I’ll try each one separately, so I can enjoy the original intent of each dish.”
Picking up on his guilt, Armand jumped in with a smile. “At the end of the day, Robert, it’s just food. I can see why you picked those two, you were following your gut. Your brain may be subconsciously aware of your body’s nutritional needs. After all, your body has been working hard since the attack.”
“My body and Doc Wilson, and I have to say that she did a very fine job.” He resisted the urge to bring his hand up to his scarred cheek, and decided to change the subject. “The army continues to mass at bases at each major entrance to the park. Beowulf’s satellite pictures are showing a lot of heavy equipment showing up as well. Tanks and helicopters. We’ve moved some of the dronents closer to the bases, but they’ve been patrolling the passes and areas around their bases extensively. On patrol, the soldiers are wearing some sort of full body armor, Wolf thinks its to protect against Swarm bugs. They look like plastic knights, except their armor is a lot more boxy with a lot of edges to it, rather than the smooth curves of medieval armor.”
“I’d like to see a picture of them if you get the chance.” Armand said. “You are certain that Beowulf can defend us against them on his own. I know many here in the tree that would be willing to join the fight.”
“He can.” Kate assured him. “If there is to be fighting, he wouldn’t want any of us out on the battlefield, anyway. We’d just be additional variables that his mind had to account for while waging the battles. As for Beowulf being able to defend us, we believe so. Unless they’ve come up with a big leap in power from their conventional weapons, they won’t be able to damage him.”
“That’s comforting.” Beth said. “Still, people are angry about the attack, many of our people here have expressed a desire to fight. I’m worried that if they are forced to do nothing, they may come to resent Beowulf.”
Armand turned and looked at her. “Perhaps there is some outlet we could give such people. Something we could have them do.”
“The arco levels have formed various sports leagues and play amongst themselves.” Kate pointed out, “I’m sure if the Guardians formed a team, they’d appreciate the competition.”
“Perhaps, perhaps.” Armand nodded slowly in thought. “But even that may not be enough to satisfy this need within our people to fight for the tree. You know… we’ve had a new member, formerly of Wolvestown, and he used to run a mixed martial arts academy for children in his past life. I might be able to convince him to do the same for our adult members that want to be able to fight. I’ll bet there would be a lot of interest.”
Robert figured it out. Armand and Beth were trying to convince them to allow the Guardians to train their people to fight, and they didn’t want the Harkens to think they were planning some coup or something. He planned his words carefully, “I don’t think we’d have any objection to the Guardians training their people in the martial arts. That’s what those Shaolin monks due, and they seem all right. Perhaps one day the Guardians of the Hive will become the Guardians of the Tree.” He laughed a little at that last part.
“Oh, I don’t think we’ll ever amount to something as serious and lasting as the Shaolin, but we do appreciate your understanding.” Armand replied smoothly.
“Oh yes, we won’t be training militarily.” Beth dismissed. “It’ll be more like exercise. We’ll keep our bodies healthy and research suggests that will improve our peace of mind as well.”
“Maybe we’ll stop by for some lessons once you get things going.” Kate said. “Staying fit could benefit us all.” She changed the subject. “I was wondering what you two thought about negotiating the planting of the remaining three nuts with the rest of the world. Siren has deployed emissaries to open discussions for just that subject to Chile, Peru, Iceland, Italy, Japan, and Russia. They’ve just begun to arrive.”
“That’s a smart move.” Armand commented. “What do you think this Atwood would do if he found out she was doing that? If I were him I think I’d undermine any deal you negotiated with them with a deal of his own. Also, he’d probably send out people to attack the emissaries. Do they have armed escorts? Embassies to bunker down in? Things could get very dangerous for these emissaries if Atwood finds out about them.”
“I agree.” Beth said. “If Atwood finds out he’ll hit back hard just as he did when the video of the hikers’ attack was released. The one thing we’d have going for us in that case is that he wouldn’t actually agree to give anything as powerful as the nuts to any of these nations.” She smiled. “It’d be nuts for him to release that kind of power outside of US control.”
Armand looked concerned. “Have you considered the risks to Beowulf if you hand over these nuts to other countries and one or all of them get a planter like Reed? We may have the same limits to the negotiation.”
Robert and Kate looked at each other. They had discussed this possibility, and had arrived at a staggered schedule by which to release the nuts, so that they wouldn’t suddenly have three new enemies. They had discussed it with Beowulf and Siren as well, and they had decided that with the complete knowledge of the new trees that the Archive could provide they would be able to defeat any enemy tree. They didn’t necessarily want to disclose all of that to the Guardians, however. Robert finally said, “We’ve thought about the risks a great deal, and with some practical measures we believe they can be limited to within acceptable levels.”
“Of course you have, of course.” Armand said soothingly. “Then it just remains a problem of negotiating the deals quickly and secretively, while ensuring the survival of the emissaries. You’d definitely want to avoid making any offer that could be construed as insulting, because there’s always the risk that any government you approach could contact Atwood themselves. Indeed, if during negotiations, they act as if they’re insulted, it’d be wise to treat that as a warning sign that they are in talks with Atwood. At which point, stepping up security for the emissary would be a very wise move. You see, I’d guess that if you were their only option for getting a nut, they would never try a ploy like acting insulted.”
“On the nose, Armand.” Beth said appreciatively.
“You’ve given us a lot to think about, Armand.” Kate said. “Especially about the risk of attack on the emissaries. Atwood hasn’t made any overt attacks on us, and we can’t say that he was involved in the hikers’ attack, but in a foreign country he could easily think that he could make an attack on an emissary look like an accident.” She took a bite of a three-bean spinach salad dish and gestured to it with her fork. “This is delightful, how do you get that sweet & sour taste?”
“Mostly vinegar with a little honey, blended with cherries” Armand smiled broadly at the compliment.
The conversation drifted to mundane matters. The Guardians had indeed given them a lot to think about. The emissaries had been deployed without any additional security and Robert wasn’t sure what their combat capabilities were. Rigby may have made a rare oversight, perhaps neglecting the protection details because the emissaries were already drones rather than people. Unfortunately, if any of those drones were killed, they’d have to run the US Navy blockade to send another. That tip about watching for warning signs of secret negotiations with the US had also been solid gold advice. They would have to make sure to pass that on to Rigby this afternoon.
Theo Rigby had been eager to hear the advice of the Guardians and got it in his meeting with the Harkens, it had proven invaluable to him in the past, and no matter how well he thought he’d thought things through, they somehow managed to introduce new angles. After the meeting he had discussed the defensive capabilities of the emissary drones with Siren. They had been built tough, but were by no means invulnerable. Though they looked like beautiful women, they had the strength of a bear and the speed of a cheetah. Still, they could have sent each out with a small security detail of similarly superhuman drones to protect the emissaries, but there was little to be done about it now.
Rigby was uncertain if they’d be able to sneak anything of size past the Navy blockade. No doubt, Siren could make a drone which mimicked the appearance and behavior of some type of whale, but they might get curious as to why whales were leaving the area without ever having gone in. There were other underwater stealth measures they could try, like deploying directly into the deep trench below, and then following it outside of the blockade before rising from the depths. Also she could probably make stealth drones that could move silently and absorb radar. Even if they could get past the blockade, though, it was still a long way to go to get to the emissaries. Most were half a world away which could mean weeks of travel time by sea.
Their emissary to Russia had only just reached Moscow and found lodging. She was ten hours later in the day than Rigby and Siren. Siren had named her Muscovite, after the shiny mineral. She had arrived by a long distance taxi from St. Petersburg where she’d disembarked from the transport covertly. It was an expensive ride, but was the fastest option for her. Muscovite had directed the cabbie in a wandering path through the city until she’d spotted a posh looking hotel and booked a room after sending a Beetle Repeater climbing up the side of the building. She didn’t have any baggage to take up to her room, so she went to the hotel restaurant and ate.
When she finished her meal, she took an elevator up to the room. The hotel had a modern key card system and after she’d gotten the reader to accept the card she opened the door to a pitch black room. She stepped in and started to search the wall with her hands for a light switch. Someone pushed the door closed behind her and two pairs of hands seized her arms. They knocked her purse to the floor and someone kicked it away. Someone hit the light switch. There were four rough looking men in suits in the room with her, two were restraining her, though she wasn’t resisting, one stood at the light switch, and the fourth sat on a chair facing the door watching her.
They must have set up the ambush while she was eating. That was fast. He addressed her in Russian, “Do you speak?” She nodded. “Our American friends have warned us to watch for a beautiful woman with green hair and purple eyes. They’ve offered a great deal in exchange for one of you, it seems they want to ask you some questions.”
“But what is it that you intend?” Muscovite asked. She flung her arms up and out, throwing the men holding her in opposite directions. “Surely you don’t do everything the US asks of you, or has Russia lost all pride.” She strutted forward toward the man sitting on the chair, but stopped when she heard the snap of a slide being pulled and released to chamber a round. It was the light switch man. The man on the bed pulled out his gun and chambered a round, but didn’t bother to point it at her yet.
“We will hear what you have to say, but you will come with us. We can’t let such a valuable woman wander around Moscow unescorted and unprotected can we? No. You will stay with us in a safe place.” The man on the chair explained. The men that had been restraining her recovered and pulled there own weapons. “It would seem that you’re very strong. For your own protection we need to restrain you until we can get you to sanctuary. Please, put your arms behind your back.”
“My own protection?” She smiled and put her hands behind her back, then taunted, “Perhaps you big strong men are worried about your own safety.” She felt the hand cuffs go on, but they didn’t stop there. They applied several thick zip ties, and one produced a coil of rope and looped it around her hands for good measure. It seemed these guys learned quickly. Whoever they were.
The man on the chair stood, “You see, we do not worry about our safety, we just assure that we have it. You can help us to assure it by not resisting any further.” He stepped up to her and looked hard into her eyes. “If need be, we will assure our safety in a much a simpler way than these restraints. Do you understand?”
“I think so. I came to talk, peacefully, and you’re arresting me and throwing me in some kind of political prison until someone decides what to do with me. Does that sound about right?” She asked, with a feigned sexy pleading voice.
“We are just doing our jobs.” He said. “You will come with us downstairs now.” He lead the five of them out the hotel room door and to the elevator. They rode it down to the basement parking lot. The elevator doors opened to a black limousine parked right in front of it. It seems these men would be chauffeuring her in style. They pushed her into the back with the chair man and the two restrainers, as the light switch man took the driver’s seat. The limousine circled around the subterranean parking lot until they saw the street exit. Before they reached it, a car pulled out of a parking spot right in front of them, forcing the driver to slam on the brakes. Just when they’d come to a nick of time stop, another car slammed into them from the rear, hard. The men were stunned, but Muscovite saw men with kalishnikovs exit the trailing car and level them at the limousine. She struggled against the restraints, but couldn’t even stretch them. One of her captors was blocking the door. The men opened fire. It was not an armored limousine and Muscovite saw the windows shatter and holes appear in the vehicle’s body leaving little columns of well lit dust. The bullets tore through her and her captors, and she was unable to keep functioning properly. She received the signal from Siren to end communications and enter a hibernating state. It wasn’t likely that her body would recover, especially if the Russians were curious about her anatomy, but at least in hibernation, none of the horrible broken messages from her would make it back to Siren.
Siren had called the situation to Rigby’s attention, and he’d been following it since they reached the parking lot. Presumably the men that had seized Muscovite from her room were representatives of the government, leaving the other men to be some other group. Maybe hired guns for the US? Of course, it could be the other way around, all that really mattered was how they would spin it in the media and what Russia would decide to do about it.
“She’s gone?” He asked Siren. He wondered if she felt anything for the drones. Rigby thought of them as little more than a disposable extension of Siren, but decided to tread lightly in case she had feelings for them. If nothing else, they were impressive works of art, and Siren was the artist.
“Yes.” He thought she did sound a little dejected. She was standing behind him as he sat in the chair at his desk. He reached his hand back over his shoulder and she took it.
“It didn’t sound like there would be any chance of a warmer welcome for any of our representatives in Russia. I don’t think we should send anyone else over there, even with a protection detail.” He said.
“Yes, and this incident will probably be blamed on us, giving them more excuses to persecute any drone I send. It seems there will be no diplomacy with Russia for the time being.” She said flatly. She didn’t sound angry or frustrated per se, her voice just lost some of its beauty and fullness. Like a flower closed at night.
Her words turned out to be prophetic. Siren detected new ships arriving in the area. They met up with the US carrier group, then began to patrol around Siren as well. She sent an octopus spy out to identify them. They were Russian, and they’d brought three submarines that she’d detected. They had to have been on the way here already, when Muscovite was attacked. The Russian government must have picked sides some time ago.
Rigby thought that Atwood must have had some bargaining chips with the Russians that they didn’t know about. Unless Atwood had had the balls to actually promise them a nut when the dust settled. That couldn’t be right, after destroying the American tree, he couldn’t hand over a nut to be the puppet of the Russians. Might as well wrap up the world with a bow and hand it to them. It didn’t make sense to Rigby.
Siren brought some activity out in the seas to his attention. She’d heard an explosion near the position of one of the Russian boats and had sent her spy drones to investigate. When they arrived they found a sinking destroyer with lifeboats in the water around it. Another Russian ship was on it’s way to retrieve the survivors. Had the US fired on the Russians? That didn’t add up to Rigby.
“Russian subs are approaching!” Siren exclaimed. “They’re firing torpedos at me.”
“Is there any danger?” Rigby asked.
“No… well, there shouldn’t be. Not from conventional torpedoes.” She waited a moment. “They’ve hit, they’ve shredded some lilies but otherwise there is no damage.” Rigby didn’t hear anything or feel any sort of vibration from the torpedo strikes.
“Don’t counterattack.” He quickly warned Siren. His mind was racing.
“They’re firing again.” Siren pointed out.
“They can’t see that there first attacks had no effect.” But why were they shooting to begin with? Another set up. The Russians had sent some old junker destroyer out, and scuttled it. Now they would claim it had been an attack from Siren, and link it with the attacks in the hotel in Moscow.
“They’ve hit, still no harm done.” Siren said, the tension leaving her voice.
“I think it’s another set up, Siren. They’ll claim we attacked the Russian vessel and the hotel in Moscow. Atwood’s wild claims will be seconded by another great world power, and the only friends we’ll have left in the world will be the Harkens and Beowulf.”
The Russians launched three more volleys of torpedoes before retreating to their fleet. Siren was unharmed but the sea around her was now filled with torn pieces of lily pad and flower petals. The first shots had been fired and war was officially declared by the US and Russia on Siren and Beowulf. Several of Siren’s emissaries on neighboring islands were asked to leave, as the US contacted the smaller nations. Rather than attempt to run the blockade, Rigby ordered them to hibernate under the sea near the islands, to be reawakened if matters ever improved.
Rigby looked back at the elegant show that had gotten them in this situation. It had started with Atwood’s accusations, which he’d had to defend by faking missile testing. Then Atwood took it a step further and turned the nations that could most likely benefit from a nut of their own against Siren. Next, Atwood’s people took the opportunity of Muscovite’s arrival in Moscow to go on a shooting spree which got blamed on Siren. Finally, the Russians took it upon themselves to scuttle a boat and claim it was Siren, no doubt feeling secure in their ploy because it improved Atwood’s credibility. It really was an impressive web of lies, and it would end with the world turned against Siren and Beowulf.
The Attack on Beowulf
“I’ve named it the Archive, and I’m impressed with how well it turned out. However, what it told me about the first test subject, the maple tree, is incredibly disturbing. Apparently, that tree became jealous when I planted the other two, and it has some kind of twisted need to demonstrate its superiority. It does this by harassing, taunting, and even attacking them behind my back. Worse, this need to be superior has spread from the other two test subjects to other plants and small animals in the area. It has apparently been capturing, torturing, and dissecting them to demonstrate their weakness. The Archive claims it has come to enjoy it, and the other two test subjects live in fear of even attracting its attention. I’ve resolved to put a stop to this. Fire should be enough to destroy this test subject, I just wish I’d found out sooner, before it had grown to full size. I fear I will not be able to destroy the roots as thoroughly as I’d like, but they should die anyway on there own, as these trees have only sunlight as a power source.” – Joshua Harken
It was July now in Black/Atwood’s first year of presidency, and he’d accomplished a great deal. His special divisions were flush with recruits and heavy equipment, he had made an ally out of one of the United States’ oldest rivals, and scientists working under his direction (through intermediaries, of course) had developed some truly nasty weaponry which made use of Swarm remnants. All this time the trees had been isolated from the rest of the world, Beowulf quarantined in Yellowstone, and Siren blockaded.
Months earlier, after the Russians had joined in the fight, Atwood had had a brilliant idea to propose to them. They would use the war with Siren as an excuse to carry out some testing of weapons who’s use would otherwise have been banned. If the rest of the world complained, they would just say that it was a new enemy of incredible strength and that all the stops needed to be pulled out to destroy her. The Russians had agreed and Siren had become an unofficial weapons testing target for the two world powers.
The two nations tested larger and larger torpedoes, missiles, bombs, and artillery on her. None had much of an effect except to tear up those lily pads and stain her surface with char marks. They moved on to other weapons including napalm and white phosphorous bombs. They had dumped enough napalm on her to keep the seas aflame for a whole day, but there was still no apparent damage. They had tried experimental weapons like the US Navy’s rail guns and high powered lasers and masers. The railgun attack was very telling about how the tree was surviving these attacks. The heavy projectile struck the part of Siren’s trunk that rose above the oceans surface, and had made a dent, but the projectile had melted from the collision and pancaked out to fill the dent that it had caused. Atwood’s researchers theorized that she must be composed of a material equivalent to solid steel. Atwood himself guessed that she had hardened her hull in response to their attacks, and that that equivalency might not be far off. There would be a drawback to her doing that, he guessed, in the form decreased mobility. While she was that hard, she wouldn’t be able to move those portions of herself.
He assumed that she and Beowulf would by now have hardened every part of their trunks that were vulnerable to direct attacks. He guessed that they had both kept their root systems less hard and more mobile. There would also be weak points wherever the trees were sending out troops. If a hole opened to release tree drones, his forces would need to be ready to fire on that spot. Atwood had also devised a few ways in which he hoped to be able to penetrate that harder outer shell, but he didn’t want to warn the trees that he was trying something new for fear that they would adapt.
Over the months his new soldiers had bloodied themselves by cleaning up the remaining pockets of Swarm remnants along Black/Atwood’s original path to Beowulf. Atwood didn’t really care about the clean up, other than it provided him with useful captured Swarm bugs to incorporate into the new weapons. The soldiers were getting some on the job training and familiarity with their new weapons, but that wouldn’t be important for what Atwood had planned.
The rainy season was long over in the South Pacific, and summer was in full swing in Yellowstone. More importantly, after an incredible rush build, his newest weapons were ready to roll. It was time to bring the war to Yellowstone. Atwood issued an order to the 1st Special Airborne and Armored to begin to tighten the noose on Beowulf. Units at each base at the park entrances would begin to move slowly toward the tree, clear burning anything in their paths with their flamethrowers. His squadron at Hill would provide air support if there was any resistance from the tree. As for Siren, he had dispatched his special drone submarines for her. He was excited to the see the fruits of his labors.
The main screen in the command center showed the devastating progress of the soldiers and tanks. The dronents were retreating well ahead of the advance to keep their presence a secret, and Beowulf was using spy drones made to look like ravens to track the advance. They were burning everything in their path down the valleys that lead into the park. Beowulf’s satellite pictures showed dark black snakes of scorched earth moving from the military bases towards the park and Beowulf. The fronts were moving the fastest out of the Southern bases near Jackson and Dubois that have the most distance to cover, while the Henry Lake front took an almost leisurely pace. Clearly, they wanted the fronts to arrive at the tree at the same time. Beowulf’s ravens saw that behind the burning front line, the soldiers were widening and reinforcing the roads, an ominous sign.
“Is that just for the tanks or, something bigger?” Kate asked from her seat next to Robert at the central desk.
“I’m not sure. The tanks have been moving with the front to help burn, but maybe they’re planning a lot of tank traffic which could destroy the road.” Robert said. “I don’t know of any equipment that the US military used that’s heavier than a tank. Unless the Russians lent them some SCUD missile launchers, but those wouldn’t need to be brought very close to the tree to be effective. Hard to say what else would be heavy enough to need road reinforcement like that. Maybe mining equipment? Like one of those ore haulers?”
“Or a drill, they could be planning to drill into Wolf.” Kate suggested. She addressed the giant dryad standing to their right. “You can handle that, right, Wolf?”
“I’ve already reinforced my hull such that drilling should be so painstaking slow and expensive that they will eventually give up. My only weak spots are the entrances.” Beowulf said.
“Weak spots!?” Robert asked, surprised.
“Yes, in order to be flexible enough to open and close them, the entrance doors are much weaker than the rest of my outer layers.” He explained. “I’ve taken steps to mitigate this weakness by zig-zagging the hallways and adding a series of ten additional, thicker doors, so even if something made it through the outer door, it’d still have a long and deadly gauntlet to run before ever reaching inside. You haven’t noticed the changes because you haven’t had a reason to go outside.”
“Oh.” Robert said, calmed. “That doesn’t sound too weak to me. I don’t think anything would survive long in a hallway made out of your hostile vines. Say, with this hardened hull of yours, are you still going to be able to go Mega Beowulf, like during the Swarm attack?”
“Definitely not. That Mega Beowulf drone was, in fact, killed in that attack, I have not produced another.” The dryad explained, matter of factly.
“What if they actually try to mine under the tree and attack you from the roots?” Kate asked the wooden giant.
“I would feel the vibrations of their work, and could foil their undermining efforts long before they reached a vulnerable root.” The dryad dismissed.
“So this attack should go much like what they’ve tried on Siren.” Robert surmised. “They’ll just sit out there and try weapon after weapon, then give up and just maintain the siege. At least, until they come up with something more powerful. So far, she’s made a mockery of their weaponry. Do you have troop counts, Wolf?”
“30,000 give or take, split evenly amongst the bases.” Robert cringed inwardly at Beowulf’s estimate. The blood of those men could end up on his hands if they figured out a way to harm the tree, and perhaps the blood of countless others. The dryad jerked his head towards the screen suddenly. “I’ve just spotted something.” The screen changed to a view of one of the bases. Livingston. Approaching from the north was a huge machine. It looked to be similar in size to an ore hauler but it was longer, with four axles. At its head, was a large armor plate and the barrels of three weapons arranged vertically. The bottom one was a huge diameter long barrel, maybe two feet across. Above that was a smaller diameter long barrel. And above that was an odd looking squat tube. It was very thick around but it’s hole looked small, and it seemed to have a cover of some sort.
“That would explain why they’re reinforcing the roads.” Kate said. “I don’t suppose we could go on the offensive, maybe even non-violently to try and disable those before they’re in position to strike?”
“Tempting, but no.” Robert said. “We could have waged war on the US as soon as they declared war, then they wouldn’t even have had the chance to build those things. Siren could have destroyed all of the navy vessels that have been bombarding her before they struck. No. We will stick to the plan. If they break themselves on Wolf’s defenses then this could be a lesson to them, not to invest so much into attacking the trees. Whatever those things are, they definitely weren’t cheap.”
“Perhaps we shouldn’t destroy them preemptively, but we do know where they’ll be when they do strike.” The dryad mused. “If they get close enough, I may be able to have some undermining of my own ready for them.”
“Watching their new artillery sink into the ground would certainly be demoralizing. Make whatever preparations you need.” Robert ordered.
That night he had dreams of what hell those hulking engines of destruction would hurl at Beowulf. Based on their progress, it could be another week or so before the advancing front’s reached Beowulf. The next morning they announced the impending attack to the residents and Beowulf laid out some emergency procedures. In the event of a breach, the lights would start to flash red, and all residents were to report to the elevators for immediate evacuation to an underground bunker deep within Beowulf’s root system. Everyone in the tree was tense as the day of the attack approached, but the residents were as strongly on Beowulf’s side as ever. Many of the newly martially trained Guardian’s were still chomping at the bit to participate in the fighting, despite the Harkens’ and Beowulf’s assertions that they needed only to be concerned for their own safety.
Theo Rigby was in the shower kissing Siren. He moved her back against the wall of the small room, and she lifted a leg up, he dropped his hand to grasp her thigh and she torqued on the new support point to lift her other leg up which he took hold of with his other hand. She dropped a hand from behind his back to guide him in, and he thrust forward. After some time, he finished, and they washed each other in the streams of water falling from above.
During the blockade and bombardment, Siren seemed to have grown tenser somehow, Rigby thought. When he held her or made love to her she seemed just a little less soft and yielding. As though the attacks on her tree and the consequent hardening of her trunk had strengthened her dryad body as well. She was by no means less attractive to him because of it, it was just that he had come to know her well enough to notice the change.
After his meeting with the Harken’s this morning he would meet with Morgan Atuafago. He had kept his residents apprised of the blockade and the situation at the surface. Many of the vagabonds that had come to stay in the tree had felt the urge to move on, now that there was trouble here. Rigby had had to explain that there was no guarantee that Siren’s transport subs could successfully run the blockage. He told them that if they ran, they could be hurt in the escape attempt, but stay and they would be safe. This had settled the people down, but they were nowhere near as loyal and steadfast a people as Beowulf’s residences. But that loyalty had been hard earned through the survival of terrorist attacks.
Unlike the vagabonds, Morgan’s people in the women’s shelter didn’t ask to run, they asked if they could help in the fight. There wasn’t anything they could do, but Rigby had consented to weekly meetings with Morgan to fill her in on the whole picture. Rigby figured that if anything were to happen to him someone would need to take the Planter’s title and carry on, and Siren could do a lot worst than Morgan for the job.
During the meeting the Harkens told him about the progress of the advancing soldiers and about the new heavy weapons rolling towards them. The description didn’t sound like any weapon system Rigby had ever heard of. Perhaps it was just a big rolling set of huge artillery guns. He had liked Beowulf’s idea to undermine their roads. That would be an excellent way to discourage the attack without going on the offensive. Siren hadn’t detected anything that looked like that in the water, or much new at all. The boats and submarines of the blockade rotated out periodically to keep crews fresh and vigilant, but they hadn’t seen any signs of new vessels. An intriguing idea struck Rigby.
“The way that you planned on undermining the artillery, what if there was a way to do that for the soldiers, as well?” Rigby asked.
“What’s your idea?” Robert asked, knowing that Rigby had something more.
“A series of simple earthwork ditches and berms around the tree to slow their advance and founder any tanks that try to roll up.” Rigby said. “It’ll shorten their line of sight as well and blind a given soldier to whats ahead of or behind him.”
“That’s a good idea.” Beowulf’s voice came through. “I could also hide forces under these berms. Robert, Kate, we should discuss this.”
“Right.” Robert said. “Goodbye, Theo, we’ll speak tomorrow.”
“Goodbye.” Kate said.
Siren played an audible click in the room to notify him that the connection had ended. “I will notify Morgan that you’re ready for her.” She spoke in her orchestral tones.
“Did we run long? Send my apologies.” Rigby said. He wished that Siren had some of the combat options that Beowulf had. In the open ocean there wasn’t much chance of erecting any earthwork defenses, and water stubbornly refused to hold its shape, he thought wryly, except when swirled in a bottle, of course. This gave him an idea. “Siren, would you ever be able to churn up a lot of water around your trunk. Like almost make a storm without all of the wind or rain?”
“Hmm.” She paused. “Maybe, but not in my hardened state. I would need to change shape drastically, and pour a huge amount of energy into it. I just don’t think that that’ll be an effective battle tactic.” She lamented.
“Ah, I suppose, it was just a thought.” He dismissed. He heard a knock at the door to his office, Siren moved to open it, and greeted Morgan.
“Miss Atuafago, welcome.”
“Hello, Siren.” She walked to the desk and sat at a chair across from Rigby. “Theo.”
“Morgan, how are you?” Rigby smiled.
“I’m well, Theo, though little Pahi has been crying at night.” She said. Pahi was her baby son, born right here in Siren under the dryad’s care, in the absence of a doctor.
“Oh, I hear that they’re supposed to grow out of that.” Rigby replied, he didn’t have any practical experience raising children of his own. “A lot has been going on since we spoke last. Though much of it has to do with our brother tree, Beowulf, rather than Siren, do you want to hear about it?”
“Of course.” Morgan said with some excitement. That was one of the things that Rigby liked about speaking to Morgan. She was a passionate person, which contrasted sharply with Rigby and Siren’s cool heads. He explained everything to her. She told him about recent events with the women in the shelter, and her own adventures raising Pahi. There was just one more thing to cover before ending the meeting for lunch.
“Morgan, there is something else.” Rigby said. “There is a chance, that although we haven’t seen any new or unexpected movements from the blockade, they may still try to attack us again when they begin the attack on Beowulf, and they may bring something new. I would like you to remind everyone about the evacuation procedure we’d discussed when the bombardment began. Not just the women in the shelter, but the vagabonds as well. Can you handle that?”
“Yes.” She said. “I mean, no problem.”
“Do you remember them?” Rigby asked. Not waiting for a response he outlined them. “A siren will sound and the lights will flash red, at which point everyone must proceed to the elevators. It’s sort of the opposite procedure for when a tall building is on fire.”
“Right.” She said. “I’ll remind them.”
“Thanks.” He stood and held a hand across the table.
She took it, and held it for an extra moment. “Are we going to be all right?” She must have been thinking about Pahi.
“Yes, as long as we keep our wits about us.” He said.
“OK, goodbye, Theo.” She said. “Goodbye, Siren.” She released his hand and walked to the door. He heard it open and close.
Sergeant Thomas O’Shea stood on a flat rock on the west slopes of the valley leading into Yellowstone from Livingston, the North entrance to the park. His men, Livingston fire squad 3, were mostly outfitted with flamethrowers today. Only O’Shea, corporal Vega, and private Cesaro had other weapons. O’Shea and Vega were toting their standard M16’s along with grenade launchers while Cesaro had a Swarm Vac. The rest of his men had formed a line up and down the slope and were burning the foliage. Pine trees, juniper, and other weeds, brush and grasses that O’Shea couldn’t identify were all being consumed by the flames. The fire teams had to work the sometimes steep and rock slopes without armor support. They would have artillery support from the tanks far below on the road in the center of the valley if need be, but the tank’s stream of napalm hellfire couldn’t reach this far up the valley walls. So the captain had deployed fire teams like O’Shea’s to burn the slopes.
O’Shea was hot in his Halo suit, as the soldiers had taken to calling the Swarm armor after the armor worn by a character in a video game of the same name. It was full body plastic armor with ceramic chain mail and kevlar underneath. Normally, the system was nice and cool, especially up here in the cool mountains, but today, with the morning sun beating down on them and the ubiquitous smoke and fire, it was hot. The suits had had an interesting effect on his men. O’Shea had been with this same group of men that made up his squad since basic training. He’d been with them when they’d been issued the suits and deployed to South Dakota on Swarm Remnant patrol. When they put them on they had all felt stronger, tougher, braver, and in some cases, O’Shea had thought, more foolhardy. It must have something to do with the look and feel of the suits.
The face masks of their helmets blessedly contained charcoal filters which kept the smoke out of their longs. During this burning operation, O’Shea and his unit had been burning through those filters too, needing replacements almost every day. O’Shea unsnapped the seal straps and lifted his face mask off to take a swig of water. He felt the hot smoky air on his face and inhaled a breath. The thick smoke reminded him of when he was a kid, camping with his father and brothers. They would build the fire up big at night and roast marshmallows. Sometimes, there would be a breeze, or the wind would change and suddenly the spot you were sitting in would be right in the path of all of the campfire smoke. The air in the burning valley was like that, except with darker notes of acrid smoke from the burning napalm. He took a swig from his back mounted water pouch through it’s clear plastic hose. The water was hot from being sandwiched between his skin and the sun heated armor, but it tasted clean. O’Shea strapped his mask back on.
He checked the radio switch on wrist to make sure it was set to squad only and announced, “All right boys, take a break, get some water in you.” The flamethrower’s streams cut short and the men stepped back from the line of burning brush. O’Shea had found that this fire line work required hourly breaks to keep the men hydrated and prevent heat exhaustion. In a few hours, they would gather and cook up MRE’s for lunch. At night, they would climb down the slope to meet with the other fire teams and the armor units in the valley. They had to make that climb in order to meet with their nightly resupply truck bringing fresh water, food, napalm, and breathing mask filters.
O’Shea couldn’t wait for them to finally get to the tree, but he wasn’t fool enough to be looking forward to the fight. They’d all heard stories about how tough the thing was and the monsters it could produce. But O’Shea and, he knew, his squad were just tired of this endless drudge work burning, even some fighting might be better than this. Besides, with the rumors about the new artillery system they were bringing down the road behind them, which corporal Vega had nicknamed the “Rhino Dragon,” they might not ever be in any fighting. They were saying it would put the navy’s railguns to shame. There were even some whispers that the Rhino Dragons might shoot nuclear payloads. The one persistent rumor was that the higher ups believed that the things could take the tree down, and that was what O’Shea was hoping for. Better to win without risking the lives of his men, if possible.
A few days later, O’Shea and his squad had finished their section of the barricades for the new temporary base they were constructing inside Yellowstone. It had been a days work digging to fill the large open top cardboard boxes with dirt and gravel. The fortifications would serve as their cover if they were attacked by tree monsters in the night. Still, the digging was a lot better than the burn work through the valley. His squad was setting up tents now behind the new walls. It would be time to eat dinner soon. “Corporal Vega.” He said into his face mask radio.
“Sir.” Vega responded.
“I need you to take someone and hunt down the quartermaster and secure us some food and water stocks. Our orders are to hold position here until further instruction, and that could be days, so get us three day’s worth. Got it?”
“Yes, Sir. Douglas, care for a stroll?”
“Yes, Sir.” Douglas replied.
“Let’s go. Any requests?” Vega asked, he and Douglas were already moving away from the group.
“You know I love that corn beef hash, Corporal.” Cesaro said, his radio still reaching Vega and Douglas.
“You get those tents up and we’ll see what we can do, private.” Vega’s came back with a little more static because of the distance.
They arrived back an hour later as the sun had started to set. They carried large duffels with them. “That you, Corporal?” O’Shea asked into his radio.
“Yes sir. I’m sorry we’re late.” Vega answered, waving his free arm at the sergeant. “Big news over by the road. The POTUS himself is here, He arrived in an armored transport this afternoon. Everyone’s saying he’s here to personally watch the Rhino Dragons take the tree down.”
“Tell us all about it over, dinner, Corporal.”
“There’s something else too, sir.” Vega started, dropping his duffel next to the tent and bending over it. After a moment of rummaging he produced a pill bottle and a package of mask filters. “They gave us these pills and special filters. Said that a scout squad had been affected by a type of nerve gas that the tree produces. These are supposed to protect us, we’ve all got to switch filters and take one of these pills every night before bunk.” He opened the pill bottle and held up a large black pill to show the men that were watching.
“If it gives us an edge, we’ll take it.” O’Shea said encouragingly. “Now get a fire going and break out the food.”
Atwood had arrived on the field. His cabinet, the Secret Service, and even his sniveling Vice President had protested his coming to the front, but he’d given them platitudes and ignored them. Right now back in DC, he imagined, they were fighting the now wild Swarm mites from his family. He had just left them there to go wild, he was too excited to attack Beowulf to bother to think of an excuse to bring them along or a way to preserve them further in his absence. They had been trying to reach him since shortly after he’d left, but he’d had his thralls deflect them and give excuses.
He stood in the impressive but cramped control room for the giant BPB artillery system. Burn, Pierce, Blast. His researchers had all but guaranteed him that this machine could pierce through any armor in one firing sequence, which was good, because the system could only perform one firing sequence. After those three shots, parts had to be swapped out in a process which could take days. The system worked by first firing up a huge powerful laser to superheat the target. After the target temperature is reached, the system fires a massive depleted uranium shell to punch a hole through the armor. This shell is so heavy that it takes the detonation of small nuclear bomb to fire it out of the barrel at sufficient speeds to pierce the target. After that piercing shot, a small yield tactical nuke is fired into the hole by the third barrel this shot should damage the tree internally and widen the hole in the armor.
Because of the use of nuclear weapons, these artillery systems technically violated a few treaties and disarmament agreements, but Atwood simply didn’t care. He’d told his cabinet, perhaps correctly, that the rest of the world wouldn’t care either as long as they were only being used on US soil. He also technically shouldn’t be firing the system anywhere near his unprotected troops, because of the radiation and fallout from firing the piercing shot, but again, Atwood was not overly concerned. He’d simply made the nature and design of the weapons top secret such that the system’s operators would be able to use the machine, but wouldn’t be aware of the nuclear devices.
He had brought with him pills made of the swarm mites to distribute to the troops in his immediate vicinity. The nuclear blasts would interfere with his communications with them, but only for a few moments, not long enough for them to go wild. His consciousness would be secure from the interference as long as he stayed within the shielded BPB control room. He planned on eventually enthralling all of the men stationed around the tree, but for this first phase of the battle, they were too spread out, and he’d have to be content with only the men around him. They had all taken their pills last night as instructed or had gotten a rude surprise the next morning when they’d inhaled the mites from the contanimated filters. One or two soldiers weren’t caught in either trap, and Atwood had had them disposed of.
There was one more thing to do. Atwood closed his eyes and concentrated for a moment on the mites inside of the Atwood thrall’s body, releasing them to consume at will. In ten minutes the remains of the former governor of Minnesota were consumed, and Charcoal Black stood back in his pure form, a nude obsidian humanoid statue. He gestured towards his enthralled operators of the artillery and they opened up a radio link to the other machines. “This is President Atwood.” he said, reproducing the man’s voice. “Begin firing sequence at exactly 0900.” Five minutes from now. The other operator’s radioed back their acknowledgment of the order. He could have used the thrall of the general in charge of the operation to send out the order, but as his victory approached, his willingness to maintain the act was dwindling, and besides that, the orders were technically unnecessary, this operation had been laid out weeks ago. He gestured again and his thralls contacted Hill Air Force base. “This is President Atwood, I’m ordering the execution of Operation Root Shot to begin immediately.” Root Shot was the second part of his preliminary attacks on Beowulf.
Each of the F-35’s at Hill had each been outfitted with two special missiles. These would be fired not at the tree but at the ground around the base of the tree. They are supersonic missiles with a dense depleted uranium tip case fitted with a directional explosive. The missiles would fly below the tree’s branches then execute a 90 degree turn and accelerate straight into the earth at top speed. Then right before impact, the secondary directional explosive would shoot the hardened tip case into the ground to achieve maximum depth penetration. Inside of each tip case were Swarm Remnant bugs, which would seek out and consume Beowulf’s roots. Root Shot was a bit of a gamble, Black had guessed that Beowulf would not have hardened his roots like he had his trunk, because they should be protected the dirt.
Nine o’clock arrived and there was a loud whir of liquid pumps could be heard in the control room as the coolant for the the laser housing began to circulate and the pump laser kicked on. There was a screen in the control room showing a camera pointed at the artillery system’s target. It was near the base of the tree closest to them.
Robert, Kate, and Beowulf watched the screens in the command center in anticipation of the attack. Rigby had woken early and he and Siren were live linked via audio so that they could hear all of the details of the battle and provide assistance if necessary. Unfortunately for the Harkens and Beowulf, the Giant Triceratops of Death (GTD), as Robert had dubbed them had stopped short of Beowulf’s undermining efforts. They must have had a good two mile range.
“There’s something going.” Beowulf said urgently, but too cryptically for anyone to understand.
“What do you mean?” Robert asked quickly, excitedly.
“Heat. There are hot spots appearing on my trunk. Getting hotter.” The dryad said. The main screen showed a zoomed in view of the Livingston GTD. A haze had started to form in a line coming out of the weird squat barrel at the weapon’s front. As they watched the haze intensified into a clear column of distorted air.
“Plasma.” Kate said. “It’s a laser, they’ve already tried those on Siren, right?”
“Yes, my hull armor can take the heat. Even from seven sources. There is a problem, though.” Beowulf said. “One of them picked the right spot, right at one of my entrances. There is less protection there, and if they keep this up, they could penetrate.”
“Damn.” Robert said. There was a bright flash from the artillery on the main screen followed by static. “What happenned!?”
“They all shot some kind of projectile, I’m breached.” The dryad said with a strained voice. Red lights started to flash in the command center. “I’m calling for evacuation to the bomb shelter.”
“What happenned!?” Robert shouted. “Are you hurt?” The static on the screen cleared up, showing the GTD once again. It’s massive bottom barrel had been charred black by whatever’d been fired out of it. There was another flash from the smaller central barrel. This time the static came after a short delay.
“Augh!” The dryad exclaimed, cringing. “Robert, the second shot pierced through the heated armor, and they sent the third one after it with a nuclear payload.” He waved a hand at the screen and the view changed to show the trunk of the tree. It was marred with large blackened craters, three visible in the current view, but they new there were seven in total.
“We should attack before they reload.” Kate started to say when Beowulf interrupted her.
“We have incoming!” And the main screen view changed again to show jets approaching from the Southwest. They fired missiles which curved down and seemed to explode weakly just before hitting the ground. They peppered the ground all around Beowulf’s trunk. “It’s Swarm remnants. They’ve shot them into the ground and they’re eating at my roots!”
“Can. You. Fight. Them?” Robert shouted stochastically.
“Yes, but not well, it’s confined space, and I’d need to tear the ground up to do it.” The dryad gestured to the screen again. It changed to show one of the other GTD’s, but this time, there were tanks streaming around the barricades and helicopters flying over them towards the tree. The Blackhawks started dropping men off on the far side of Beowulf’s recently dug outer berm. The attack helicopters approached the trunk and started firing everything they had at the craters in the tree’s hull. “Some of those missiles they’re firing contain Swarm remnants!” Beowulf said. “Robert, I’ll need your permission to fight back to win this battle. There will be casualties.”
“All right, do it. Bring the fight to them.” Robert said coolly. He was angry, angry that’d they’d figured out how to hurt Beowulf, angry that they had hurt Beowulf, and angry that he would have to order their deaths. “You hear that Rigby?”
“What!? Sorry, Robert, we’ve got a little trouble here. What were you saying?” Came the voice over the tree to tree comm.
As they heard commotion over the comm from Beowulf’s command center, Siren had spotted new vessels approaching, and she’d had to reduce the volume to describe them to Rigby. He was seated next to her in his office, having awoken early to hear the events in Yellowstone.
“There are some weird submarines approaching. They are smaller than the other nuclear subs and very strangely shaped. In the back they have a large… disc almost like a satellite disc pointed backwards.” Siren said.
“What are they doing?” Rigby asked. That was a very strange feature on a submarine that could cause them all sorts of problems if they moved through any sort of water current. It could cause them to drift and turn, he couldn’t for the life of him think of why they’d add those to a submarine.
“They’re coming in close, very close. Contact.” Siren said. “Right up against my trunk.”
Rigby’s mind was still racing. Acoustic Reflectors? Did they need the drag for something? The Drag. Disc shape facing backwards. They could move forward, but moving backwards would have loads of drag. They didn’t want to move backwards, for some reason. Directional Explosives. “Siren, I think that they’re going to…” Siren interrupted him.
“They exploded. No… they shot something into my trunk.” She said breathlessly. “I’m breached, I’m issuing the evacuation signal to the residents. There’s Swarm. They shot Swarm bugs into my trunk. There are other submarines approaching. Their torrpedos are in the water.”
“Siren!” Rigby said standing and placing a hand on her shoulder. “Attack them!”
“I’m launching the Kraken drones.” She said, sounding relieved. “I think I can fight off the Swarm, but not if I’m also being shredded by torpedos.”
She paused briefly and Rigby heard Robert ask a question through the comm. “What!? Sorry, Robert, we’ve got a little trouble here. What were you saying?”
“We’re attacking them!” Robert said through the comm. “It’s time to take the gloves off!”
“We’re doing the same.” Rigby said, “We are counterattacking the fleets.”
Robert guessed that that meant they might not get any reinforcements from Siren for the time being. After his command, Beowulf had opened his remaining undamaged troop gates and his drones were flooding out onto the field. The two original shock troop designs were present, the Siege beast and hell hounds. The two mantis types appeared, the acid bladed mantis samurai and the web slinging spider mantisses. Several of the dronents joined the fight to provide artillery support. Finally, huge worm like creatures with smoke escaping from their closed mouths streamed out of the openings and stopped near the inner perimeter berm. These were not really drones at all, but they were Beowulf’s answer to the ‘What if the Swarm attacked again?’ question. They were valved tubes which stretched all the way down into the Beowulf’s taproot, and they could open their maws and unleash a stream of fresh hot magma. All around the areas where those missiles had hit, the ground was boiling with Beowulf’s writhing roots as he attempted to crush the invading Swarm bugs faster than they could eat him.
“Give us an overhead view of the battlefield, please Beowulf.” Kate said, and the screen changed. Each of Beowulf’s drone types were marked by a different symbol as were the enemy troops and vehicles. The Livingston group of soldiers were attacking strangely. Instead of sending the helicopters ahead, they were all moving together in a group towards the tree, at the speed of a good jog.
On the screen they could see the spider mantisses start to engage the attack helicopters. One of the side screens showed a view of one of the choppers firing missiles at the tree when suddenly thick bands of sticky webbing shot up above its rotor. The moving air and gravity forced the strands to arc down directly onto the blades. The blades cut the strands but portions of the webbing clung to the blades slowing them and screwing up the balance. Smoke began to pour out of the top of the helicopter and it started to lose altitude, dropping off the screen.
Beowulf’s other drones engaged the soldiers or the Swarm bugs that had been fired from the helicopters. They were gaining ground on both fronts, and Beowulf’s forces soon pushed the soldiers back from the second trench. Then the tanks started to arrive within range and targeted drones with their main cannons. The tree’s forces took heavy losses from the first volley, but they became more watchful and wary, moving whenever the tank’s guns swiveled towards them, but the need to keep dodging shells kept the drones from advancing and even allowed the armored soldiers to push back. The dronents targeted the tanks with their artillery, rapidly firing off their explosive shells with deadly efficiency and accuracy, turning the battle in Beowulf’s favor once again.
The transport helicopters returned and dropped off a second wave of soldiers. The helicopters lingered to support the troops with their 0.50 cal guns and flamethrowers. The 0.50 cal was very effective against Beowulf’s drones. The only type that could survive the spray was the siege beast, and only if it balled itself up to cover its soft spots. The dronents had limited ammo, but began targeting these helicopters as well.
From the Southwest, trios of Air force drones began to arrive and target Beowulf’s forces with anti-tank missiles, swooping in, firing, and returning to base to be reloaded. Beowulf didn’t have a drone to counter their attacks.
The battle had reached a temporary equilibrium, but the mass of soldiers from the North had nearly arrived, and would certainly turn the tide. Robert watched a view of them approaching on one of the smaller screens.
“There’s something strange about those soldiers from the north, Wolf. Can you put them on the main screen and zoom in?” He asked, the dryad gestured and the view changed. The dryad was distracted as he controlled the actions of each of his drones simultaneously, but he still followed Robert’s commands.
“There see!” Robert pointed excitedly. “At their feet, those are Swarm bugs. And look behind that line of soldiers, isn’t that… Isn’t that one of those big Swarm bugs?” Beowulf’s head snapped up to the screen.
“Does that mean that that’s the Swarm Swarm?” Kate asked.
“Yes.” The dryad answered tersely. The mass from the north joined the fight. The soldiers fired their weapons, and the tanks fired their cannon. The helicopters launched rockets, and the Swarm surged forward on the ground. It was like the first attack, years ago, except this time, the Swarm had support of military weaponry. A black mist began to form around the newly arrived group, they had Swarm mites with them as well. The mist began to spread out along the circular line of human soldiers around the tree. As the mist reached them they convulsed and clawed at themselves, then fell.
A figure appeared standing above the soldiers from the north. It was like a huge black humanoid statue. It raised it’s arm and pointed towards Beowulf and troops, tanks, and Swarm around it surged forward, breaking Beowulf’s line of drones and pushing them back to the inner berm. Robert turned to look at Beowulf’s face and saw a quick defiant lip curl. A dronent targeted the figure and fired. The explosive shell hit and detonated, dissolving the figure momentarily. But it reformed almost instantly, in precisely the same pose. The recently infected fallen soldiers around the tree’s perimeter began to rise and return to attacking Beowulf’s drone forces.
The drones had been pushed back and were still taking losses. If it hadn’t been for his lava spraying worms, the Swarm would have reached the tree when it’d broken the second line. Now they were just struggling to put up any fight at all. Robert had turned back to watch the screen in silence and the dryad placed a giant hand on his shoulder. “I have more troops I can deploy, but I do not think it’s enough to turn the tide of this battle. With your permission, I would like to end this.”
“End it how?” Robert asked, already suspecting the answer.
“Fission bombs.” The dryad said. “One targeted right at that figure, Maple, I presume.”
“What about your injuries?” Kate asked.
“The bombs will inflict some damage on myself, but that can’t be helped, it’s still the optimal solution.” Beowulf explained evenly.
“Do it.” Robert said. Why not? Those soldiers were already dead. Killed by those Swarm mites. Beowulf had cleaned up fallout before, and could do it again. They were already at war with the US and would have to see it through to the end. Three quick flashes came from one of the tree’s upper branches high in the air. The objects shot up into the sky and then fell back down through spaces between the tree’s branches. One fell right on top of the imposing black figure, and the screen saturated with light then went to static.
After a moment, the screens started to turn back on. A view of the battlefield showed blackened burning steel husks that had once been tanks and helicopters. There was no sign of any remains of soldiers or Beowulf’s drones. A view of the trunk of the tree showed the damage the weapons had done to Beowulf. Since the initial strikes, the holes in his outer hull had widened and deepened from subsequent attacks. Now those areas were burning. Intense flames licked up the sides of the trunk. Slowly, the flames were being reduced. Beowulf was bringing water up from his roots to quench the flames.
The main screen changed suddenly to a satellite map of the park and surrounding states. Little red dots were appearing in North Dakota and moving towards the tree. “They’re retaliating!” Robert said.
“They think we just nuked their president.” Kate said, calmly. “Can you weather it, Wolf?”
“I think so.” The dryad said gruffly.
“Then we should be planning our counterattacks.” Kate said briskly. “You should launch drones at each airforce base, starting with Hill. Primary target being the centers of the runways, secondary being parked aircraft or hangars. Next you’ll want to subdue National guard bases starting with these newest around the park, and finally, we should make a show of taking hold of the Pentagon, the White House, and the Capitol building. Let there be no mistake that this is over.” The red dots moved closer to the tree.
“Are we still on with Siren?” Robert asked. “Rigby, we’re going on the offensive here. How are you doing out there?”
“We are all right, Robert. Just chasing away some retreating ships. We can launch our support troops now, they’ll arrive in four to eight hours depending on the target. Oh, and, we’ll send an emissary to Washington, to be our acting representative in surrender talks.”
The red dots arrived at the tree and Robert, Kate, and Beowulf paused. The dots disappeared, and the dryad winced. He waved his hand and the main screen showed his trunk again. Badly blackened all the way around and fires in the holes in his hull had redoubled. Blackened or burning leaves were falling all around the tree. For a moment, Robert recalled the image of the burnt out husk of the maple tree that had later become the Swarm, and shivered. Nothing like that was going to happen to Beowulf.
The charred branches started to shift positions and began firing off troops rapidly to locations around the nation. They met with varying levels of resistance but all of the targets were eventually taken and held after Siren’s reinforcements arrived. The fighting went well into the night, but by morning, the two trees had captured all of the major military bases in the US and had seized the Capitol. Rigby’s emissary was en route, but they’d deployed a few Com Spheres with the drones sent to the Capitol, and Beowulf’s drones had handed one to the new president.
“Congratulations Mr. President.” Robert said through the sphere in the man’s hands as two siege beasts loomed over him menacingly. “It’s time for you to surrender.” They were keen to get the man’s surrender because the US still had sizable military forces at sea and abroad. “Order all US military forces to stand down, and we will cease hostilities.”
“The US will not relinquish it’s sovereignty. Not on my watch.” The man had some backbone after all. Even in the face of resounding defeat. Robert thought he might come to like working with the guy.
“Order all US military forces to stand down, and we will cease hostilities.” Robert said again, exactly the same.
“Very well. Take me to the Capitol building.” The man said. “I’ll make the statement in front of the Congress and the cameras there.”
Rigby listened to the new president’s address in the Capitol. Somehow the man avoided saying the word surrender at all, but called for all of the United States military abroad to stand down while he and representitives from the trees sat down for peace talks. It was an impressive bit of word craft, and Rigby knew that Robert would let him get away with it. Atwood’s vice president had not been the one spurring hatred of the trees, he simply had had the misfortune of being a political tool for the man who did. Having heard the words, he was ready to sleep. It’d been over twenty four hour for all of them.
After Siren had been damaged by those powerful explosive drones, She’d quickly turned the battle in her favor with her Kraken drones. They destroyed the submarines, which unfortunately for the crews, went down with all hands, then proceeded to systematically hole each and every ship of the US and Russian blockade ships. The waters above them were still full of lifeboats awaiting rescue, one had rowed over to Siren’s dock and requested sanctuary. He asked her to turn them away, and have the Krakens start towing them to the nearest islands. Siren’s residents had been evacuated to the emergency shelter early in the battle, and they had since been released to return to their levels.
Damage to Siren had been confined to some of her upper arcology levels which were sealed off now until she could repair them. She had been concerned at the reports of damage she’d received from Beowulf. His wounds were deeper and wider than any of hers, so much so that she’d worried about his structurally integrity. He had damage to many of his first hundred arcology floors, with several of them destroyed by fire and contaminated with radiation. His residents would need to be relocated to higher levels during repairs.
The Tonga Convention
“I have begun to create the full size versions of the trees. They will be massive, awe-inspiring pillars standing in service to humanity. It is my hope that they will preserve humanity through all its darkest hours and guard them from anything and everything that would do them harm. I’m making six in total, five will stay here and one will be my conveyance and home on my new laboratory, where I can truly explore the full potential of these beings.” – Joshua Harken
Robert and Kate arrived at the waters near Siren’s entrance in a great wooden amphibious airplane drone that Beowulf had created. In the wake of the ‘peace talks’, they no longer had to worry about flying unauthorized vehicles through US air space. They had the run of the country. They also demanded that Yellowstone be left open perpetually, and they asked to be recognized by the US as an independent sovereign nation. There was still a lot of anti-arboreal sentiment in the US, especially amongst the families of the service men and women that had been killed by Beowulf’s nukes and drones, but there was little that could be done about it except try to set the story straight. The Harken’s had made sure that as much of the real story made it into the news, but for those people it was all too likely that the problem with the trees would always be that they existed.
It had been a year since the War of the Trees as it had been called by the world, and the world had started to talk about the three remaining nuts and what was to be done with them. That is why the Harken’s and Rigby had called a convention to take place within Siren, to settle the matter. They had invited all of the World’s nations that had access to a volcano or geothermal vents. It was to be a simple forum. Each nation in alphabetical order would make a presentation before Rigby, Robert, and Kate outlining their need for the tree and the benefits it would bring their people and the world as whole. During their presentations they must present the person they had elected to be planter and allow the trio to interview the candidate. The three of them would then decide the recipients of the new trees. To prevent any wrongdoing, the selections would be made secretly and all of the candidate planters would remain with Siren until all of the new trees were planted. If a candidate were to be selected they would receive instruction on how to plant the tree, and be sent covertly to the planting site where they must immediately plant the tree. Thus the only way a nation would find out if it had been selected would be by the new tree growing on their land.
The amphibious plane drone pulled up to Siren’s dock and a door opened in its side with a disembarkation ramp. Robert and Kate emerged and stepped out onto her dock. It had been years since they had left Beowulf and the South Pacific sea air and sun felt amazing. They took a moment to enjoy it out on the dock, before heading towards the door to Siren’s interior.
All of Beowulf’s residents had had a rough time after the war. They had lost everything they’d built in their new homes. They had survived and they had new levels to move to, but all of their personal belongings had been lost to fire or radiation contamination. For some, it had been like the first Swarm attack all over again. But the things they’d already gone through with the tree over the years had made them tough people. Beth and Armand had done a great deal of work to keep the residents’ spirits up after the ordeal. They had taken each of the trees’ major adventures, mostly heard from the Harkens, and converted them into long form verbal stories. Armand would then advertise the tellings and people would come just to hear. It was an especially popular place for residents to send their children for an hour and change of free daycare. After a while, it evolved into an actual daycare and had started to take on the appearance of a school. Nobody seemed to mind that the Guardians mixed a little of their beliefs in with the history lessons, and Dr. Standing had some of his younger men teaching the kids about the sciences.
The door from the docks opened into a small room with a row of elevators. They noted the lily petal doors, choose an elevator, and ordered it to take them to Rigby. They descended rapidly to Siren’s depths, and the door opened to reveal a neat living space. A beautiful wood-brown woman with green hair and shocking purple eyes greeted them as they stepped off the elevator.
“Hello, Robert and Kate.” Siren’s voice was as beautiful in person as it had been over the comms.
“Hello Siren.” Robert extended a hand to her, and she took it for a moment. Then the dryad moved over to Kate and gave her a hug. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
“I feel like I know you two so well already from everything Beowulf has told me.” She bowed her head slightly. “Welcome to our home. Theo is waiting in his office. He’ll be so glad to meet you.” She lead them to a room and announced them to Theo who stood at his desk and carefully walked around it to face the door. He held his hand out.
Robert stepped up and took it. Then reached his other arm around the man in a sort of handshake/hug combo. “Theo, it’s good to see you.”
“Robert. It’s been too long.” As Robert stepped back Kate rushed in and hugged Rigby. “And Kate, how have you been.”
“Good.” She said, her voice muffled by her head pressed into Rigby’s chest.
“That’s great. Welcome to our home. How was the trip on the new plane design?” Rigby asked.
They exchanged small talk for a while and caught up. Then they had dinner with Siren, and they regaled her with stories about the times they’d spent together after Beowulf was planted. She knew most or all of it already, but they enjoyed the telling and she seemed to enjoy listening. Eventually, Siren took the Harken’s off to their new temporary quarters for the duration of the convention.
The representatives and candidates were scheduled to start arriving the next day and they would start hearing presentations and interviewing as soon as the day after. It took a month to hear all of the presentations and interview the candidates. They heard four presentations a day and had to try and keep track of everything, trying to keep their judgment unbiased despite the onslaught of sales pitches. In the end, they decided that Italy, Iceland, and Japan had given the best presentations, they had doubts about their planter candidates, but Rigby explained that it was natural for them to be suspicious of people they were interviewing to give power to. Nevertheless they moved forward with the staggered planting plan they’d originally outlined.
Robert and Kate returned to Beowulf, leaving the nuts and the Archive with Siren, and the new planters with their nuts were secretly transported to their planting locations. Each new tree was planted without any trouble or interference, and each nation that awoke to discover that a tree had appeared in their skyline broke out in celebration that they’d been selected. For the first few months of each new tree’s life, the Archive was flown back to Beowulf, and the Harkens watched it and its planter like hawks. Searching for any signs of aggression, insanity, greed, or any weird behavior. All of the new trees and planters passed the preliminary tests. They now lived in a five tree world.
After the radiation in the park was cleaned for the second time, Beowulf reopened his doors to the public and people came in droves to visit or live with him. Dr. Standing and Dr. Wilson reestablished relationships with their colleagues and the University of Arboria and Rochester Memorial hospital returned to their former glory and beyond. There were meat deliveries again, and Robert cautiously started to hold his monthly feasts once more. There was still the risk of terrorist attacks, and Beowulf had foiled a few more, but after the War of the Trees and the death of Maple, the voracity and cruel brilliance of the attacks was gone. They felt safe again, safe to grow and expand.
Lying in bed one night cuddling with Robert after making love, Kate placed a hand on his chest. “Robert. I think it’s time. Things have been peaceful long enough. It’s time to try and have a baby.”
Joshua Harken took in the alpine evening air one last time. He stood outside of his tree-made-vessel near the Norris Geyser Basin in pristine Yellowstone park. He had planted his sixth servant tree here, but had commanded it not to take full root. It was here to grow, take on fuel, and prepare for the long journey ahead. He had had it sink a small taproot deep into the earth, penetrating into the liquid magma mantle. They needed access to the mantle in order to get all of the materials they’d need. It had taken a few months, but they would be ready to launch sometime tonight or early morning. He had commanded the tree to camouflage itself as a rock outcropping during their long stay in the park, and it had gone unnoticed.
He had left the other five nuts and the Archive back at his home in Red Eagle for Robert to find. He hoped Robert would understand. Joshua guessed that Robert may never plant the trees in his lifetime. Robert would know the risks, especially after talking to the cube.
He commanded the tree to take him back within, and restrain him. Then he ordered it to retract the tap root. The earth trembled a little, but Joshua figured that such a small hole should be self healing and any seismic disturbance would be very minor. He ordered the launch, and felt the powerful G-forces push him deep into his comfortable nest within the tree-vessel. They were on their way. The trip would take over two years. Joshua had chosen Venus as his hot lab for the creation of free trees. Gods Without Masters.