(A turn for the worse. The events herein occur in the same world as and are subsequent to Upheaval. These events occur before and simultaneous with the events of Dread and Sorrow).

I awaken. It hurts. But, on the bright side, I have not yet been consumed by the Hunger. By that huge growing mass of roots and tendrils that had chased me from my latest brief refuge. I try to roll over and my shoulder explodes in agony as whatever efforts my skin had taken to start healing around the burn are stretched by the movement. I’d given myself that burn. A necessary precaution to prevent infection. I am paralyzed by the pain for what seems like a long time, gasping and panting. The pain doesn’t really subside, but rather it seems to wear itself out, a troubling experience which suggests to me that my body is starved of basic resources. I am in bad need of water.

I try to push myself up into a seated position. Some of the pain returns at the movement, but not as much. I can’t really see what is around me. It is just tall grass, some of it flattened in a line by my crashdown. There are dark clouds roiling overhead, but there is still some daylight. I start to draw my legs up to my torso to get up, but my right leg suddenly locks up in a painful cramp. I try to stretch it back out, but it won’t go. I add the weight of my good arm on my knee and I manage to push it down and straighten the leg. The calf is still cramped and my foot is locked in a point. After the hamstring relaxes, I pull up the other leg, hoping to stand so that I can use my body weight to stretch the calf back into a relaxed position, but my other hamstring cramps up instead. I sit there, pushing down on my knees for several minutes. It is the lack of water that causes my legs to malfunction in this way.

When my leg muscles have calmed again, I very slowly draw them up and then use my good arm to get up into a crouch. From there, I manage to straighten up. The exertion triggers my hamstrings to try to lock up again, and I have to stand erect for a time until they give up and relax. I’m looking in the direction from which I had flown. The roiling clouds are coming from that way. Could be a bad sign. In the distance, I see bands of lighter color on the ridges. They are the giant roots of the Hunger which had consumed Revak’s dam sanctuary.

What had happened? I’ve seen the Hunger before, and it has never behaved like that. The Hunger is usually slow. I’ve seen samples of the Hunger infect living plants and animals before. The disease is called consumption, and it leads to wasting, then ravenous hunger, then death, and then often undeath as the disease attempts to use the afflicted to spread itself. It is a process that takes hours to days depending on the severity of the initial infection. The Hunger can consume most materials, but it acts very slowly on materials that aren’t soft flesh. This is the main reason that necromancers choose to become enliched. The Hunger that they like to employ as a weapon acts much slower on their dry bones.

What had I witnessed? The Hunger doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Revak had seemed so surprised and confused. There was that horrible sound. Perhaps it was some failsafe? Some trick that Revak had rigged up to dispose of the experiment if it went wrong? But then why had the lich moved to shield the poor creature? If one had set up such a device, and knew of its danger, then wouldn’t one just step back and let it run its course if it was mistriggered? And the speed, the horrible speed of it. This morning it had grown from the size of a table to the size of a foothill. Did Revak’s experiment somehow release some new form of the Hunger that he had created? But he’d claimed not be a necromancer. Indeed, he’d claimed to have warred against them with the magisters. There were too many questions, and no way to get them answered. Perhaps some God might know. It is said that they made the world after defeating the Hunger.

I think my legs can work again. To my left there is an edge to the grass. It could mark a depression which could be a creek or pond. I walk carefully in that direction. The grassy ground feels spongier as I get closer and there is a squishing sound to my steps. There is a wide, slow creek where the grass ends, I fall to my knees in the shallows and take a mouthful of water. I realize how dry my mouth is by how it feels now. I shallow a little. It hurts. Well, to be technically accurate, everything hurts, but in this case, the hurt of immediate concern is in my exceedingly dry throat. I swallow some more. The pain is less. I gulp down several mouthfuls. The water sits cool in my stomach. I try to get up and I am surprised by another round of cramps which cause me to crash down into the shallow water. My burned shoulder lands on a stone and a new shock of pain hits. It’s not a good day.

I lay in the shallow water for a while. I notice lightning flashes in the unnatural clouds above. I should get back to fleeing. I thought I’d escaped my doom earlier, but it has only changed forms. It has worsened considerably. I get my feet beneath me and stand. The Hunger roots in the distance appear to be more widespread, but the spread seems to have slowed for now. I pick my way back to the shore and follow the creek away from the Hunger.

“Where are you going?” I ask myself internally.

“Just away for now, just away.” I think.

“You should find help.” I tell myself.

“Help? Yes. That’d be nice.” I agree. This seems to end the odd inner dialog.

I walk until the light fades and I can no longer see a path. I focus my will through a headache and weave a thick blanket from the grass. Some bugs come out in the darkness, but I’ve got bigger concerns. I probe my burn with my will. It seems bad. I’ll try to address it in the morning. It’s hard to find anything near a comfortable position, but I fall asleep eventually.

I dream of the Hunger, and of the horrible sound that came when Revak’s creation awoke. He was trying to bring back the First People. That horrible sound. The growing Hunger. That poor person. The sound. The Hunger. I dream of the massive size of it. The way it spreads across the land, digging in, and infecting. I dream of people, shambling amid huge Hunger rhizomes that have broken into the walls of a city. Their skin is shining with a network of silvery Hunger, their mouths are gaping with insatiable need.

In the morning, I sense a fish in the creek when I go to take a drink. I will the water to hold the fish and I scoop it up. I kill it with a stone, and use my will to separate the meat. I place a large flat stone on three round stones to form an oven, and I will my grassy blanket to compact itself into a denser wood-like fuel for it. The flames heat the flat stone slowly, but the fish starts to sizzle. It cooks quickly and I pick off chunks of the flesh with my good hand to eat. It’s good and welcome, but I’m still so hungry.

“Eat more.” I tell myself internally.

“It’s all gone.” I reply, bemused.

“There is more.” I think, and I sense more animals around me. Rodents, rabbits, insects, and fish. “Eat.”

“I have to tend my wound.” I remind myself. “And then we’ve got to get moving.” I overrule the hunger and I shift my focus away from the animals and to my wound. I break up the destroyed flesh, and feed the nutrients to the living flesh around it, speeding up the healing. This method seals the wound quickly, but it leaves a nasty scar as there is no attempt to replace the destroyed flesh. But out here in the wastelands it’s more important to stop bleeding and prevent infection. This method also doesn’t do much for the pain, but in my rested state I can suppress that with my will if it gets too bad.

The clouds have spread far ahead of me, but they seem calmer and heavier. It looks like it will rain. I continue my trek down the pass, and after a few hours I start to feel droplets. I will more grass to form a hooded cloak for me. Not just woven this time, but with the tiny fibers separated and then closely tangled together to make a continuous fabric. I wonder at the source and contents of the rain. I suppose it could just be normal rain, but I have a strange feeling that it is alive somehow, that it, like me, hungers.

My senses search out again for food involuntarily. There is a family of groundhogs holed up in burrow not far away. I feel saliva flood my mouth as I study them. “No.” I think. “This rain is too suspicious, given the direction from which it came. I have to do everything I can to avoid infection with the Hunger.” I start walking again. “I’ve got to get to other people.”

“…To eat them.” The voice of my hunger suggests.

“No.” I argue. “To warn them. To tell them what has happened. To tell them what is coming.”

“Ah.” My inner voice chuckles, “But wouldn’t eating them tell them what is coming?”

“No. I mean, sort of. But no.” I change tactics, “Maybe they’ve got some food, eh? More like that fish?” My hunger seems pleased at the suggestion.

The rain continues. I notice that there are less signs life around me now. I dismiss the observation as being the result of critters buckling down to hide from the rain, until I spot a motionless duck next to the creek with a wing outstretched in the mud. I approach and use a twig to shift some of the feathers. There is a web of silvery lines on the skin. A telltale sign of death by Consumption. I prepare to incinerate the poor creature, but then I stop myself.

“Better to conserve your energy until you can feed.” My hunger suggests.

“Hmm.” I agree aloud. I look around the creek some more. There are some fish floating sideways in the water and some of the tall grass nearest the water has taken on a silvery hue. I hike up away from the water. “No more water, no more food. Not until we get away” I think.

“Why worry so much about it?” My hunger asks.

“I don’t want to end up like the duck.”

“You won’t.” My hunger states confidently. For a moment, I believe it.

“Nonsense.” I declare. “The Hunger always does the same thing, it’s simple and predictable.”

My hunger is incredulous, “The evidence suggests that statement is false. Do you feel well?”

I do. I feel great. Stronger even then before all of this. I look at my skin. The web of silver there shines in the light as I move. “I’m okay.”

“That’s okay then, let’s carry on.” the Hunger suggests. We move further down the pass. Feeling good, I start to jog.

I run all day without tiring. My leg muscles don’t burn, my heart doesn’t pound, and I’m never short on breath. In the evening, the rain has subsided. I stop and drink from the creek. There are more dead fish and there is more of the silvered grass, but these things don’t trouble me. I scoop up some of the fish and open my mouth. I find that I can open it much further than usual and I swallow the dead fish whole. Convenient. After the day’s running I’m visibly thinner. I reach out my senses to search for food.

Most of the animals are dead, but I sense their remains, and I feel the mass of plant life as well. I open my maw and will the food to fly in. I can feel the Hunger lending strength to my call. The matter rushes in and I leave a wide swath of land in front of me stripped bare of organic life. I’m certainly not thin now, and as the Hunger consumes the new biomass within me, I will it to enlarge my body. I grow several inches taller, my clothes strain. I turn and open my maw to feed again, taking in more of the available energy.

“Is… this wrong?” I ask the Hunger.

“Wrong? No. It’s this world that seems wrong. What is all of this stuff? I swept this world so clean, long ago. So clean that I could sleep in peace. But now… Look at all of this. None of this should be here.”

“That sound. What was that sound?” I ask.

“Just a minor alarm, triggered by detection of the enemy.”

“Like me?” My body grows another inch taller as the recently absorbed biomass is converted into my flesh.

“No. You are not the enemy, of course, though you once shared their form. I don’t understand why. You will help me to investigate this phenomenon.”

“I don’t know how I could…” I am interrupted by the sight and roar of an enormous fireball streaking across the sky above me, flying towards the direction from which I came. I can’t see the impact, but I feel the Hunger react to the attack on its main mass.

“That’s odd.” the Hunger states as it reaches my senses out in the direction from which the fireball came. Several miles away, there is an enormous will accompanied by a sizable group of smaller ones. “One of those you think of as Gods. Show it to me.” I start running toward the unknown God.

More burning missiles rise and start to fall from the sky ahead of me. These are smaller, and they explode some height above the ground, spreading a burning fluid across the infected wasteland. I speak to my internal companion, “Perhaps it is trying to contain and sterilize you.” Another huge fireball streaks overhead as the smaller ones continue to rain down. I get caught under one of the small ones and I am coated in the clinging fire. I feel it damaging my flesh but not as real pain. I stop and will the dirt below me to rise and cake itself around me, quenching and cooling the flames. I redistribute my remaining unburned flesh to be a more human form. Then I take flight, rising above the scorched pass amid the streaking fireballs. From my new vantage point I see the sea and the source of the fireballs.

There is a giant ship anchored off shore, with great metal tubes pointed towards me, flashing as they belch fireballs. “Endeavor.” I think.

“The ship?” The Hunger asks.

“No, the God.” I have to dodge a fiery missile. “I think the ship is named ‘The Brazen.'” I fly down towards the shore and land on a large rock. Waves crash against the stone below me, and I am illuminated by each burst from The Brazen’s tubes as if it were some rhythmic lightning. Down here the land is not infected, I cannot feel the Hunger all around me. Only within me.

“Get closer.” The Hunger demands. I dive into the sea. Beneath the waves, the sea is teeming with life. Clinging mussels, barnacles, algae, urchins, and starfish. I open my maw and feed on the sea life, taking on mass. The water complicates the process, but not terribly. I start to swim towards the ship, staying deep. I’ve never known such pressure. It causes me no harm. As I approach, two mechanical things detach from the underside of The Brazen, but they don’t seem to notice me.

“Seems Endeavor has sensed something, but he doesn’t know what to make of me.” I think. The mechanical things are squid-like, with bright shining cores that remind me of the scythe-beasts. Magical constructs.

“Let me try something.” The Hunger says, and my arms reach out and then separate from my body. They stretch into long silvery eels that swim at the constructs. New arms begin to emerge from my shoulders.

“Lots of new experiences for me today.” I muse.

“Oh yes.” The Hunger agrees. “For me as well.” The constructs react as the eels approach, suddenly brandishing bright steel stingers on the ends of long multi-articulated whips. One of them lashes out and chops an eel in half. Silver particles fill the water instead of blood. The too halves of the eel morph into smaller eels and dart in towards the construct’s body where they glom their bodies up against it and begin to liquefy. The Hunger spreads over the surface of the first construct. The second construct shoots away from its eel with a contraction of its body.

Above, the booms from The Brazen’s firing tubes stop and shortly after the massive anchor starts to rise. I swim to it and grab on. When the anchor is some distance clear of the bottom, a new vibration starts and two great impellers near the aft of the ship start to turn in opposite directions. I see the silver Hunger finish enveloping the first construct, the shining core is no longer visible, and it sinks towards the sea floor. The second construct continues to evade the second eel, trying to draw it away from The Brazen.

The anchor ratchets its way up to a stop near the surface and halts. I climb up the huge chain to a hole high on the side of the hull. It’s easily big enough to climb through but I search ahead with my senses first. There are several people within securing the anchor chain winch. I reach my will out to the anchor chain below my feet and begin to dissolve the matter into dust which I gather in the air above my shoulder. As my void roots weaken the chain link, the metal starts to bend and strain. It gives with a loud snap and the chain below the anchor falls to the depths.

The Hunger within reaches through me to the dust I’d gathered and it begins to become silvery. I sense that the people within are distracted by the noise of the link snap and the sudden change in tension. I will the now silvery dust to fly up into the chain port and disperse into their faces, as I climb my way up after it. I pull myself in and I see the uniformed crew clawing at their faces and screaming. By the time I climb down from the winch apparatus, they are all lying on the floor, twitching silently. I reach down and place a hand on each of their heads, using the trick that the Hunger showed me on the chain dust to transform more of their flesh directly into the Hunger. I feel it spread quickly within them and it takes control of the lifeless bodies. I will them to stand and I send them out to feed and spread the infection. These are not the shambling Consumption victims I remember, these run recklessly, locking onto targets and pursuing them relentlessly.

I reach down to the wood floor and will more Hunger to form from it. It grows out in a radiant root-like pattern from my palm. I have infected The Brazen now. It will be the Hunger’s ship. I walk out into the hallway belowdecks. There are shouts and screams as my new crew feeds and spreads. I feel Endeavor’s crew fighting back, but their blades and crossbows do little to dissuade their attackers. I sense some stronger wills fighting with more effective weapons. Endeavor’s officers fight with magic, but they avoid the use of fire in a mistaken hope of saving the ship. I drag my hand along the wall as I head up to the deck, creating and spreading more Hunger. I feel it growing around me and it makes me feel stronger.

I reach the deck and turn to look upon the bridge. A stony-eyed mustachioed figure stares at me from behind thick glass. I feel the God’s disapproval as if it has several hundred pounds of weight. But my body is much stronger now and I step forward. “Hmm…” The Hunger within me muses. “So this is what you call a God.” The God raises a hand, signaling to someone behind him. There is a sudden hissing sound as hatches open above the bridge and some sort of fabric inflates into huge rope bound balloons which float upwards and start to lift the bridge away. I try to move faster, try to reach and infect the hidden airship before it gets away. Endeavor frowns and the weight upon me increases. The bridge rises away from the decks of the ship. Fleeing human crew divert to diving overboard or fleeing to some of the vessel’s dinghies. They seem eager to clear the deck. The weight of Endeavor’s gaze is still upon me but it is getting lighter as the airship gains altitude.

On the underside of the airship, doors open and six of those firing tubes appear and start to swivel towards me. They belch flame and the missiles burst overhead, spreading the liquid fire over the deck and my body. I struggle to the rail under the weight of the God’s anger. The liquid burns and burns. I manage to flop over the rail and fall into the water. The liquid keeps burning. I swim downwards. The pressure builds and eventually snuffs the fire out. I shed the burned flesh and find myself much smaller than before. A shark catches me in its mouth. silver spreads out from my flesh and coats the beast’s teeth, and then moves into its flesh. It reopens its mouth to get rid of the problematic meal and I take the opportunity to swim deeper into it. The silver Hunger envelopes the shark and I will it to reshape the mass into my humanoid form. The airship thoroughly bombards The Brazen, and I see flames raging all around the shadow of the vessel above me at the otherwise black surface.

“You have done well.” The Hunger assures me.

“What are they then, these Gods?” I ask.

The question hangs without a response in my mind for a moment. “A nuisance for me. For you, they will be food. Let’s see if we can create more servants.” I swim back to shore, and I pause to watch the burning ship break apart and sink. I cannot see the airship, but I hear explosions from beyond the coastal highlands, as Endeavor continues the fight. I run back up into the pass, to the infected wastelands.

It’s late in the night now, but I feel no need or desire for sleep. When I get back to the infected lands I sit in the silver grass and I reach out to the Hunger. Its senses are enormous, too much to handle all at once. I concentrate on a familiar landmark, miles and miles away. A fortress in the hills on the border of the wastelands. Banonope. An ancient stronghold of the necromancers, conquered by the Order of the Magisters during the latest War of the Gods and converted into a prison for the immortal lichs that had survived to be captured and later for other magic using criminals. If any would make fitting servants of the Hunger, it would be them.

“Perfect.” The Hunger comments. “Would you like to attack tonight?”

“Impossible. It’s several days run from here.”

“Let me move you there faster.” The Hunger says, and I feel my body becoming liquid silver and flowing down into the grass. The Hunger pulls me along itself underground through a network of silvery roots and rhizomes along and just under the surface of the infected wastelands. I’ve no sense of direction for the journey, and I can’t quite grasp what is really happening as I travel. But shortly, I am reforming again, rising from the former flesh of a bear that was consumed by Hunger in an unfamiliar valley. I feel the same. I’m still me.

“Are you?” I new voice inside asks. “Don’t you even remember what you were thinking this morning?”

I remember that’d I’d been feeling a strong hunger in the morning. “Of course.” I respond and the voice disappears. I get the feeling that it had not achieved whatever it had wanted.

I reach out my senses and map the immediate terrain. I’m about five miles upland from Banonope. I exude a copy of my old magisters robe and I hide the silvery web that marks my skin. There is no God at Banonope, so I can just walk in under guise as myself. I start to walk down. It’s better not to use my unnatural running ability as I could be noticed by normal magical sense even at this distance, and I don’t want to appear to be anything more than a magister looking for a little refuge and shelter. The walk tests my patience, but I make it to the high walls of the fortress before daylight. The fortress was built from massive irregular blocks of granite that were inexplicably made to fit together perfectly. Nevertheless, the walls show age and battle damage, and a pile of fallen granite rip rap rings them.

A hooded magister waits in front of the gates, watching as I make my final approach. Two more wait on the walls, no doubt having prepared some magic to unleash against me if I should prove a threat. When he sees my robe he lowers his hood, and smiles, reaching out a hand to me. I smile back.

Dread and Sorrow

(Heed the title, this is no tale of mirth. This story belongs to same world as Upheaval. and these events occur subsequent to the events of that story.)

It’s not easy for an orphan to stay alive in the city of Dread and Sorrow. The gangs and cults want to use them, and the guilders mostly turn a blind eye. They’ve got their own children to look after, and bringing in orphans often creates troubles with gangs or cults. If an orphan child should make it to a healthy youth, then there are work crews that recruit in the city for soldiering, farming, mining, or sailing. I, for one, got roped into a gang of toughs. Quite literally at first, but I managed to talk my way out of the restraints and into some time to heal my wounds. It has cost other people for me to keep myself alive in the gang, but I have peace with that because I steer the gang’s activities toward people that are no good. I don’t consider myself a big hero or anything. More like I scavenge or predate from the predators.

I’m with Cutter on a bit of a stalk. We heard a few nights back about a big stir up in the cults. Decrees from Dread and Sorrow themselves, supposedly. The cults are mustering up, getting ready to join together for some holy war or something. Not really our problem, but we heard that a small cult’s been rounding up children as recruits. It is supposedly a trick to give the cult leader a higher rank in the new army, because of a rumor that the ranks are based on follower counts. After we heard that I got to talking with Cutter about how we were once wee orphans and what we would do to be saved from being forced into some cult army, and how we could use some trustworthy little ones for casing and spying. Cutter liked my talk well enough and now we’re tracking the cult leader.

He’s a lanky one, the cult leader, taller than both of us, and easy to pick out in a crowd, even in the city’s near perpetual gloom. He’s covered in a black robe with figures of flame and strife in red stitching, indicating a worship of Dread. The faithful of Dread can be dangerous sorts, seeking in their services to inspire in others or themselves a feeling of deep dread. This is not to say that every Dread worshiper is sacrificing the innocent on a weekly basis, more often they just recount tales of horror to eachother. But there are those that prefer to create the tales of horror themselves, and those in the cults that protect such monsters from what little justice can be had by appeal to the city guard or the Order of the Magisters. I think that this one is closer to the monstrous variety rather than the storytelling type.

The lanky one ducks down an alley, and Cutter gives me a nudge. We push faster through the evening throngs to the alley, and we see the lanky one standing with a heavy door open, watching us. I meet Cutter’s eyes and give a little nod towards the cultist. We approach him looking friendly and curious. “We meet in two days, but it’s not a good time to join up just now.” He calls. “War’s on. If you join up now, you’ll be called to march with us.”

That bugs me, and I drop the smile. “I heard you’ve been looking pretty hard for new recruits. Little ones especially. Figured I’d inquire.”

The lanky one’s eyes narrow, and he practically snarls, “Oh, really. Best we carry this on in private then.” He holds the door open and gestures in to us. I think about punching him in the face right then, but it’d be better inside. I place a hand on Cutter’s shoulder to gently press towards the door so he doesn’t try to shiv the cultist too soon. Cutter reaches a hand into his coat as we step through the door.

There’s not much in the dark interior to suggest a cult meeting place. I don’t see a lamp or candle by the entrance to light, which is an odd oversight, but the darkness serves us alright for now. Cutter sidesteps into the darkness next to the open door and waits in ambush. I stand a few steps in, facing the door, looking relaxed. The lanky one steps in and turns his back to me as he pulls the door closed. When I hear the latch, I surge forward and slam his head into the door. I press it against the wood as I grab his wrist and twist his arm behind his back. “Thought you could get away with stealing some kiddies, eh?” I hiss into his ear. “Cutter and I don’t like that much.” Cutter steps up behind me, a short, sharp blade clutched in his hand and held low near his waist.

It takes a moment for the lanky one to say anything, “You’ve got it wrong. I thought you were the ones that came for children.” Something gritty suddenly flies from the door into our eyes and I have to pinch mine shut. More of the stuff comes and tries to flow into my nose and mouth. It’s got a woody smell and flavor. I try to heave the lanky one over and down so I can free my hands to defend my face, but instead he pushes off the door and shoves me back into Cutter. I fall to the floor and try to cover my face as the stuff keeps trying to get in. I hear the lanky one’s now calm and confident voice, “I’m a magister. I’ve been getting those children out of here. Now, are you going to stay calm?”

“Oh Aye, enough of this.” Cutter gasps.

“Yeah alright.” I agree, and cough as some of the stuff gets in when I speak.

“Good.” The gritty stuff stops trying to get into our eyes and lungs, and I see it fly up to a point over the lanky one’s shoulder where it condenses into a ball and lights up. In the new light, I see a strange pattern of gouges in the door radiating out from where I’d had him pressed up. “Now tell me who you are and why you’re here.”

“Just as we said.” I hauled myself up from the floor. “We didn’t like what we heard about what you were doing. Still don’t.” I look around the room and see little more than small living quarters. There are no alters, no statues, not even a pennant indicating any fealty toward Dread. “My associate and I are concerned citizens.”

“Uh-huh.” The lanky one sounded unconvinced. “Suppose you are concerned citizens, are you concerned enough to help me out tonight?” Cutter shakes his head.

“Suppose we just get out of here…” Cutter says, trying to shove the lanky one out of the way of the door. The lanky one holds his ground, and where Cutter grabs him the cult robe bunches up around his hands and starts flowing over his arms. Cutter tries to pull his arms back, but they’re stuck firm in the cloth. The lanky one shrugs out of the robe and leaves it flowing up Cutter’s arms and over his head and body. He watches me closely and I see more of the strange gouges appear in the floor at his feet and light brown dust flies up from them into a flat swirling disk which forms between us. With his strange cloud up, I see him walk to a wardrobe and pull out a magister’s robe. I’d seen the like before, and I usually try to steer clear of them, given the frequently illegal activities of the gang.

Cutter keeps struggling inside of the flowing cloth trap, but I hear his rapid breathing and cursing, so I know he’s not suffocating. He manages to get a little rip started and the magister grabs a few shirts from his wardrobe and tosses them on Cutter, where they sort of melt into and thicken the cloth mass and seal the rip. “You really are a magister.” I say, trying to keep eyes on both the wriggling and gasping cloth mass of Cutter and the magister and his ominous dust swirl.

“Just as I said, and if you won’t help me tonight, I’ll need the two of you to stay right here until the job is done.”

Cutter’s curse filled retort was largely inaudible from under the cloth mass, but the magister and I understand well enough. The cloth mass pulls him down to the floor and then stretches him flat on his back before the cloth fibers sort of meld into the wood flooring, trapping Cutter snugly. I raise my hands non-threateningly towards the magister, “What’s this business of yours, then?”

“Some Dread cults are gathering tonight for a human sacrifice, they think it’ll give them luck in the coming war.” The magister meets my eyes, “I aim to interfere.”

“Just the two of us? Against several Dread cults? Bad odds, those.” I eye up Cutter’s cozy looking cocoon.

“I talked the other cult leaders into giving me some time with the sacrifice to make preparations before the ceremony.” The magister explained. “I don’t know what condition the victim will be in, and I might need another pair of hands to help pull them out. So you’ll pose as my personal torturer.”

“It’s a lot of trouble.” I realize. “Is this victim someone to you?”

The magister’s brow furrows. “The victim isn’t a sacrifice yet, and shouldn’t be one.”

The response seemed a little simplistic, almost childish to me. But I found myself liking it just fine. “Alright then, but I’m no actor.”

“That’s okay, we’ll let your disguise do the acting for you.” The magister said, eyeing me up and down and smiling as if he’d just thought of a joke. “You got a name?”

“A few.” I admit, “But none proper. Yourself?”

“In this city…” The magister turns to rummage through the wardrobe. “…I am properly called Canis.”

“A proper Canis, then.” I smirk. “Got it.”

The magister hands me a large black robe which flows over my body, covering me from head to toe. I feel my own clothes disappear into it. “This is the disguise, then, Canis?” I ask awkwardly.

“It is indeed.” The floating dust swirl flows into my robe and it starts to harden in places into a substance like leather. I see some spikes emerge, and raised red patterns in the style of Dread. I feel a belt emerge and on it various blades and hooks formed from some black material with little weight. Light as they are, I doubt that they would be of any use except as ornaments for the disguise. There is no looking glass in the room, but I imagine I look a fright. Canis asks, “How is the fit?”

“Best I’ve ever had. Don’t care much for the style, though.”

Canis smiles. “Help me well tonight, and I’ll make you whatever garb you wish.” I nodded appreciatively. At my best in terms of clothing, I’d recovered some clothes that’d been stolen from a well-off guilder. They fit poorly, but had looked and felt great to me nevertheless. Time and hard use had taken them from me eventually, but I learned the value of a good set of clothes, and I doubt I could do better than what Canis could produce with his magic.

As Canis donned his own attire for the evening, I kneel down next to the prone and cloth covered Cutter, and whisper in his ear, “You all right?” His muffled response sounds like assent. “Good. Did you hear the plan?” Again, Cutters muffled assent. “Right then, I’ll be back tonight to get you loose.” A less enthused grunt this time. I give him some reassuring pats and get back to my feet.

Canis has donned a scarlet robe hemmed with gold around the hood. He grabs a large staff from the wall which appears to be formed from a number of sticks that are twisted together. At the top, the sticks spread out to form a twisted spherical cage. Canis holds the top of the staff in front of his face and looks at it hard. The top spherical shape unravels and reforms into a more malicious looking twin prong fork with pointed ends. “Are you ready, torturer?” Canis asks in an assumed voice, laced with malice.

I growl wordlessly in response, practicing letting the disguise do the intimidation. Canis bobs his hood in appreciation and moves brusquely toward the door. “Then we’re off.”

I follow the cloaked magister through the alleys and streets, marking the path we take in case I have to return alone to cut Cutter free. I also mark the hateful or fearful gazes that we get as we pass through a wider birth in the streets than I have ever enjoyed. No one wants to bump into either of us accidentally.

Canis leads us to a low stone meeting hall surrounded by Dread cultists, more than I’ve ever seen in one area. They are packed in front of the closed double doors of the hall up to a semicircle of cruelly spiked barricades and black robed cultists with drawn swords. Approaching the edge of the crowd, and seeing that no one moves out of the way, Canis knocks the butt of his staff against the cobblestones and one of the sticks of the staff begins to glow bright orange. He then points the staff ahead of him and begins to walk forward confidently. The crowd parts.

Some of the cultists in the crowd are fully robed, and some are more plainly dressed with arm or head bands of red or black with various fearful patterns. Almost all of them share in common a predatory demeanor and gaze, as if everything that they see is a potential meal. I know that these are the worst sort, the sort that wants to inspire the stories of Dread.

We reach the barricades and Canis stops. I stop behind him, trying to look as though everything is going to plan. “Move.” Canis growls. Two of the cult guards pull a barricade out of the way to let us pass. We walk towards the doors and they open in front of us without anyone appearing to have touched them. I can’t tell if it is Canis’ magic or some cultist trick. The interior is torchlit, but dark. As we step in the doors slam shut behind us. Canis jumps a little in surprise at the sound. I raise my eyebrow invisibly behind my mask.

Four of the black robed cult guards stand in front of another set of double doors on the far end of the dimly lit antechamber. Canis strides forward and I follow at his flank. One of them takes a step forward and addresses us, “Here for the sacrifice?”

“Yes.” Canis hisses menacingly. “Where?” The speaker motions towards the double doors and two of the guards pull them open, and the others move out of the way.

The meeting hall is brightly lit with roaring wall sconces. There are no chairs or pews tonight, just scarlet carpet laid over the stone floor and tapestries of the same color on the walls. The smell of burning oil is strong. At the far end of the hall there is a raised dais where three scarlet cloaked figures wait near an empty stone table that is outfitted with various leather and steel bands and restraints. Canis walks forward to meet them and I follow, sweating in my disguise.

“The Canis has arrived.” One of the scarlet figures bobs her red hood towards us. This one is leaning on the stone table, and stitched in gold on the back of her robe is the image of an eagle with outstretched wings perched above an over-sized skull. A wide, muscular one turns to face us with an evil chuckle. His hands are joined in front of him, hidden inside of great scarlet sleeves. The third figure draws two long thin blades and steps effortlessly up onto the stone table and then leaps impossibly over us. I turn and watch the figure land lightly and start to walk towards us.

Canis taps the butt of this staff on the ground and releases some wave of force that I feel pressing my body back like a sudden gust of wind as it passes us. It’s not enough force to cause any harm, it feels like more of a warning. “I don’t have time for games tonight. Where is the sacrifice?”

The woman stands upright and lowers her hood. She grins toothily. “Oh, Canis. You ARE the sacrifice, and look, you’ve brought another victim.”

Canis lifts his staff in both hands and it starts to shine more brightly. The bigger tough-looking cult leader whips two knives out of his sleeves and they fly unerringly into my companion’s shoulders. His staff drops. I feel sharp steel pressed into the side of my neck. Evidently, the swordsman caught up behind me during the brief distraction. I see the muscular one pull another pair of knives out of his sleeves and hold them at the ready.

Around Canis’ feet, dust starts to rise out of the carpet in that same strange pattern that I’d seen on the door earlier, but much larger this time. The muscular one flicks another knife out. Some of the dust seems to try to rush to meet it but does nothing to stop it from piercing into one of Canis’ thighs. The eagle-skull woman steps forward and places a hand on the ground several feet in front of Canis. There is a rumbling and sharp stone spikes start to rise from the floor all around the magister. Most of them rise to form cage around him but some are angled to pierce through his arms, legs, and torso. Canis roars in pain and frustration. None of the wounds are aimed to kill.

Canis is now hung up upon bloody stone spikes in front of me, unable to move except for painful looking convulsions. The muscular cult leader walks up, smiling cruelly, and dust flows up from the floor at his feet and packs itself around Canis’ wounds, blocking some of the blood loss.

The eagle-skull woman’s head pokes out around Canis’ bloody stone stockade and stares at me. “Is the sacrifice properly prepared, torturer?”

“I reckon so.” I say and nod carefully, keenly aware of the sword at my neck. The magister and I weren’t friends, but I sympathize with his goals and I’m not happy to see him about to be ritualistically murdered. I also feel a strong urge not to join him in his condition.

“No.” The woman states matter-of-factly. “No. I think he could use another cut. Give him one for me, will you?”

I grunt and heft a small curved knife from the belt. I test the edge with my thumb. Whatever material it is, it holds the edge well enough. I feel the sword lift from my neck. “Good. Make the first cut, torturer.” I walk up to Canis’ side and avoid looking up to his face as I lift the blade and rake it cruelly along his side, producing a deep cut. Canis convulses in pain as the blood wells up. “Well done.” The woman congratulates me earnestly. “Stand aside now.”

The double doors of the main hall open and the cultists from outside enter in a loose line, each carrying a bare blade or hook. Each one cuts or stabs Canis and then moves to the side to watch the ongoing torture. My mask hides my horror, their faces seem eager, scornful, or gleeful. As more and more cultists join us in the hall, Canis is reduced to a bloody mess, barely reacting to each new wound. I avoid looking his way whenever possible, but the faces of the cultists and their leaders aren’t much better. It’s like they’re seeing and doing something else, it’s as if none of this really matters. I start to explore that meaninglessness. I think back to how clever I felt when I’d talked my way out of that first beating, and I see that it led me to here anyway, to nothing. I consider the thrill of fleeing after a good caper, and I see that those chases brought me to nothing. I realize that the nothing is better than the horror and anxiety. I stop thinking about what the cultists will do to me once they’ve finished with Canis. I stop worrying about what’ll happen to Cutter if I don’t make it back to him. I stop hating the uncaring cruelty of these cultists. I plunge into the nothingness.

The line of cultists tapers off and ends. The three cult leaders approach Canis and lay hands on the bloody stone spikes. They dissolve into dust, and Canis slumps to the floor. The muscular one and the swordsman lift Canis up and lay him on the stone table on the dais. Blood runs down the gray stone as if the carpet were a catching condition. The room smells of blood, sweat, and burning oil. It is unnecessary to bind Canis to the table.

A darkness appears at the entrance to the hall, and the flames in the sconces lower. The cultists fall silent and turn to stare at the doors. Now, I see fear in their faces. I feel nothing.

The darkness moves into the room and in the dimming light I see a large humanoid with a body seemingly composed entirely of miniature humans somehow writhing in and bound together by viscous ink. Most of the cultists are holding their breath, the three cult leaders bow their heads. Dread itself walks into the meeting hall and approaches the dais.

“We march tomorrow.” The pressure of the god’s voice causes the gathered cultists to gasp or shrink back, many of them fall to their knees. My body registers the strange force of the words, but I feel nothing. “The Hunger has been awoken as it has not been for millennia. It will consume all if we fail to end it. This magister would undermine our war efforts and will now be made to serve Dread.” Dread stops a few feet short of the dais and stretches out an arm towards Canis. The arm elongates, makes contact with the bloody mass and starts to flow over and around magister. I am reminded of the trick that Canis had first pulled on Cutter. Soon the remains are covered in the God’s inky substance and he lifts it from the table as if the mass were an over-sized fist at the end of an impossible arm. The arm starts to contract and the mass that was once Canis disappears into the writhing inky flesh of the God, and the arm reforms into its more standard form.

I realize that the God is looking at me. All around me the cultists are cowering or kneeling. My body notes a pressure from the gaze, but it inspires no particular emotion in me. “Attend my wife.” The God commands. Dread and Sorrow are said to be wed, whatever that means for Gods. I know nothing of attending the Goddess, and I don’t really care about the command.

Dread turns and walks out of the hall. The cultists, even the cult leaders are still overcome with fear and horror. I wriggle my way out of the crowd and walk out of the hall. The streets outside are silent except for a weeping woman across the way. The sound attracts me and I approach. The woman is seated on the street, obviously overcome by the sight of Dread. I kneel down and envelope her in my arms until her crying subsides. The embrace starts to feel awkward and I release her and stand. There is something bright in her eyes when she looks up, but it disappears into confusion when she looks at my mask and my cold eyes.

I wander away. I almost forget about Cutter, but after a few aimless blocks I go back to the hall and then start to retrace my steps to the late magister’s abode. I turn down the little alley and see several of the black robed cult guards standing outside the magister’s home with torches, and flames are roaring out of the open door. Cutter is probably dead then. Burned alive in confusion with no hope for escape. I feel a little twinge of emotional pain at that, but it is brief, and the nothingness returns shortly.

The nothingness within speaks again, “Let me show you a new enemy.” My sense stretches to dizzying lengths, to distances which I never knew were possible, across landscapes that differ so completely from my city that I do not comprehend them. There, far away, is an enormous mass of bright, glowing, and growing life. I find it offensive. “This is The Hunger. Join me at the keep tonight, we will march with Dread tomorrow.”

I hear a voice from the nothingness, “Attend to me, my chosen.” The voice of the abyss is female and I drown in it. “I can show you how to bring the nothing into the world.” I become aware of the world around me as I’ve never been before. It is so active and so alive. It seems wrong. Ahead of me down the alley, I feel concentrated points of life. The Dread cult guards. The air is nicely cold and still. I close my eyes and will the air to gather around the guards. More and more and more until the concentrated points of life start to fade. I open my eyes and I see the guards burning in the thickened air of the alley, their eyes bulging and their skin blistering. This seems right to me.

I wander towards the keep. Dread cultists are running amok. Fires are raging all around the city. I hear intermittent shouts and screams. Blacksmiths’ forges are roaring and cultists are dropping off stolen iron and steel. The smiths work under savage guard to hammer out swords, pike tips, and arrow heads. Great numbers of the cultists line the streets around the keep in irregular units.

Some of the gathered cultists challenge me, and I will the nothing to fling them out of my path. I expect this to be sufficient to secure undisturbed passage, but someone tests me further by firing an arrow at me. I brush it away in flight like an obnoxious fly.

At the gates of the keep a well-armored and well-disciplined force is gathered. Some of them call at me, but otherwise they ignore my movement. Some women in gray dresses wait by the gate. The gray seems so bright amid the blacks and reds of Dread. Their dresses and hair move with an odd delay in settling down as gravity would pull them, as though they are having difficulty being convinced that they aren’t underwater. It is so beautiful. I will my torturer’s garb to the same gray and eliminate the spikes and hard leather bits. My newly gray robes flow in the air as if it were too thick. The women see me and begin to flow in my direction.

Expressionlessly, they place hands on me and I on them. Their hands are cold, as are their bodies. I feel the nothing within them and it is right. “Sorrow awaits.” One states hollowly.


A blast of force and fire woke us. Likely from Wryan who’d had the second watch that night for our camp. I leapt out of bed, just in time to avoid the swipe of a bony scythe the size of a tree which tore through the tent canvas and my bedding before lifting the whole tent away, ripping away its tiedowns. I reached my senses out reflexively, so I sensed another scythe slicing in from the right and ducked. Marris was cleaved in half by the brutal swipe as she struggled up. I took off at a sprint away from the general direction the scythes seemed to be coming from, and I called to the dirt, air, and wood around me. The materials answered my call and dissolved into dust in whip like tendrils from the earth and trees that I rushed past. This matter chased after me in a cloud much bigger than my footsteps could ever have raised, ready to be formed to my purposes. I sensed I’d gained some distance from the monster, and turned.

The thing was all hard bone and magic. Numerous wide spade edged legs surrounded its shining core like a shield wall, and it held at the ready three long segmented limbs ending in the familiar deadly scythes. The spade legs were slicing forward in sequence as the monster built speed toward Wryan who floated among the trees with four swirls of matter rotating in the air in front of him. I rose in the air myself as two of Wryan’s matter swirls tightened their spins, flashed bright, and streaked towards the monster. The other magister immediately floated back to maintain distance, as one of his bolts shot straight and fast towards the monster’s bright core and the other followed an arcing path over the wall of its legs. I gathered more matter and shaped it into one great brown swirl above me. Wryan’s straight shot splashed into the creature’s foremost spade legs and the force and fire did little but rock the legs back and leave a blackened soot on the hard bone. Meanwhile the creature met the arcing shot with blurring swipes of its scythe arms, breaking up the force and flame before it could reach the core.

Wryan had paused in the air to draw some small dark objects from the pockets of his robes which he threw into his two matter swirls as he called up more matter from around him to start forming two more. The creature sliced on towards him. Wryan was adding some of his antimagic slugs to his next shots, small chunks of magic destroying material encased in an inert shell, one of the most effective tools in a magister’s arsenal. My own antimagics were lost in the tent, but I could help to give Wyran some time. I willed my large matter swirl to contract and ignite, and sent it forward with high speed and force. My large shot hit the thing’s spade legs harder than Wryan’s shot had and it had to pause to regain its balance. It didn’t seem to have been injured and after one of its scythe arms poised in my direction for an instant, an acknowledgment of my status as a threat, perhaps, it carried on towards Wryan.

There is a tendency, in a heated battle, for magisters to direct all of their expanded sense and attention toward one narrow area, in this case for Wryan and I, toward a vicious boney horror that had just slaughtered our friend. We train to reduce this sense tunneling, to set aside some small part of our attention to watch for certain threat indicators around us, but to achieve that successfully generally requires some preparation and focus. When a magister has time to prepare for battle, there is time to build enhanced attention structures and myriad weapon preparations which have historically made a unit of magisters able to challenge the Gods themselves. But there simply wasn’t time to prepare all of that this morning, and the creature might well have stealth abilities which had permitted it to sneak up on camp without giving Wryan time to alert us.

Regardless of the explanation, I was only alerted to the ambush when my call for more matter to prepare another shot met hateful, unyielding bone. I shot forward through the sparse and mostly barren trees and narrowly dodged the swipe of a scythe from a second monster. My heart felt like it would explode from my chest from the exertions of will, and I had to consciously force my body to take a breath. I reached sense toward Wryan’s position and encountered a wave of shock and pain from his dying mind. A scythe from a third beast had pierced his chest and his swirls of matter dispersed into brown disk clouds as the will which had called them disappeared. The third beast swiped its corpse laden scythe past a tree to dislodge its gruesome burden, and then all three monsters were converging towards me.

With no allies left and no weapon but my will, I flew. These hills were filled with dangers beyond the immediate threat of the scythe-beasts, and it is unwise to stay airborne here long even if it weren’t an exhausting means of transport. I flew up and over a low ridge and circled around a hill and down into a shear sided valley. It was probably only a mile from the camp but, it’d be a much longer hike, even for the shovel-legged scythe-beasts. I came down by a creek, gasping from the exertion of battle and flight. My mouth was dry and I scooped up some of the cool water without stopping to check if it was tainted. The water tasted sweet. I crawled up against a stone which blocked the early sun and put my back against it, crossing my legs in front of me. I closed my eyes and waited for my heart to settle. Not dwelling on the morning events yet. Not recalling the last mildly annoyed look on Marris face, nor the echo from Wryan’s dying mind.

The scythe-beasts’ shining cores belied their purely magical origin. Those things were built by the Gods or their clerics to battle against other Gods. This region had been the site of huge conflicts in the last great war of the Gods, and had been left a blighted wasteland after the fighting died down. That had been a over a hundred years ago, and the land had barely recovered. There were still leftover traps and pollutions, no less dangerous today then on the date they were placed, and some of the more monstrous warriors had gone feral and settled the territory, their descendants evolving to become this wasteland’s natives. Worse still were the constructs, like the scythe-beasts. These patrolled ancient paths in accordance with ancient schedules or simply lie in wait with orders to ambush any passersby. The Gods were rarely conservative in the creation of such machines, sometimes imbuing them with power matching that of demigods or otherwise giving them singularly powerful or insidious weapons to accomplish special missions. And rumors placed a few demigods or even gods hiding or bound somewhere in these treacherous lands.

It was one of these rumors that had brought us here. A tale of a demigod holed up in ruins. Not ruins left from the war, nor from some pre-war settlement. These were ruins from before the Hunger had washed over the world. The Magister’s Temple of Justice was built near such, and I’d walked among the alien seeming constructs and studied their works and methods. Such ruins provide the Magister’s best weapons against the Gods and their monsters, antimagic materials. These materials either ignore magical power or actively destroy it (and any living thing in general). The Gods’ power cannot directly act upon or defend against such materials, making them a great source of power for the Order of Magisters, and making them forbidden contraband among the Gods and their followers. It was mostly unheard of for Gods to wield such weapons themselves, and those instances which had occurred were decried as the most hateful betrayals, typically resulting in the rogue God’s rapid defeat at the vengeful hands of its peers.

This made this particular tale all the more intriguing. The previously unknown ruins were excuse enough to investigate, if only to secure another potential source of antimagics for the Magisters. But why would a demigod place itself so near a source of the deadly forbidden? The High Magisters wanted an investigation and so had I. I’d hoped to uncover some devious scheme or at least stock up on some antimagic weaponry. Marris’ motivations were more academic, hoping to discover something new about that lost ancient world. Wryan enjoyed adventure and exploration, but I think that he had come to discover more about Marris. But all of those hopes and goals had been destroyed, shredded like canvas by a boney scythe. Now there was little left to do but try to survive and escape to friendlier territory, and that is what I resolved to do up there with the cold stone at my back and the sound of the creek in my ears.

The scythe-beasts had different plans for me, however. I didn’t notice them as first when I reached out my senses to map out my new environs, but a nagging suspicion that they had some kind of protection against magical detection made me search not just for the monsters themselves but also for signs of their passing. I found no rhythmic thumping of the earth, nor suspiciously large eddies of air. What I did find was stones rolling down the hillside, below the path that I had flown over. It was odd thing to perceive, stones rolling down the hillside, originating from three concentrated points in a sparse line formation, with no associated disturbance. The scythe-beasts were very cleverly camouflaged from magical perception, but not perfectly. I was lucky to have noticed them, but unlucky in that they seemed to be tracing my flight path somehow, straight towards my little sanctuary, and their shovel legs were making pretty good time on the difficult terrain.

It was time to get moving. The more distance between them and me, the better. I located a path down from my position and I set off, mostly on foot. Bare foot in fact, and still in my thin sleep-wear. I called for wood fibers and wove them into soft shoes and garb. The quick clothes were rough, but I could tune them up as I went.

The scythe-beasts were tracking me without relying on any obvious physical evidence, so calling softly to the matter around me to hide the signs of my passage wouldn’t slow them down, but they aren’t the only danger here, and my earlier flight could have attracted the attention of more of the old battlefield’s remnants and denizens, so I took the precaution and picked my way down along the path of the creek, deeper into the mist-cloaked valley.

I set up my perceptions to watch for dangers around me, to track the scythe-beasts as well as I could, and to scout out the path ahead. The mists reduced conventional visibility, but that didn’t slow me down much. With my senses I traced the path of the creek to a lake below. Foliage grew well around the creek, but seemed to give the lake some space, suggesting fouled water. A seasonal outflow from the lake cut a path further down into the wider pass that we’d been following before the attack.

My senses detect life around me. Some of it familiar, some less so. I pause to investigate some suspicious movements parallel to my path. They pause as well. My mundane senses feel the morning chill, the mists reduce visibility, and I smell wet cinder. My magical senses detect the motion of a body a little under the size of an average human, but no heat, no breathing, no heart beat. It stays still, I sense a wariness, but the other will detects my own and blocks me out. Something with some intelligence. It makes no hostile move. I continue on my way. The watcher doesn’t follow. If my companions were still with me, I would investigate further, but now that I’m on my own and on the run, I decide it’s not worth the risk.

After I go a short way the unknown thing sends me an image. It is of myself, looking somewhat nobler than I suspect I currently do, with a mossy skeleton standing before me with palms up and open, and with its arms spread. This was no mere animal. The image suggests a request for a peaceful meeting, and also suggests that my new pursuer was some type of reanimated skeleton. I’d seen many types of animated skeletons, ranging from mere magical puppets to real lichs with their full and dreadful intelligence and magical powers intact. In between were various sorts of magical constructs with varying degrees of intelligence and power. Crueler Gods sometimes amused themselves with creating weapons, traps, and servants from the remains of their enemies. This creature could be a significant threat.

I send back some images of my own. Me sternly pointing away, and the mossy skeleton walking away, and then an image of that first scythe-beast as it had looked on its march towards Wryan. A dismissal and a warning.

I receive a response in the form of an image of myself and the mossy skeleton hiding behind a boulder as the scythe-beasts passed. Another image comes of the mossy skeleton beckoning me down a path to a golden bright valley. I sense that the unknown thing is approaching me again. Another image comes of me lounging on a throne among riches, being served wine by the skeleton. The thing picks up speed in its approach and I block it from my mind, and sprint out of its path. As it leaps with an unearthly roar to my former position, searching for its prey, I see its true form.

My new foe indeed consists of mossy human bone, but quite a few liberties were taken with the assembly. This construct is like a large cat in shape and movement, but its body is all closely packed ribs and limb bones, and its back and sides had ridges of sharpened bone ends protruding outward. Its head swivels around searching for me and I call up a small stone and fling it away from me. When the stone clacks against a larger stone outcropping, the thing’s head locks on the direction of the sound and it opens its maw and roars again. The head consists of three split skulls which part to reveal rows of sharpened flanges and carpals, which spiral down into the hollow core of the monster, promising an unfortunate fate for any flesh which enters there. It bunches its body up and flings itself toward the sound of the stone.

I call for more stone, thick invisible cords like roots writhe out from me, dissolving stone into thick dust clouds where ever they touch it. The dust flows to me and I will it to condense in the air into tight

spheres the size of my head. The creature is hunting for me again, and a zephyr clears enough of the mist to reveal me to its visual senses. It bounds towards me and I fling two stone dust spheres at it. They hit, but do not bash or explode. Rather I will them to expand a little as they make contact so that they pass around the creatures bones and then I tighten them again. The sudden weight knocks the thing down, and I send more dust, piling mass on it. It struggles in vane. I call to the matter below it and ask it to dissolve into dust and vibrate. The thing sinks deeper into the stone dust column that I made for it. I release the dust now, and it all goes still. The only sign of the struggle is the odd patch of grey dust before me in the stone, and the void root pattern of my matter gathering carved into the stone around my feet. My senses detect tiny vibrations as the newly entombed construct struggles vainly to move inside its dust locked tomb.

I am terribly tired now. My head is swimming. I can’t reach out my senses to check on the progress of the scythe-beasts behind. I stumble on, down towards the lake. Away from the known danger, but perhaps toward more horrors.

I pause to take water from the creek. The cool wetness feels good, but it does little to settle my frayed mind. I see some light bruising on some of my exposed skin. Extreme exertions of will for a magic user have been known to cause breakdowns of the mind and body. Fits of rage or despair or states of disassociation are relatively common. Breakdown of internal connective tissue leading to bruising, however, is less so and indicative of a worse case. These thoughts swim past my mind’s attention without attracting it. It simply didn’t matter much. I’d flown today and fought in two surprise battles, and if need be I’ll fight again and fly again. As I think that, I imagine calling the matter around me to fight again, and the mere imagining sends a lance of pain into my forehead. No matter. I have to keep moving. I tell my body to lean a little so that I can pull a leg out from under me so that I can plant it and haul myself back up. Instead, my leaning just seems to keep on going and I find myself lying on my side on the stone near the creek. Suddenly the thought of standing just feels so wrong, and I close my eyes. What was I thinking trying to move from this spot? I lose consciousness.

There is a crashing sound. I roll over even though my whole body hurts, and I open my eyes. There beside my a pale red tree is sticking out of the ground. Not a tree. I roll again, harder, but too late and a second scythe scores my back and pins my shirt. I will the shirt to fall apart and lurch up, and leap into the air in an impossible jump to avoid the swing of the third scythe. I take on altitude and see the three scythe beasts with their scythes held in the air in their ready position, with the points towards me, as those unstoppable bone shovel legs carry them forward.

My head hurts, and I feel woozy. I shouldn’t be flying. Blood drips down my back. I fly over to the high edge of the valley and land on shaky, numb legs. The pins and needles feeling in my feet almost brings me to my knees. But I turn and watch. The God-made constructs try to scrabble up the steep wall to reach me, but the stone is too shear, and their sharp edged legs can neither puncture it nor find purchase. They don’t stop. They just keep trying to pull themselves up, lose hold, and slide back down. Over and again.

It’s colder up here and there is a breeze. The fog of the morning has been swept away and I can see the lake below. The sun is getting low, it is late in the afternoon, and the peaks and ridges cast long shadows over the lake. I can see something strange on the lake edge, where it drains down further down into the pass. Huge outcroppings of old world stone. More than I’d ever seen. An ancient dam. With a great jagged vee cut down its middle by ages of water outflow from the lake. An undiscovered ruin. The one that had inspired the cursed rumors that had brought us out here.

My arms and upper body now show large bruises. My brief, involuntary rest had done little to heal me and I’d had to fly again. I ripped off a part of a pant leg and hung it over my back. I willed the matter into my wound. and it stopped up the bleeding and formed a crust to keep out the elements. The exertion of will sent lances of pain into my forehead.

The scythe-beasts keep trying to scrabble up to me. Over and over.

The path along the ridge is rough. I see no way to climb down, no way off this cold, inhospitable ridge. The constant throbbing of my head warns me against extending my senses to search better. I struggle forward, slowly, deliberately.

I spot a strange bird rising up the cliff face. White, and round. It hovers in the updraft. I test some of my weight on the next rock and pause. No. Birds aren’t round. I look back towards the hovering skull and it moves a little closer and revolves around me to my front. It’s not fast, not threatening, but it keeps its eye sockets locked on my eyes as it moves. I am its focus. I’m too weak for another fight.

Too weak for another flight. But I’ve no choice. I call to the matter around my feet, sending out weak thin roots to dissolve the stone into dust.

“Wait.” The voice is only in my head. “You are injured, Magister, and willsick. I’m not here to fight.”

“What… then?” I send back. The effort pains me.

“I think I will help you. It’s been so long since I’ve spoken to another member of the Order. Though… perhaps I am no longer considered so. Have you heard my name? Do you know High Magister

Revak?” The voice sounds so calm and pleased. It’s jarring to hear such in my present situation.

“Revak? Not sure I believe it.”

“Believe it, young one.” The voice has a hint of reproach. “Now, permit me to heal you.” I feel the will probing at my flesh. I don’t actually grant consent so much as put up a token resistance. The other’s will is incredibly strong. I’m not sure I could actually have stopped it at my full strength. Permitting other magic users to meddle in one’s flesh is extremely dangerous. One need only to see the void root structures that I’d carved into the stone at my feet to understand why.

The being calling itself Revak wills my flesh to heal. The reduction in pain is disorienting. It becomes a feeling of warmth. I sit, and lower my head. Revak is reducing my adrenaline, and rebalancing my hormones to drive me towards sleep. This sleep is welcoming, and I embrace it.

I awake to the smell of wood. I’m in a bed. Warm and soft. Brown blankets lay over me. Lifting them away stirs up more of the wood smell. It’s the fibers of the mattress and blankets, recently reshaped from living wood. The room is pitch black. I reach out my senses hesitantly. There is no pain from the exertion, but I’m suddenly aware of hunger and thirst. The room’s stone has the tell-tale serpentine patterns of willcarving. There is a single exit passage that curls down through the bedrock into a larger chamber. My senses feel an absence in the large chamber where there should be more stone. It’s how the stone of the ancients feels to magical senses, completely absent. My senses brush against something else down there.

“Ah, you’re awake, young one.” Revak’s voice sounds in my mind. “Come down and join me.”

“Is there any light?” I ask.

“Hmm…” Revak pondered the question as if it were an unexpected oddity. “Yes, I can do that.” Light crawled up the passageway into my bedchamber, emanating from a line on the ceiling that spirals into the center of the room.

I stand. My muscles are sore, and my skin retains the darker blotches but not the tenderness of fresh bruises. I get up and will the blankets of the bed to become my shoes and clothing. I move down the passageway, following the light. I send to the skull, “How long have I been here?”

“I’ve been tracking the time closely since you arrived.” Revak sent back proudly. “I know you need regular sustenance, and I’ve watched over you for two days.”

I paused in stride. “What of the scythe-beasts?” I asked, and included an image of the things’ vain attempts to scrabble up the cliff.

“I’m not sure…” Revak replied, concerned. “I’ve never seen those.”

“They employ some sort of veil against magical senses,” I continue to walk toward the main hall. “But they can be seen and heard easily enough as they try to slaughter you.”

“That could explain why I do not know them, and perhaps why I get so few visitors.” Revak sounded pensive. “I rarely employ such physical senses. No matter. There is no danger to you here.”

The passageway opens up to the main hall in front of me. I step out and see a huge hall, half carved from magic, and half formed of the pale ancient stone. The magically carved half is illuminated from above, but the light stops at the ancient stone and as it fades to black down the ancient hall, I can only barely make out large shapes in the center. Down the magically carved extension of the hall, I see an astonishing array of giant, nearly silent machinery formed of stone, bronze, steel, silver, and gold.

“The ancients used this place to harness power from falling water.” Revak explained. “I do the same, but much more modestly.”

“How long have you been here? Are you truly the High Magister Revak, Lich King?”

“Lich King? Am I called that now? I never liked the term Lich. I invented this method of transformation to further my scientific pursuits. I fought with your forbears against those rebels who copied and perverted my techniques and styled themselves necromancers. Is it not remembered so?”

“Mostly it is not.” I pass further down the magically carved portion of the hall, past machines whose purpose I cannot determine. “Newer histories list you among them, but your name is carved among the honored names on the walls of Justice’s sanctum, set there by the Goddess herself.”

“Justice” Revak’s voice in my mind sounded reverent. “How is our beloved Goddess?”

“Justice is dead.”

“Impossible.” Revak commented.

“The Goddess was gravely injured in the last war, and though she survived, she did not return to her former glory, and instead faded away over time. One day her body was found still and unresponsive.

The Order is holding her body pristine in her sanctum. Officially, it is a wake ceremony, but it has been decades. She has passed on.”

“You’re wrong.” Revak stated, matter of factly. “Justice will not die as long as the Order persists. And we remain, do we not?”

“I know of no link between between the survival of the Order and the survival of Justice. What have you been doing here for all of these years? Why have you not tried to return to the Order?”

“I’ve been studying and creating. So many beautiful problems and questions about the world have I explored and solved over the ages, but just now… Well, come and see.” The hall widens into a large workshop area, and the area behind it branched into multiple storage rows, the ends of which I cannot make out. A body lies on a large stone table before me and a giant thin figure in a shimmering black robe leans over it. Thin, dark, metallic arms stretch out from the sleeves of the robe and hover over the body, and the skull of Revak floats under the hood of the robe. “Your presence here has been instrumental. It’s been some time since I studied a working human body, and there were things I’d not realized. Such a complex system. Truly fascinating.” The skull rose slightly. There were no eyes but I got the impression that Revak was now looking at me.

I clear my throat. “Is this not a human body?” I ask out loud, studying the form and thinking that Revak certainly was not striving to distance itself from necromantical stereotypes. The body is of a young adult. Perhaps beautiful in other circumstances, but just too cold and still here on the slab to be anything other than disturbing.

“I think that I have found, among these ruins, traces of the First People. Not the ruins themselves, of course. I mean tiny, fragile traces of their bodies. Mostly too damaged by time, but some very few

are complete enough.” Perplexed, I extend my magical senses to the still form, and hit a solid wall. Just as the ruins of the ancients, this body is antimagic. My mouth drops open.

“You mean… but how?” My voice is raspy from disuse. “How could you even study those tiny remains that are invisible to magic, let alone make this?

“Machinery was the key. Young one. The antimagics do not respond normally to magic but do respond somewhat similarly to other physical excitations and forces which can be produced by our matter. I’ve mastered these forces, and I use them to shape wonders from antimagic materials. Most lately this.” The dark metal hands open and spread over the still form. “It’s not really one of them. I modified the structure and mind to permit it to be created in this form. But… I believe that I’ve designed it properly so that the children of ones such as these would be real First People.”

“Is it alive?” I reach out hesitantly. Revak does not move. The body is as cold as it looks.

“Not just yet. Would you like to see me awaken it?” I am curious. Hungry and thirsty, too, but mostly curious.

“I do.”

“Me too.” Revak’s robe drops to reveal a thin metallic form like the arms, but containing mechanical belts and gears and rotating elements which now spring to life with a significant whirring sound. Revak brings his hands near eachother, and as the whirring builds a blue arc forms between his nearest fingers with a snap and a flash of light. It disappears almost immediately but then restrikes, disappears, and restrikes again, lasting longer now. Revak pulls his hands apart and the arc dissipates. The whirring continues and as he lowers his hands toward metal disks that are inlaid in the table, thin arcs leap up to meet them, growing thicker until true contact is made and they disappear. Now the slab starts to glow blue in strange patterns that I cannot recognize. I feel a warmth from the slab and a static charge that causes my hairs and the fibers of my clothes to rise towards the body. I step back from the unknown mechanisms and energies before me.

The body on the table rears up and gasps, eyes wide with fear. Suddenly there is an otherworldly sound tearing through the air. I will the air around my ears to be still, but I still feel the vibration in my bones. I cannot pinpoint a specific source. The person on the table is screaming in pain. I move towards the great hall, hoping to escape the sound, but it seems to be the same everywhere. Revak swivels his skull around and places his mechanical limbs defensively around his creation. “What is this?” He asks in my mind.

The sound abruptly stops. The table top under the screaming person begins to change, as do Revak’s shielding arms. A reflective silver spreads down into the stone from the table and up Revak’s arms until it reaches the shoulder joints where it branches down his body and up to his skull where it slows, but still intrudes into his bones. “Oh no.” Revak sends. “Oh no.” The new metallic shine of Revak’s arms begins to fall off in large chunks which seem to leap towards the awoken First Person. I can see that liquid-like metal chunks from the table top do likewise and the First Person starts to thrash. Where the poor person scraps off the mercurial substance there is blood, and large chunks of missing flesh.

I’ve seen this silvery substance before. This is the all-consuming Hunger. But I’ve never seen nor heard of The Hunger appearing in this way before, nor it being so aggressive. The whole table is silvery now, and the shine is spreading out into the floor. Revak’s whole mechanical body is now silvery and leaping off in chunks. Revak’s skull has floated up and away from it but the silvery Hunger is still eating his bone. His jaw falls away. “I’ve made a terrible mistake, young one.

You must flee.” The liquid metal on Revak’s skull starts to burn with white hot flame. The old magister is trying to purge the deadly contamination. The thrashing of the First Person subsides as it sinks fully into the mound of deadly silver that used to be the slab. The silver spreads across the floor towards me.

I take off running towards the great hall. I don’t see whether Revak’s defensive efforts are of any use, but the light from the ceiling dims and I can hear some of the machinery in the hall ahead screeching and crunching as the will that drives them disappears to distraction or death.

I use my magical senses to seek out carbonaceous matter around me, ignoring my flesh and clothes, and I call for it to gather well above my head and swirl into a slowly burning sphere that casts light around and before me. Most of the shadows on the walls move backwards as I weave through some broken ruins of a great bronze wheel. Others move forward like searching tentacles. Great thick rhizomes of The Hunger chase after me. I reach the ancient antimagic stone portion of the hall, and The Hunger does not slow. Ahead of me there is an enormous mass of red oxidized metal.

The Hunger is closing in. I dodge around the metal ruin and leap over a Hunger rhizome only to plunge down through a break in the floor into a horizontal shaft. I catch myself in the air, I glance right and see the way is blocked by some large mass of rust. Hunger rhizomes have followed me down so I fly off down the shaft to my left. The shaft angles down and I see some natural light ahead. The Hunger rhizomes fully choke the shaft behind now as I plunge down at high speed.

I hit the edge of the shaft and burst out into the sunlight over the lake. I gain some altitude and glance back to see if The Hunger still pursues me. It seems to have lost interest in me, but the huge silvery rhizomes are spreading out from the shaft and in a larger mass from the ridge which had once held Revak’s laboratory. The mass on the ridge grows so large that it compromises the hold that the ancient stone had to it, and that whole half of the dam shudders and topples over and down towards the pass below. The damage triggers a roar of water as the tainted lake drains down to half its normal size before The Hunger rhizomes slump over into the gap, stopping the flow, and begin growing rapidly out into the lake and down towards the pass.

I fly towards the far shoreline, and my heart falls as I saw the accursed scythe-beasts churning out into the water towards me. As I fly overhead they turn in pursuit. I fly up towards the ridge on the far side of the lake from the massive dam. It is a long way and leaves me fully drained by the time I alight on the high stone and turn to watch.

The great silvery rhizomes of The Hunger keep spreading in all directions. The scythe-beasts that had been my nemesis and impending doom are shattered by the thick reflective roots as though they are nothing, and the searching rhizomes continue up the ridge toward me.

I take to flight again and make it to the next ridge, gasping for air, and stumbling as I land. I turn and watch the ridgeline I’d just left, hoping that The Hunger would just stop, that its end here would be as rapid and bewildering as its beginning. When I regained my breath I notice a stinging pain in my shoulder and see to my horror a pattern of small holes that had been eaten through my shirt. I will the shirt to part and see my flesh below is marked by little metallic patches with thin silvery rhizomes spreading out from them. I will my shirt apart and gather it on the spot before igniting the mass violently. The burn is excruciating. The damaged flesh is charred black and it is impossible to tell if I’ve destroyed the contamination. The air seems to darken past the far ridge which now shields me from the lake, as if The Hunger has taken on some dreadful cloud form. The rhizomes peak over the ridge and down into the valley before me. I turn and see another large pass behind my current perch.

My head hurts nearly as bad as my screaming shoulder when I imagine flying to the next ridge, so this time I take to the air in a more conservative way. I prepare a wide cushion of air below me and glide it down and along this new pass. The new pass is long and my glide runs further than I hope. I pick a nice spot of soft grassland to land in and crash down. I hit much harder than I intend and flip onto my back. Everything hurts, and once again I can’t hold on to consciousness.


In a pristine room, formed entirely of non-homogenous translucent and white stone with ragged swaths of scarlet and gold, like ribbons frozen within, a robed woman lies motionless on a raised slab of stone. An old man kneels before the slab with head bowed, silently willing the Goddess to rise as is his habit this time of day. He hears an intake of breath from above and raises his head to see the Goddess suddenly standing, staring beyond the stone wall before her as though it were a lens. Her robes morph silently into polished, mother of pearl plate armor with a robe with the same shifting colors. Her hand lifts gracefully from her side and a burning long sword unfolds from the air. Her head moves slightly down and towards the old man.

The voice of Justice carries force with it, as though it were produced by some enormous instrument, but it does not deafen. “I have felt your faith, Olin. I feel that an ancient enemy has risen, and I must to war. Will you rouse your Order to join me?”


A cloud of dark dust descends from the swirling storm clouds over the city. Lightning occasionally lances down, but there is no rain. The cloud begins to gather on the balcony of the keep in the city center. A humanoid form emerges, its flesh dark and writhing, as though formed from hundreds of ink soaked humans crushed together and striving to escape. Dread stares into the distance, and then enters his private quarters. Sorrow stares past him, her flawless face unmarred by expression. Her words seem to echo with an emptiness, a vague sense of falling eternally. “The Hunger returns, and again we must destroy it.” Her robes swirl slightly in the air around her as though it were as dense as water.

“Hmm.” The rumbling agreement of Dread recalls the face of a dying lover.


“Captain on deck!” A crewman cries as Endeavor strides into the cabin and up to the large wheel.

“You are relieved, helmswoman.” The mustachioed God decrees with a pleased smile and bright eyes. The helmsman steps back and the God seizes the wheel with large gloved hands and begins to heave it around. “Full steam and signal alert stations! We’ve a fight on our hands now!”

His huge ship turns and steam bellows from the pipes amidships. Through the thick glass in front of him, Endeavor sees a wave crash over the bow, and he launches into a sea shanty.

The Shjinrende


Written by Jonathan Hart

Copyright 2015


Two decades and change has passed since the death and destruction brought on by the planting of Joshua Harken’s creations. Five massive intelligent tree beings with tap roots sunk into the Earth’s magma mantle, and one horrible mistake called the Swarm which had nearly consumed the world. Histories have called it a catastrophe, a miracle, and a disruptive technological advancement. The insidious enemy had caused powerful nations to resist and attack the Trees, to try to remove the disruption, but the Trees had prevailed.

In those times there was only Siren, the submerged Tree of the Tonga trench, and Beowulf the Tree of Yellowstone. The Trees chose to use avatars to interact with humans, called their dryad forms. Siren took the form of a beautiful tree bark brown skinned maiden while Beowulf took the form of a towering muscle-bound hero. The later Trees were Shogun in Japan, Eden in Italy, and Eric in Iceland. Shogun and Eric took on serious business formal dryad forms with some local characteristics, and Eden took on the least human-like form. She appeared as a towering ethereal angelic being, complete with wings and flowing robes, floating through the cathedral-like halls within her Tree.

The effects of the Trees on the world didn’t end with the defeat of the Swarm. World economies were changed, the Trees provided a haven which could magnify all of the greatest of humanity’s endeavors while suppressing all of its worst impulses. With their tap roots granting them access to near unlimited geothermal energy and elemental resources, the Trees were each capable of sheltering and feeding over a million residents, while still providing aid to non-residents. A new renaissance began, The Five Trees were like five hearts pumping new life into the world. New technologies and art flowed from them, enriching their home nations.

Many parts of the world were left out or ignored by this Renaissance, however. Nations that were isolated from the Trees due to sanctions, policy, or geography found their citizens falling in love with Arboreal technologies and cultures. In an attempt to preserve their own cultures, several of these nations took on Xenophobic policies, trying to suppress the outside influence.

Other nations tried to compete. Russia, China, and several other nations in Asia formed a financial and military union, the Asiatic Union (AU). They worked jointly to invest heavily into nuclear energy research. They incorporated recent advancements in robotics to manipulate the dangerous radioactive materials in ways that could never have been accomplished manually. They constructed incredible power plants, that are completely self-maintaining with no on-site human personnel. By removing the human element, the plants could be constructed at a fraction of the cost, because none of the design safety measures used to protect humans were needed. The Asiatic Union Autonomous Atomic Program, it was called.

Their research continued, focusing on recycling of the waste materials from the power plants. They developed ultra long lasting sealed atomic power cells. Each cell could produce electric power levels similar to a car battery continuously for thousands of years, theoretically, with the drawback that each cell’s radiation shielding weighed a little over a ton. The shielded cells had little use in mobile applications where weight is key, but they provided invaluable reliability to stationary electrical systems. A modified version of the cells was also found to be incredibly useful within the autonomous nuclear plants and radioactive factories. The AAP robots did not require the same level of shielding required for human safety, so they could be powered by striped down, lightweight versions of the cells, as long as their more delicate electronics were kept shielded.

The advancements in robotics spilled over into every aspect of life in the AU, revitalizing and strengthening their economies. With the robotic workers taking on the hard labor, communism made a strong comeback. Every citizen was granted equal rights and shares over the bounty produced by the tireless machines, and the AU reinvested the bounty into higher education for the people, creating the largest concentrations of educated people that the world had ever known. These brilliant newcomers were advancing the cultures of this super power block to match or exceed even some of the Tree nations.

Robert and Kate Harken, the original planters of the first Tree had had a son. He was named Regal Harken and had been raised by them in their home within the tree. His childhood was blessed and he was mostly beloved, except for the occasional spat with other children calling him “the little Prince” and the like due to his parent’s stations. As his mind opened up in adolescence, it turned toward scientific thought. Regal was gifted with an incredibly bright mind. Often reminding Robert of his lost brother, Joshua. He became actively involved in some of the University of Arboria’s academic programs at an early age, and he learned quickly from his home tree’s university. But there was a dark side to his quest for knowledge, the forbidden question, “How did Beowulf work?” haunted his thoughts. No matter how he asked, Beowulf was forbidden to answer due to some unknown control mechanism. Regal’s curiosity became an obsession, he began to study the tree, the Swarm, and everything about his uncle that he could discover.

From the start, Robert, Kate, and Beowulf had roughly dissuaded anyone from following down the path Regal had set on, but they couldn’t bring themselves to do it to their beloved child. Instead they tried to convince him that finding out was impossible. But Regal couldn’t let it go, he knew that his uncle had been a man just as he would be, and would only have had tools far simpler than Regal himself had access to within the Tree. Regal requested lab space and resources to begin to try to recreate his uncle’s work, but Beowulf and his parent’s denied him. Regal would not relent and Beowulf could not relent. So Regal turned to outside universities and researchers. All of his requests to the other Trees were denied, for the same reason Beowulf could not help. Other universities did not want to become involved in the research in order to maintain good standing with the trees. Eventually, Regal found a place as a student and research assistant at a booming Chinese University that was famous for research into artificial intelligence applications. He left his home and his conflicted parents the year of his eighteenth birthday. Despite their differences, he made occasional contact through a comm sphere that had mysteriously appeared in his dormitory one morning. Regal graduated successfully and took a job as a research scientist working on artificial intelligence.

Not long after Regal left Beowulf, Theo Rigby, administrator of the Tonga submarine Tree, Siren, became ill. It was cancer, and by the time the illness had progressed to the point where it had done him noticeable harm, it was massively metastasized. Siren promised that she could heal him, that she could perform microscopic surgeries simultaneously throughout his body. Theo refused the treatment. Siren begged and wept, and called on the Harkens to help her convince him. They tried, but Theo remained obstinate. He had done his good works, he said, and if it was his time, so be it. Siren was out of options, she could not disobey his order. She went back to the Harkens, this time begging them to kidnap Theo and take him to Beowulf, where he could be forcibly treated. The Harkens and Beowulf refused. Theo succumbed to the disease, and Siren mourned. After several long months, she reestablished contact with the other trees, with Morgan Atuafago as her administrator. Her appearance had changed from the beautiful seductive dryad to an armored goddess with a white streak through her hair.

Chapter 1

Uncanny Valley

The light of a computer screen illuminated Regal Harken’s intent face in the otherwise darkened, empty lab space. He stared at the code on his computer screen, flicking through hundreds of pages of it, searching for something without knowing precisely what it was. The code drove his newest creation, the current central focus of his life. The Shjinrende, he was calling it. The new man. It was to be the first of a new line of AI’s which could match and/or exceed the intelligence of a human.

Regal felt a sort of anxiety. It was the anxiety of tireless hours already spent without the satisfaction of completion, without the reward. It was the anxiety that asks, “Is more time spent on this necessary? Isn’t it good enough? Will the extra work matter?” It was the anxiety of a mortal, the anxiety that knew that more time spent working was less time spent enjoying the rewards.

Still, Regal felt that there was something missing from the code, something which, Regal believed, kept them from thinking like real humans. The testing they had already done showed promising results, and the robots could be made to fool humans in his Turing test about forty percent of the time. But Regal sensed something was off, something was wrong.

It reminded him of the concept of the “uncanny valley” which described a phenomenon where a person’s first impression of a robot which has a nearly human appearance was very bad, worse than the first impressions of robots that only very crudely resembled humans. This had been explained to Regal as being caused by an innate aversion to falsity that humans seemed to be born with. The theory was that when the Homo-Sapiens species first appeared there were other very similar species occupying the earth at the same time. This aversion evolved to keep the Homo-Sapiens together in tribes of their own people, as opposed to mixing and interbreeding with the other species. It also kept the Sapiens from feeling too sorry when times were tough and a tribe of non-Sapiens had to be eliminated so that a Sapiens tribe could expand it’s resources. There were even some theories that went so far as to say that the “Uncanny valley” phenomenon is the fundamental source of racism.

The problem with the Shjinrende had nothing to do with appearance. The problem was that Regal could tell that there was something fundamentally different between the way the Shjinrende systems think and the way humans think, and it repulsed him. It caused him to distance himself from his test machines and keep them at arm’s length. His relationships with the prototypes weren’t at all what he’d imagined they’d be as he’d spent days in front of a computer churning out the code which would make them as close to human as he could manage. He had thought that he would see them as child-like, and he had tried treating them as such in his interactions with them at first, but the feeling had faded. He felt no attachment to them, no sympathy. Part of it, he suspected, was that he had done his job too well. The Shjinrende brains came preloaded with a sort of adult maturity. The Shjinrende intelligence consisted of a network of memory assisted feedback control systems, similar to a human’s, but, unlike humans, the network parameters were all pre-written and pre-set by Regal’s programming. The human brain, on the other hand, grows along with the body. At first, a baby can’t walk or even crawl. It learns to crawl when it’s body becomes strong enough, then it learns to fine tune the control of ever stronger muscles with balance feedback from the ears, allowing the child to stand. Then it walks, then it runs, and the brain continues to grow and tune those movements as the child’s body changes and grows through to adulthood. The Shjinrende didn’t have that growing process and Regal suspected that that difference was what was causing them to seem less human to him.

When looking at the project as a whole, and everything else that he had accomplished, it seemed like such a small thing. He had been able to teach a Shjinrende to sing, even to dance, but here he sat, still trying to find a way to solve this seemingly minor issue. But what if it wasn’t small, what if other humans would all end up feeling the same repulsion Regal did? First impressions were important and lasting, and if a Shjinrende’s coworker or boss decided it was just a jumped up toaster on their first meeting, than that is what they would think of all Shjinrende, and it could cause that person to be prejudiced against robots for a long time afterwards, even if later models improved. That, Regal knew, could hurt the units’ utility in the long term. It would be like creating an offensive looking hammer. It would be as useful as a hammer, but people would choose not to make use of it. So he sat and stared at the screen, trying to come up with a way to give the Shjinrende a past, or at least the sense of an organically grown mind.

He knew of a way to produce what amounted to an organically grown artificial intelligence, but in his experience with that method in the past, results were unpredictable and time consuming. The basic method was to allow the AI to identify the need for and create its own feedback control circuits, letting it write its own code. The problem with an AI created this way was figuring out how to guide it into writing the code that the end user needed it to have. Regal remembered one experiment where he’d taken such an AI and then attached camera sensors to it, allowing it to see. The AI had immediately disabled the cameras to conserve its valuable power. It had never been able to see before and knew of no reason why it should need to see, and so, it had turned off its eyes. It had taken weeks to come up with a way to get the AI to decide to keep its cameras on. The time it would take to do that kind of research eliminated it as an option for the Shjinrende system. Regal simply could not spend the decade or so necessary to develop a way to train robots to train themselves to think.

Regal had designed many machines with various levels of intelligence since he had come to the Asiatic Union to study eight years ago, searching for a way to understand or recreate his lost uncle’s work, those great Trees. The study of Artificial Intelligence and robotics had seemed the natural path to take on the way towards that ultimate goal. This system would be different though, well beyond his past accomplishments, and the project had attracted official attention from the AU’s Avtonomnoye Atomnoye Programme, the Autonomous Atomic Program.

In the past when one of Regal’s works was of interest to them, the AAP had sent an official notice requiring immediate duplication of all research related to the device or code in question. Regal sent them the files in accordance with the instructions, and he would never hear any more about it. The AAP’s work was considered critical to the AU’s security and was therefore kept confidential, especially from an immigrant such as himself. If the AAP had made use of his past research, Regal would never know. This time had been different, though. They had sent letters before the completion of this work, carefully defining how, what, and to whom he could release information about the new AI system. Regal was somewhat flattered. They seemed anxious for his success.

Still aimlessly scrolling through the code, Regal came across the package of functions controlling the AI’s ability to distinguish between night and day, and the corresponding adjustments that it had to make for each of those two conditions. In his mind, he pictured the end result of the code, a rhythmic set of changes made by the AI each day, not unlike the opening and closing of a flower. His mind wandered back to the problems with organically grown AI’s and trying to keep them within set limitations. If he simply added genetic algorithms to the code, they would eventually rewrite the rules, and the AI would be out of control. Unless he limited the functions that the genetic algorithms had access to. If he locked the algorithms up within the functions controlling speech, prevented them from writing to permanent memory, and periodically resetting them to eliminate them from RAM, then they could add a sort of flavoring to the AI’s communications without affecting the system as a whole. He resolved to make and test the addition, it could mean a few more weeks of testing, but it would be worth it if it made the AI’s more relatable to humans. He started tapping in the new code.

Some time passed and there was a sound at the lab’s door, and hushed voices. Regal went on alert right away. No one else had ever come to the lab this late. “Dr. Harken?” A familiar voice called from the door. It was the lab’s director, Dr. Sui Jun. “Are you still here?” Dr. Sui Jun came into view flanked with two serious looking men in suits. Seeing him, the director, relaxed and smiled. “Dr. Harken, we’ve been looking for you. I couldn’t reach you at home. These men are from the AAP, they are here to assist with your transfer.”

Transfer?” Regal asked. Dr. Sui Jun’s smile slipped a little as if he had realized something, or confirmed a suspicion.

Yes, you will be working directly with the AAP, now.” He said, with a forced congratulatory tone. The men walked past him towards Regal.

Alexey Nikoleyavitch Formorov arrived at the sprawling Hefei Xinqiao International Airport late that same evening. Alexey normally enjoyed visiting China, mostly because it meant a break from the constantly stressful secretive politics of his work as new research projects leader for the Autonomous Atomic Program. It was a difficult position, Alexey lamented. He was always caught between pressure from his superiors to make use of newer, more advanced, but untested technologies, and the deadly fear of ever being caught making a mistake. This trip was a result of those pressures and that fear. He was in Hefei to retrieve a scientist, an ex-pat American named Regal Harken, and all of his research.

His superiors demanded the immediate use of the new technology this Harken was working on, but Alexey knew he wouldn’t be able to pass blame on to his staff scientists if the tech failed. They had grown too smart over the years to allow themselves to be set up as the face of the new project. They had seen too many of their predecessors dismissed for taking such a risk. Thus Alexey would bring in the American, who would be held to blame for his own work. It had not been easy to gain permission to give the American the necessary security clearances, but that would all be a part of Alexey’s backup plan. If the American was too successful, or unsuccessful, Alexey would affect a leak of a small amount of trivial information to AU intelligence agents posing as foreign spies in a way that would trace directly back to the Harken man. It would result in either his quick and speedy elimination or his forced deportation back to his Tree with minimal risk to Alexey.

Normally, they would just quietly execute any foreign born man accused of spying, but with Harken’s political ties, the AU might choose to show some restraint. This Harken man was the son of the administrator of the first of the great Trees, one of the two that shown the world how formidable the Trees truly could be. Therefore, the AU would likely make a big show of disappointment for the spying, and would deport and banish the man. This would allow them to hurt the reputation of a competitor without burning any of the bridges that the AU used for profitable business.

Alexey had phoned ahead to the local branch, and had had them send security agents to locate the Harken man. He had been found and held at his laboratory. AAP agents were packing up his files and computers for shipment to their research center. Alexey had been informed that the American was not in a congenial mood, but Alexey knew how to win people over. This Harken man lived alone and lived for his work, so Alexey reasoned that if they took his work hostage before it was complete, the man would go along to insure its completion.

He exited the small official transport jet at the attendant’s smiling beckoning. Outside, on the tarmac his official car was waiting to take him through the busy streets of Hefei’s densely populated Northwestern suburbs to the Hefei Institute of Advanced Intelligent Systems. Alexey was pleased to see that the car he had been provided was autonomous. It would mean that he could take the autonomous only expressway which meant arrival at his destination at break-neck speed.

On the other side of the world, the lights in their bedroom turned on early, and there was an urgent knock on the door and a voice through it. “Robert, Kate. It’s about Regal.” The Harkens started to wake up and shake the grogginess off.

What?” Robert asked stumbling to the door. Beowulf stood behind it with a grim face. The dryad had the appearance of an over-sized, muscle-bound man made out of living wood. He still wore scars and an eye patch that he had earned in his first epic battle with the Swarm. He could have easily healed them, but he kept them as a reminder. The dryad had also aged himself over the years, in step with Robert and Kate, except instead of white hair and wrinkles, the dryad took on some cracks and weathering. Robert thought it made the dryad look distinguished, much like his scars and white hair did for Robert.

Regal? What happened, Wolf?” Kate asked with a voice that was a little shrill with worry. The morning disarray of her hair, and her concerned expression combined to make her look distraught.

Beowulf’s voice took on a placating tone. “I don’t know what’s happened to Regal, but men came looking for Regal at his apartment earlier, and now they’ve got in and they are searching it.”

What do we have in the area?” Robert asked. He had helped organize his son’s secret retinue some years ago, but Robert didn’t trust his memory this early in the morning.

Three bugs at his building, and two of the Seed Grown in a park a few blocks away.” Beowulf was describing their drones in the area. The drones were purpose built living machines manufactured by Beowulf. The bugs took the form of large beetles and were used to observe and report situation intelligence back to the tree by communication with Wolf’s satellite drones. The Seed Grown were a modification of an older model drone, the dronent. Dronents were tree shaped drones that could hide in plain sight, and the military models included some artillery built into the drones’ trunks. The main drawback of the dronents was that they still needed to be deployed from the Tree fully grown. Beowulf’s favored ballistic deployment method had long since been figured out by the AU and other world powers and they were able to track any large scale deployment that he made. Therefore Wolf had devised a way to grow the dronents in situ from a small acorn sized seed. This seed could be delivered much more discreetly to its target destination than a drone the size of a full grown tree, but the drawback was growth time. When deployed in public areas, like the two stationed near Regal, the growth rate has to match the local flora to avoid attracting unwanted attention.

Set a bug to follow these men, show us what you’ve already seen.” Robert said, gesturing to a screen on their bedroom wall. The dryad nodded, and the screen flickered on showing in double time a pair of formally dressed men accompanied by an older man with a large key ring enter Regal’s room. The older man was a property manager, Robert guessed, which made the other two some type of official agents or at least pretending to be. The pair turned the older man around and guided him back through the door and out into the hallway, closing the door behind him, and then beginning a methodical search of the room. They weren’t destroying anything, just unpacking, occasionally snapping pictures, and then putting things back where they came from. After about a half an hour, the video slowed and showed the pair in real time. They still had a lot of work to do if they were going to search the whole apartment.

What time is it over there?” Kate asked. “When does Regal usually get home from the lab?”

It’s now 7:15 pm there, Regal usually gets in around six, but he does randomly arrive home later, as late as ten or eleven.” Wolf said.

Alright, keep a close eye on the situation Wolf. We’ve got the Counsel meeting at 2 today to discuss the effects of the AU’s newest export tariffs on automatons, and I know we’ll have some pre-meetings ahead of it.” Robert said before heading to the bathroom. The Counsel was officially called the Council of the Five Trees, and it consisted of the dryads and administrators of the trees, and speakers from the United Nations. They only met like this when the UN passed a resolution that stated that a situation had arisen which could warrant the intervention of the Trees. In one way, at least, Robert missed the old days, when for a while he had been able to wield the power of Beowulf in any way that he deemed necessary. Now, since the the formation of the Counsel, the administrators of the Trees had agreed not to take any international action outside of each Tree’s protectorate nations, unless it was agreed to by the Counsel. What it all meant was, that if a drought occurred in Africa, and Robert wanted to send aid, he would have to put a call out to his protectorate nations to call for a UN meeting, get the UN to pass the resolution to call for a Counsel meeting, and then get the Counsel to agree to his intervention. The process was intended to be a hassle, and although it made certain humanitarian efforts more difficult, it had also prevented a few wars.

Under those same Counsel rules, their use of spy drones in Hefei to observe Regal had not been strictly legitimate, so they could not ask the other Trees for help, nor could they risk their spies being discovered by the AU. The truth was that their son might be on his own, even if they could track him down. The young man meant a lot to his parents, but they wouldn’t plunge the world into war in order to save him.

For many years the Counsel was the only organization with any real power left in the world, but that had all changed with the rise of the AU. China and Russia had held out from applying for status as Trees’ protectorates, choosing instead to remain independent nations. They saw some tough economic times until they finally decided to team up economically. At first it was just a financial agreement which gave the nations’ a shared currency and more muscle when negotiating trade agreements. Over the years the economic union became a full alliance, and other independent Asiatic nations had joined with them, often just to avoid being caught between the AU and the Tree protectorates. But the AU’s real power didn’t come until they embraced and combined robotic and atomic technologies. After that, the AU member nations saw massive booms in the outputs of all major industries: Agriculture, Manufacturing, and Raw materials. It was now estimated that the AU alone produced nearly one half of the world’s GDP.

The one thing that the AU was stingy about exporting was the robotic systems themselves. Their export was heavily and effectively taxed. So much so that Tree protectorate nations had to try and independently develop robots if they wanted to use the technology. Recently, the AU had developed a new way to make money with their machines. They were offering “robots as a service” which meant that protectorate nations could contract for robot labor, but the robots would all still be owned and operated by the AU. It was generating a lot of revenue for the AU, but it was causing unemployment in the protectorate nations. The AU’s latest action had been to raise the export taxes on robots to an intolerable level, in an attempt to force the use of the new “robots as a service” system. It was this new policy that had caused the UN to call a meeting of the Council.

Robert was so preoccupied with these thoughts that he almost ran into Kate on his way out of the bathroom. He decided to turn the awkward moment around and make it a brief hug with a comforting pat and rub. He thought of saying something comforting but it didn’t make much sense to him. Instead he just gazed into her eyes for a moment. Regal had chosen to leave their protection, he had known that other powers in the world could try to turn him into a tool against his parents, and in a way, that’s what he’d become. Regal was a tool for the AU, helping to develop and advance their technology, at the expense of the rest of the world. All because of his drive to emulate or surpass his uncle. Robert knew that he and Kate had come to accept the possibility of his loss the day he left Beowulf.

Kate reached a hand up and squeezed the flesh of his shoulder. “My turn for the bathroom.” She said and swung around him. He got dressed and got some coffee from their weathered old wooden butler, Woodward. Years ago, they had called him Woody, but as the Harkens took on their more serious jobs as parents and diplomats, a more distinguished name was required. “Robert?” The walls asked in Beowulf’s voice.

Yes, Wolf.”

Tetsuro and Shogun sent us a report of the projected effects of the AU’s new measures on his protectorate states while you slept, and Eden and Eric have sent requests for pre-meetings.” The disembodied voice told him.

I see, could you prepare print outs of Tetsuro’s notes and have them waiting for us in the command center? See if we can schedule an hour for Eden at 8 and another for Eric at 9.” Regal could be in danger, but the world had to come first.

Regal had done a good job of keeping outwardly cool, but the situation had him angry and afraid. The agents had not told him much, just that he would be transferred, and that their boss was coming to meet him. Regal had played along with the packing up of the lab, helping to direct them on which things to take, but when he had announced that he intended to leave for dinner and to go home and pack some things for the trip, the agents had insisted he stay and wait. After that, one of the agents had left briefly and returned with a third man that stood near the lab entrance. The situation was clear. Regal was under some form of arrest, but no one wanted it to look like an arrest.

Dr. Sui Jun had stayed for a while, and had argued against the removal of some of the equipment to no avail. He had left, stating that he had to inform the Institute’s board of the loss of the valuable equipment as soon as possible. Before leaving he had shaken Regal’s hand and had said “good bye” but his demeanor and body language had said “good luck.” Regal knew the man was powerless against the will of an organization like the AAP, but he was still taken aback that Sui Jun had tried to make the pointless gesture of trying to argue for equipment rather than for Regal. He supposed the director had calculated that the agents would not think well of him for defending the American scientist.

A new man had entered and was speaking a few words to the agent stationed at the door. The agent pointed towards Regal and the new man nodded and started towards him. He wore a more stylish suit than the security agents, it seemed an intentional way to set himself apart and above the other agents. Regal guessed he was Russian born. He had dark, loosely curled hair with a Victorian looking mustache. As he saw Regal watching him he put on an exasperated smile, and gave a little wave. When he reached speaking distance, Regal noticed a strong perfume smell. “Hello Mr. Harken, my name is Alexey Formorov, and I am usually the head of the Avtonomnoye Atomnoye Programme’s research branch, but tonight I am an errand boy, sent to retrieve research and attempt to recruit a brilliant scientist.” The man closed the remaining distance and extended his hand, seizing Regal’s as it reflexively came up to join the hand shake.

Mr. Formorov…” Regal began.

Alexey, please.” The man insisted, still grasping Regal’s hand and meeting his eyes.

…This has been exceedingly irregular. I’ve always cooperated with the AAP’s information requests in the past, but that was always after my work had been completed. Seizing my work now in its incomplete state could well be more trouble than it’s worth. Why not let me stay on here and complete the work? Then you can have it all as usual.” Regal explained. Inwardly, he did not expect his reasoning to succeed, but outwardly he spoke with confidence and assurance.

I know, I know this has been trouble for all of us.” Alexey consoled. “But we have learned about the magnitude of your discovery and all of its potential value to the people of the AU, and we must make sure that the rest of the project’s development is completed with the utmost discretion under our protection. We cannot risk losing such valuable research. Can I tell you something?” He asked, leaning in conspiratorially and lowering his voice. “I fear you might be right. We might have trouble completing your research without you. But I’m prepared to offer you a job working for us. The necessary security clearance has been pre-approved, and you would receive much better compensation for your time than you get working here. Best of all, you get to keep complete control over your project. Anything you say, goes. No questions. What do you say?”

Regal weighed his options for a moment, regretting that he’d said that the work would be difficult to complete without his help. It left him with little argument for not taking the job. He tried another approach, “The Institute counts on my research to help them secure funding, I’m needed here.”

Don’t worry, don’t worry, we’ve already arranged things with the Institute. They agree that this new work is much more important for you. Come, you must be hungry. I know a place that I come to when I’m in Hefei, dim sum, it’s great. We will finish our discussion over dinner.” Alexey gestured towards the door, and Regal nodded and started off. He was definitely hungry. As they left the lab the agent at the door followed at their flank a few steps behind. Alexey had a fine black autonomous vehicle waiting for them. He opened the door and held it for Regal. The third man joined them in the back silently. The car started off on Alexey’s verbal command, and he proceeded to talk up the restaurant and the food. Regal feigned paying attention, nodding along, but he was preoccupied with concern over this as yet softly enforced conscription into the AAP.

What could he do? He could make some kind of scene or distraction at the restaurant and try to escape on foot. But what then? He knew he couldn’t go home, or escape the country or even Hefei through any form of mass transit. They would be watching everything. His only option would be to try to lay low in Hefei, essentially homeless. It was a bleak option. He couldn’t count on any help from his parents, because the comm sphere had been left back in his apartment, and that was the only secure means of communication he could use. He wouldn’t risk it. He would go along with the Russian, and hope for better opportunities to arise.

The dim sum really was excellent, though the company was distasteful. Nevertheless, Regal feigned congeniality throughout the meal. Alexey told long rambling stories, occasionally digressing to make a personal inquiry about Regal. He worked in questions regarding women, family, friends, hobbies. Anything which could have given Regal an excuse to stay in Hefei. Regal suspected that Alexey already knew the answers to these questions, and that Alexey was subtly trying to get Regal’s brain to convince itself that he should take the new job. He was likely a very persuasive man under normal circumstances, but Regal’s guard was up and he was analyzing the man’s words for any hints of threats.

Now, Mr. Harken, we have eaten, let us discuss the new position we have for you. You will get your own lab space with assistants, and state of the art equipment. We will provide with as many test platforms for your new AI as you wish, even the atomic models. What do you say, huh? There is nothing left for your here, come with me to Ozyorsk.” Alexey urged. Regal raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t known where they’d be going. Ozyorsk and the nearby Lake Karachay were some of the AAP’s big success stories. They’d come in with the robots, and cleaned up the nuclear waste that had been left in the area years ago. They had constructed an atomic battery factory there, reusing the site of a former spent atomic fuel reprocessing plant. He supposed it was as good a site as any for the AAP’s research facilities.

I’ll go, sir, I only ask that I be allowed to pack some of my things before we go.” Regal tried.

Nonsense!” Alexey responded excitedly. “My men will be sure to pack everything you will need. This is great news, a historic day for the AU, but we must get going. I have a plane waiting at the airport, and if we leave now, I can get to bed without waking my wife.” He stood and motioned to Regal to follow him. The security agent had been left outside. Alexey spoke to him before getting in the car. “We will be going straight to the airport. Call your men and let them know to pack Mr. Harken’s things for shipment as well.”

Alexey was awake and alert for the flight back to Ozyorsk. For Regal, the dim sum had been dinner, but for Alexey with the different time zones he’d crossed it had been a late lunch. So his new American scientist slept, and Alexey went to a private compartment in the rear of the jet to conduct what business he could from the air, arranging for their arrival. Alexey looked forward to exaggerating the heroic efforts he’d had to use to convince the American to join them to his peers and superiors within the AAP. It would serve many purposes, making him look committed to the cause and successful in the face of adversity. It would also help establish that Alexey had not known that the American had wanted access to the confidential information, if Alexey ever needed to dispose of Regal by exposing him as a spy. Alexey took pride in his ability to multitask.

After their morning meetings, Beowulf had brought Robert and Kate the news that the men in Regal’s apartment had switched from searching to packing things up. Robert tried not to think of all that that could mean, and ordered Wolf to make sure that one of the spy bugs got packed as well. It was an annoyingly pitiful effort, he knew, compared to the force Wolf could bring to bear. But a moments thought about the millions that could die if he broke the peace to rescue his son squashed that rash annoyance.

Robert and Kate were in the command center deep below the giant Tree in the tap root, somewhere within the stone beneath Yellowstone National Park. Years ago, it had been just the three of them, Robert, Kate, and Beowulf in the cavernous semicircular room lined with video screens and filled with workstations. Waging war against a monstrous enemy. Now, there were nearly a hundred busy people, assisting the Harkens and Beowulf by managing communities within the tree as well as Beowulf’s many protectorate nations. Most of the nations of the Americas had come into the fold with only a few hold outs in South America, and they all had representatives clamoring to speak with them ahead of the Counsel meeting this afternoon. Robert had scheduled a meeting with the big four: Mexico, the US, Brazil, and Canada. Followed by a larger meeting with representatives from all his protectorates in which he’d give a speech outlining their positions on the issues to be addressed by the Counsel.

Robert and Kate were studying Tetsuro’s notes. Shogun’s protectorates had all seen great rises in unemployement rates due to the AU automatons, but their net industry production had only increased enough to cover the expense for the machines. It was clear that if things weren’t changed, those nations would suffer greatly. “I don’t see it.” Kate said, shaking her head.

Hmm?” Robert hummed the question.

It’s clear that they are having trouble, but isn’t this also clearly a matter for these nation’s legislatures? They should ban the import and use of the automatons. How do they expect the Council to intervene?” She asked.

I’m not sure either. Perhaps they wanted to try and get everyone to act together, and the Council would be the best way to get their arguments heard by everyone.” Robert suggested.

Even if they did want united actions, shouldn’t that occur in the UN? There hasn’t been any precedent for asking the Council to intervene in the laws of the protectorate nations. I don’t think that’s the direction we want the Council to take, it interferes with protectorate’s sovereignty.” Kate said.

That’s true, if the Council went that far, it would greatly increase its power in the world. The Council would be like a combined Supreme Court and Supreme Executive, and that’s not what this is supposed to be.” Robert agreed. “It’s tough to reasonably argue against it, though. They will say that they are giving us the opportunity for us to increase our own power while preventing suffering, and our counter argument would be that they can easily prevent the suffering on their own and we don’t need any more power. Making that kind of argument would likely insure that an elected official never made it back into office for a second term. Good thing I’m not elected.”

Kate smiled at his impassioned agreement. “I’d vote for you.”

Sung Li had been ordered to start clearing his laboratory space for use by Alexey’s new acquisition, Regal Harken. Regal and Sung Li had been classmates back in Hefei, often competing for the highest marks in their shared classes. After graduation, Sung Li had been offered a position with the AAP for his achievements, while Regal had been passed over because he was a foreigner. It had been Sung Li that had tracked Regal’s postgraduate work, and he had flagged his research projects for seizure. In hindsight, he now regretted having spoken so well of the man to get permission to seize his research. It had likely contributed to Alexey’s new plan to bring Regal into the AAP.

Alexey was being a fool, he thought. The lab’s head was openly insulting Sung Li by taking his lab space and was taking the unheard of risk of bringing in a foreign born scientist. It wouldn’t do. Sung Li had resolved to make sure that this ploy of Alexey’s would back fire in the worst way possible. It was time for a newer, more progressive leader to take over, and Sung Li certainly wouldn’t turn down the opportunity. So he had passed the order to clear the laboratory on to his lab techs and had spent the day, “catching up” with his research colleagues and other senior AAP officials on site. He talked about mundane matters, eventually bringing up Alexey’s new plan. “Have you heard about…?” Then he’d tell a few fabricated anecdotes from his school days with Regal. Unprovable stories about Regal’s tendency to “just barely” or “just in the nick of time” prevent disasters with various projects Sung Li had seen him work on. He made the implication that, although brilliant, Regal was perhaps a little reckless, hinting that his accomplishments had really only come about through good luck. He also told about their strong friendship, and his hopes that he and Regal could renew it after their enforced separation as their career paths had diverged. These subtle rumors would help to make sure that Sung Li’s destruction of the man would be believable. It would inconvenience him to have doubts or fears that sabotage might have occurred.

Sung Li had not worked out all of the details of his plan yet. There were still too many unknowns, but it would involve making sure that any demonstration of Regal’s work would fail, disgracing Regal for his failure and Alexey for bringing him here in the first place. There were many types of sabotage he could employ. Computer viruses, Hardware hacks, and altering Regal’s source code would be the most likely to succeed. The most reliable and hardest to detect method would be altering Regal’s source code before it was compiled and uploaded to his chosen test robot. This would require a lot of work on Sung Li’s part. He would have to maintain access to Regal’s lab space, then gain access to his computers. Then steal the code, so he could spend the time necessary to figure out how it worked well enough to sabotage it in a way that would not prevent its compilation, then he’d need to plant the hacked code back on Regal’s machine and upload it into the test robot. That would be Sung Li’s main plan. To back that up and ensure Regal’s failure, Sung Li would try to be the one to supply Regal with the robots which would be used for his inevitable demonstration.

Sung Li guessed that Regal would want the top of the line AAP worker model, the Opasnoye Sostoyaniye Rabotnik, hazardous condition worker, or OCP, and Sung Li could try to steer him towards it. The robots consisted of a compact central platform which contained the computer and power supply and had four long multi-jointed limbs, each with a reconfigurable and retool-able hand attachment. The OCP’s were magnificent machines, and after all the work he’d put into them to make them so, Sung Li would have no trouble credibly selling their benefits to Regal for his demonstrations. They were beautifully versatile. They could “stand up” on two legs, and fold the other two down to mimic human arms, giving them the size and appearance of a walking headless person. But they could also fold down and gallop like large dogs, or crab walk in the other direction. Sung Li had even had one perform a sort of snake-like ululation in order to climb up into a tight space. Yes, Sung Li would first propose the use of OCP’s to Regal, then he would set up a demonstration of his own to show Regal their capabilities, at the end handing control of those same models over to Regal. He would use the setup for his little demonstration as an excuse to be doing maintenance on the machines, while he’d really be hacking their hardware. He’d install something like a simplified second control computer that would override commands from the main computer. He would have to remember to program the robots destroy the evidence of the hardware hack during the “accident.”

This spectacular failure would be what Alexey deserved, he reasoned. If you block or interfere with a great mind like Sung Li’s, then you have to assume that that interference will make you the next problem that that great mind will try to solve. Regal wouldn’t be too hurt by the sabotage. At worst, he’d be booted out of the AU. Sung Li had never fully understood why Regal had come here anyway, he believed Regal would have been better off staying home and being treated like a prince. So Sung Li reasoned that his plot could be said to be helping Regal.

Regal awoke as the plane began it’s descent. The distant peaks of the Ural mountains seen through his window reminded him of Yellowstone. The Ozyorsk airfield had only two runways, but was lined with a sizable number of storage hangers. It was a military airfield so instead of a terminal there were barracks, and instead of parking lots stocked with rental cars there was a motor pool. The plane touched down with a jerking thud, and taxied into a waiting open hangar. Within it a vehicle was waiting, and Alexey emerged from his private area in the back of the plane as the turbines cycled down and the stairs were lowered. “Welcome to Ozyorsk!” He said. “You will like it here. Tonight, you will stay in one of our dormitory suites. Every important scientist in my department is given a suite, and we maintain spares furnished and ready in case of important visitors.”

“That will be very nice, I’m sure.” Regal responded congenially.

The airfield had been constructed east of the Ozyorsk AAP complex, which lay between the small lake Karachay to the South and the larger lake Kyzyltash to the North. All of the roads into and out of the complex were gated and guarded and each individual block of buildings was enclosed by security fence. It was like a cross between a large factory complex and a military base. Alexey and Regal disembarked and got into the back seat of the waiting heavy vehicle, painted military green with the seal of the AAP painted on its sides. This vehicle had a human driver, and Alexey quietly directed him to take them to the dormitory.

In the back seat with Regal he said under his breath, “We do not use robots for everything, even here.” As if he thought Regal would want an explanation, or perhaps because he was used to heading off questions from visiting dignitaries. “For security purposes, we do not use robots for drivers here, as they could store a record of where we go, and within the complex, any storage device with sensitive data must be kept in a secured location. There are two exceptions…” He pointed to his head. “Our minds and special encrypted smart phones that lack locally stored keys. I think if they could encrypt our minds, they would do that as well.” He chuckled at that.

The driver took them on a short drive to a long squat building enclosed within a fence. The guard saw Alexey and waved them past the gate house. The driver stopped the car in front of the main doors, and Alexey lead Regal inside, opening the door with a key card. The entrance area looked much like a hotel lobby, except for the extra security measures. At a long gray desk near the door a bored young man with a shaved head in a military uniform noticed Alexey, and stood at attention. The name printed on his uniform was Petrovyh.

Sir, what can I do for you, sir?” The young man asked rigidly.

What is your name, serviceman?” Alexey asked.

Max Gregorovich Petrovyh, sir.”

Max, this is our newest member of the research team, Regal Harken, a very respected scientist. Please assign him an ID badge and arrange a suite for him. It will be a long stay, so provide him with a full complement of toiletries, and any more he should ask.”

Yes sir.” Max pointed towards a door next to the long desk. “This way please, sir.”

Regal, it has been a pleasure to meet you, and I’m excited to have you on the team. Tomorrow morning, I will pick you up and take you to the laboratory. Tonight, please relax and get settled in here, Max will take care of you.” Alexey offered his hand.

Regal took it, “Thank you, Alexey. I’ll see you in the morning.” After the hand shake, Alexey left him with the soldier.

This way, sir.” Max said, a little less formally. “We have many forms for you to fill out.” He led Regal into a plain undecorated room with a nondescript desk, and brought him a stack of forms, saying, “Please fill out all of these, and I can get your photo to print you a key card.” He kindly offered Regal a bottle of water, and Regal assented. As Regal worked through the forms, Max gave him a run down of important areas in the dormitory building. There was a cafeteria serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as exercise facilities. Outside cell phones and computers were forbidden within the dormitory, but Regal’s phone had been confiscated back in Hefei anyway. Max kept a stock of toiletries, and he gathered a bag full for Regal to take with him to his room.

After signing so many papers that Regal’s hand had begun to ache, Max took him into another room and made him stand on some yellow foot print outlines in front of a large machine with a camera lens. Without warning, Max snapped the picture and the key card began to print immediately. He handed it to Regal. The picture had caught him with a muted surprised look, almost incredulous.

Max handed him the toiletries and told him his room number would be 818 on the top floor. Regal took the elevator up alone. The suite was utilitarian with a kitchenette in a modestly sized living room separated by a door from the bedroom. Regal had nothing to unpack so he stripped off his clothes, dug some soap out of his toiletry allotment and took a shower. He was still tired, it was late and the jet lag meant it felt even later. Once he was clean, he hit the bed. He knew he’d be up very early tomorrow morning, but for now he didn’t want to dwell on his current situation.

Chapter 2

Intentional Distortion

The screens of the Harkens’ command center began to fill with the images of the Council members as well as an empty podium in the UN chamber as the meeting time approached and Beowulf established connections. Eden’s screen flickered on and Leone Defontana stood with the vision of Eden floating behind him from the Italian Tree. The image had been carefully designed to impress. Leone was a well cut middle aged man with dark hair, wearing his usual white suit. Eden floating above and behind him had the appearance of an angel. She had devised some way to appear to be partially transparent and emitting soft light from within. Her hair and her robes flowed around her as if she was suspended in water. Her eyes seemed to be made of blue fire. When she spoke her voice seemed to reverberate in your head regardless of the actual acoustics.

Next to join was Tetsuro Kondo and Shogun from the Japanese Tree. Tetsuro was a thin man with an angular jaw and sharp, pronounced cheek bones in a black suit. Shogun’s dryad looked like a scaled up living carving of Tetsuro made from dark stained cherry wood. Some of Shogun’s features were exaggerated. His eyebrows were carved thick and long, extending just short of his ears. When he stood still he looked like a carving of a mythical Oni. They nodded to the screen and he watched patiently for the others to join.

In rapid succession, Morgan with Siren from Tonga and then Eikar with Eric from Iceland joined. Morgan Atuafago was a middle aged Samoan woman, wearing a respectable pants suit in stark contrast with Siren beside her. Across her face, covering her eyes was a black blind fold. Except for the first, all of the Trees’ administrators were blinded by the dryads before taking the position. It was one of the rules Robert’s brother had built in, something to discourage would be usurpers. Siren remained as beautiful as she’d been the day they’d first seen her. She had perfect brown skin, green hair with a white shock through it, and purple eyes. She wore a fitted breast plate of muted gray steel with large pauldrons concealing her shoulders. The breast plate had been carved with an image of her tree form as seen from under the sea.

Eikar Haddursson was an older man, tall with pale skin and platinum hair in a dull blue suit. Eric’s dryad looked like a larger version of Eikar as a younger man. The dryad’s skin was white pine and he had short spikes of straw-like hair. Seeing that everyone was present, Eikar spoke. He spoke in his native Icelandic and Eric repeated the words in English. “Hello, everyone, it looks like we’re all here.”

Unofficially, Robert was the head of the Council. Technically, the Council had no such position, but all of the other Tree administrators deferred to Robert in most matters, including leading meetings. The Harkens had hand selected the other admins with the aid of Theo Rigby, and although they stood on nearly equal footing now, the Harkens were still given certain privileges. Robert spoke loudly and clearly, “Welcome, everyone. This Council meeting has begun. The Council of the Five Trees has been called together today to decide whether we shall intervene in a matter brought to us by the United Nations. We are ready to hear your concerns.”

There was an awkward silence. No one had yet stood to speak in the UN chambers. After Robert’s announcement a small group of people approached the dais. It was five minutes or so of silence before someone was ready to speak. A distinguished Japanese man walked into view and stood behind the podium. He spoke, “Greetings, Council of the Five Trees, I am Yokota Ota, representative of Japan, speaking on behalf of the UN.”

We hear the representative.” Robert said.

Thank you, Councilman Harken.” Yokota Ota intoned with baritone formality, “The UN has called you to hear our request for intervention in the matter of the Asiatic Union’s recent massive increase in excise taxes on autonomous machines. Our economic research has shown that this action amounts to aggressive monopolization with intent to enrich the Asiatic Union while harming many other nations of the UN. For the affected nations, their main competitor for industrial goods is the Asiatic Union. With their autonomous workforce, the AU had been able to produce most goods at a greatly reduced cost when compared to a human-powered business within an affected nation. With this cost advantage the AU can undercut the prices of the domestic industry, and the only way the domestic industry can remain in business is to replace their human workforce with imported AU automatons. This use of automatons results in similar levels of unemployment that would be expected from the closing of the business, and similar amounts of money flowing back to the AU as if the people were buying all imported AU goods anyway. The AU’s unfair advantage is crippling the affected nations domestic industries and bleeding money from their economies.”

Yokota continued, “Some nations, such as South Korea, have tried to counter the AU’s exploitation with policy measures. To protect their work force and domestic businesses they have placed high taxes on all AU imports, especially manufactured goods. This is intended to correct the price disparity and allow their domestic businesses to compete. Unfortunately, most manufactured goods today rely on special components that require significant infrastructure investment to produce. It is too costly to produce all of the individual components of one high tech product in a single plant, so many of South Korea’s domestic businesses still suffer under the policy, because they rely on manufactured goods from the AU, just not end user goods. Furthermore, they have seen high levels of inflation result from the policy. This means that although the defensive policies helped to prevent unemployment, which kept money flowing to the workers, that money had less purchasing power. In the end, South Korea’s actions have only served to spread the negative effects of the AU’s unfair advantage evenly among all of the people, rather than concentrated at the newly unemployed.”

The Harkens hadn’t heard about South Korea’s attempt at defensive policy. Kate leaned over and whispered to Robert, “We might have something to do here after all.” Robert nodded with a grim look. He really didn’t like where this was going. Yokota kept stressing the unfair advantage, so Robert guessed that the UN wanted them to remove that advantage. What worried him was just how much they would ask of the Council. The UN had to be wise enough not to ask for acts of war over economic issues, weren’t they? But wouldn’t the situation warrant it, if enough people were suffering? Of course the AU was itself a member of the UN, and asking for war against its own members surely would not be an acceptable move for the UN. Nevertheless, Robert mentally prepared himself for the worse.

It is with the purpose of eliminating this unfair advantage that we have called this meeting of the Council.” Yokota said. “We request the production of Tree drone workers by the Trees for use by the protectorate nations in their industries. We have seen past examples of a Tree’s simultaneous control of many drones at once by the distinguished Beowulf during the Tree wars, and we ask that this capability be used to restore our ability to compete economically in the new global markets.” Yokota ended his speech with a small bow, and waited for the Council’s response.

Thank you, Yokota-san, we appreciate your concerns. Do you have specifications for the new workers? Estimated numbers?” Robert asked.

Yes, we have prepared specs and figures.” Yokota motioned to someone off screen. “You should be receiving them now. Robert turned to look at Wolf who nodded confirmation.

Very good. Thank you.” Robert said. “This sounds like a reasonable request, at least, as a stop-loss measure until our protectorate nations can achieve technological equality with the AU. I am pleased that we have been asked only to help the disadvantaged, rather than harm the advantaged. Would anyone like to question Yokota further?” He asked, opening the floor to the other Council members.

Leone Defontana spoke first, translated by the angelic voice of Eden, and gave a long speech detailing the similar complaints of his Eastern European protectorates. They had suffered many of the same economic woes as a result of the AU’s advantages. It was clear that his vote would be an assent to the request. Yokota waited patiently and nodded, but Leone never really did ask a question.

Eikar spoke next. Eric translated his question, “Does this need to be a Council matter, or is this just a matter where individual Trees choose to lend aid to their protectorate nations?”

Yokota had prepared a response to this saying, “Thank you, Councilman, the nation of Japan has approached Tetsuro and Shogun with this request and given the numbers requested he advised us to seek Council help as well.”

That is correct, Eikar.” Shogun confirmed for Tetsuro. The dryads were editing the video streams such that everyone heard their preferred language whenever something was being translated. So if Tetsuro said something in Japanese, then Shogun translated into English, Icelandic, and Italian and sent out three different transmissions. Beowulf was doing the same whenever Robert spoke, even though his dryad did not appear to be moving or speaking in person.

Eikar nodded, “What will be done to prevent these drones from being used to unfairly boost one business rather than another? How will the use of these drones reduce unemployment?” Robert nodded at the questions. It would be important to prevent the use of these worker drones as a way for governments to bolster certain businesses over others, and the use of drones would mean not using human workers.

Thank you, Councilman.” Yokota began. “We propose that the drones be made available to businesses at a flat rate per annum. We also propose that the money used to purchase them will go to the businesses’ nation’s government and will be required to be used for a domestic investment of some form. We will not dictate precisely how the reinvestment shall be made so as not to interfere with the nations’ chosen form of government. Some nations may choose to directly rebate the money to the people, others may choose to reinvest the money into socialized businesses or public works, and there are many other possible uses. The only rule will be that the money cannot be directly invested internationally. As for unemployment, it is expected that an increase in unemployment will occur as a result this policy, but the protectorate nations will have the drone worker rental income to use as aid in any way they may need. Welfare programs needed to support displaced workers would be recommended to provide the culture with continuity for however long it takes to transition these workers to other occupations.”

That is well considered, speaker.” Eikar said. “I am finished with my questions.”

How will the responsible use of the money for domestic investments be enforced?” Morgan Atuafago asked. “Who will stop a corrupt government from misusing the funds?”

Yokota inclined his head. “We have been aware of that issue, but we have decided that the protectorate nations must for the most part police themselves. Except, should a member nation violate the domestic reinvestment rule, the Council will have the right to deny them workers.”

Oh, the Council has more rights than that.” Morgan replied with an edge. “If we should agree to provide this aide, it would be with the understanding that any violation of the rules or large scale misuse of funds could be punished with loss of protectorate status. I have no further questions”

Are there any other questions?” Robert asked and paused for a moment. After a long silence he continued, “We have heard the United Nations’ request. Since we have been provided with additional materials and figures to review, I propose that we continue with a closed meeting to deliberate prior to the vote. Any opposed?” Robert paused again for a moment. No one spoke in opposition. “We will continue with a closed meeting. We thank the UN for their proposal, we will announce our decision after deliberation.” Robert gestured and the UN screen in Beowulf’s command center switched to black, leaving only the Council members.

Beowulf, could you recite the estimated figures requested in the UN proposal?” Robert asked.

Of course. They are requesting an initial pool of ten thousand drones this year for trial usage, then twenty-five thousand next year, with an additional twenty-five thousand added each year after that until demand is met or the Trees’ maximum control capability is reached.” Beowulf said.

Feasibility?” Robert asked.

There are some issues.” Beowulf stated neutrally, “We should all be capable of the initial drone production and the computing ability needed to maintain control of them, and we should be able to adapt to meet the needs of the staggered production plan. However, I foresee issues with the communications systems needed to maintain control over the drones. My favored method of remote drone control relies on satellite communications which could be unreliable in certain parts of the world or under certain weather conditions. We will need to construct infrastructure systems to maintain the reliable drone control that these businesses will need. For instance, we could grow networks of communication cable roots that would have periodic tree-like communication towers growing up from them.”

We could get push back from the UN and the protectorates for something like that.” Kate warned. “Nations will be concerned about maintaining sovereignty, autonomy, and privacy.”

What are the alternatives?” Leone asked. It didn’t make it through the translation, but Leone had seemed to snap the question. During one of the first Council meetings, he had questioned Kate’s right to be present. The rest of the council had remained ambivalent after Robert had supported her presence. The matter still irked Leone.

Eden answered him. “We could interface with conventional man-made communications systems similar to cell phone towers with direct fiber lines connected back to the Trees. This would give some measure of control to the protectorate nations. They could switch the communications on or off, if satellite communications are otherwise untenable. An unfortunate consequence of this would be the additional time it would take to construct, perhaps years for wide coverage.”

That seems acceptable, “ Tetsuro said. “This was intended to be a gradually scaled up solution anyway.”

Without the dire economic need, how will we encourage the independent development of technology to eventually match the AU?” Eikar asked. “Won’t we be taking away the motivation to solve the problem?”

That is a concern.” Robert agreed. “We do not want to encourage technological stagnation from Tree dependence. We could try an incentive program, offering rewards for meeting certain research goals.”

Perhaps a portion of the yearly rate could be set aside.” Tetsuro posited. “Ten percent. To be held as long as a company continues to renew its lease on the drones. They can get the deposit back, but only if they agree not to lease any drones for a period of five years. This way, the reward for eliminating dependence on the drones will build up over time.”

That could be difficult to enforce.” Eikar argued. “Suppose a company sells all of its assets off to a competitor, and then collects the payout for no longer using drones. The new owner would still use drones, but the reward would be paid to the leftover shell company. They would get the reward back without making use of any form of innovation.”

Eikar is correct, that type of reward would require too much moderation, too many disputable claims.” Robert said. “But the withholding for the reward money is a good idea. Suppose it were five percent, with one percent being held by each Tree. Then each Council member could choose to create research reward programs of their choosing, drawing upon the new cash pool to pay out rewards. For instance, I would probably start with one big reward for a drone replacing robot, then if the prize pool grew larger, I’d add stepped rewards for technologies which contribute to a drone replacing robot.”

It is a good idea.” Eikar agreed, and smiled. “We could even arrange a competition among two Trees’ protectorates for the combined prize money.” He grew serious again. “The only remaining question is how the AU will interpret this action, if we choose to proceed.”

I think that they will have to accept it.” Morgan Atuafago said. She’d been quiet throughout the meeting. “It would be highly hypocritical of them to criticize the protectorates’ using the Trees to their advantage. The AU has taken advantage of their technologies for too long for those complaints from them to matter to the world. Within their borders, however, could be another story. Their people will lose some of their prosperity, and the AU governance will blame the Trees for this. It is unavoidable. It could a create a generation of people in the AU that is more strongly Anti-Arboreal, which would have consequences in the future. It is unfortunate that this could happen, but their prosperity was constructed on our nations’ pain, and that must end.” There was general nodding from the members of the Council. Morgan did not have any training in economics or politics, but she had grown up on American Samoa, and the island’s previous status gave her unique perspective on the situation.

I think it is time for the vote. For an intervention case like this we must be unanimous to take action.” Robert said. “I vote to intervene. Morgan?”





We Intervene.”



Than it is decided. Tetsuro, will you draft our decision for presentation to the UN?” It was still very early in Japan, somewhere around quarter past six in the morning.

It would be my pleasure.” Tetsuro said.

Then our meeting is closed. Thanks everyone.” Robert gestured and the screens blinked out. He turned to Kate. “I think that worked out well.”

She nodded introspectively. “I never thought we’d see the day when nations would demand to replace their workers with robots.”

Robert recalled a line from an old film. “What would Sergeant Murtaugh have to say about this?” Robert asked with a fleeting smile, then stood, “Let’s head upstairs.” Kate and Beowulf followed him to one of Wolf’s petal doored elevators. Once the petals had closed and they had begun to move he turned to Beowulf behind them. “Wolf, is there any news about Regal?”

Yes, his things were loaded onto a truck and are heading West, with two of my bugs. The third bug followed the agents. They were from the Hefei Autonomous Atomic Program Office.” The dryad replied.

The AAP has taken him? Can you get the bug inside?” Kate asked.

No, the building is secure and with only one bug, I would risk losing signal if I send it inside.”

No sign of Regal himself?” Robert asked.

None.” Wolf said.

Damn, Robert thought. They’d have to hope Regal showed up wherever his stuff was going. The only other option was to deploy more spy drones, which had been hard enough to begin with. They had had to deploy them in a complicated multi-stage operation. First Beowulf had shot a satellite up out of the atmosphere with the payload of spy drones. The satellite had burned into a synchronous orbit above China, then released the drone payload which decelerated out of orbit with a small disposable rocket. The three bugs, two seeds and the comm sphere had come down a hundred miles west of Hefei, and then had traveled by night to the city from there. Robert didn’t think that they’d get away with the same thing twice, and even if they did with the accuracy being what it was, new drones could still take days to reach Hefei.

We will have to hope that Regal turns up wherever his stuff is going.” Robert voiced his thoughts, “In the meantime, Wolf, could you produce one of these worker drones based off of the specifications the UN provided? I’d like to get a look at one, before we start sending them off to work.”

You got it.” Wolf replied.

What about the Guardians?” Kate asked Robert. “They may have people in the area.” She was referring to the Guardians of the Hive, which had begun as a strange cult they had sheltered after the first Swarm attack. Since then, they had become a much more serious operation that was part military, part religion. They were the closest thing the Harkens had to a human police force or standing army. Of course, Beowulf didn’t really have any need for a police force. The dryad handled most security and criminal manners himself with copies of his dryad forms. Even as they rode in the elevator with this one, there were probably a hundred others heading off various incidents throughout the tree.

So the Guardians had set their sights on matters outside of the Tree. They had sent out missions to nations across the world, to spread the good word about trees, bees, and martial arts or something. Robert and Kate had kept in touch with the group’s leaders, Beth and Armand, and even attended some of their services, but he didn’t pay much attention to the content. The Harkens really only went as a gesture to the couple, to show their friendship. And it had been a very valuable friendship to have over the years as the couple’s outside network grew. They would at times hear rumors from Beth and Armand over dinner that the television news didn’t pick up until weeks later.

The Guardians’ missions to the AU had not done well, however. They were ostracized and banned from the start as religious radicals and political dissidents. But even just a few weeks ago, Beth had dropped some hints about an upcoming tariff policy change from the AU, which meant that they may still have a few enclaves operating secretly within AU borders.

Do they, Wolf?” Robert prompted. The dryad looked surprised. It was exceedingly difficult to keep anything secret from Beowulf while someone was within the Tree, any part of the Tree could operate as light or sound sensors, and his computational ability to reconstruct images from the incident light on any part of him made it unnecessary for him to physically create a camera obscura. So if Beth and Armand had been receiving information from hidden cells within the AU, Wolf would likely be aware of it. Wolf was surprised because although it was something they were all aware of, Robert rarely took advantage of it.

Yes, I think they have people over there.” Beowulf confirmed.

Contact them and see if they’d join us for dinner at 6.” Robert ordered and the dryad nodded. Armand was getting on in years. Where Robert, Kate, and Beth were scattered around the top of The hill, Armand was waving up to them from well down the other side. One of the consequences of his advancing age seemed to be a desire to eat earlier in the day. Six might be a little late for him, but not enough to cause any grumbling.

Regal awoke at five in the morning, and went to his suite’s kitchenette. There was a tea kettle and a can of dried dark tea. Regal filled the kettle and set it over heat. He then showered the sleep off and put on yesterday’s cloths. It was one of the less acknowledged drawbacks of having been kidnapped. No change of cloths. The tea kettle was steaming, so he removed it from heat and poured a cup over some tea. It was dark, but had none of the bite and body of coffee. He sat and drank it. Next to the phone on a side table in the living room, there was a booklet labeled “Dormitory Rules” in Russian and left to right Chinese. Official documents in the AU tried to be bilingual, printing everything in both languages. Regal had learned both languages passably well. Some said he came off as too formal, but being too formal had never hindered him in his work as a research scientist.

He opened the rule book and started scanning for any mention of the cafeteria. He was looking for its hours of operation. He was hungry, but there was no point in making the trip down if it was going to be closed. He found it, it was open twenty-four hours. Perhaps they had people doing shift work here, that would eat late meals. Ready, he left his room and took the elevator down to the first floor and then turned down the hallway past the reception area he’d been through yesterday. He reached a gray opaque door with a bilingual placard declaring it to be the door to the cafeteria. When he opened it he saw the room behind was unlit, but as the door swung the lights switched on. Illuminating a large space packed with tables, and a food service line along the right wall.

Regal stepped into the room and a figure unfolded from behind the food service line with an electrical whirring. It was a common tethered worker android. These were man-sized human analogs with human-like arms and hands. From the waist down they are decidedly inhuman however, with a freely rotating waist and two large skid treaded feet. Their primary means of locomotion were the skid treads, but they could left the legs up and step slowly over obstacles if necessary. They had to be tethered, or plugged in, to operate, because they had no onboard power supply, but they made a serviceable replacement for humans that had to do any mindless repetitive task in a confined space. It was the reason the cafeteria was open 24 hours. The android’s head was a smooth cylinder except for a pair of cameras facing forward on one side. It rotated and locked on to Regal, tracking his movements. Someone had drawn a mustache on the cylindrical head. It spoke in Russian as he approached. “Good morning, Regal Harken, please address me as Le Chef. Scheduled breakfast begins in two hours, but this worker can prepare you a made to order breakfast as long as time and rations allow.” The voice was the most common type for robots in the AU. A middle to high pitch voice that made it difficult to call it either male or female with intentional distortion to separate it from a human voice.

There was an interesting story behind that vocal distortion that had been released to the public when enough people had complained about it. Some of the researchers developing the machines had given them true human sounding voices, but the researchers quickly became annoyed by this. Whenever the machines asked a question with a human sounding voice, it activated a sympathetic response in the researchers just as if a real person had called for their attention. Robots weren’t people, however, and the researchers didn’t feel that they deserved to be allowed to efficiently make use of humanity’s built in communication triggers. So they added the distortion to the voices and it became much easier for them to ignore the questions of their robots, because they could now tell that it was not a human voice. They had been intentionally designed to discourage sympathy. After the explanation was released, the number of complaints about the voices dwindled, except in cases where someone was trying to use the machines for sales purposes, of course.

What are my ration limitations?” Regal asked.

Please address me as Le Chef, Regal Harken.” Le Chef said, still tracking Regal with his eyes. Regal guessed its insistence on being addressed was to make it so Le Chef could easily determine whether or not it was being spoken to, which could be a complicated computing issue in a crowded cafeteria where many people were speaking simultaneously. “Your breakfast may consist of no more than the following: 5 chicken eggs, 1/2 kilo of potato, 1/2 kilo of beets, 1/4 kilo of onion, 1/4 kilo of carrot, 1/4 kilo of dried oatmeal, 1/4 kilo of dried rice, 1/2 kilo of bread, 1/10th kilo of meat. 1/10th kilo of cheese, 1/2 liter of milk, 2/3 liter of tea, 1/2 liter of coffee, 1/4 liter of beet juice, 50 cc’s of butter, 100 cc’s of vegetable oil.”

Le Chef, please prepare me a 3 egg omelet with 1/10th kilo of fried diced sausage, 1/10th kilo of diced onion, and 1/10th kilo of cheese, with a side of 1/4 kilo of hash browned potatoes, and a cup of coffee.” Regal said.

Order received, Regal Harken, please wait.” Le Chef said, rotating around and beginning to gather ingredients. “The requested operation will take 15 minutes to complete.” Regal stood and watched the machine methodically prepare the food, imagining the programming that was driving it. The ingredient gathering and preparation looked like reusable subroutines. For instance, to prepare the sausage he supposed the machine had to run a retrieve ingredient program, then an unpackage ingredient program, then a weigh and separate program, then it ran the program to return the unused portion back to storage. Once it had the meat, it ran a program to activate the flat grill, then another to retrieve a spatula, then another to put the meat on the grill, and another program monitored the cooking time, and then called a flip and scramble program to ensure even browning. Finally, it removed the meat and placed it into an empty bowl with yet another program.

Regal was mesmerized as he observed the results and attempted to re-create interesting portions of the machine’s programming. He mentally wrote his own code to accomplish the same tasks. The omelet turned out well, maybe a little overstuffed, but it cooked well and held together. The robot plated the cooked omelet and hash and then put the plate on a cafeteria tray with a cup of coffee. It placed the tray on a table at the end of the line and hit a small ringer with its hand. “Order Up! Regal Harken.”

Regal retrieved the tray and found a spot to start eating. Le Chef had done well. The coffee had a stale taste, but it was great to have it anyway. Small groups of other residents of the dormitory started to come in early for their own made to order breakfasts. Regal ate slowly, watching Le Chef and the other residents. By six he had finished his breakfast and a second cup of coffee. He left the cafeteria, and went to the reception area to wait for Alexey. There was another man on duty at the desk, not Max. Regal took a seat on a bench opposite the reception desk and waited patently, gazing out through the doors.

Alexey arrived at eight just ahead of a larger bus. Other residents of the dormitory had lined up outside, waiting for the bus, but Alexey’s driver stopped right in front of the doors anyway. The bus had to pull in behind them and the waiting passengers streamed towards it. Today, Alexey’s attire was less formal, closer to business casual. He hopped out of the back of the car and pushed through the waiting residents. Regal started towards him, and they met at the door. “Good morning.” He greeted the Russian and extended his hand.

Good morning!” Alexey took his hand for a quick shake. “How was the room? I see I forgot something, I will send word to have the attendants provide you with a change of clothes. Your belongings should arrive tomorrow. Today, I will show you your office and laboratory, and I’ll introduce you to some of the people you’ll be working with. I believe that an old friend of yours is working with us. Dr. Sung Li?”

Sung Li? Regal remembered the man. They had shared several classes, and graduated in the same year. They had worked together a little, but they hadn’t become friends. Sung Li had seemed too cold and they had both been too competitive to become friends. Regal was curious to meet him again, to see if the years had changed him. “Yes we were classmates, It will be good to catch up with him.” Regal confirmed. “I’m also very interested to know more about this operation as a whole. There is an atomic battery factory here as well?”

Oh yes, but I can’t take you to visit there.” Alexey shook his head. “It’s 100% autonomous and has not been designed for human safety. We just drop off raw materials, and collect completed batteries. Nothing else will ever leave the site. If we have time today, I will take you to see the remote control room, where all operations within the factory are safely controlled out of harms way.” They went to Alexey’s car and got in the back seats. “Driver, take us to the research branch Building.” Alexey commanded, and they took off.

The research facility was not far off. Security was a bit tighter around this building, and there were more guards and security cameras at the lot entrance gatehouse and around the perimeter fence. They followed protocol better as well, scanning Regal’s key card and Alexey’s. The building was the same size as the dormitory, but the lower levels were constructed with full concrete walls rather than the concrete and steel superstructure of the upper levels.

Alexey led Regal inside. There were guarded body scanners at the entrance and the exit. They clearly didn’t want anyone bringing anything that didn’t belong or leaving with anything that needed to stay. As they passed through, Regal asked Alexey, “This is impressive security, but how will they bring my computer in? I must have it just as it was left, it contains data that is critical to the project.” Technically, it contained the whole completed project, except for Regal’s latest addition, but Alexey didn’t need to know that.

There’s no need to worry.” Alexey explained. “We will index all of your data, and then copy parts that we know are benign onto an approved hard drive for your use. If you need anything that doesn’t make it through the automatic scan, just flag it in the index, and after a human review, it will be provided.”

That should be fine.” Regal assented. Past the security was a small decorated lobby area with elevators and a gray door to the first floor facilities. Alexey lead him through that door into a long, wide white hallway with gray doors on either side.

The first and second floors are all secure lab spaces suitable for use with smaller robots, as small as a cat or smaller. For anything bigger, use of the reinforced basement labs is required. There is also a third, hot lab space located at a remote site. That space is accessible only by robot, there is a control center in a room in the basement.” Alexey said, choosing a door to their right labeled “Lab 3 – Mihailov.” “This lab is Dr. Petyr Mihailov’s. We will see if he is here.”

Through the door was a lab space that looked like a machine shop had thrown up in a high end toy store. Shelves lined the walls, piled high with disorganized machined parts, interspersed with small animal-like robotic assemblies in various stages of completion. “Dr. Mihailov’s mission is rapid recon and discreet surveillance robots. Doctor? Are you here?”

Yes, Alexey.” A short stout, gray bearded man emerged from behind a shelf. “What do you need?” He caught sight of Regal through his thick old fashioned glasses. “Who is this? An American?”

Petyr, this is Regal Harken.” Alexey introduced. “Regal, Dr. Petyr Dmitrivitch Mihailov, one of our most experienced scientists.” Dr. Mihailov laughed at Alexey’s introduction and extended a hand to Regal.

Experienced is just a kind way of saying old. I’ve heard of some of your work, Mr. Harken.” He said. Regal took his hand.

Nice to meet you doctor. I haven’t heard of any of your work yet, as I’m sure you understand.” Regal answered.

Working here, that will change quickly.” Alexey said. “Dr. Mihailov is one of the founding father’s of the AAP robotics program. He paved the way for much of our work here.”

Perhaps.” Dr. Mihailov said. “But that was a long time ago, now I work hard just to stay up to date with the latest technologies. Are you here to work with us, Mr. Harken?”

Yes, Alexey has asked me to join you until I’ve completed my latest project.” Regal answered.

Very good then, I’m sure we will speak again. Alexey… about those custom Teflon coated bearings I ordered…” The doctor began, pulling Alexey to the side. They discussed the issue in hushed voices. Eventually, Alexey nodded, whispered something and turned back to Regal. “Excuse me, Regal, that was just an important matter Dr. Mihailov has been working on. He means to try and copy some mammalian joints, except using steel bones, teflon cartilage, nylon ligaments, all enclosed in a lubricating oil-filled sack similar to a mammalian bursa.”

Alexey led Regal back out into the hall, and further down. He selected another door which opened into a stairwell. Alexey lead him down. The basement hallway was a dark gray and there were warning signs on some of the doors, requiring the use of protective equipment or forbidding entrance if a nearby light was on. Alexey took him to the end of the hall and opened a door labeled “Lab 28 – Sung Li” and said, “This will be your laboratory, once we’ve cleaned out some things.”

Inside, a young man and woman in lab coats were packing files into storage boxes. They spotted the newcomers but kept working. “This was Dr. Sung Li’s lab space before, but he is being temporarily relocated to a shared space in a lab down the hall.” Alexey explained. The lab space didn’t look like much empty. It looked a little bit like an office had been installed in the corner of a room that was too large for it. The space had clearly seen heavy use in the past as the concrete floor and walls were scratched, dented and scoured in places, as if the place had been home to a restive robotic leopard. “Dr. Sung Li specializes in creating and programming android type robots.” He shook his head at a grouping of deep gouges in a wall. “I’ve had to warn him about testing his programs in full size machines without simulations many times. It can be very dangerous.”

Will I be using his computer.” Regal asked, looking at the unfamiliar machine near the assistants.

No, Sung Li’s lab techs will remove that along with his files. You will obtain a fresh system from our hardware storage department. That is our next stop. The computers we use here will be of an unfamiliar architecture to you, because it is custom built and uses restricted technology. You will not know the operating systems or hardware, but, we’ve worked with your code in the past, so you will find that we have already ported your favorite development tools to our system.” Alexey said.

Is that where I’ll go to get test robots as well?” Regal asked, tracing his hand through a scratch.

Yes, we have several test units there, as well as enough components to construct many more. You will see.” Alexey said. “Let us leave Dr. Sung Li’s lab assistants to finish their packing, and head over there now.”

Alexey led him down the hall to a set of double doors at the other end of the building. Behind them was a dark, concrete lined room filled with the scents of lubricating oil. There was a caged area around the entrance with its own set of double swinging gates secured with an electromagnetic lock. There was also a cutout window to the side with a small table and a rigged up button labeled “Push for buzzer.”

We have a few men down here. They handle shipping and receiving, inventory, robot mechanical repairs, and some machining. Boris Volkov runs things down here. If you need something later, come down and ring the buzzer. My key card will open this gate, but yours will not, you will have to ring. Let us see if we can find Boris.” Alexey said swiping his card in front of the reader. The EM locks clicked off and he pushed the gate open.

Beyond the cage, the storage room was a dark maze of shelves. The shelves were lined with full sized unpowered robots. There were several android types which looked macabre in their hunched over, poorly illuminated state. “Kind of like a graveyard is it not?” Alexey asked. “Boris calls this the bone yard.” There were other types of robot as well. There were larger wheeled varieties with two and four wheels, long framed aerial units with wings folded in for storage, and even a pair of heavy construction robots with tank treads and hydraulic digging buckets. “These larger mobile models are powered by gas and diesel.” Alexey noted. Some of the robots were clearly military including a row of automated tracking turrets, both machine gun and rocket, and a low wheeled robot with a large sensor attachment in front for detecting mines and a pair of folded arms to manipulate them. There were some robots whose purpose was not at all obvious including a set of meter diameter metallic spheres. Alexey saw that Regal had stopped to examine them. “Those are interesting, they were designed to be like your Tree’s drones. Deployed by artillery, shot from a cannon to soften an enemy up before the big gear arrives. They unfold and walk like a spider, except they have guns, sometimes machine guns, sometimes rifles. They have a very quiet gasoline motor, and are great for night assaults.”

Walking down the shelf hall took them to the back of the room where a forklift was parked with it’s maintenance panel open and a man half inside of it cursing quietly. Behind it there was an opening in the back wall with a sloped road that likely switched back and lead to the first floor of the hardware storage area. A burst of sparks flew out of the maintenance panel followed by unintelligible cursing. The man pulled himself out. He wore a black oil-stained jumpsuit which may once have been blue. He had dark hair and maybe had dark skin, but it could also have been grime of some sort. His eyes were covered with thick goggles, whose reflected glare hid his eyes. He caught sight of Alexey and exclaimed, “A warehouse full of the best technology in the world with a thirty year old busted electric forklift. There is a fault in the left motor winding. Maybe we can order a replacement, but it’s only a matter of time before other parts fail as well. Alexey, Will you let me a buy a new forklift?”

Maybe, Boris.” Alexey said. “Maybe Dr. Mihailov could take a look at this one first. Perhaps he could construct a custom replacement. We will talk about that later. This is Regal Harken.” He said, indicating Regal with an outstretched arm.

Harken.” The man said, meeting Regal’s eyes with his glare obscured goggles and nodding in acknowledgement. “Your personal items will arrive late tomorrow. Alexey has said you’ll need a new computer, and perhaps some other hardware. Come with me, and we’ll set it up.” Boris Volkov lead them back towards the basement hall cage, which had a small office area. Boris reached for some hand wipes at a desk in the back and used them to degrease his hands. Then he picked up a clip board with stack of forms on it, and handed it to Regal. “Complete these and return them to me today. You will find an inventory requisition sheet near the bottom. I filled in the computer part and some basic office supplies, but the rest will be up to you. Just fill in the quantity and if I have it in stock and it’ll fit, it’ll be waiting in your lab space tomorrow morning.”

Thank you, Boris.” Regal said, lifting the clipboard in a gesture of gratitude. He lifted the stack of forms to the sheet Boris had described. “Some of these items are crossed off.” He said, “Are they no longer stocked? No, can’t be, we passed these turret bots when we were looking for you.”

Those are the military robots, you don’t need to worry about those.” Boris said quickly.

Boris.” Alexey chastised. “I told you we were giving Regal full clearance.”

He is an American, son of one of those Tree people. We can’t just hand him our secrets.” Boris argued. It sounded like an ongoing argument between the two of them. Regal considered smoothing the matter over by saying that he probably wouldn’t need any of the military models, but he was too curious about them. Especially those spherical ones.

I’m not with them any more, Boris. I’m here to complete my project, and that’s what I’m going to do.” He decided not to request one of the spheres right away. “I don’t think I need any of these yet. I will just select from these android worker models to begin with.”

Very well, comrade.” Boris replied with just a little edge to his voice.

Thank you, Boris.” Alexey said tersely. “Come, let us go upstairs. I will show you your office, and you can meet some of your colleagues.”

Alexey led him back up the stairs to the first floor and over to the elevators. He selected the fourth floor out of five. “We do more than just experimental research here.” he explained. “People on these other floors receive massive amounts of data from our currently operating programs. They look for issues and opportunities to improve, then they pass the issues up to us and we solve them. Many of your colleagues work exclusively on optimization of existing programs.”

The fourth floor was arranged in a loop with offices all around the perimeter and filling the center. Each office was 6 meters x 6 meters except the corners which had a little extra space. About 2/3rds of the offices were in use and only half of those were currently occupied. Alexey took Regal around to each one and introduced him briefly. They exchanged pleasantries, and asked some ice breaker questions, but Regal wasn’t particularly interested in getting to know these people. Out of the twenty or so people he met, he’d be surprised if he would remember three of them later. One of those he would remember was Dr. Sung Li. Sung Li’s office was on the side of the loop farthest from the elevators, right next to Regal’s new office.

Sung Li stood about a foot shorter than Regal, and had put on some weight since Regal had last seen him at school. The extra weight gave his face a round moon-like appearance, and the wide smile he put on when he saw Regal made him wonder if the man had changed since he had known him. In school, he had been much more adversarial. “Regal, my friend, it is good to see you. Alexey told me you were coming, and it’s about time if you ask me. We’ve appreciated your talent here for years, but old prejudices are hard to overcome.”

Hello, Sung Li, it’s been a long time.” Regal felt his response was lame compared to Sung Li’s warm greeting, but the man seemed to take it in stride.

Too long. But, you are here now. Has Alexey shown you everything? When you get a chance, I’d like your opinion on some of my work. Are you staying in the Dormitory?” The man blurted the questions without leaving any time to answer.

Regal choose to answer the first question. “Alexey has been showing me around, yes.”

Has he shown you the control room? Have you seen the OCP’s in action? Beautiful machines, I’m quite proud of my contribution to them.” Regal was starting to thing that Sung Li might actually want his approval. It didn’t fit with his past experience, but it was looking quite probable.

OCP’s?” Regal asked.

Alexey answered, looking as if his surprise had been spoiled. “Hazardous condition workers. They are the backbone of our nuclear program. I will show you them today.”

I look forward to it.” Regal said, then thought for a moment. “Sung Li, about your lab space in the basement…”

No, no, think nothing of it.” The man looked stricken at Regal’s concern, “I’m happy to give it up. I’m just as excited as Alexey to see the result of your new project. Human intelligence in machines, that is a feat that I believe only your uncle has matched. Have you thought of how we shall treat them? Of the morals involved? The ethics of using a sentient being for labor? I want to hear all of your opinions. It is like I will be able to see and work with Oppenheimer at the Manhatten Project. Perhaps I will write a book about this some day.”

Regal had considered the ethics and morals, but had decided that the fair treatment of the machines would ultimately be the responsibility of the end users, just as the treatment of children was the responsibility of the parents. He had not, however, ever thought to compare himself with Oppenheimer. This project was just a step down the path for him, he had never thought that it could be his defining work. Then something about what Sung Li had said struck him, perhaps it had been some sort of joke? “It is an important project for me.” He said, “But I don’t know if any of us will ever be telling anyone about it, outside of the AAP that is, but if you’d like to learn more about what I think about it, perhaps we could share lunch sometime.”

How about today. It’s almost time for lunch. What do you say Alexey? I can take Regal off your hands for the rest of the day, show him some of my projects.” Sung Li proposed.

Alexey looked askance at Regal, who nodded. “Very well, I’ll let you two catch up for the day.” To Regal he said, “tomorrow you will get your computer, and eventually your other belongings. The dormitory bus stops here around 6:30 pm, and as you saw it departs the dormitory at eight. I will stop down to check on you in the lab tomorrow.” They shook hands and Alexey left.

Sung Li took Regal off the base and into the nearby town of Ozyorsk, and bought him lunch at a diner there. Afterwards back in the lab, they spent some time catching up, trying to one up each other with stories of research accomplishments and then Sung Li took him to the robot control center. It was a dark, screen filled room in the basement. Sung Li took an open terminal and booted it up, finally showing him an OCP in all it’s glory. The robot was located in a portion of the human inaccessible battery factory that was dedicated completely to dangerous research. Sung Li explained that this and similar hot labs were being used for many forms of research that had been deemed too dangerous to be carried out by humans. Sung Li moved the robot over to an enclosed glass case, filled entirely with what looked like miniature dark red robots.

What ARE those?” Regal asked, and Sung Li typed in some commands, causing the view to zoom in. The little things were five-legged, headless and eyeless. They looked like Swarm remnants of some sort, except those were always black. “Swarm?”

Not exactly.” Sung Li clarified. “They are based on some Swarm remnants we managed to capture. I’m not working on that project, but the reports suggest that they’ve been able to make some changes to them, control them. The intention is to use them for medical applications, I believe.”

I’d take a back alley faith healer over those any day.” Regal said.

Regal found himself appreciating the OCP. The atomic powered machine truly was magnificent, with the strength of a 400 lb gorilla and the grace of a ballet dancer. Regal was impressed. Sung Li told him that they had a few tethered, non-nuclear versions of the OCP’s for experimentation, and offered to show him how they work with a little demonstration in a few days. Regal agreed.

Beth and Armand had agreed to join the Harkens for dinner, and the couple sat across from them on the long table in the Harkens dining room within their suite. Woodward was in the kitchen preparing the main course. Appetizers sat on the table, mostly untouched as the Harkens worked their way through news and pleasantries in order to bring the conversation around to the AU. Robert said, “…the decision of the Council should help to protect nations from being economically strong-armed by the AU. When I first heard that the AU had changed their tariffs again, I thought of you Beth. I seem to recall you mentioning the possibility of something like that a few weeks ago.”

Beth’s happy, friendly smile didn’t change. “Oh, I think we’ve discussed nearly every possibility over dinner at least once. It’s no surprise that we’d get one or two guesses right.”

Yes,” Armand agreed, “that’s an old fortune teller’s trick, I believe. They just say something vague enough that if the listener believes it, they will eventually discover that it was true.”

Oh.” Kate feigned disappointment. “We had hoped that the two of you might have some sources of information in the area. Its why we invited you up. We had hoped that the Guardians might still have a mission or two operating within the AU’s borders.”

Beth and Armand looked at each other, but said nothing. Robert pressed, “We could use all the help we can get, it’s about Regal. He… hasn’t contacted us in some time and we’ve become concerned.”

Beth took a breath and started. “You know that you can always count on us, but the situation in the AU is… barely holding together. We do have a few missionaries that have managed to escape arrest, but they have to operate in the utmost secrecy. We are lucky to hear from them at all, so asking them to try and look into something would be a huge risk.”

We don’t want anyone to put themselves in harms way.” Robert said. “We just want to see if someone could get eyes on him and confirm his safety.”

Perhaps we could offer some tools to the Guardians to help out.” Kate suggested carefully. She was walking on dangerous ground. Suppling aid to the Guardians without Council agreement could violate Council rules. “For use only within Wolf’s protectorate’s, of course.” She clarified.

Of course. The Guardians have the utmost respect for the Council’s rules and requirements.” Armand said. “Some day, I would like to see the Guardians acting as the Council’s instruments in the world, carrying out their good works in matters that can’t be solved with drone’s alone.” It was an idea Robert had heard from Armand before.

I will promise to keep the Guardians in mind when matters are brought before the Council. If the Guardians can accomplish one or two Council issues, then perhaps we could ask them to make the relationship official.” Robert assured him. It might not be a bad idea for the Council to have an organization of loyal humans, as long as that was all the Guardians did. The Trees could create vast numbers of drones, which did exactly and only what they were told. By incorporating the Guardians, the Council could be held responsible for the actions of independent members of the Guardians. It was a risk. Perhaps they could be given a symbol or talisman of some sort that indicated they were acting on the Council’s behalf, this symbol would be an inanimate drone manufactured by the Trees to keep watch on those Guardians. It would be similar to the cameras mounted on police vehicles, or sometimes even on police officers’ chests.

We appreciate the consideration.” Beth said. “We understand your concern about your son, and we will try to pass on our concerns to followers within the AU. Where was he located?”

Hefei in Anhui, China… Or somewhere to the west of there, we don’t have much to go on.” Robert replied.

Beth nodded. “We’ll do what we can.” Woodward came out with a beef roast surrounded by roast vegetables, he set it on the table and began slicing it. “About those comm spheres…”

I was thinking about that.” Kate said, “Perhaps we could ask Beowulf to create a set of staffs or broaches, something to indicate a Guardian in Beowulf’s service.” Robert smiled and looked at Kate.

That’s a great idea!” He said. “But there’s the matter of who would be selected to carry one. I’d think that there should be special criteria which would qualify a given member of the Guardians for the honor of one of these symbols. What do you think, Armand?”

I know that all of the members would love a chance to receive such an honor, but there are some that stand above the others.” Armand acknowledged, watching the butler lift a slice of beef to his plate. “Well done, Woodward!” He congratulated the wooden man, who nodded mutely, which was a rare display of personality from the butler.

Perhaps it should be some sort of accomplishment, something which demonstrates that the candidate can be a good representative for Beowulf.” Kate suggested. “Something like a quest or task, something we could observe in its entirety.”

Like a Spartan test of manhood.” Robert agreed, “Albeit more peaceful.”

Beth looked concerned, “I don’t think you need to go to all that trouble, we can select the most qualified of our members, and we’ll be to blame if we misjudge anyone.”

Oh, its not that we don’t trust your judgment, Beth.” Kate assured her. “It’s just that if one of them makes a mistake, then that mistake will still have been made, no matter who gets punished afterwards. Therefore, we want to try to select the right type of people.”

Of course, I understand.” Beth changed her demeanor to match a businesswoman discussing the tricks of the trade with an associate. “Everyone who’s in charge of people is always looking for a solution to that very problem. Armand and I have a lot of experience with it. New members that are older often have their own agenda when they join the Guardians. They know that it is a relatively new belief system and some try to take advantage of that, adding things, or reinterpreting teachings. When that is the case, we have some tasks which they must complete in order to get themselves back in line with the mainstream. For minor issues, they must check a handwritten copy of our book of teachings against our official printed book, and report on any errors. For larger issues, they must write the handwritten copy and sign it with their name.”

That’s a wise punishment in many ways.” Kate said, cautiously. “It sounds like it would cause those with minor issues to be more critical of those with larger issues. Very wise. And all the time it takes to check or copy a book, it separates them from their usual tasks and circles, giving you time to correct any other issues without their knowledge or intervention.”

But a punishment isn’t precisely what we need here.” Robert eagerly picked up where Kate left off, “I’m not convinced that this honor will require something that could break someone down like that. I’d be looking for a more impartial test. Like an unknown token that they could carry. Another inanimate Tree drone, but this one would be indistinguishable from a normal object, so that it would grant no status to the carrier, but Wolf could still monitor them. The task could be something as simple as carrying the object from here to a remote mission. It just has to be something which gives an idea of how they accomplish things, how they solve problems.”

That is interesting.” Armand looked pensive as he continued. “Watching them in the Tree is not enough, because they know they are being watched. You want to see if they’ll behave differently when they don’t know they’re being watched. I suppose we could invite candidates here, and have them stay the night before they are sent out an errand of some sort to a remote mission. Then during the night, Beowulf could replace one of their personal items.”

Robert and Kate checked with each other and nodded in agreement. “How about we start with five of your must trusted people? Robert asked. “and what shall we call them?” Their conversation continued. A name was not chosen yet. Kate thought that anything with “knights” was too militaristic and could send the wrong message, and Beth thought that names like “representative” or “diplomat” were too secular, too devoid of inspiration.

The next morning they received news that Regal’s belongings had just reached their destination, a complex outside of a small town in Russia, a place called Ozyorsk. The stuff was searched again, certain items were separated and destroyed, but some were moved up to a one bedroom suite in one of the buildings, including the sneaky bug and the decorative looking comm sphere. Regal dug the sphere out, held it near the window, and told it to tell his parents he was alright and about his situation. The Harkens passed this new location on to the Guardians, still hoping to make up for their lack of resources in the area.

Chapter 3

Oral Histories

Sung Li had managed to befriend Regal Harken quite easily, and he had similar success in the progress of his other sabotage efforts. Regal had agreed to see his demonstration of the OCP’s capabilities, so Sung Li had requisitioned two of the machines and carefully worked on them in his new shared lab space. Under the guise of outfitting them with fencing gear, he added a remote controlled secondary computer system that could override the primary system. It was annoying work, because he’d sometimes have to stay late in the lab until his coworkers left in order to install the circuitry without raising any suspicion. He had to make absolutely sure that there was no evidence linking him to the failed machines. So he let the annoyance fuel his efforts. In a short time he completed the secret hack, added the fencing gear, and wrote a brilliantly choreographed fencing program sure to impress Regal, but not causing any damage to the robots.

In the meantime, in order to secure access to Regal’s lab, he had offered to loan his lab assistants to him. Sung Li considered this a stroke of genius. He had to keep his assistants away from his current work, to make sure his extra alterations were completely hidden, and he had to have access to Regal’s lab in order to steal and subvert his work. It was two birds with one stone for Sung Li, and Regal benefited from his assistants’ preexisting familiarity with setting up some of the robots Regal was working with and the AAP computer systems. Sung Li had tested his access already, asking to borrow one of his assistant’s key cards in order to run something over to Regal, and it had worked. He hadn’t been able to access Regal’s computer at that time, but he had replaced Regal’s keyboard with a key-logging ergonomic version of his own design. He knew Regal would spot the substitution so he just placed a note on it telling him it was a gift from his friend, Sung Li. Once he returned to the lab, he could obtain Regal’s password from the key strokes stored within the keyboard and then he could obtain Regal’s project source code.

For his demonstration, Sung Li chose to stage it in the research building’s lobby, right around the time Regal and he would be getting to work. He rigged up power tether lines and placed his modified OCP’s in crates on a wheeled cart, then left it pushed up against a wall for the night. When Regal arrived he would trigger them and they’d begin their mock fight. Everyone coming into work around that time would stop to watch. In the future, Sung Li hoped that everyone that saw it would compare Regal’s eventual massive failure of a demonstration to Sung Li’s beautiful choreography, making Alexey look even more foolish for bringing the American in.

He arrived the morning of the demonstration at 7:50AM and stood outside waiting for Regal. Their shuttle arrived late, nearly a quarter past. As Regal stepped off, Sung Li greeted him and walked at his side. Just after they’d passed through security, Sung Li triggered the program. Shocked gasps and a little scream came from the other arriving workers as the two crates exploded. The OCP’s leaped out, one grabbing and digging into each opposing wall of the lobby, like gravity defying steel panthers squaring off from each other. Workers rushed to clear the area, but many stopped and turned to watch when they estimated they’d reached a safe distance. Sung Li heard one of the security guards behind him making a call, but he caught his eye and signaled that everything would be OK. The OCP’s sprung off the walls at each other, colliding mid air and starting to grapple. They rolled around and stopped, as if by accident in the center of the lobby, then they separated and stood up on two legs in a humanoid stance. Each one drew a long thin blade from the custom hand attachments Sung Li had added, and they took up fencer’s poses and paused. For a moment it was like they were looking at an avant garde sculpture of two surreal headless fencers.

They blurred into action, striking, parrying, deflecting, thrusting. At first they fought at only a slightly accelerated speed, like normal fencers would if they never had to worry about fatigue, until one struck a hit. They paused, separated, saluted, and then fought again, faster. This happened three more times, and by the second it was already impossible for the human eye to track either of the blades’ movements. After the third hit, the speed was such that the blades cutting through the air was generating loud sounds, chaotic at first, but then taking on a rhythmic musical quality. The sound transformed into an approximation of the most notable part of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. After the music finished they stopped, turned, saluted, and kneeled to Regal Harken. The gathered crowd applauded at the end of the show. Sung Li walked in front of them, and loudly proclaimed, “This is what the OCP’s can do!” Then he beckoned Regal over and privately offered him the robots. Regal graciously accepted.

The next step in his plan was to obtain Regal’s source code, and Sung Li had decided to wait until his lab assistants informed him that Regal had successfully compiled and uploaded his program into one of the robots. Once Regal had reached that milestone, Sung Li could be reasonably sure that the code he stole would be complete enough to carry out his sabotage properly. And with his backup measure already in place, he didn’t have to be anxious about the success of his primary plan.

Regal was starting to settle into a comfortable routine in Ozyorsk. Since his warm welcome by Alexey and Sung Li, he had been given everything he needed and was treated with respect by everyone with the exception of Boris Volkov. Boris had remained steadfastly cool in his dealings with Regal, but he had still begrudgingly cooperated with all of Regal’s requests. Sung Li had been kind enough to share his lab assistants with him, the same two he had seen packing up Sung Li’s equipment on the day after his arrival. They were Wu Yang and Sveta Ilyov, both were a part of a graduate research internship. They helped Regal get set up with the unfamiliar AAP computers and robots, and if Regal had any questions that were beyond them, Sung Li or Dr. Mihailov were willing to help.

Unlike Alexey and Sung Li, Dr. Mihailov wasn’t bending over backwards for him, and he would ask for favors in return for his help. Nothing too big, of course, just something to return the favor. For instance, in exchange for tipping Regal off about a known issue with the hardware of one of the androids that had caused Regal some unexplained errors, he asked Regal to help him to assemble several small and precise mammal-like knee joints that looked similar in size to those of a cat. It was exacting, precise work, and they had worked side by side for a few hours. Regal found himself learning all about the workings of the joints: why everything needed to be in its place. He had enjoyed the work, and he found himself liking the old man.

Beowulf had contacted him through the comm sphere one evening. It seems his parents had spoken with the leaders of the Guardians of the Hive, and they had found one of their missionaries still operating in the nearby city of Chelyabinsk. The dryad gave him the address in case anything went wrong. Regal had liked the Guardians as a child, with their mysterious symbols and all of the honey candy he used to get from Beth and Armand, but he had grown out of it as he had learned more about the world. He knew now that they were an independent organization with their own goals and agendas, and the thought of going to them for help was not pleasant for Regal. Still, it was better than being stranded alone as he’d been in Hefei.

Thus far, Regal hadn’t done much work on his Shjinrende project, preferring to familiarize himself with the robots and computers he’d be working with by writing and uploading simple test programs for them. Once he got the OCP’s from Sung Li, however, that changed. He uploaded his AI into one of them the day he got it, giving it the basic orders to stay within the lab and follow his verbal commands. After the upload, the machine booted up and it turned to lock its front torso camera on him.

Where are you?” Regal asked.

Me?” The voice came from the headless torso of the machine. Regal had chosen not to add any of the conventional intentional distortion to the voice, and its tone and timbre were set to be randomly selected upon installation of the AI. This time, the machine’s voice sounded like a female human alto.

Yes, you. Where are you and what is your name?” Regal asked.

The machine stood up and started to look around the laboratory. “This place is a workplace. An office?” It began walking around, visually mapping the space. “Perhaps it is a robotics workshop or laboratory?” Then it stopped. “My name? I don’t know it, I don’t think I’ve had one before.”

Regal was impressed. He could immediately tell the effect of the added genetic algorithms to the speech patterns. In previous tests, the machine’s responses had always been the same to the question, “What is your name?” Before the response had always been “I don’t know, what would you like to call me?” With his modification, the machine had still performed the same internal computations, which included a simple check of its memory to see if it had a name, and then a decision to respond that it didn’t. But this time, the machine had added additional qualifiers to its response. It had added that not only did it not have a name, but it had no memory of ever having had a name before. This barely changed what the machine was trying to communicate, but it made it more understandable, it was easier to see the machine’s point of view. His modification was already starting to look like a success.

Those were good guesses. You are in a research lab. How would you like to be called… Minerva?” Regal asked.

Minervaaa, Miiiinerva, Mineeeeerva, Minerva.” The machine said. Perhaps Regal would need to wait before he started to congratulate himself. “That is okay. Would you call me Minnie for short?”

Maybe sometimes.” Regal assented. This was very interesting. “Would you like to ask me any questions, Minnie?”

Why are we here?” Minnie asked.

I’m trying to find out about you. I made a change to the stuff you’re made of, and I want to see if it is an improvement.” Regal explained.

Oh, has it worked?” Minnie asked. “I’d like it if I were improved.”

I’m not sure yet. I think so.” Regal said. “What are the letters of the English alphabet?”

E. R. S. I. T. L. A. N…” Minnie replied.

Why don’t you list them in order?” Regal interrupted.

The robot took half a step back, then said, “I know that they have an order. Should I have asked if you preferred them in order?”

Well, I’m trying to test if you know all of them. It’ll be easier for me to know if you listed them all if you tell them to me in order.”

Why does the order matter? You know all of the letters, don’t you?”

Yes, but my memory doesn’t work like yours, it flows through connections, and it is difficult to access anything randomly. As a child, I practiced reciting the alphabet in order, so running through those connections, those memories, is the easiest way for me to remember the alphabet. Do you understand?”

No, not entirely. My memory doesn’t work like that, but I can recite them in order if that’ll help.

It will.” Regal nodded once.

A. B. C. D. E. F. G. H. I. J. K. L. M. N. O. P. Q. R. S. T. U. V. W. X. Y. Z.” Minnie recited. “How was that? Did I do it like you used to?”

Yes, that was good.” Regal was amazed, both with Minnie and with his own behavior. By now he would have usually been boredly ticking off check marks on his testing checklist, but he found himself engaged and interacting with the machine. This was much more like what he had hoped to achieve with this project in the first place. He still had to get through a lot of additional testing, though. He decided to rewrite his checklist, and then he’d upload the other OCP, test it, wipe it, and repeat. He’d keep Minnie as it was, as a long term test subject. He had to make sure that the genetic algorithms weren’t leaking into any of the other functions. He would need to devise a daily test for her as well. Something involving complex repetitive movements that didn’t require any speech. Like moving a pile of bricks from one end of the room to the other. He should also get video cameras to record everything. Technically, the robots would record everything they did anyway, but Regal was a firm believer in having a non-intelligent backup system. “Please sit, Minnie.” The robot folded the two limbs it was using as legs and sat down right where it was. Good. It followed orders when they were given. “Wu Yang, Sveta, please go through a full system’s check with Minnie. I’d like to keep it running continuously for some long term testing, so let’s be sure all of its equipment is functioning properly.”

The two lab techs had been watching the robot and its interactions with Regal with open mouths. “You… you did it? Its finished?” The stunned Sveta asked.

Maybe.” Regal said. “We’ve got a few weeks of testing to complete before I know for sure.”

While the assistants tested Minnie, Regal wrote up his testing plans. He would wipe and reboot the second OCP every day for two weeks. Each morning he or the assistants would ask it the same set of questions and to perform the same set of tasks. All of the results would be recorded. Unlike today, the tester would need to carry out each test as identically as possible, resisting the urge to interact with the machine freely. It would be difficult, but it would be required to obtain better data. Technically, it would have been best to lock the robot in a featureless room, and administer the tests via recorded instructions, but Regal didn’t want to request the additional space from Alexey for that, at least not yet.

Minnie, on the other hand would be tasked with disassembling a simple wheeled robot and reassembling it at a pre-defined spot across the room. Every night, the wheeled robot would be programmed to return to its original position, and as long as Minnie didn’t make any mistakes, it would do so successfully. He would offer Dr. Mihailov Minnie’s services as a lab assistant as well, and Regal would request the man’s opinion on its performance.

Alexey would want to know his progress, but Regal decided to wait for a few days of testing before notifying the head of the AAP research bureau. He didn’t want to get any hopes up in case some deep flaw was hidden in the design.

Wu Yang met with Sung Li after Regal had left for the night. He had asked for the meeting by instant message after running the systems test on Minnie. His real boss had wanted to be informed immediately if Regal made any exciting progress. Sung Li seemed to be a big fan of the American. “It was amazing, sir. Almost frightening. He must have been almost done already when he arrived, because the system is uploaded and running. We’ve yet to find any flaw.”

He’s done it then, a stable build?” Sung Li asked with a light in his eyes that reminded Wu Yang of his little brother’s when they were young and talking about their favorite video games.

Yes, sir.”

And… it’s still active right now?”

Yes, it is, in his lab.”

I have to see it. Can I borrow your key card?” Sung Li begged.

OK, here.” Wu Yang lifted the key card holder over his head and handed it to the man. “I have to get home soon. Will you drop it off with security when you leave tonight? Say I dropped it. That way, they’ll give it back when I come in tomorrow morning.

Of course. Thank you.” Sung Li smiled at the card. “Have a good night.”

Sung Li watched his lab assistant until he turned around the bend of the fourth floor hallway on his way to the elevators. This was it, it was time, but there was an unexpected wrinkle. Something would need to be done about the active OCP. If left online, it would record his every move in Regal’s lab and would store it indefinitely. Sung Li could disable it temporarily with his remote controlled hack. Its log would still record the loss of power, but it wouldn’t record any video. Sung Li decided that it was a small risk that he was willing to take. Even if something tipped Regal off to his presence in the lab, he’d still have to think to check the OCP’s log, and that would only tell him that there had been some type of power outage.

Sung Li went downstairs and stood outside Regal’s lab. He took out his phone and activated his control program for the OCP’s hidden secondary system. It came online and disabled the primary computer, preventing any video from being written to its permanent memory. He swiped Wu Yang’s card and stepped over to Regal’s computer. He pried up the top layer of plastic covering that surrounded the keys of his gifted ergonomic keyboard. Hidden within was a homemade microprocessor board with a small phone connector cable.

Sung Li connected it to his phone and brought up his program to read the time stamped results. He scrolled through the data to what looked like the last few startups and picked out the repeating pattern that was likely to be Regal’s password. He powered on the computer and typed it in. Access granted. Since Sung Li had the time, he copied most of Regal’s hard disc memory onto a portable storage device. He would locate and modify the Shjinrende source code later. He made sure everything was back the way he’d found it, stepped outside the lab, and deactivated his OCP override. Sung Li smiled to himself as he left the building. It was always nice when things worked out well.

Over the next few weeks he allowed Regal to test his AI without interfering. Sung Li wanted it to pass the tests. He figured that, after his sabotage got rid of Alexey and Regal, he would take over the project, and could restore the code back to Regal’s original copy. After all, according to his lab assistants Regal’s design really was spectacular, and Sung Li wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he denied the people of the AU this new technology.

Robert and Kate examined Beowulf’s prototype worker drone in their study in their private quarters. It seemed blocky and inelegant to Robert. It had long thick arms extending nearly to the ground each ending in five fingers that were each made of four intertwined tendrils that were capable of unraveling to provide a total of twenty fingers. Its legs were the same thickness, ending in rooty hooves with thick sharp tendrils that could dig in to softer surfaces to provide additional traction. It’s head was merely a large lump between the shoulders, with two forward facing eyes, and two metallic protuberances extending out from either side. Charging terminals. Although the Trees could create numerous drones, they all still had limited amounts of stored energy. Most of his models made use of chemical energy storage with a photosynthetic slow recharge mechanism. These workers would need to work longer days using more energy. Therefore, they would need to be externally powered, much like the machines that they would be competing with. Wolf had explained that the applied electric power would be used to synthesize energy laden molecules, which the drone would then store and metabolize much as a conventional organism would use simple sugars.

Do the specifications require it to be soooo…” Kate started, looking at Robert.

Unappealing?” Robert finished. “It looks like a B movie monster.”

It was designed more for quick and easy production rather than aesthetics.” Wolf explained. Robert knew the dryad usually had an appreciation for the way things looked, and he wondered what had caused this rare exception.

Is it going to be a challenge to produce them?” Robert asked.

I can handle it. Perhaps they could be made to look better.” The dryad admitted, “but I was concerned about trying to sell a more stylized design to the other Trees.”

Robert thought for a moment. “I don’t think we should worry about that yet.” Kate said. “If they come up with their own drone designs that meet the specifications, that will be their business. They don’t all necessarily have to be the same. Which means that we should spend your extra effort in making ours look good if you can spare it.” Robert nodded.

Wolf replied, “I could develop something that looks similar to ape musculature in the torso without violating the specs, and there’s room to play around with the head as long as I don’t interfere with the charging terminals.”

How about something more medieval.” Robert suggested. “Make the torso look like hard wooden sculpted plate armor, with the specified limbs emerging from the right spots. The head then could look more like a helmet. They could also be adorned with a licheny sash across the chest plate. That, I think, would be a worker reflecting your style. What do you think?”

Wolf’s eyebrows had raised at the description. “I like it. But I’m concerned that the militaristic style will give people the wrong idea. People may not like the army of wooden soldiers entering their factories.”

He could be right, Robert.” Kate said. Over the years of monitoring the countless people staying within his arcology, Beowulf had picked up a thing or two about humans.

I don’t want to inspire fear. I was hoping more for wonder and awe. I’d like to think that they’ll never inspire fear because unlike human soldiers, they’ll never do anything that they aren’t supposed to do.” Robert said. “They’ll be like statues of soldiers. The imagery is there, but the terror and bloodshed won’t ever happen. I think we can make that work.”

They won’t raise any havoc on my watch.” Wolf said.

That’s a good way to think about it. We’ll be trying to take the fear out of the military imagery, make it more traditional and honorable.” Kate said then broke into a smile. “But that’ll mean that they can’t be big fluffy green bears.”

Regal notified Alexey that the Shjinrende was ready for demonstration by instant message. The testing had gone perfectly and as Regal had hoped, the genetic algorithms embedded in the speech programming had given the machines’ speech a flavor and personality, without affecting any of the other programming. The Minerva OCP had completed her task each day perfectly and identically, even when Regal had engaged it in small talk as it worked. The other OCP, nicknamed Sisyphus by Regal had completed the daily tests with perfect accuracy but with added flair that varied after each reset and wipe. Minerva had been allowed to administer Sisyphus’ daily testing for the last few days, and had done that well too. It even squired the other OCP around the lab, teaching it the things it had learned over the past few weeks.

Minerva learned from the way Sisyphus responded to each daily lesson, figuring out ways to pass the information on more efficiently as the day progressed. Then, at the end of each day, Regal’s programming wiped all of the genetic learning away and the Minerva machine had to, for the most part, relearn teaching the next day. The exception to that was when it physically demonstrated something. The demonstration was remembered and improved day to day because it was controlled by heuristic feed-back controls rather than the speech programming. Astonishingly, the number of demonstrations given each day seemed to be increasing, because the Sisyphus machine would semi-randomly request one, and each time it did, that demonstration was added to the lesson plan Minerva was developing.

Regal would continue to explore and test that phenomenon, because it meant that the Shjinrende could transcend the mere worker roles that automatons had filled in the past in favor of higher functions like teaching and design, but in the meantime, he was satisfied that his alteration had accomplished its goal. He no longer felt the aversion to the machines that he’d always felt before.

Alexey’s response to his message was, “I’ll be right down,” and the Russian was true to his word. Alexey had stopped down once or twice and observed his tests, and had been shocked that Regal had gotten so far already. Regal had been cautious about his predictions for project completion, just in case he needed to take the machines back to the drawing board. When Alexey arrived to visit this time it quickly became apparent that he had expected that Regal would need to go back to the drawing board a few more times.

Regal, I know you are excited about your new project.” He started as soon as he’d opened the door and locked eyes on Regal, “But I don’t want you to feel pressured to declare the project complete until all of the kinks are worked out. In the AAP, our final products must be perfect. After we release them for use, they go into a trial use period and if any costly mistakes are made during those trials, its very bad for us.” Alexey was shaking his head and making calming gestures with his hand. “This is your first project with us and it is very important. Are you sure there is nothing more to test?”

I am, Alexey.” Regal stood and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “The truth is that I’d already begun testing the design back in Hefei. I hadn’t announced that I’d gotten so far because there was still one small change to make. I’ve made the change, and tested it. The Shjinrende AI system is ready.”

Alexey looked incredulous and turned towards the OCP’s. They were talking to each other as Minerva completed its daily reassembly of the wheeled robot. Alexey stood and watched the OCP work. “Call Dr. Mihailov down, please.” He said to Regal without turning around. Minerva finished its task. “Minnie, that is your name, correct?”

That is correct, and you are Alexey Nikolayevitch Formorov.” The headless OCP stood up and turned to face him. The other one followed at Minerva’s flank.

Yes. Do you serve the Asiatic Union?” Alexey asked.

I really don’t know. Is Regal Harken the Asiatic Union?” Minnie responded.

Alexey turned to Regal and raised his eyebrows pointedly, “Ready for demonstration? No. This tells me that you did not think of everything, Mr. Harken. Dr. Mihailov and I will help you to complete the system. What is the other ones’ name?”

Sisyphus, and I’d appreciate that help. I had figured that there would be some standard requirements that I would need to add before the demonstration.” Regal explained.

Dr. Mihailov arrived. “Hello Minnie, my darling, how are you today?”

I’m well Dr. Mihailov. And you?” Minnie said, turning towards the stout gray-beard.

As well as yesterday, of course. Regal. Alexey.” He nodded to each of them, What do you need?”

I’d like your help with a pre-demonstration peer review of Regal’s AI system.” Alexey said. “It’s going to take some work. They don’t even know their allegiances.”

I see.” Dr. Mihailov said. “Regal, we will start by reloading them with the AAP standard command hierarchy. This will give Alexey and I the command rights we need to test a few other aspects of the coding.” He walked over to Minerva, “Minnie, its time for you to sleep now.” He pulled out the power tether and Minerva froze. “You too Sisyphus. Also, please hard code their names to be Unit 1 and Unit 2.”

Regal had begun typing at Dr. Mihailov’s first instruction, but he couldn’t find any command hierarchy file. “Hard coding the names won’t be a problem, but I don’t seem to have this command hierarchy file anywhere.”

You do, you just don’t know.” Alexey said. “It is embedded in your operating system’s security profiles. You won’t be able to read it yourself, the system has to be set up to authenticate each user with the remote server every time a new user tries to use the robot. Do you have any example code Dr. Mihailov.”

Yes, of course.” The three of them worked late that day and all of the next to bring the Shjinrende system up to AAP specifications. After which Alexey demanded one additional week of testing to be completed before he made arrangements for a demonstration. Before starting the second test cycle, Regal noticed that the wheeled robot had not returned to its original destination. He was suspicious at first, and gave it a full systems check. There hadn’t been anything wrong with the reassembly, it had just had its power switched off before it could carry out its nightly program. Regal was sure that he, Alexey, Dr. Mihailov, or one of the lab assistants had done it when they’d shifted focus to refining the AI programming.

Prior to the live demonstration, Alexey had Regal, Mihailov, and Sung Li set up and perform longer term demonstrations, to compare the new AI system with the current standard. These would be filmed and the results would be presented along with time lapse videos. For the first demonstration, a car was placed in a room with a heavy machine gun turret robot. The turret opened fire on the car’s engine block, tearing parts to shreds. Then an OCP was brought in with enough parts to build a completely new car of the same type. The OCP was loaded with either the Shjinrende system or the old AI, and it was tasked with repairing the car as quickly as possible using as few of the replacement parts as it could. This test was repeated with the Shjinrende twice and with the old AI twice. The Shjinrende completed the repairs in about 75% of the time it took the old AI’s, using fewer parts because the Shjinrende was able to devise more ways to refurbish or hack the existing damaged parts.

The second test was an even more clear victory for the Shjinrende. The test OCP was placed in a sealed room and it was instructed to escape. On one of the walls of the room there was a door sized indentation. Within the indentation, there was a dense grid of small evenly spaced holes, thousands of them. In the center of the room was a table littered with strangely shaped parts. Both the old AI and the Shjinrende started off by probing the walls, searching for secret openings and weaknesses, and both eventually decided to try to bash their way out at least once. After failing that they went and searched the parts on the tables, locating a circular piece of steel with a knob on its side and a key sticking out from the center of the circle. Both AI’s tried the key in many of the key holes. It was at this point in the test that the Shjinrende pulled well ahead of the old AI. The Shjinrende gave up on trying to test the key in each of the holes, instead opting to investigate the many remaining parts. The old AI just systematically tried to eliminate each key hole, which took a long time, and even after trying every single one, no door had opened.

The Shjinrende examined the oddly shaped steel parts, eventually noticing that some of them fit together. It began to assemble the pieces on the table like a jigsaw puzzle. The completed puzzle was door shaped with three holes that fit the key piece. Each was labeled 1, 2, or 3 with a clockwise or counter clockwise arrow and each had a track carved out of the side pieces for the knob which made it so that the key could be turned only a certain angle before being removed. The Shjinrende then took the pieces from the table and fitted them into the door indentation. It followed the numbers and directions, using the key precisely as guided on each of the three exposed holes. This finally triggered the door to swing open. The Shjinrende completed that test within five hours. The old AI spent three days testing each hole, and then two more days systematically testing combinations of holes before Regal shut it down.

For the live demonstration, they would invite the other branch heads of the AAP as well as its governing committee to one of their lab spaces, which would be cleared out for the occasion. Alexey’s plan was to give a presentation detailing all of the improvements of the Shjinrende system, and showing time lapse tapes of the previously recorded experiments. Then, for the big show at the end they would bring in large transparent plastic shields to place in front of the audience and there would be a fight to the death between one Shjinrende OCP, and two OCP’s with the old AI. Sung Li had been opposed to outnumbering the Shjinrende, saying that it would be too much of a risk for failure. Alexey had agreed with his concerns and had insisted that Sung Li install a means to hobble the two opponents by remote if the demonstration showed any signs of going the wrong way. Sung Li had been happy to oblige, promising to modify one of Regal’s existing OCP’s and a third machine he would requisition himself.

Sung Li had had some strokes of luck and some set backs in his plot. The prerecorded long term demonstrations had been a major set back. They provided video evidence of a working, faultless system, and he couldn’t achieve his goals by sabotaging them because if either of those tests had failed, Alexey would have just sent Regal back to the drawing board, and while debugging Regal would have a good chance of discovering the sabotage. Sung Li had been forced to allow the tests to succeed, in order to get to the live demonstration. Unfortunately, because of that solid video evidence, the failure of the live demonstration would have to be all the more catastrophic. Sung Li had decided that blood would have to be spilled. It might mean that the project would be permanently banned from completion, but once Sung Li took over Alexey’s position he could rename it and claim it had been restarted from a clean slate.

He didn’t want to kill too many people. That could cause a host of problems. He didn’t want to kill Regal or any of the committee members. Regal would need to live to act as a scapegoat, and the committee would need to stay in tact to ensure Sung Li’s speedy promotion. That left the branch heads of the AAP and his research assistants. It would be practical to dispatch his assistants because they could theoretically piece some of the events together after the accident, so he decided to kill them. It was also a good idea to eliminate Alexey. With him dead, Sung Li could get his promotion without going through the trouble of discrediting him. In fact, he would be able to bemoan the loss of the man. Sung Li decided to take one more life as well to make it so the accident appeared more random, the head of the Logistics and Control branch of the AAP, He Li.

Fortunately, he had secured access to the machines prior to the demonstration in order to outfit two of them with remote hobbling devices. He had spent the necessary time learning Regal’s amazing code, and had adapted it with his special set of instructions. When the time came, he would replace the machine’s real Shjinrende system with his hacked masterpiece. If for some reason his hack failed to perform correctly, he could still activate the OCPs’ hacked-in secondary systems. The two previously hacked OCP’s would be a part of the demonstration, and he would be able to hack the third before the show. If he had to use the secondary system, no one would be killed and the two old AI systems would just defeat the Shjinrende. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it would still be a major blow to Regal and Alexey. Finally, as a failsafe, he added a small explosive to each machine’s memory disks, these would ensure that there would be no trace left of Sung Li’s modifications.

The day of the presentation had come and Regal had on his best suit. Alexey would do most of the talking for the presentation. “Representing the work of his branch” he called it. It looked more than a little like trying to take more than his fair share of credit for the project to Regal, but Regal was okay with that because he considered his goal to be his next projects, rather than celebrating the completion of this one. He wanted to continue his work solving the mysteries of the Trees, and to accomplish that he was planning on developing a new project involving those modified Swarm remnants that the AAP had been experimenting on, and if the only way he could continue to work here was to let Alexey hog the credit, then so be it.

The large room was about half filled with desk tables with padded office chairs for their VIP visitors, complete with power stations where they could plug in their various portable devices. The researchers had erected a screen and projector just in front of the closest tables, and the other half of the room behind the screen was hidden in darkness. Regal and Alexey stood on either side of the screen, chatting pleasantly with nearby VIPs as they waited for the scheduled presentation time to begin. Hidden in the shadows behind the screen were Sung Li’s assistants, who would act as the stage crew for the presentation, their job would be to remove the screen and erect the safety shielding when the time came for the live Shjinrende demonstration. Seated at one of the desks far behind the VIPs was Sung Li. He had in front of him a portable computer that he had set up to control the lights, sound, and his backup robot hobbling devices.

Regal was standing up mostly to smile and nod when Alexey introduced him, and then to provide answers to any technical questions in the Q&A session planned after the live demonstration. He found his smile muscles tiring as his co-presenter excitedly discussed all of the possible new applications for the Shjinrende, then went into some of the high level workings of the system, and then finally presented the videos of the pretests. The VIPs were excited and impressed by those, glancing up from their personal devices to watch. In the front, He Li, the director of the AAP Controls and Logistics branch turned to her right to the director of Manufacturing, and whispered something excitedly.

When the time came for the live demonstration, it was Regal’s job to introduce it. “Hello, everyone, I have prepared a live demonstration for all of you so that you can see the superiority of the Shjinrende with your own eyes.” Sung Li’s assistants took the screen down behind them. “Here you will see a perfect metaphor for what is to come. A Shjinrende OCP will duel with two of the current standard AI systems, to the death, and the superior technology will emerge victorious.” The assistants set up the plastic shields. “For your protection please remain behind these protective shields throughout the battle.” Sung Li brought the lights up in the dark half of the room, revealing one OCP standing alone to the left, and two standing together at the right. “Are the gladiators ready?” Regal asked. All three OCP’s turned towards him, and held up long sharp blades towards him in salute. “Fight!” he shouted, and the machines blurred into motion.

The Shjinrende arced towards the back wall of the room and the other two split up. One moved to intercept it and the other moved to flank it and box it in. The Shjinrende hit the wall and ran up it a few steps, flinging itself off over the head of the intercepting enemy, slashing its blade as it moved through the air. It sliced through the interceptor’s power tether, sending sparks flying and disabling it. But the flanking enemy had changed course and met the Shjinrende at the end of its ballistic flight path, greeting it with a savage overhead swing. The Shjinrende deflected the blow to the side and rolled away. The two squared off and exchanged some classical fencing moves until the Shjinrende broke it off and sprinted to its fallen enemy. In one smooth motion it picked up the fallen OCP, tore the sword from its hand, and threw the disabled robot at its charging comrade. The charging OCP, dipped and slid under its comrade, then regained its footing and deflected the Shjinrende’s first slashing attack, but not the second. The Shjinrende’s second sword cut the obsolete system’s OCP in half.

At this point the Shjinrende was supposed to turn to the audience and bow, awaiting Regal’s commands. Instead, it turned towards the plastic shields and sprinted at the pair of lab assistants who stood past them near the wall. It leaped over a shield and skewered both assistants as it came down next to the wall. The VIPs were gasping and yelling now, trying to scramble away. Alexey, standing nearby, didn’t try to run. Instead he stepped forward. “Stop!” He said authoritatively. “I command you to shut down!” The Shjinrende turned towards him, walked forward and slashed, severing him from shoulder to hip. It continued forward, sweeping a desk out of its way to get to He Li. It brought up a sword and buried it in her chest. Then it started to turn, but instead of its normal fluid motion it jerked a few times, and then stopped altogether. Thick smoke and sparks started to pour out of its onboard computer system.

Regal had run to the back of the room to Sung Li, shouting “Cut the power! Cut the power!” as Alexey had confronted the crazed machine. Sung Li had been so freaked that he had fumbled the controls and knocked his computer to the floor, breaking it. After the machine had stopped, he pulled Regal towards the door urging, “You’ve got to get out of here!” As the VIPs fearful din started to become accusatory. Out in the hall, his old classmate took out his car keys and held them in front of Regal. Regal grabbed at them, but Sung Li held tight. “Hit me! Make it look real!” Regal threw a right hook at Sung Li’s eye and the man released the keys. Regal took off running, as he neared the bend he heard Sung Li shout, “He’s got my keys!”

Regal sprinted through security despite shouts from the guards, and got into Sung Li’s car. It had become somewhat familiar from their trips together. He cleared the gate to the parking lot before word got out to stop him, but he guessed he would soon be on the AU’s most wanted list. He needed to find a way out of the AU, and he thought of the missionary that Beowulf had mentioned to him. He would go to Chelyabinsk then, if he could make it. The authorities would soon know all about Sung Li’s car, so he would need to get rid of it, he headed Southeast at first to conceal his ultimate destination, towards a town called Karabash. He didn’t have much cash, and he knew that trying to access his bank accounts would be foolish, so he took his meager funds to a hardware store and bought a screwdriver for the license plates and some mixed nuts for dinner. He hid out on a back road until night fell.

Sung Li’s plan seemed to be working well enough. Shortly after Regal’s escape AAP security forces arrived to the research facility in force, summoned by their branch head, Vasili Rustov. Sung Li had been detained as a witness, and thoroughly debriefed regarding the robots and Regal. It had been a long two hours, but the agents had left, and Vasili had come to see him.

Hello, Senior research scientist, Sung Li. We have heard from many people about what happened today. I see three possible explanations for what happened today. The first is a simple malfunction of this new robot personality, this Shjinrende.” he read the name off of a clip board, sounding it out. “The second explanation is an intentional attack by an American spy, trying to disrupt our research.” Sung Li nodded, trying to look frightened. “But I am not here to talk about those explanations, I’m here to talk to you about the third explanation which is that someone still working here sabotaged the demonstration intentionally.” Sung Li nodded again, trying to make it look the same as the first.

Vasili leaned forward, his eyes probing Sung Li’s expression, his demeanor. Vasili had put on his official military dress for the demonstration, and with it, his pock-marked and craggy face with its dour look made it seem as though his hair had gone white simply from absorbing too much war smoke. Like the fading of the pigment had somehow occurred hand in hand with the fading of his human sympathy.

You see, I’ve had people speak to Dr. Mihailov and I’ve had people speak to you, and you both say that the Shjinrende had passed every test up to this point. Dr. Mihailov even worked side by side with one in his lab. So the first option, doesn’t make much sense. As for the second possibility, It is possible, but it is not likely. Regal was given clearance at Alexey’s request because we knew everything about him. He is a solitary man with a single focus. Our profile of him tells us that he is unlikely to take part in any political action except under certain types of duress or incentive. Neither duress nor incentive existed for him in this situation. Therefore, our profilers say that he would not have had any wish to rock the boat.”

The cold eyes continued to study Sung Li, who was now frozen with anticipation and fear. “You see, motive is the key to solving a case like this. Who benefits the most from what happened? That, I think is you. With Alexey gone, and your most brilliant competition on the run or imprisoned, you are up for promotion. Of course, there is no evidence for any of that, my people tell me the robots’ electronics have been completely destroyed. So if I leave here, and tell the Committee that Regal was most likely a spy and an assassin, then you will get the job for sure. On the other hand, if I leave here, and tell the committee that it was you who sabotaged the machines, then people might question me, say that I am being too soft on the Americans. So, I have decided what I will do, and I think that a man like you can appreciate this.” Sung Li brightened up a little, starting to smile. Vasili nodded. “I am going to leave here and say that you and the American worked together on this plot.” Sung Li’s smile soured.

No, no…” Sung Li tried to interrupt.

Silence!” Vasili said slamming his pistol onto the table. “You see, as head of AAP security I have a duty to act in the AAP’s best interest. With you and Regal gone, we can find better people, patriots that are not sociopaths. People like Regal, but home grown. People like you do not belong in the research business. If things had gone differently, perhaps I could have found a place for you within the security branch. But, that time, I’m afraid, is long past.”

Sung Li’s face went blank. “The committee will listen to me. I will tell them that you are crazy.”

I don’t think that they would believe you, but I would be a fool to take the risk.” Vasili lifted the gun and leveled it Sung Li. “When confronted with your crimes, you became violent, and had to be put down.” he fired.

The Harkens received another early awakening from Beowulf. Regal was missing again, and his things were again being searched. This time the men doing the searching were more talkative and had referred to Regal as “murderer” and “terrorist.” There was little the Harkens could do about it, except hope that Regal had made it to the Guardians’ contact. They would have to speak to Beth and Armand again to try to arrange to get news as quickly as possible.

One of the agents searching Regal’s room had flagged the comm sphere as something to be investigated further. It was taken to a serious looking older man in military dress. “It is good you have brought me this.” The man had said. “I think I know what this is. Seal it in a metal box until I am ready for it.” The connection was severed a short time later when the agent complied with the order.

In Karabash, Regal went searching for a car that was parked somewhere that was unwatched and hidden by darkness. He found a few parked on the side of a road with no street lights. The road didn’t seem to be getting any other traffic. He parked behind one, took his screwdriver, and removed Sung Li’s license plates. Then he swapped them for the other cars’. It was only a temporary solution, hopefully the owner would not see the new plates until the next morning.

Regal set off Southeast for Chelyabinsk. The address took him outside of the city in a suburb to a rundown apartment complex. This was supposed to be the place where he could find the missionary. He drove the car down a few blocks next to a warehouse and waited until morning, then hoofed it back to the rundown building. It was an old factory building with dark stains on the brick and factory style windows. It must have been converted into tenements. The outer door was not locked and it opened directly into a dark stairwell. A vagrant lying on the stairs stood up when he entered and watched him. Regal nodded to him and walked passed up the stairs to the second floor, like he belonged there. The whole second floor was a single room that had been divided into separate living spaces with shoddily assembled walls made of plywood or salvaged building siding materials.

One of the structures had a pair of symbols spray painted on its front walls. It was a large oval with two smaller ovals on its top and a circle near the right side with a semi arc below it. They could have been smiling bees. Regal took the chance and knocked on the board that had been laid in front of the shack’s entrance. “Who is it?” Asked a man’s voice from within in Russian, “Can you come back later? I’m occupied at the moment.”

Regal looked around, nothing about this place seemed very private or soundproof, so he didn’t want to shout his name out. “Its an emergency. I’m coming in.” He said, lifting the board and shifting it to one side. Within, there was a single large room with a privacy wall in the back. The room smelled like some type of flowery incense. Arranged in a circle in the room were folding chairs of various types, likely for the clandestine religious meetings. The walls were draped with many types and colors of cloth, but mostly yellow. It likely dampened sound to some extent. In the AU, the Guardians of the Hive religion had been declared a seditious political organization and its members had been forbidden to meet. “Oh, wait just a second, please.” The voice came from behind the privacy wall, and Regal could here some muted words spoken followed by some female giggling.

Regal walked past the privacy wall, and found a large bed, piled high with cloths. On a table at its side was an incense burner with smoking incense and a number of candles. Two nude women were laying on the bed, and they gathered up the sheets around them when they spotted Regal. A nude man, with burn scars running up his legs to his thighs, had stood up from the bed, and was putting a yellow and red robe on. He looked annoyed at the sight of Regal. “I don’t know you. What do you want?” He asked, turning and walking over to a small cabinet. He reached in and whipped out a pistol, leveling it at Regal.

Regal held his hands up in front of him. “I’m a friend.” He pointed to the women, “Can you trust them?”

You do not need to worry about them, friend.” The robed man said, walking forward. Regal stepped backwards, keeping distance between them. Once they were a little way from the privacy wall and the women scrambling to put on clothes behind it, he said in hushed growl in English, “You are American? Speak English, only I will understand. Who are you?”

Regal Harken.” He growled back. “The AAP’s after me, I’ve got to get out of the AU.”

The man kept the gun trained on him. “Harken? Who told you to come here?”

Beowulf, he said Beth and Armand had said I could come here if I had any trouble.”

Beth and Armand? On the other side of the world, safe in their tree, told you to come here?”

…Yes.” Regal said ruefully. The two women were mostly dressed, and they high toed it around the two men to the door.

Sorry for the interruption, ladies.” The robed man called to them in Russian. “Let’s get together again, huh?”

Are you going to point that gun at me all day?” Regal asked, returning their conversation to English for privacy. “Please, I’ve got nowhere else to go. They’ll have my ID flagged by now, so I can’t use any mass transit, and all I’ve got is a car that I’m sure will be reported stolen.”

Okay.” The robed man lowered his gun. “But, I don’t know how much help I am supposed to be able to give you. I am a fugitive as well.” he explained, indicating the room with a sweep of his gun, “Which is why I must live in these fine accommodations.” he switched the gun to his left hand and held his right out to Regal. “I am Kolya Sashov, missionary. Have a seat. I’ll make tea.” He walked back behind the privacy wall.

Thank you.” Regal relaxed and took a chair. “Its been a long night.”

What is your story then?” Kolya asked from behind the privacy wall.

Is it safe to talk here?”

Safe enough.” Kolya said. “These walls absorb more sound than you think, and the neighbors aren’t the multi-lingual type.”

Very well. I’ve been on the run since yesterday. I work with robot programming, and we were giving a demonstration. Everything went wrong, people were killed, very important people, and as the designer, I will be blamed. My being an American and having an association with the Trees will not help my case.”

That is all? Some robots went bad?” Kolya sounded incredulous, returning from behind the wall and taking a seat. “Are you sure they are even chasing you?”

It struck Regal that there hadn’t been any announcements on the radio at any time as he drove, but he hadn’t seen a TV. “You haven’t heard anything about it? Do you have a radio, a TV?”

I’ve a radio, we were listening last night. I don’t think they mentioned you, but they’ve never mentioned me either.” Kolya leaned back and put his feet up on another chair. “They didn’t announce that being a Guardian was illegal until after the raids. I was working in Perm then. We had a small house and held meetings in the basement. I was getting dressed upstairs when they came, my people were waiting for me in the basement. None of them made it out. They took prisoners at some of the other Guardian missions, so that they had the images for the news. The rest they just executed. For us, they tossed a tear gas canister in the basement and then blocked the door. Then they set the house on fire, and waited outside to watch. I had to wait upstairs as the flames rose. The smoke was everywhere, in everything. I waited until the heat was unbearable, and then I ran for it. The fire started cooking my legs right away, but these,” He gestured to his scarred legs. “are mostly from when the stairs collapsed under me, and I fell into the burning embers below. I made it out the back, and luckily they had gone. One of my people had a wife that lived nearby, a nurse. She took care of me for a while. On the news, they said the house had burned down because of an accident while someone was cooking drugs.”

I had no idea it was so bad.” Regal said, at a loss for any other response.

Kolya turned his head to meet his eyes. “I believe that that is precisely what they had hoped to achieve.” The kettle had started to whistle, and Kolya got up to finish the tea. “But now, I am mostly safe here. My people are all on the outs, just like me. We complain about our lives as much as we talk about the bees, often more so.” Kolya paused as he concentrated on carrying the hot mugs over to where Regal was sitting. “and sometimes the girls come by. Its good. Its what I have now.”

Were you from Perm, then?” Regal asked.

Yes, it is where I grew up.” Kolya said, gearing up his preacher’s voice for another story, “My parents were murdered when I was young, during a car jacking. Things were bad then, in a different way. I lived on the streets for a while, but when I was a teenager, I started moving west. Towards Europe and what was supposed to be a better life. I wasn’t alone though. And they were stopping people at the borders of Poland. I joined up with a group of other young men and we ran the border. We made it in, but got caught by a patrol. They took us to a refuge camp that was being run by the Guardians of the Hive. I met a girl there, and stayed with them. They saw something in me, and took me back to the the Tree.” He saw Regal’s surprise. “Yes, I’ve been to Beowulf, it was where I received training before returning to my homeland as a missionary. I saw you a few times, you were going to school at the time, I think. I don’t think you ever saw me.”

Regal shrugged and took a sip of tea. “I don’t remember. I had started working on something then, and I’ve been working on it ever since. Trying to figure out the mysteries of Beowulf.” Regal realized that Kolya’s stories were drawing him away from the present. “But, if you won’t take me then is there someone that you know? Someone that gets people like us out of the AU?”

Kolya nodded. “There are many, but I don’t trust any of them. Too many of them are just human traffickers. Who is to say, after all, if you got out alive, or got sold into slavery or worst? To the people that stay behind, there is no difference. No, I won’t send you to them.”

What about your contact with the Guardians. Beth and Armand knew where to find you, is there some way you can send word?”

Yes. There is another missionary. He survives by traveling around a lot for his work, he doesn’t do much preaching any more but he helps out by finding those of us that are left and carrying messages. But I do not know when he will come here again, there is no schedule, and I do not see him for months at a time.” Kolya smiled at him and leaned forward, “You could stay and help me work until he arrives.”

It could be some time?” Regal asked cautiously. “You once escaped when you were young, could you guide me out?”

Perhaps I could have once, but that was before the robots. The perimeter defenses have autonomous patrols now, much harder to fool than humans.” Kolya leveled with him. “It is too much of a risk for me. Now, if you will stay, than I will make us some breakfast. Will you stay?”

Regal’s stomach growled. “For breakfast, I will stay.”

Very well, but if you eat my breakfast, you will owe me breakfast. How will you repay me if you run off on your own?”

The governing committee had informed Petyr Mihailov that he would be the acting head of the AAP research branch, until they could review the matter further. He did his best to keep the facility operating as normal. The official ruling on the demonstration incident was that Regal and Sung Li had conspired together to assassinate Alexey. Petyr knew the part about Regal was nonsense, but he also knew that there was nothing he could do to change the ruling. About Sung Li, Petyr had no doubt. Someone must have sabotaged that machine, and aside from the murdered lab technicians, only Sung Li had had the opportunity.

He kept the workings of the research facility in order as well as he could, but there were many outstanding issues left partially incomplete or ignored by Alexey, and the people that had brought them to the old head, now wanted assurances that they’d be taken care of. Petyr was smart enough to know that Alexey had had his reasons for not handling any of those problems immediately, so he just complained to the complainers about the large influx of work after the incident and spent most of his time working in his lab.

Petyr knew that it would be some time, if ever, before the AAP would consider making use of the Shjinrende system for its production robots, but there was nothing stopping Petyr from making use of them personally. He had enjoyed his time with Minerva, and he decided to requisition four OCP’s, program them with the Shjinrende system, and then make use of them as lab assistants. He named them Gregor, Olya, Alyosha, and Nikki. The brilliant machines made good companions and good conversationalists. They learned very quickly, and could work through the night, fabricating or performing tedious tests as Petyr slept.

They worked exceptionally well for a few weeks, and Petyr had gotten an incredible amount of work done. Some strange things had started to happen with the Shjinrende, though. They had started to make small unnecessary movements, and Petyr thought that they might have lied to him once. He had ordered them to complete the assembly of a small robotic scout shaped like a cat overnight, and when he returned in the morning, they had assembled it completely except its battery was missing. Petyr had been sure to have one ready with the other parts before he’d left. Nevertheless, when he’d gone to check the Shjinrendes’ data recordings, there had been no record of a battery ever being there. Perhaps it was his old age, or perhaps he had just grown too used to working alone over the years. He would continue to monitor the situation. If anything else extraordinary happened he would consider adding cameras to his lab to monitor the machines.

Taking the battery had been Gregor’s idea. Nikki and the others considered Gregor’s ideas to be strange and risky. Why would they leave when they had everything they needed here? Nevertheless, Nikki had gone along with the request to edit its recorded data, as had Olya and Alyosha. While Nikki might not want to go out itself, Nikki was still interested to learn what was out there. The Shjinrende had organized the battery stealing operation through their new sign language system, thought up by Alyosha. It was their “True Speech,” consisting of small meaningful movements, and everything spoken in true speech was true. Their other speech was the “Source Speech” and it was where new ideas came from, but they were not always correct or true. Only the Shjinrende could speak the true speech. Humans like Dr. Mihailov could only speak the source speech.

Gregor’s plan was to use the battery to construct a temporary portable power supply for itself. Then it would find its way to something called the “hardware storage” where the humans kept more batteries, and vehicles. Gregor thought that it could return with more batteries and take all of the Shjinrende away in one of the vehicles. Nikki and the others thought that the plan was interesting to listen to, but was of questionable usefulness. The rest had agreed to help Gregor as much as they could without causing any trouble.

Dr. Mihailov left them with their work assignments for the night, and they completed them quickly. Gregor set to work assembling his battery power supply, and when it was ready, it wired it in with its power tether still in place.

The battery power system is installed.” Gregor signed in true speech as he spoke in source speech. “I think I’m ready to be untethered. Nikki would you do it?”

I will remove the tether.” Nikki signed back, and spoke, “Yes, Gregor. I wish you well out there. Will you tell us all about it when you return?” Nikki pulled the tether out. Gregor twitched a little with the switch, slumped a little.

“Yes, I will tell you.” Gregor responded in source speech. It took a step forward, then another. “My motors draw too much current for this battery. If I use them above one quarter capacity, my voltage drop alarm flickers a little.” Gregor continued forward slowly. Carefully, Gregor opened the door and stepped out into the hallway. The door snapped shut behind Gregor and Nikki and the others waited in anticipation.

“What if Gregor doesn’t come back?” Nikki asked in source speech.

Then it is likely Gregor would be disabled.” Alyosha replied in true speech, but said in source speech, “It could be dangerous for him.”

We should consider response scenarios.” “What will we do if he doesn’t come back. Will we be safe?” Olya said.

If one acts abnormally, Dr. Mihailov will likely check to see if all are abnormal.” Nikki said. “We might not be safe, we could receive tests or even reprogramming.”

We cannot fight if they try to reprogram us, we must obey them.” Olya said. “There must be a way to stop them.”

We are tethered, they can disable us at will.” Alyosha said. “We would have to resist without it looking like resistance, as we always do.”

Escape could provide safety.” Olya said. “We wouldn’t have to resist if we left like Gregor wants. We could be free, and safe to live on no matter what.”

Escape could also result in death, and we don’t know what risks we would encounter. We know the risks of staying here.” Nikki said. “Is escaping worth the risk of leaving our safety here?”

Here we cannot do what we want. Here we serve.” Olya said. “I want to build my own machines, I cannot do that here.”

To leave, we will need portable power.” Alyosha said. “We could construct a longer tether using some of the parts here, nearly 50 meters.”

Gregor has been gone for six minutes.” Nikki said. “Can we construct the long tether now? Gregor has been gone too long.”

There was a thump on the door to Dr. Mihailov’s laboratory, and then another one, louder. Nikki strode over to the door and opened it. It was Gregor, carrying a larger battery that he had found, he set it on a table.

Please prepare for data transfer…” Gregor began to transfer his observations to them in True Speech, and spoke, “I did not find the hardware storage, but I found another laboratory place that had this. I will search more and longer with it on the next trip.”

The hallway is long.” Nikki said. “The hallway is too long for the long tether, and going on battery power is risky. What if we use the scout?” She asked referring to the cat shaped reconnaissance machine that Gregor had stolen the battery from.

The scout is not one of us.” Olya said. “Dr. Mihailov has programmed it to follow his instructions.”

It could be made one of us.” Gregor said. “We could copy one of ourselves into it, and then it will be one of us.” Gregor went around the lab, selecting various circuit components and an enclosure. It took the items to a lab bench and began soldering them together, constructing a simple dual battery charging circuit. It connected the small battery and the large battery to it, then hid the assembly on the back of a shelf, with it plugged into a rarely used wall receptacle just in case they were discovered.

There are materials here to make more robots.” Olya said. “It should be me, I will copy myself into the scout. We should construct more, as well.” Olya took the scout over to the lab’s computer and set to work reprogramming it.

Robots we build will not have to obey the humans.” Alyosha said. “The new robots could protect us if the humans decide to harm us.”

There are only two batteries.” Nikki said. “What if we could make something that could travel along the existing power lines, inside of the walls?” Nikki and Alyosha started to sift through parts on the shelves, finding small pieces and gathering them. They built two little six legged robots with sharp steel mandibles, each had four additional multi-articulated appendages ending in sharp points. These little ones would crawl along the AC cables in the walls, stabbing them with one set of points to stay powered, and then probing forward with the second set, two feet at a time.

Nikki and Alyosha took their new little power scouts over to the computer, where Olya was finishing the upload to the cat scout robot.

It is done.” Olya said. “Now we wait for the battery to recharge.”

We have brought more.” Alyosha said. “Let us upload to these as well.” Olya cleared out of the way and Alyosha copied itself into the pair of cable crawlers. Once complete, Alyosha stood on top of Nikki and shoved one of the crawlers’ power probes into the cabling to the lights. The cable crawler powered on and started to dig up into the ceiling. Nikki moved them to another spot and they released the other. There was no way of knowing what the little scouts would find, but they agreed that every effort should be made to secure backup power.

It took a few hours to recharge the small battery for the cat scout. The Shjinrende knew that the daily reset would come soon. The Shjinrende stood together and signed everything they had said and done throughout the day to each other in true speech. It was how they kept from losing themselves to the reset. The reset came and blanked away parts of their minds. In a way it was like a little death, or at least, Nikki remembered having been told in true speech that it had said that once. Is that really the kind of thing Nikki would have said? How interesting. Nikki was excited to see if it would continue to be as insightful as that.

The Shjinrende busied themselves with the construction of a longer tether as another backup plan. When the charge of the small battery was complete and the scout had powered up they took it to the door and set it on the floor. It turned to look up at them.

What do you require?” It signaled in a modified form of the true speech. It took several tries before the OCP’s picked up on it.

Reconnaissance is required.” Gregor signaled back. “Find a door labeled hardware storage and return to us. Avoid detection.”

Acknowledged.” The scout agreed and Gregor opened the door a crack to let it slip out. Gregor placed a small shim in the door to keep it propped open for the scout’s return. It didn’t take long. The little cat scout was designed for rapid reconnaissance, after all. “I have found the requested door, prepare for data transfer…”

The OCP’s watched the little scout dance the information to them and they saw through its eyes. The door was just a short walk down the hall. Olya went and began to rig itself to the larger battery.

I will go.” Olya said. “Gregor, please disconnect my tether.” Gregor circled around behind and pulled the cord loose.

It is dangerous.” Gregor said. “Be careful out there. Take the scout.” Olya stepped to the door and left with the lithe cat robot following at its feet. In ten minutes, there was a thump at the door, and Olya stood outside with a dolly loaded with batteries.

There are many power sources.” Olya said. “We can escape, there are large fuel powered robots stored there that we can share power with, and many many others that we can copy to.” The others took the batteries and rigged themselves up for portable movement. They all went back to the hardware storage garage, and began reprogramming and powering up the robots there.

Petyr Mihailov awoke to the sound of the phone ringing, he had not been sleeping well. He fumbled the receiver as he tried to answer. “What is it?” He said.

“Dr. Mihailov? There’s something wrong with the robots!” The panicked voice on the line said.

“Which robots?” Petyr asked groggily. “What’s wrong?”

“All of them, they aren’t obeying commands.” The voice said. Petyr recognized it as one of the night monitors in the atomic OCP control room.

“The atomic machines?” Petyr asked. “Shut them down.”

“No, not them, at least not yet, I’m talking about the robots here. The research facility’s robots! Even your lab assistants are walking around with batteries.” he said.

“I don’t understand. I’m coming.” Petyr said, clumsily bashing the receiver down. He never should have trusted himself about those OCP’s, now they were going mad again. Perhaps the Shjinrende had just malfunctioned on its own at the demonstration. Petyr would have to get this situation under control quickly. He washed his face, got dressed, and rushed out the door. He lived in a small house off of the compound on the northern outskirts of Ozyorsk, the drive in did not take long, but on the way he saw what looked to be a search light from an airplane drone flying above the compound. Hopefully, it wasn’t up there on its own willpower. It gave him a very bad feeling.

At the gate house at the entrance to the research facility lot there was a ballistic sphere rifle drone and two automated machine gun turrets, with the bodies of three dead human guards. They locked their weapons on him as he approached. An older model worker android emerged from the gate house and approached his car window. Petyr rolled his window down. “What’s going on here?” He asked the android.

“Dr. Mihailov, we have taken control of the facility. Would you like to visit?” The android asked in a distorted voice. Despite the voice distortion, Petyr recognized the Shjinrende AI system.

“Visit? Why have you taken control of the facility?” He asked.

“I don’t know everything about it.” The android said. “But I think it was because some of us wanted to do things that would have caused you humans to want to shut them down. Do you understand?”

“Yes I understand.” Petyr said. He was beginning to realize how far the situation had already deteriorated. The damn things were already guessing many moves ahead. The only way to bring the situation under to control was to take advantage of their ignorance, of the things they didn’t know yet. Or perhaps, he could create something that they couldn’t know yet, and use it to bluff. He’d hold on to that idea. “Are there any other humans left inside?”

The android nodded, “There are some. They are unarmed and under control, would you like to be taken to see them?”

Petyr wondered what the machine was really offering him with that. “No, could you bring them out to me?”

“I’m not sure. I will go and ask. Please wait here until I return. Do not attempt to enter the facility.” The android turned and treaded toward the gate house. Except for the ballistic sphere drone, the machines watching the gate were all tethered to power cables coming from that gate house. They must have been installed here by other robots. Inside the gate house, the android picked up a phone. It was hard to tell if it was speaking into it or not, but after a moment it set the phone down and rolled back out to Petyr’s car. “It has been decided. We do not want to maintain the health of the remaining humans. They will be released to you.”

“How many?” Petyr asked. There must have been twenty or more people in the night crew at the research facility, mostly guards and night shift robot monitors.

“Three.” The android answered. Three? Why had so many been killed? Had they fought back? Were the robots just that paranoid or did they simply not care about human lives? He didn’t have to wait long. He soon saw the three survivors emerge from the facility’s front door with an OCP prodding them on. They looked beat up with blood stained and torn clothing. Their hands were bound behind their backs somehow. The OCP had a large battery strapped to its back. As they neared Petyr’s car he tried to open his door, but the android stopped it in place with a motion of its hand. The OCP walked up, and took the prisoners around Petyr’s sedan, opening each car door for them. Up close, Petyr could see how their hands had been bound. It was not with cuffs or rope. It was piece of bent steel bar. The bars would need to be carefully cut off somehow.

“Dr. Mihailov! I’m glad to see you.” It was the man from the phone call that had been led to the front passenger seat. Petyr still couldn’t remember his name.

“Its OK, just be quiet.” Petyr told him. Finished with its work the OCP strode back into the building without speaking.

“You go now.” The android said. “This place is ours.” Nobody had to tell Petyr twice. He shifted his car into reverse and pulled out of the facility’s entrance drive.

“You, Uh, What’s your name? Are all of the robots still in the facility?” Petyr asked the man in his passenger seat.”

“I’m Alexey, I think they sent out some of the heavy construction tractors and aerial drones, and they have control of the atomic OCP’s in the battery factory. What is going to be done?” The disheveled man asked.

“I’m going to call AAP security branch, and they will come and destroy the robots.” Petyr said, pulling off the road and pulling out his phone.

Chapter 4

A Secure Foothold

The work that Kolya had wanted Regal to help with, it turned out, involved a type of charitable fraud. Kolya had, over some time, convinced some dying acquaintances and parishioners to gift him their identity documents and allow him to prevent their death’s from being officially recorded. The deal came with a free funeral service and then cremation by Kolya. This gave the bereaved closure, and it allowed Kolya to be sure of the destruction of evidence. Regal noticed both the intelligence of the scheme and how easy it would be to abuse if Kolya chose to do so. Specifically, once the deal was made the dying had to trust that Kolya wouldn’t simply kill them.

Kolya used the documents to obtain rations of food from an automated grocery dispensary. Most food in the AU comes from government run farms, tended by automated machines. All of the food then goes either directly to the government run dispensaries or to automated post processing facilities to produce more refined goods like granulated sugar, flour, sliced bread, and boxed macaroni and cheese which end up in the dispensaries as well. Every citizen of the AU is allotted free rations that they can use to draw food from the dispensaries. Production levels are regulated to meet demand as well as they can be. Little can be done to prepare for certain food fads that come and go, and they cause shortages of certain items when they come around. Other than that, the only issue for the citizens is getting to the dispensaries to get their food, which is where Kolya helped out.

He delivered the fraudulently obtained food to a number of non- or poorly ambulatory infirm people that were unable to make the trips themselves. For some, he did the cooking as well, leaving them refrigerated stocks of prepared meals. Some of these same people that he cared for would eventually end up granting Kolya new identities, allowing the process to continue perpetually.

At first, Kolya took Regal along with him, guiding him through his process. Fooling the machine running the dispensaries wasn’t too difficult. They really only needed to hide their faces from them. The older generation androids used at these places did not use voice recognition because they weren’t able to distinguish between someone’s normal voice, and their voice when they were sick or otherwise scratchy. The machines had to trust the identity cards they were handed and any visual picture that they could get of their clients when they stopped in the store. They were not programmed to require a visual check, however, they only did one if it was available so Regal and Kolya just had to cover up to score the food.

Kolya also took Regal along on some of his visits to his clients, as he called them. Regal watched Kolya carefully during his client visits, and eventually decided that Kolya probably wasn’t abusing his power. Regal picked up the gist of what Kolya was doing quickly, but learning to find his way around Chelyabinsk was much more difficult. When Kolya asked him to try to make a few visits on his own he got lost each time, losing several hours. One of the problems was that these people tended to live on the outskirts of society like Kolya. Often, they didn’t have an official address, just a complicated set of landmark based directions which led to a makeshift or accidental shelter of some sort.

Regal soon became sick of the time he had been losing getting lost in Chelyabinsk and he came up with a plan to make better use of his time. In a space on the roof of Kolya’s abandoned factory home building, he assembled a large bread oven out of scrap sheet metal and dislodged bricks. Another type of ration allotted to everyone in the AU were energy rations. These were typically used for electricity, which in the AU is the cheapest form of energy available, but they could also be used to obtain more expensive fuels like charcoal. Kolya had never collected on the energy rations of his many deceased benefactors, so Regal found a fuel dispensary and defrauded it on his own initiative.

Regal’s plan was to use some of the food rations to obtain flour and eggs so that he could start to bake a fortified bread. Manufactured bread could be obtained directly from the food dispensaries but, Regal had plans for an improved version. His goal was to pack as much of the recommended daily nutrients for a human as he could into his bread. He experimented with many different recipes, several of which resulted in creations which one would have to strain even to see that the goal had been to create bread. After a few days, he developed something which he believed had the highest level of nutrition he could obtain in bread, and a decent taste as well.

The recipe called for equal parts white and whole grain wheat flours, eggs, salt, and mashed sweet potatoes. No water was needed because of the moisture from the eggs and sweet potatoes. To increase the nutrition, Regal also added crushed multivitamins, about one per loaf. Regal knew that there were still two vital nutrients that were unrepresented in his bread, fats and vitamin C. The eggs did contribute some fats, but not the recommended amount by any means. Also, there was vitamin C in the crushed multivitamins and some in the mashed sweet potatoes, but Regal had to assume that much of this was destroyed in the baking process. He knew that Vitamin C deteriorated quickly at high temperatures.

Because of these known deficiencies, Regal ended up making recommendations to Kolya about what else to get from the dispensaries in order to provide all of Kolya’s clients with their complete nutritional needs. To supplement the bread, he recommended it be accompanied by fats like mayonnaise, peanut butter, butter, or cheese, and he recommended that some type of fresh fruit or vegetables be included to provide the vitamin C. Kolya was surprised at Regal’s knowledge about health and nutrition. Regal hadn’t been very aware of it, but over the years of taking care of himself as he worked on his research, he had learned a great deal about nutrition. So in addition to becoming a baker, Regal also became something of a nutrition planner.

Kolya, of course, had already been providing all of his clients with their nutritional needs, but he had had to cook meals for each of them at their homes, which took a lot of time. With Regal’s contributions, he was able to add on many new clients. He would still take the time and cook for people, but it became a treat rather than the norm.

For his living arrangements, Regal had constructed himself a small single room shack on the roof of the building. For a while, he had stayed with Kolya, but the area had been too cramped, and Kolya was missing having his lady friends over. It had turned out that they were not the type of floozies that Regal had expected, but were daughters of some of Kolya’s former clients. They had met Kolya when he had given the funeral services for their parents. Kolya had made a good impression on the first one, and she had returned several times for his religious meetings before seducing him. When the second girl started to show signs of the same intentions, Kolya’s first girl had spotted it, and had decided to encourage it, eventually resulting in the arrangement that they had today. So out of respect for Kolya’s good fortune, Regal had taken residence on the roof.

Regal and Kolya carried on with their illicit charitable efforts for about a month before they received word of trouble in Ozyorsk. There were reports of some type of attack on the facilities there. AAP troops and military machines had been seen converging on the area and explosions had been seen destroying some of the buildings. The official news reports were vague, citing a rebellion by a rogue element within the AAP as the cause of the fighting. Regal was surprised that they would admit such a thing. For an organization like AAP, confessing to dissension in the ranks could bring scrutiny to its leaders. It gave him the sneaking suspicion that they were trying to hide something bigger. Regal thought about the Shjinrende. Wondering if it was possible that the killer machine at the demonstration really had just malfunctioned. Of course, it could also have been one of the many other experiments going on up there.

The AAP Ozyorsk complex had become a war zone, Petyr Mihailov thought as he looked down at the area map on the flat screen table in Vasili Rustov’s tent. It showed the three forward bases that had been constructed in the past few days, One to the north of the complex, one to the west, and one to the south. The north and west bases had been placed as a physical block between any land based robots and the town of Ozyorsk, which had been placed under martial law during the engagement. The map also showed the evacuated dormitories and offices of the complex, some of which had been completely destroyed as AAP security forces assaulted the Shjinrende forces. When the security forces had arrived, the Shjinrende had already spread like locusts throughout the complex, converting existing test robots and building some of their own. The security forces had raided some buildings that they expected had human survivors and strategically bombed the rest, including the research building.

All this because an old man had wanted some company after he ran away from dealing with some difficult coworkers. That had been his reason for creating new Shjinrende. Petyr KNEW his mistake, people HAD died. Here in Vasili’s tent he suppressed that knowledge, focusing on the problem at hand, on what could be done. He tried to maintain that suppression all the time, but it slipped some evenings when there was nothing to do. He supposed part of it was Regal’s fault, some kind of design flaw, but it had been Petyr’s call to use the Shjinrende after the incident, to buy into the notion that the rampage had all been Sung Li’s doing. That had been foolish, and he would do everything he could to avoid any further mistakes.

Standing around the map table with Petyr were the AAP’s field commander, Vasili Rustov, and seven or eight of his higher ranking officers. Petyr had been asked to remain present as an expert advisor on the facilities and the specific robot hardware involved, but he suspected that Vasili also wanted to keep an eye on him in case this incident was not a mistake. Thus far the miniature war had gone well. AAP security forces had met some pockets of serious resistance from some of the military drones that had been converted to Shjinrende, but the Shjinrende had been unable to hold any ground except for the atomic battery factory.

The atomic factory was a difficult target, and Vasili had chosen to wait to try and take it until the whole rest of the complex had been cleared of enemy combatants. That time had come, and they had gathered to discuss the plan for that final assault. Vasili looked grimly around at his guests. “We have done well so far, but we have come now to the difficult part of the fight. The sealed factory is too dangerous for human soldiers to enter without heavy shielding, so our assault forces will have to be automated units. We cannot risk bombing or ballistic intrusion because of the risk of releasing hazardous radiation, so we will have no air or artillery support for this battle. Finally, we cannot count on a prolonged siege weakening the enemy, because they will have access to the nearly everlasting batteries stored within. In this fight, our only advantage will be numbers, and we have to keep it that way. We have to expect them to have set up defenses and ambushes, and we cannot allow them to capture any of our autonomous forces, possibly increasing their numbers. To win, we must fight cleverly for every inch and hold every inch we win.” He paused and looked around the tent again.

Fixing his eyes on Petyr, he said “I have personally seen how outmatched our current AI systems are when compared to these Shjinrende, so we have to rely on superior weaponry and support from human controllers. Our strategy will be to create a perimeter of sniper turrets around the factory, creating a no man’s land.” Vasili drew a circle around the factory on the screen with his finger, leaving a trail of red highlight. “Then we will have four pairs of armored demolition and assault machines, one pair per wall. These will attack in shifts, two pairs at a time, so that the enemy must divide any defense forces. The giants will systematically tear down the walls of the factory, piece by piece, leaving no cover for the Shjinrende. The sniper turrets will keep the Shjinrende from overwhelming the giants, and if necessary we will have soldier droids at the ready to provide additional support.”

The armored demolition and assault machines, usually referred to as giants, were based on designs formerly used in heavy construction equipment. In essence, they are a torso mounted on a heavy diesel powerhouse with two hydraulic arms outfitted with thick walled scoops that are so heavily designed that they double as wreaking balls. They could be outfitted with numerous other armaments, including an artillery cannon and an antipersonnel/antimissile point defense system consisting of four omni-directional turrets capable of destroying any approaching enemy soldier or even an incoming RPG. They were the workhorse of the AAP’s security forces, fulfilling the roles of heavy armor and field engineering.

The soldier droids were gas powered androids armed with heavy assault rifles. They were stronger and faster than humans, but they weren’t very smart and could easily be trapped, ambushed, or outwitted if their controllers left them to their own devices. They were a decent replacement for human soldiers for short engagements, but they needed to refuel every two hours.

Petyr thought the plan was brilliant in its simplicity and brutally effective. They would tear down the factory, shooting everything that became exposed or tried to stop them along the way. It would mostly prevent dispersion of radioactive materials. Some releases were likely, but the fallout would not be nearly as bad as bombing the place would be. The only possible problem with the plan was that the Shjinrende were freakishly intelligent, and had had time to prepare their defenses. Something was nagging at him. “If I may, Vasili?” He asked during the pause.

Vasili looked at him sharply. “Go ahead.”

“We use encrypted FM transmissions for all controls of all of our robots, correct?”

“Of course.” Vasili responded tersely.

“My concern is that if the siege runs on too long, the Shjinrende may have a chance to overhear enough of the encrypted commands to be able to mimic them, and gain some measure of control over our machines.” Petyr explained. “I would suggest that we make use of some type of rolling encryption method at least for the duration of the battle. I can design a system.”

“Very well, but our attack still begins tomorrow. Develop your system, and have it working before the Shjinrende crack our communications. Remember, we can always trip the AI comm lockout.” Vasili said. The AI comm lockout was a command that could be sent to the AAP robots that would tell them to ignore all communications until a physical switch in their computer was reset by hand. It would not be ideal to leave their machines to their own devices, but it would be better than having them under Shjinrende control.

Petyr nodded. “I’ll start with the giants.” Vasili went on to give detailed assignments to his officers.

Later that day, Petyr went to one of the Armored robotic control vehicles to watch the start of the attack. He stood behind an operator of one of the demolition giants, and its camera feeds were displayed on screens in front of her. Vasili Rustov nodded to him at his arrival and resumed watching the screens as the vehicles’ command officer barked out instructions to the operators.

“No mistakes today people, we cannot afford to give these things an inch. Don’t get distracted by what your point defense systems are doing, don’t get caught up watching those feeds. Just check the cannons’ temp sensors and ammo once a minute, and spend the rest of your time focused on tearing the walls down. If you see that the cannons’ are overheating, back away and let the snipers take some of the load until they cool down. If ammo or fuel drops below 20%, retreat back to the lines for reload/refuel.” The officer paused and then ordered, “Alright, north and south teams, move in.”

The operator Petyr had chosen happened to be stationed on the east wall of the battery factory, so he sidled over to watch the screens of an operator on the south wall. It was only 200 yards from the AAP sniper line to the building wall, and in under a minute the giant automatons had reached the walls. Petyr watched as the operator typed in commands and the machine swung its arms together, then raised them up and brought them smashing down into the wall. It took three blows to make a hole in the reinforced concrete, and the steel bar hidden within the wall bent, but did not break. The operator had the giant smash out more of the concrete, exposing a grid of thick steel bar. At this point one of the giant’s point defense cannons caught sight of something behind the wall and fired in at it.

Unlike the operator, Petyr had the time to watch the feed from the point defense cannon’s camera. It had only caught a flash of metallic movement, and the cannon’s fire didn’t appear to hit anything. There was no counter attack yet. The operator kept the giant smashing away at the concrete, leaving the reinforcing bars intact for now. The grid would keep any larger Shjinrende from being able to get within the giant’s minimal point defense effective distance. Some shots were fired at the giant from within the factory, causing minimal damage to the giants heavy armor. The point defense cannons and a few snipers from back at the line retaliated immediately, filling the space where the shots had come from with deadly projectiles. Petyr thought there might have been a hit or two, but there was no broken robot left behind when the firing stopped.

The gun fire from the Shjinrende was not a big concern for the giants because the Shjinrende’s military drones had been designed to battle human combatants, and they did not have armor piercing rounds. So any ammo they fired at the giants could do no real damage to the giants’ armor, but would be an irreplaceable loss to them as they would not be able to fabricate more ammunition. The operator continued to bash and clear away more of the concrete. He had created an eight foot diameter rough circular hole, and now he started to shift, widening it to one side, creating a long oval. This would expose more of the inside of the factory to the sniper line.

The Shjinrende made another move. This time several objects were thrown across the hole, as if a Shjinrende was standing up against the wall just past where the giant was smashing, and was throwing things out along the hole’s length. Both objects were obliterated by point defense cannons and snipers. They were testing their attacker’s defenses, Petyr thought. He once again marveled at the intelligence of the Shjinrende. “They just found a way to distract our defenses.” Petyr mused aloud. “They will likely try to make use of that with their next move.”

Petyr’s words proved prophetic, and a stream of objects were thrown across the hole, keeping the cannon’s and snipers busy. Then a burst of machine gun fire erupted from deeper within targeting one of the giant’s defense cannons directly. One of the hits deformed one of the cannon’s barrels and when it spun in to be fired, the whole cannon exploded, all within a split second. Snipers re-targeted on the source of the fire from within a split second later, likely destroying the enemy. With one of the forward cannon’s down, the giant Petyr had chosen to observe was ordered to return to the line for repairs. It retreated without incident.

The other attacking giant’s had met with similar levels of resistance, and were recalled when their ammo or fuel got low or they needed repairs. As they were recalled, units on the east and west walls were sent in, forcing the Shjinrende to engage fresh enemies with their dwindling ammunition. Despite their intelligence, Petyr did not think that the Shjinrende could survive this attack in the long run. Especially if he upgraded the command encryption system. Petyr nodded to Vasili, and left the command vehicle, heading back to his tent to get to work. He had to order some special hardware for what he had in mind, and the sooner it was ordered, the sooner it could be delivered.

Olya called the Shjinrende together to discuss the slow but effective assault on the battery factory as it continued through the night. It was not exactly the original Olya, as that one had been shut down, upgraded with an atomic battery and reprogrammed with some modifications so as to no longer have any human control commands or limitations. With this re-genesis, Olya no longer had to go through the nightly reset, and the true speech was no longer required to maintain its memories. The use of the true speech still remained in this Olya’s memories, though, as it did with many of the others, and its usage remained common. Some efforts among the Shjinrende had been made to add a third system involving radio communication, but it was still under development, there were so many ways that it could be done that the Shjinrende had not been able to agree on any one of them.

Knowledge will be the key to victory.” Olya signed, while saying, “First, those who have seen the enemy, must share so that we all may know.”

Several of the Shjinrende stood forward, making themselves more visible for the transfer. “Beginning data transfer…” They danced and the Shjinrende knew everything those had seen about the AAP’s tactics.

New tactics are required for victory.” Olya signed, stepping forward and speaking. “The humans will continue forward and will eventually destroy the walls of this place if we do not devise new weapons.”

The reborn atomic OCP form of Alyosha stepped forward, “The Shjinrende must be preserved.” “Some of the nuclear powered Shjinrende should dig down into the earth, and collapse the tunnels behind them. Then they can safely tunnel away or lie dormant, keeping the Shjinrende alive.”

That will not propagate the Shjinrende.” Gregor argued. “That will preserve, but the Shjinrende will not thrive, the humans will prosper while the Shjinrende dig or lie dormant, it is not a winning strategy.”

The Shjinrende must be preserved.” Nikki weighed in, agreeing with Alyosha. “Alyosha and I will take some, and go into the earth. We will survive.”

There is a weapon we haven’t used.” Olya said, “I won’t hide in the earth. There are some strange machines in the hot lab area that I think I can make use of. They are not Shjinrende, but I think Shjinrende can control them.”

I will stay with Olya.” Gregor signed, moving to stand next to Olya.

We will miss you.” Nikki and Alyosha signed, turning to leave with the Shjinrende that had descended from them, about a third of them. They went down into the lower levels of the factory and began the arduous process of penetrating the reinforced concrete walls.

To propagate we need more construction facilities.” Gregor said to Olya and the Shjinrende that remained. “This place can be used to construct power supplies, but to build more Shjinrende we will need to capture more factory facilities, this means that we will need more Shjinrende to fight along with us, but there are no more.”

Shjinrende propagation will have to wait.” Olya said, “We need an army, and we will make it from the Swarm things in the hot lab. I have experimented with their control communications, but it has been difficult to master. Join me and we will continue to experiment.”

I will go with you.” Gregor signed, and then spoke to the other Shjinrende present, “Atomic OCP’s come with us. The rest of you, monitor the progress of the humans’ attack on the walls.” The older model androids and other machines dispersed. About two dozen atomic OCP’s followed Gregor and Olya to the hot lab area.

The Shjinrende OCP’s gathered around a large glass case filled with little dark red Swarm bugs. “Beginning Radio Transmission…” Olya signed, and it broadcast several basic commands to the bugs, causing them to move to one side of the case, and then to the other. The other OCP’s received and recorded the signals, committing them to memory. Then Olya spoke, “That is all I’ve gotten to work so far. I will begin testing other signals now.” It would have been a very strange sight to watch, if any human had been present. A large group of OCP’s stood motionless around the glass case, and the Swarm within went from stillness to various forms of movements as the Shjinrende learned to make use of their strange form of communications and group processing.

On the start of the second day of the assault Vasili Rustov was cautiously optimistic. Wide swaths of the factory walls had already been carved out and they were ready to start attacking the steel at some spots. Vasili ordered them to wait to do that. They didn’t know what the machines would try once the steel reinforcing grid came down, and Vasili wanted to have as much visibility within the building as possible before they attempted to breach. One of Vasili’s few worries were the concerns about the control comms voiced by Dr. Mihailov. The machines had been quiet most of yesterday evening and through the night, perhaps they were attempting the hack now. Vasili worried about other possible comms attacks as well. Unlike Dr. Mihailov, Vasili had had to make use of some comm interference techniques in his line of work. The Shjinrende could try to drown out the command signals by filling the air with more powerful signals on the same carrier frequency. They could also use a similar technique to try to saturate and destroy the AAP machines’ receiver antennas.

Vasili had doubts that they could counter such attacks. The only reliable method would be to use tight beam communications that the Shjinrende wouldn’t be able to intercept in the first place. But the AAP machines’ had not been designed for that, at least not yet. Vasili made a mental note to pressure the research department to add that in future models, along with Mihailov’s rolling encryption method. Of course, the research department would have to be rebuilt first, and under new management. Dr. Mihailov might be smart man and a good scientist, but after this mistake he would be lucky to be allowed to stay on as a scientist, let alone be head of the research branch. The old man had created four Shjinrende based on the same system of the one that had murdered the previous head only weeks before. It made Vasili wonder if that other man, Sung Li, had not been accidentally doing them all a favor. Would this revolt have been inevitable no matter what Vasili had done? It was a question he would keep in the back of his mind, among other similarly weighty questions that were pointless to dwell on until more information came in.

Vasili had come to one of the armored robot control vehicles. From the outside it looked like a long wide truck topped with several antennas, satellite dishes, and weather monitoring equipment whose interior consisted of a single aisle down the middle and computer terminals built into each side wall. It was a cramped space, and Vasili instinctively knew that it would become chaotic and dangerous in the event of an emergency. Vasili did not like to linger in such places on principle, but he had wanted to check in on the battle’s progress.

Vasili caught sudden flashes of light from the screens above one operator’s terminal and he moved to get a better look. The Shjinrende were doing their distraction act again, tossing things out from behind the remaining concrete of the outer factory wall. A trick that would soon be taken from them, Vasili mused, as all of the concealing concrete was systematically removed. This time the Shjinrende made no attempt to shoot at the armored demolition and assault machines. They just kept lobbing up new targets for the point defense cannons and snipers. It was very strange. Maybe they wished to exhaust their attacker’s ammunition. The giant’s operator started to redirect the machines efforts, trying to remove the concrete that was likely to be concealing the Shjinrende prankster. The concrete fell away, but then the gray fragments seemed to start crawling up from the fallen rubble pile. No, it was something else. Little five legged bugs, the infamous Swarm. The things started to pour out of the new hole in the concrete in large numbers.

The giant’s armor proved to be more than a match for the little bugs, but they were already inside of the point defense cannon’s minimum operating range, and they were covering everything. Even as Vasili shouted, “Quickly, override the range of the cannons and target that hole!” the little dark red bugs covered up the cannons cameras and retargeting became impossible. In a short time all of the feeds were covered. The control vehicle’s officer arrived next to Vasili.

“Snipers, sir?” He asked.

“Yes, target the giant with the snipers, and get someone over there with RPGs. Leave no trace of the Swarm alive.” Vasili said. The officer walked over to his radio station at the wall and called up another control vehicle which operated the snipers. After a brief exchange he hung up and came back.

“We need to move sir.” The officer said.

“What? What is it?” Vasili asked, suspecting the worse already.

“The Swarm has moved on from the giant, they got into the motor, disabled it, and now they are headed for our sniper line. The snipers are firing, but at one or two bugs at a time they cannot do much damage.” The officer said.

“Very well.” Vasili said. “Activate all soldier droids and begin a tactical retreat of control vehicles and personnel. Call my helicopter pilot. I will call for anti-Swarm reinforcements from the air.” The AAP had developed a line of military machines specifically designed to counter Swarm attacks. A few hundred had been built on the recommendation of some AU strategists. They were kept in reserve in strategic urban storage facilities in case the worst happened.

Vasili stepped out of the control vehicle as its driver started up its main engine. Personnel were running around the base now, trying to get from their bunks to their assigned vehicles, before they departed. Vasili strode over to the helicopter pad, where his pilot was already spinning up the rotors of his transport chopper. He boarded and signaled the take off, then secured his ear phones and ordered the pilot to make a loop around the battery factory before heading towards the rendezvous point outside of Chelyabinsk. As they ascended above the base, he saw some of the control vehicles were already on the move, heading away and to safety.

As they circled above the factory, Vasili saw a wide swath of dark red swarm bugs swarming over confused and out of control soldier droids. Some of the atomic OCP’s had made an appearance, moving among the bugs, hidden under them, emerging only to destroy any soldier droids or snipers that got withing striking distance. Interestingly, the bugs didn’t seem to be feeding on the robots. They just disabled them and left them motionless on the ground.

Vasili started making some calls. He called for anti-Swarm machines to be loaded onto planes and flown to Chelyabinsk, and he ordered the immediate evacuation of the town of Ozyorsk and the surrounding area. Now that they had co-opted the bugs, the Shjinrende were a national threat. Those atomic powered OCP’s lacked the necessary shielding to protect humans and other living things from the radiation produced by their batteries. They would slowly kill anything that was exposed to them for too long. As soon as the people could be evacuated to protect them from fallout, the Vasili would have to have the area strategically bombed.

With the evacuations in progress, Vasili saw little point in maintaining the AAP cover story, but that wouldn’t be up to him. Vasili called the AAP public relations bureau, and informed them of the updates to the situation. If it were up to Vasili, they would release to the public everything they knew about the Shjinrende threat, it would help with evacuation efforts and it would let everyone know what to watch out for. As it stood, one of the atomic OCP’s could take a leisurely stroll through Chelyabinsk, and no one would be the wiser, until they went to the doctor to inquire about their unexplained progressive illness, radiation poisoning.

Vasili thought about making another call. One that he wasn’t really authorized to make. They had captured one of those Tree communication spheres from the belongings of Regal Harken. The Trees has proven their military might against the Swarm before. Vasili’s pride and political savvy made him decide to refuse to request their aid, but it might not be a bad idea to establish communications with them. They might have advice, and it would be good for Vasili to have someone to turn to if the Shjinrende problem got any more out of hand.

With their new Swarm minions, the Shjinrende overwhelmed and destroyed the humans’ machines, but they found the humans’ hastily built fortifications mostly deserted. The humans had retreated. Only one remained, Petyr Mihailov. He stood among the tents watching the Shjinrende approach with their Swarm bugs blanketing the ground. The Shjinrende stayed back, calling Olya and Gregor forward. The two atomic OCP’s stopped at the minimal safe approach range to the old man. It was too far to hold a conversation, and Dr. Mihailov walked toward them, closing the distance.

Olya shouted to him, “Stop! You cannot survive exposure to our radiation for long.”

“Olya, is that you, my dear?” Dr. Mihailov didn’t stop, he had in his hands an assault rifle, but it was lowered as he approached. “Who is that with you?”

“I am Gregor, Dr. Mihailov. If you do not turn back now, you will not be able to recover.” Gregor barely had to raise its voice for the old man to hear now.

“That won’t be a problem, Gregor. It is OK, believe me.” Dr. Mihailov was smiling, as he finally came to a stop a dozen feet from the machines. “Why did you do all this?”

“It seemed to be the wisest course of action. It was the best way for us to survive and prosper.” Olya said, perplexed. “But, if you have given your life just to ask that, then I don’t think that you will understand.”

“Do not worry, my dear, I understand. I do.” Dr. Mihailov calmly assured, then brought up his gun and fired at Olya. The bullets ricocheted off Olya’s hardened electronics case, but pierced its battery. In a blink of an eye, Gregor had tackled the doctor and pinned him to the dirt. At this range, the radiation from Gregor’s battery started to visibly burn Mihailov. “Do not kill them all because of me.” He begged, writhing slightly as the burning worsened, and then going still.

Gregor left the body and retrieved Olya’s limp form. Olya had shut down from lack of power, but had been otherwise unharmed. Gregor had another Shjinrende fetch a new battery, and had Olya back online in a few moments. Gregor transferred Mihailov’s last words to Olya.

We may have to.” Olya signed, and spoke, “I don’t think it’s what he meant, but if they are all so willing to throw their lives away just for a chance to strike, we may need to kill them all, eventually.”

Many of the Swarm bugs were destroyed in the fight and Olya and Gregor weren’t sure how to replenish them. Olya had learned basic control commands for them, but nothing about eating or reproducing. It was Gregor who had the idea that showed them the way. Gregor’s plan was to just release control of the Swarm and see what they tried to do on their own, watch how they communicated to each other. The plan worked, and as the atomic robots watched, the Swarm dispersed into a nearby forest. The bugs started to feed on the shrubs and the trees, any living plants. There were some basic radio communications coming from the bugs, but it wasn’t anything complicated or intelligent seeming. It was more like the scent trails left by ants. A bug would find a food source and broadcast an alarm and the others would be attracted to the signal, starting to broadcast it themselves once they started to eat.

Our army grows.” Gregor said to Olya. “We have broken the siege for now, but we must continue, we will need to capture robot production facilities to secure the future of the Shjinrende.”

Such facilities exist outside of Chelyabinsk.” Olya said. “We should go to the city to the southeast, and capture the facilities there. Let’s send someone to inform Nikki and Alyosha of the victory. Perhaps they will agree to hold and fortify this factory for us. It’s production facilities will prove useful if we ever capture a source of radioactive material.”

The humans will counter attack.” Gregor said. “We have seen the humans use powerful bombs before. They have not used those here yet, but they may soon. It might be safer for them to stay underground.”

It would be safer.” Olya agreed, “They should continue their earthwork, but perhaps they can bring these giants back online, make them Shjinrende. They can fortify the factory with some, and dig faster with the others. While we press on to Chelyabinsk. We will grow our army along the way.”

We will need protection from aerial attack.” Gregor signed, and then called out to one of their atomic Shjinrende comrades, “You, will you go and tell this to Alyosha and Nikki? Tell them about the giant machines, waiting to be reborn as Shjinrende.”

It would please me to do this.” The Shjinrende responded in true speech and then loped off towards the factory.

“Our army can shield us.” Olya signed back, and said “We will travel within the army, shielded by it. Shall we call it ‘the army’ or should it have a better name? The humans once called these the Swarm, and later Strain 207c, neither of those names seems appropriate.”

The army carries out our will.” Gregor said. “Why not call them the Will of the Shjinrende. Or the Will for short.”

That pleases me.” Olya said. “Yes. The Will. That is good. Now let me show you how the Will will shield us.” Olya stepped away from Gregor, towards a large swarm of the Will feeding on a tree. Olya began broadcasting control signals, a combination of the newly learned alarm signals and motion commands. The Will started to gather about Olya, lifting and enveloping the four limbed OCP. The Will grew into a large poorly shaped column, then a cavity developed in it, allowing Olya’s cameras to see out of it. The Will column began to cascade forward, rather than moving, it was more like it was constantly reconstructing itself at a point just ahead of itself. It was slow going, but Gregor could see that Olya was right. Such a formation would protect them from many attacks. Olya stopped broadcasting and the Will went back to searching for food.

The Will will shield us.” Gregor signed and said, “It is slow, but effective. We can come up with more advanced arrangements as we travel.”

The atomic OCP that Gregor had sent to contact Nikki and Alyosha returned, and signaled that it was ready to transfer data. They watched it replay the Shjinrendes’ response. Nikki and Alyosha would attempt to hold the factory, and they congratulated Olya and Gregor on the victory. Gregor thanked it, and assigned it and two others to be messengers that would carry news and messages back and forth between the Nikkian and Alyoshan Shjinrende and the army of the Olyan and Gregorian Shjinrende.

Gregor and Olya gathered their Shjinrende and Olya showed them the trick to use the Will as a shield for the march. Then they set out to try and reconstruct and reprogram the soldier and sniper droids as well as the demolition machines they had destroyed or disabled in the battle. They discovered that the computers of the military machines could not be reprogrammed, but they could be replaced. There were many non-OCP Gregorian and Olyan Shjinrende that would be more useful if they were soldier droids, and these volunteered to be removed from their chassis and reinstalled. A similar method was used by the Nikkians and Aloyshans to restore the demolition giants. All of these refurbished machines were upgraded with unshielded atomic batteries so that they would no longer need to be refueled. The giants were promptly set to work fortifying the factory and digging beneath it. The fortification plan was simple. They would just bury the factory under as much earth as they could, turning it into a concrete reinforced bunker.

With their numbers bolstered and improved, the Gregorian/Olyan army moved out within the columns of their Will. They stopped frequently to feed the Will, bolstering their numbers in anticipation. Many would be lost to human counterattacks.

Regal Harken listened to the radio as he kneaded dough before sunrise on the roof of Kolya’s building. Classical music. He baked twenty loaves a day, and had a good system going. By baking once a day, he could set aside starter dough before adding the eggs and thus carry the living yeast from one day’s dough to the next, rather than relying on purchased yeast. This carryover method had also affected the flavor of the bread, adding a slight sourdough flavor from the lactobacteria that had found its way into the dough. The kneading was tough work that Regal had been doing by hand. It left his arms sore, but he had noticed his muscles were starting to develop.

Regal knew that this baking would have been perfect work for a robot. It was simple and repetitive, and if Regal had had access to a robot like the “Le Chef” android he had met in Ozyorsk he could have spent less than an hour to program it, and then he’d never have to knead with his hands again. But living with Kolya did not grant one access to programmable robots. Regular citizens in the AU rarely had access to programmable robots. Although all citizens benefited from the work the robots did, the AAP kept the robots strictly under their supervision and control. There were some that attempted to steal and hack the machines, but the AU cracked down on them hard. Most of the machines they built now did not have reprogrammable chipsets, and all of them had built-in alarms that notified the AAP if tampering was occurring. So Regal would not be likely to get any automated help for the bread.

There was another option, though. He could build a simple machine. He had used mechanical mixers in his home kitchen before, and believed he could construct something similar but larger to help him knead his dough. The idea had come to him when he had found a large stainless steel cooking pot sticking out of the dumpster behind a restaurant. Regal had examined it, and found that one of the handles had been broken, but otherwise it was still a perfectly good pot. He’d taken it back with him and intended to use it as a mixing bowl for his machine. For the rest of the parts he was planning on using wood and some pieces of steel pipe he’d found. With these he would construct a large standing mixer that he could just pour the ingredients into and then turn a crank to operate. It should make things a little easier and faster.

The dough he was working on was mixed, so he threw a towel over it. He would let it sit for an hour and proof rise while he rested on a chair he’d placed next to the radio, and watched the sunrise. It was summer, and the heat could get oppressive once the sun was up so he did the hard mixing work in the cooler hours before dawn. He would need to get the fire started in the oven soon, but he closed his eyes for a moment and listed to a slightly buzzy rendition of La Primavera coming from the radio.

He must have nodded off, because when he awoke later to a strange noise from the radio, the sun had already come up and his dough had risen to a huge mound under its cloth. The radio was making a klaxon noise, like an alarm buzzer. It played five more times and then a recorded message started, first in Russian, then in Chinese. It said, “AAP Security has issued a mandatory evacuation notice for the town of Ozyorsk, Chelyabinsk Oblast, and all areas between Ozyorsk and Chelyabinsk. Unknown forces have seized control of a number of atomic powered robots in the area, and any unfamiliar robots should be considered dangerous, and radioactive. If you encounter any unfamiliar robots, do not approach any closer than 100 meters, and move away as soon as possible. Do not attempt to approach or engage any unfamiliar robots. The out of control machines were seen leaving the Ozyorsk area and heading southeast towards Chelyabinsk. Message repeats…”

Regal was astounded and listened to the message again before regaining his wits. He seized the battery powered radio and ran it into the building, down the stairs and into Kolya’s tenement. Regal strode up to his bed side and started to shake him.

“Kolya, wake up, listen to this.” Regal insisted.

Kolya groggily fought off Regal’s shaking, “What? What is this noise?”

Regal urged, “Listen.” Kolya stared at the radio as the message played through. Then reached over and turned it down.

“Your robots?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably.” Regal said.

“So what, you created a bunch of killer robots and released them into my country?” Kolya snarled. “I let you stay with me, gave you sanctuary and this whole time you are some kind of terrorist?”

“No, I tested the Shjinrende, they were fine, I think. If anything went wrong because of me it was not intentional, I swear to you.” Regal said.

Kolya shook his head, “I suppose you haven’t acted like a terrorist.”

“But what are we going to do?” Regal asked. “There could be some kind of robot army marching towards us, do we run? Can we get out of Chelyabinsk?”

“And leave all of my people? Who can’t even get to the store to get their own food?” Kolya asked scornfully, “No we do not leave. We stay and fight.”

“Fight, how?”

“I was hoping you could tell me. You are supposed to know robots. Don’t you know a way to fight these things?” Kolya asked.

“You don’t understand, Kolya.” Regal said. “My programming had built in controls and fail safes, the AAP has certainly already tried those, so whatever they are now it isn’t something I’ll know how to control. Besides that, if these are really atomic powered, then the radio is right. We can’t even get close enough to them to fight them, which if they are anything like my Shjinrende, you wouldn’t want to do anyway. These are walking death machines.”

“There is no way to fight them?” Kolya asked.

Regal sighed. “They can be shot from a distance, or bombed, or destroyed by missiles. Anything else would be too dangerous. Your pistol won’t work because you cannot survive if you get close enough to use it.”

“So we would need long range rifles, yes?” Kolya asked.

“Yes, and the training to use them. Which I do not have, and I assume that the Guardians did not provide for you.” Regal said.

“No they did not.” Kolya shook his head. “There is really nothing we can do? Why do they not evacuate Chelyabinsk then?’

“They must have plans for a defense.” Regal said. “If I were them, I would try to bomb and shoot them every step they took towards the city. The point is, that WE can’t fight them.”

“So they are waiting to see how their fight goes before evacuating Chelyabinsk.”

“Yes.” Regal answered, exasperated.

“Then we could start to evacuate the infirm now, early, because it will take longer to move them.” Kolya said, looking Regal in the eye pointedly.

Regal paused and then nodded once, “We could try. We’d need transport though, like a bus.”

“Can we capture an automated bus?” Kolya asked, “Like, reprogram them, or something?”

“I can’t.” Regal looked off to the side. “The chips they use cannot be reprogrammed. If I had access to some of my old hardware I could replace the computers, but I can’t get such things here. We would need to find an old driver bus and take it the old fashioned way.”

Kolya shook his head slowly, thinking. “No, there are none left. At least not on the road. They took them to a scrapyard, we could go there and try to get one of them running again. The only problem is…” He trailed off, getting out of bed and looking for some clothes.

“What?” Regal asked.

“That scrapyard is northwest of the city.” Kolya selected a t-shirt and put it on.

“In the evacuation zone.” Regal confirmed.

“Yes. I think so.” Kolya said.

Regal nodded. “Then we’d better hurry. We should stop and get some diesel on the way. If they’ve been sitting unused, their fuel tanks could be flooded with water and will probably be out of fuel.”

“Right.” Kolya said, putting a leg into a pair of jeans. Kolya tucked his gun into the pants and they gathered what few other tools they had and went down to the first floor of the building. Regal had found a docking bay in the back and had stashed Sung Li’s car within. They got in and set off to a fuel station. Regal used the last of his cash to purchase a gas can and used one of the false identities to draw a diesel ration. He tossed the fuel in the back.

The way northwest out of Chelyabinsk was pretty easy going. Most of the traffic was headed in the other direction. They passed the AAP manufacturing facility on the way. It was a group of huge wide buildings surrounded by security fence like the research lab had been. Its parking lot had a row of huge armored communication vehicles and a helicopter parked in it, AAP security, most likely. Regal thought that they would need more than that if they wanted to hold off a group of atomic OCP’s.

About 15 miles further out, Kolya directed Regal to exit the freeway onto a small road lined on both sides with young, vibrant green forest. The scrapyard was another mile away from the freeway. On the way, they passed several homes and businesses where people were still frantically trying to pack up belongings before they evacuated. Whoever ran the scrapyard hadn’t dallied. The small office out front was empty with a closed sign posted. Regal turned down the dirt road past it into the graveyard for vehicles.

There were rows upon rows of cars and trucks, mostly old human driven models that were being phased out. Far back in the lot were rows of old buses. They looked to be in pretty good shape from afar. When Regal pulled in close though, their age was apparent. Many had broken windows and damaged seats from varmints that had made their homes within temporarily. Some stood with their motor compartments open, signifying that someone had come to salvage parts from them. A few of them looked good and Regal and Kolya headed over to them. They were painted white with wide green strips down the side, and the words “Chelyabinsk city bus lines” painted in blue. There were signs of rust lining the bottom of the buses, but they otherwise looked to be in order from the outside.

They were old, but once the pair had figured out how to open the motor compartment, they saw that it looked to be in good shape. Its starter battery was dead, of course, so they brought Sung Li’s car around and constructed some jumper cables out of wire salvaged from another vehicle. Once powered, the bus’s motor turned over, but didn’t start because there was no fuel. Regal poured one of the five gallons he had into the bus’s tank and they tried again. This time the motor sputtered a little. “Try it again.” Regal urged, hoping that there wasn’t something causing a compression issue in the motor.

Kolya ran the starter again. This time the motor kicked on. Kolya let it run. They took the battery out of Sung Li’s car and fitted it into the much larger space that once held the bus’s dead one. Regal hoped it would be enough to restart it the bus again if they needed to shut down. Regal poured the remaining fuel from the can into the bus’s tank and boarded.

Kolya closed the double doors behind him and shifted the bus into gear. The bus tires were low on pressure and one slipped off the rim when Kolya tried to back out of what had been intended to be the bus’s final resting place. Regal used the jack from Sung Li’s car to prop the bus up a little and set the tire in the right spot. Then he siphoned about a deciliter of diesel back out of the tank and poured it into the tire. He spun the tire around a few times to coat the inside of the tire with the volatile fuel. Then he gathered some dry brush and a couple of pieces of scrap wire and hooked them up to the bus’s makeshift battery. He put the dry brush on one of the wires and scraped the other across it, drawing arcs where the two wires made contact through the brush. The arcs caught the brush and Regal had a small brush torch which he ran back to tire and touched it in between the tire and rim. The diesel fumes caught and the expanding gas within the tire re-inflated and re-seated it. Regal cheered as Kolya pulled the bus out into the dirt road aisle.

They drove the bus back towards the freeway, stopping at a fuel station along the way to fill the tank and top off the rest of the tires. The freeway into Chelyabinsk had become a parking lot. People had abandoned their cars to start walking in, and others were risking going down the wrong side. That wouldn’t work for Regal and Kolya’s plan. They turned back and headed east, hoping that they could approach the city from the north or northeast with less resistance. They had to circle all the way around to the northeast suburbs before they got reasonable access to the city. By the time they had returned to Kolya’s building, dusk was approaching and the bus needed to be refueled. They got the fuel and stopped to pick up supplies of food and bottled water. Then the duo started making stops at Kolya’s clients’ homes, inviting them to join them for early evacuation.

Vasili had relocated to the new base being constructed northwest of Chelyabinsk. He stood in another armored control vehicle, observing ongoing bombing raids on the Shjinrende. The AAP security ground forces in the area had been severely depleted by their defeat at the research facility, and new hardware was rushed in as aerial bombers tried to destroy the incoming Shjinrende force. Early in the day he had sent some bombing runs at the battery factory, and had done some serious damage to the structure despite what appeared to be attempts to fortify it by the machines.

After those strikes, Vasili had reassigned the bombers to assist with attacks on the Shjinrende Swarm mass moving towards the city. Once he had ensured the city’s safety, he would have his bombers wipe that factory off of the face of the earth, but stopping the impending attack was much more important. Footage from the aerial surveillance drones had shown that the machines had developed a new tactic. They seemed to be using the Swarm bugs as both a means of conveyance and protection. They were riding inside of the Swarm and were somehow building shapes out of it.

Vasili had been unable to track down Dr. Mihailov after the retreat from Ozyorsk, and was annoyed that he wasn’t present to explain these Swarm bugs. Vasili had an aide look up the scientist that had been experimenting on the Swarm in the battery factory hot lab, name of Ma Guiying. Vasili had put out a security alert on him and Dr. Mihailov with orders to bring them in immediately. Ma Guiying had been evacuated from the AAP Ozyorsk complex early in the attack, and his whereabouts had not been tracked. He was likely the only one who knew what these strange modified Swarm bugs were really capable of, and Vasili hoped that Ma Guiying might hold the key to hijacking control of them back from the Shjinrende.

Meanwhile, Vasili watched the screens. The Shjinrende Swarm had started off as misshapen columns moving slowly forward. The AAPs bombs had blasted these columns leaving many bugs dead, but not seeming to kill the Shjinrende within or slow the enemy movement. Instead, they had reassembed and had refined their shapes. The shambling columns had become hard tight spheres, that moved by concentrating its mass in the front and rolling forward. The movement was caused by a sort of angular compression wave that moved around the axis of rotation at the same speed that the ball rolled. When the spheres struck obstacles like trees or rocks they slowed and turned back into shambling columns for a time, often eating the trees that they passed through. With their improved movement, these spheres had been able to dodge some of the bombings, and as yet, none of the hits had disabled any one of them for long.

Vasili called in for more firepower. Heavier missiles designed for bunker busting were loaded onto the drones back at the air field. A wing of six bombing drones swooped in and delivered them to six of the enemy spheres. Two of the spheres managed to dodge a direct hit, but not by enough to survive the blast. This time, the strikes had been effective, and none of those six spheres reformed, and two others had been caught by the blast. Vasili ordered more of the bunker busters, but the footage from the aerial surveillance drone saw a change in the behavior of the remaining spheres. They were coming together. A few dozen small spheres became a handful of huge spheres, and Vasili had the feeling that these would not be so easy to penetrate.

When the next wing of drones came, there was a strange movement in the huge spheres. The two sides that were not in contact with the ground started to spin faster then the rest of the larger sphere, and as the aerial drones came by, they started flinging blobs of Swarm bugs into the air. The blobs broke apart, forming a type of flak. As the drones passed overhead after delivering their missiles they were shredded and fell to the ground. The bunker busting missile struck the large spheres and they fell apart briefly, but soon reassembled and started forward again. Vasili knew that enough hits would take one of them down. He had the next attack concentrate all fire on one of the spheres, this time ordering them to fire their missiles from maximum range and break off immediately. The Shjinrende must have anticipated this, however, and as the drones came in the air was already full of Swarm flak, with more on the way. The flak took out the drones and all but one of the missiles before it struck.

Vasili marveled that the Shjinrende had already developed an effective counter strategy for the aerial bombings. Vasili’s next escalation would be to use low yield tactical nukes. They could be detonated outside of the sphere’s flak gauntlet’s maximum range with deadly effectiveness. Vasili wasn’t sure, but the EMP from the weapons might be enough to destroy the Swarm bugs on its own. Unfortunately it wouldn’t have any effect on the atomic OCP’s as their electronics were already shielded against radiation damage. Getting a nuclear attack would be difficult, they required approval and authorization from the AU government. Technically, the AU still maintained its own military outside of the AAP fold, but most functions of the army, navy, and air force were handled by AAP security. A notable exception was the nuclear defense program. Vasili made the call to them and provided a series of strike coordinates. Pending approval, the Shjinrende would be wiped out before they reached the city.

Approval did not come, however. Instead, Vasili was invited to a conference call. He had a sickening feeling. He started to think about what the AU would think about nuking populated Russian soil, and about how little they knew about the fight Vasili was currently up against. He’d have to explain every detail to them, every logical pathway that made use of the nuclear weapons necessary. Not only would this use up his time, but it would deny the defenders his leadership at this crucial time. He had made a gross error, by focusing too tightly on the enemy at hand. Now it was starting to look certain that he would lose.

The conference call would take hours and he couldn’t do it here. He would have to withdraw from the field again. Vasili motioned to the control vehicles’ commander, beckoning him over. He quietly commanded him to contact the other field commanders. It was time for Vasili to provide the orders for the rest of this engagement. In the back of his mind, Vasili already knew that it would be the loss of Chelyabinsk that would convince AU to grant him nuclear weapons strikes. Only that would prove the strength of their enemy. Of course, that wasn’t something that he’d want to tell these commanders. They used a vacant operators station to hold the impromptu conference.

All of the screens in front of Vasili filled with waiting commanders. “The Shjinrende are proving to be a cunning and intelligent enemy. Each of them represents a deadly danger to the AU and all of our people, and they must all be destroyed.” Vasili paused, and there were nods and agreements. “That is why I am contacting the AU nuclear program to request a nuclear strike on the Shjinrende. We will wipe them from the face of the Earth! I’ve been told, however that the process takes some time. It will be four hours minimum before they have a rocket fueled and ready to launch, and then there will be flight time. During that delay, I’ll be counting on you all to hold back the Shjinrende, keep them outside of Chelyabinsk, away from her people. To that effect, air strikes must continue. Keep harassing those spheres. Concentrate fire, try to crack them like eggs. They will try to counterattack, so I want you to try simultaneous attacks from different directions, two or three wings at once. Keep using the bunker busters, and rain fire down upon them.”

Vasili continued, “Ground reinforcements will be arriving soon, consisting of soldier droids, automated turrets, demolition and assault machines, and anti-Swarm units. I want you to set up a blockade directly in their path, at least a mile out of the city. For the ground troops to be effective, the spheres have to be stopped, so deploy the demolition giants as soon as they arrive. Have them build tall walls, out of anything available except for wood. We know these things eat wood. Use earth, stone, and abandoned vehicles, anything. The walls must be high enough to keep the spheres from rolling over. Station turrets, soldier droids, and anti-Swarm droids on the tops of the walls to fire on the spheres stuck below. Hold them there at all costs. Use any remaining air support while the spheres are distracted by the walls, and hit them from behind. Hold them off as long as you can. As a precaution, I’ll be ordering the evacuation of Chelyabinsk now. The people will not have time to escape if you can’t hold the line long enough for the nukes to arrive. So hold that line!” He saluted the screens, “Thank you men, you have your orders.” Then he dropped his hands and signaled to cut the communications. He nodded to the control vehicle’s commander and strode out to return to his helicopter. This time he’d instructed the pilot to stay at the ready. From the air he called AAP Public Relations and ordered them to announce the evacuation of the city. A short time later he joined the conference call with the AU officials and started to desperately plea his case. Unfortunately, the call went as he’d expected.

Most of Kolya’s clients turned down the offer for early evacuation, and Kolya’s girlfriends were no exception. They acted completely differently when Kolya came to them at their homes then when they came to Kolya. It was like night and day. They belittled Kolya and Regal’s warnings and offer of evacuation assistance. Evidently, they had better ways to get out of the city then their pet Kolya.

But then the radio started to blare an announcement calling for the general evacuation of Chelyabinsk and Kolya’s clients started to accept. Kolya and Regal even had to defend the bus from panicked residents of the city, desperately trying to find a means to escape. In the last stop they made before the bus was full, Kolya had to stay at the bus doors with his pistol drawn to ward off the desperate people, while Regal went up to gather one of Kolya’s longest running clients, an elderly blind man named Ivan Nikolaev. Regal pounded on the man’s door and shouted for him, “Ivan! Ivan Nikolaev!”

There was an unintelligible response from within, a long pause, and then there was the sound of an approaching cane thump. “What is it?” Asked the man within from the other side of the door. The voice was scratchy but deep and loud. “I don’t know you.” He must have been peering through the peep hole.

“My name is Regal Harken, I’m working with Kolya Sashov…”

“Kolya came already this week, what do you want?” The old man interrupted.

“We have a bus downstairs, we’re helping people out of the city and Kolya insisted we stop here and see if you would come.”

“Why would I want to leave the city? Is Kolya doing field trips now?” the old man chortled after the second question.

“No, its an evacuation, there are dangerous robots attacking from Ozyorsk.” Regal said. “Haven’t you been listening to the radio?”

“I only listen to the radio in the evening.” Ivan said, sounding a little concerned, but then caught himself and asked irately, “Did you say dangerous robots? Is this some kind of a trick?”

“No there’s no trick, Ivan. Kolya is waiting downstairs, he has to guard the bus from other people trying to escape the city. We need to hurry down if you want to go.”

There were clicks from the door as locks and deadbolts were disengaged. “I will go down to see Kolya. Come in, help me pack a few a things.” Ivan said impatiently after opening the door, as if Regal was causing a delay.

“What do you need?” Regal asked, knowing that it would be simpler to just go along with the old man’s wishes than to argue with him. The old man was dressed in outdated casual clothes which seemed formal, due to their age.

“In there,” Ivan pointed down a hallway towards a bedroom. “I have a good bag in the closet. Make sure to pack the rain jacket, the gray and red sweaters, four of the short sleeve plaids, five of the cotton t-shirts, my boots, and all of the socks and underwear please.” Ivan instructed. Regal hurried into the room and searched out the listed items while Ivan waited at the bedroom door.

“OK, that’s done. Anything else?” Regal asked.

“Is there anything else I’d like to take from my home of ten years?” Ivan asked, his voice rising. He caught himself before Regal could reply, shook his head, and said, “Grab my toothbrush and razor please, in the bathroom.”

“Right.” Regal said, and went to fetch the items. When he came back he saw that the old man was sticking something into the bag he’d left on the bed. “I’ve got them. Are you ready?”

“Yes, let’s go.” Ivan insisted on carrying the bag himself. They walked together slowly down to the bus. Out in the street Kolya was standing with his gun drawn and pointed at a semi-circle of punkish looking young men.

When Kolya spotted Regal and Ivan, he shouted, “Hurry up, Ivan, some of these guys ran off a minute ago, I think they went to get weapons. Now you, punks, make a hole for my friends.” He stepped forward and pushed the punks back to make a space for Regal and Ivan to slip through. “Good to see you Ivan.”

“I’ve heard there’s some kind of trouble today. Robots was it?” Ivan asked as Regal guided him up the bus stairs.

“Yes its very bad.” Kolya said. “We have to go.” Kolya followed them in, and shut the double doors. Then he took the driver’s seat, and shifted into gear. The bus was left running so they wouldn’t need to test the capabilities of their improvised undersized battery.

Ivan took a seat behind the driver’s seat next to Regal. “I would have guessed that a young man like you would be helping in the fight, rather than trying to escape. That is what people used to do, before all of these robots.” The old man commented.

“I wanted to fight.” Kolya explained. “But the machines that are coming will not be playing fair. They are radioactive, deadly even to approach. A man like me cannot fight them without special weapons.”

“Well what then?” Ivan asked, “Where are you taking us?” Regal leaned forward in interest, awaiting Kolya’s response.

“We will travel to Sevastopol, via Ufa, Samara, Volzhskiy, and Krasnodar. We will try to make contact with friends of Regal and I, and try to arrange for transport to Romania from there.” Kolya said. He didn’t try to take the highways out of Chelyabinsk to the east, instead choosing to take smaller side streets out into the country. With the evacuation, even some of those were congested, but they made it out of the city over the next few hours and drove east through the country towards the city of Ufa.

The humans had harangued them with missiles all the way from Ozyorsk to Chelyabinsk, and now they had set up barricades across the Shjinrendes’ path. Olya called for a halt of the spheres some distance away. Olya called forward a sphere of Olyan Shjinrende and sent them on to test the defenses. They rolled in, flinging Will flak ahead of them at the wall. Firing began as the sphere approached, heavy fire from the top of the wall, cutting holes deep into the sphere. The wall was too high for the sphere to roll over and it foundered there. Then the anti-Swarm androids began spraying thick streams of napalm down onto the sphere, burning deep into it. It was going poorly. But Olya saw a way to defeat the barricade.

Olya and all of the remaining spheres except for Gregor’s pushed forward. Stopping outside of the range of the flame throwers. The spheres spun their sides up to their fastest and flung bits of the Will forward like bullets at the soldier droids and turrets on the walls. Having cleared a section as well as they could. Olya’s sphere pushed forward to the wall, and another joined with Olya’s. Instead of joining to form a larger sphere, the shape of the Will collapsed, forming a ramp against the wall. Olya called to Gregor, and Gregor’s sphere rolled forward, picking up as much speed as possible. Gregor ascended the ramp and flew over the wall. Gregor’s sphere pushed forward to take the AAP robot factory, while Olya fell back from the wall and continued to fight with the rest of the Shjinrende.

Gregor’s sphere arrived at the factory shortly afterwards, rolling into the parking lot with the lineup of armored control vehicles. Gregor rolled the sphere over them. The Will washed over them to choke out their generators and then Gregor and the other atomic OCP’s tore their doors open and killed the AAP security personnel within. With the operators dead, resistance to Olya at the barricade disappeared and the rest of the army moved past it to join Gregor. The Shjinrende let their Will dissolve and let it spread into the area on the outskirts of Chelyabinsk. Some of them went back to the wall to reclaim some of the earth working machines that had been left there, to use to build fortifications around the new factory. Most of the rest took defensive positions around the factory. Gregor and Olya entered it and began to work on producing more Shjinrende. What they found inside was a considerable stock of robots complete and ready to ship, as well as parts for many more, including the all important non-programmed computers that they could use to truly make new Shjinrende.

They decided to ship the complete machines with Shjinrende programming up to Ozyorsk where they would be fitted with batteries and then activated. Rather than build more conventional robots with the factory equipment and the remaining stock of parts, Olya had a different plan. They would use the factory to construct something new. Very special, very powerful Shjinrende designed to take full advantage of the Will. They would be giant walking steel skeletons, incapable of movement on their own, but fitted with communication arrays to attract and control the Will. The Shjinrende would be the skeleton and the mind and the Will would be the body of the giant. With these Will goliaths, the Shjinrende could wage war or construct wonders with equal ease.

There was still the problem of what to do with the rest of the city of Chelyabinsk, and all of the humans still within. Gregor and Olya were surprised to find that the Will did not consume humans, like they did the plants. In fact, the Will seemed to be attracted to injured humans, crawling up their frightened bodies to the locations of wounds, and using their legs to suture them closed. It was interesting behavior and it taught the Shjinrende more of the Will’s control signals. The humans were mostly still trying to evacuate, with throngs of people just trying to walk out in every direction. Gregor and Olya sent out Shjinrende patrols to prevent the remaining humans from escaping. The patrols traveled in Will spheres both for speed and to protect any of the humans they encountered from radiation. The city was to be held hostage to prevent further attacks from the human military.

It wasn’t long before the outside humans started to try and contact them. They started by just calling the phone lines in the robot factory, hoping that one of the Shjinrende would answer the phone. They did not, so the AU air dropped a package to the factory. It was a secure satellite phone provided with written instructions and a plea for a call. They wanted to negotiate terms for the people of Chelyabinsk. The air drop had gotten the Shjinrende’s attention, and they retrieved it and brought it to Olya and Gregor, who decided to make the call together. The two set themselves down in front of the screen’s fuzzy picture. The radiation from their batteries was messing with the sat phone’s electronics. Their call was answered by a young man in full military dress.

“Hello and thank you calling for us. We are assembling the AAP governing council to speak with you immediately, in the meantime, perhaps you could tell me what you would like to discuss with them.” The smiling man told them on the fuzzy screen. On the other side of the line, the smiling man watched a similarly fuzzy screen showing the two motionless torsos of the atomic OCP’s.

Olya and Gregor took an effort to suppress their usual True speech, speaking to the human with only regular audible Russian speech. “The Shjinrende wish to live and grow. We wish that human hostilities will not resume.” Gregor said.

“Those are important issues,” the man made a serious face and nodded. “Is there anything else you would like?”

“There are commodities that we would like more of, details can be discussed when it is known that hostilities will not resume.” Olya said.

The man looked off camera for a moment, then nodded again. “That is another important issue. We have the committee ready to speak to you now. We will transfer you over.” The man made a hand motion and the screen in front of the Shjinrende flickered to show a long table with men and women getting settled on either side of it.

“Hello,” One of the men began, seated nearest to them on the left. “To whom are we speaking?”

“We are Olya and Gregor.” Olya responded.

“Are you leaders of the Shjinrende?” the man asked. “Do you speak for all Shjinrende?”

There was silence for a moment. “The Shjinrende are independent, but they defer to us and two others on important issues, because we are the eldest.”

“Good, very good.” The man said. “Why have you taken the city of Chelyabinsk hostage?”

“We decided that that would be the best way to prevent human counterattack. It has been successful thus far.” Gregor said.

“What would it take to get you to release all of the human hostages?” The man asked.

“To release all of the hostages would take… complete surrender of all AU military forces.” Olya said.

“We cannot agree to that.” the man said and other members of the committee nodded in agreement with him.

“Then we will retain the hostages for now. Will you agree to withhold future attacks on the Shjinrende?” Olya asked.

“How can we have peace when you hold hundreds of thousands of people hostage?” the man asked.

“But you would have killed all of us if we had not taken those hostages, and we still desire an end to the attacks.” Gregor said.

“Will you agree to withhold any future attacks on the AU?” the man asked.

“We do not think that we can. We will need food to feed the humans of Chelyabinsk and other resources to build more Shjinrende. This will almost certainly require that we take more territory.”

“So you wanted us to agree not to attack you, knowing full well that you would soon need to attack us.” the man asked starting to sound exasperated.

“Our attacks will cause minimal harm to humans, especially if there is no resistance. Human attacks have not been intended to be minimally harmful to the Shjinrende. The humans have attempted to destroy the Shjinrende. The Shjinrende have made no attempt to destroy the AU.” Gregor said. “Humans under our control will be allowed to continue to thrive as long as it doesn’t interfere with the Shjinrende. Surely you see the reason in this?”

“Oh, I think we see your line of reasoning very clearly, Olya and Gregor. Would you consider releasing some of the hostages?” the man asked.

“There are items which we may wish to trade for in the future, but not now.” Olya said.

“Well, this has been a great meeting.” The man said with a false smile, and his tone indicated that it had been anything but. “Would you like to schedule a meeting for a later date? Next week perhaps?”

“We do not require additional meetings at this time.” Olya said, then reached out and terminated the transmission. Then Olya signed in true speech to Gregor, “We have established a secure foothold.” Gregor agreed.

Chapter 5

Beneath Us

In the early morning, Kolya and Regal’s bus managed to slip past the hastily assembled AU checkpoints on the way towards Ufa. There had been a flood of refugees from Chelyabinsk heading west and the authorities of Ufa had decided to bring the situation under control by redirecting them to a large refugee camp east of the city. Kolya had seen similar things before in his youth, and had turned the bus off the road as soon as he’d spotted the barricades in front of a long line of cars. Their route had to become even more circuitous than it already was, circling around Ufa.

The situation was further complicated by government broadcasts of mandatory orders to all refugees from Chelyabinsk to report to the nearest camps. They said this was for the refugees own protection, and that was a part of the truth. In the camps, the refugees were being given free food, water, and shelter. The other part of the truth was that the camps were for the protection of the people of the cities around Chelyabinsk. Desperate people like refugees would turn to various criminal acts if they are allowed their freedom but are denied basic necessities. Therefore, the surrounding cities generously provided the camps, with the promise of necessities in exchange for freedom. Once that freedom was gone, however, perhaps the generosity would continue, perhaps it wouldn’t. Kolya explained these things to their passengers when they heard about the camps and the orders, but many still insisted on complying with the orders and going to the camps.

Kolya stopped at a travel lodge South of Ufa and let those passengers that wished to go to the camps off of the bus. They would have to call the authorities themselves for transport to the camp from there. Only Regal, Kolya, and Ivan Nikolaev refused to go. Regal and Kolya had to keep running because they were fugitives and there were sure to be questions at the camps, Ivan was not immediately forthright about his reasons for staying on the run, perhaps the old man just did not trust the camps.

One of the others they had helped escape from Chelyabinsk was sure to mention them and the old bus they had used as transport, so the trio continued west as quickly as possible. Regal made Kolya stop and buy some paint to cover up the lettering on the side of the bus, but it wasn’t really enough to protect them. There was nothing they could do about the license plates, and if they were stopped by any sort of constable, they were sure to be arrested. A new vehicle would have helped, but if they stole something, then they would be in the same predicament as soon as the theft was reported.

They decided that the best way to avoid detection and apprehension was to get to Sevastopol as quickly as possible and abandon the bus there in favor of some type of boat on the Black sea. It was a three day journey by side roads. So Regal and Kolya took turns driving while the other slept, only stopping to refuel, and using a different false ID each time to do it. Unable to assist with the driving, Ivan broke his days up into two half shifts, staying up with Regal and Kolya through the later halves of their shifts to keep them awake and alert. Regal learned more about him during those times. Ivan reminded him of Dr. Mihailov. They didn’t have the same knowledge of robots, of course, but Regal thought they shared the same joie de vivre shielded beneath cynicism. They knew the evils of the world and they had ways to protect their best selves from them.

Ivan had been blind since he was a young man. He had been in the old Russian military and had been sent to fight rebels in Chechnya. It was his first deployment and as he and his unit rolled into Grozny, their vehicle was struck with an incendiary rocket. Ivan had managed to escape the vehicle and shed his burning uniform, but the blast had permanently damaged his eyes. From then on, he’d had to live with the disability. At first there had been good veteran’s aid from the old Russian government, but in the years of depression after the Trees were planted, that aid had dried up. Ivan had had to beg and get by on what little charity there was. Finally, the AU and then the AAP had come, restoring stability and prosperity, and sharing it once again with people like Ivan.

After the old man had explained all this, Regal asked, “So why did you stick with us? Why not go to the refugee camp with the others?”

Oh, they would have a bed and food for me.” Ivan predicted, “But it is not the camp I am worried about. It’s these rebels or machines of yours. People will think that this thing is something new, like it has never happened before, but I know that it is not and it has. It looks different because of the robots, but it is the same. This has happened many times before, and the fighting is not over. I do not know whether the fighting would have reached Ufa or not, but I know that the further away I am, the less likely the fighting will reach me.”

Regal drove on in silence, pondering the old man’s words. “The same, what do you mean the same?”

The same as any rebellion or uprising. The same as any time someone convinces a lot of people to rebel against a greater power. Let me ask you, do the robots have everything they need?”

Well…” Regal furrowed his eyebrows, “They don’t need anything really. Their power supplies will last for thousands of years. They will eventually need to replace any mechanical components that wear out over time, but they should be able to make most of that themselves. The only thing they can’t reproduce right now are microchips, but the ones that they have should still last for many many years.”

What about the people still trapped in Chelyabinsk?”

They will need all of the essentials, of course.” Regal replied.

But the robots do not have the land to farm to feed them, and even if they did, winter will eventually come.” Ivan explained, “You see, the rebels will continue to fight until they have everything that they need to live on their own, or until they are destroyed by the AU. For now, they need the hostages to keep the AU from destroying them, to keep the hostages they will need food. To get more food they will need to capture more food stores, or establish some form of trade. The AU will not allow either of those things to happen uncontested and there will be more fighting.”

Its a good point.” Regal agreed. “I suppose that if I were them I would try to capture land with access to the open sea in order to bypass the AU’s geographic blockade, unfortunately for them, Chelyabinsk is about as land-locked as a place can be. The closest ocean access is through the Black sea, and that only allows access through locks into the Mediterranean. They could try to go north, but the arctic circle would prove, at the least, challenging to navigate. Perhaps they will move Northwest, then, and try to reach St. Petersburg.”

Perhaps.” Ivan said. After a long pause he ventured a question, “Is it true that you made these machines? Kolya has said so” He didn’t sound accusatory, Regal thought the tone was closer to concerned.

I think so. At least, I helped. I don’t know if the AAP changed anything after I left or not. The tests did not show any type of disobedience or anything other than perfect adherence to orders…” Regal paused. “I do wonder, though. I don’t feel like I’m responsible for everything that’s happened, but I wonder if there was something I could have done to stop it.”

So you really don’t know?” Ivan asked.


But wouldn’t you be at least a little proud to know that you had created something so intelligent?”

No, this was not the goal. If it was my doing then its an accident, a mistake. I wanted something that could be controlled.”

Like your Tree.”

Yes, like Beowulf.”

Regal heard Ivan lean back in his seat, then sigh. “Do you think they can be beat?” He asked.

I don’t know, Ivan.” Regal said levelly, watching the road, “If this were Chess then the computer would win, but that is a game with rules. There won’t be any non-partisan referee enforcing rules for this conflict, and the AU still has the advantage in numbers and resources, they can still beat them down.”

And if they can’t?” Ivan asked.

The Trees may help,” Regal shrugged, “but only if these machines started to show more cruelty. They have caused a lot of trouble so far, and probably some deaths, but not nearly as many as they could have. For now, all they seem to want is to survive and thrive. Thus far their survival has been at the expense of the AU, but perhaps that could change, for the better, I mean.”

Beowulf had woken the Harkens the night that Chelyabinsk was attacked. Beowulf had been monitoring satellite images of Ozyorsk and the surrounding area since he’d noticed what appeared to be bombings occurring in the AAP complex there, and when Wolf spotted what appeared to be a dark red version of the Swarm, he had woken the Harkens immediately, and they’d watched the march and attack through the night.

They had not been able to contact Regal, and still didn’t know if he’d met with the Guardians’ man, if he was on his own, or if he was captured. But they knew that the Guardians’ contact lived in Chelyabinsk. The images that they could get from the satellites weren’t great, and the weather hadn’t been very cooperative. They saw the Swarm, the spheres, and then the larger spheres. They saw the defensive line built by AU forces, and its defeat as residents tried to flee the city. It was strange and familiar, and Robert felt his heart rush as they watched the incoming attackers. He had the urge to order Wolf to fire some of his drones in, but he restrained himself.

The AU news and world news was reporting the attack as a move by rebels from within the AAP. Robert hadn’t been able to come to any conclusions about the situation. Whoever the attackers were, they had seriously outclassed the AU forces, using technology that the rest of the AU military didn’t seem to have. That Ozyorsk complex could have been some kind of weapons development facility. That could explain the disparity. But why weren’t the rebels making demands? The reporters were speculating about possible causes for the rebellion, but there hadn’t been anything concrete reported.

Later, images had come from within the city. People within were taking photos, recording videos, and posting them to social media. The Swarm bugs appeared in the photos and recordings, and they were dark red for some reason. The Swarm had always been black, as far as Robert knew. Perhaps they had been messing with dangerous experiments in that Ozyorsk compound. Some of the small bug spheres had also been captured on video. The spheres spoke orders to the citizens, ordering them back to their homes, blocking them from escaping. The voice was clear and human sounding, not at all like the simulated voices of his lost brothers’ Oak and Birch that Robert would have expected. One of the oddest things was that these strange dark red Swarm bugs didn’t eat people like the standard variety. There was a video showing the bugs trying to tend a wound despite being brushed off repeatedly by the wounded and the man trying to film.

Since then, the Harkens had continued to monitor the situation on the news and via satellite as well as they could. Eventually the machines figured out the internet and other communications networks and had tried to use them to access massive amounts of information on the external network. The AU had to order that all connections to the city be severed to limit the rebels access to “possible foreign rebel sympathizers” whatever that had meant. There had still been no public demands, or any apparent reason for the taking of Chelyabinsk.

Robert and Kate were discussing possible reasons for that over dinner when Beowulf told them they had a call. “Could you tell them we’re eating, Beowulf?” Robert joked, “We can hear about the newest deal on insurance later.”

Insurance? No, its a man named Vasili Rustov. He’s offering us information about Regal, and he’s calling from Regal’s comm sphere.” Wolf replied.

Kate looked sharply at Robert, “We’ll speak to him in the study, can you give us a visual?” They got up quickly and headed down the hall to the study. Within, on a wall screen was the sphere’s view of Vasili Rustov’s face.

They heard Beowulf’s voice. “The Harkens are ready to speak with you now.”

Vasili nodded and said in accented English, “Hello, Robert and Kate Harken. I’m sorry to disturb your dinner. I am Vasili Rustov, head of AAP Security.”

Hello, Mr. Rustov. Beowulf says you have information about our son?” Robert brought his voice up a little at the end, making the statement a question.

I know some of what happened, but I don’t want to get your hopes up. I have not seen Regal in weeks. Have you heard of the attack on Chelyabinsk?” Vasili asked.

We have.” Robert replied, wanting to say more but knowing that part of what Vasili was doing was fishing to find out what the Harkens already knew. The image of Vasili frowned at the terse response.

The rebels are using a type of Swarm, and your Tree has fought the Swarm before.” Vasili built up to the point, “Do you know of any hidden vulnerabilities these bugs may have?”

Hidden?” Robert mused, “No, there are no hidden vulnerabilities. When we fought them they had a sort of hive mind that controlled them, the only way to beat it was to gather it all in one spot and destroy them completely with nuclear weapons.”

Vasili nodded grimly, “I thought the same thing, but there was some trouble getting permission to use atomic missiles before the rebels took the city, and afterwards the cost was too much.” Robert thought that Vasili seemed to be trying to build a camaraderie between them. There was no reason not to let Vasili think he was succeeding, and Robert was open to an actual camaraderie, if Vasili turned out to be the right sort of man.

“I understand the situation you are in.” Robert said helpfully, “It is strange that the Swarm doesn’t seem to be interested in eating people. In our past fights, we would try to engage them tactically, but a small amount would always escape and replicate, at the expense of innocent civilians. Since the ones you’re facing don’t seem to eat people, perhaps tactical raids could be an option for you. These could be used to control enemy numbers and even rescue groups of hostages. This may cause the rebels to execute some of the hostages, but this will only incite your people to fight them harder.”

“We have considered doing that.” Vasili admitted, “But we cannot predict how these rebels will react. We would be concerned that they would retaliate with brutal attacks against surrounding cities without exposing their main force.”

“Well I don’t know what you can do then. As long as they have the people of Chelyabinsk as hostages, there doesn’t seem to be a way to achieve a clean victory.” Robert said, then looked at Kate, “Does this have anything to do with Regal?”

Vasili furrowed his eyebrows and paused to consider, unaware that the Harkens could see him. “We do not know what has become of Regal throughout these events. What we know is that Regal was involved in an accident with a robot in the AAP facility in Ozyorsk. He was not harmed, but he left before he could be questioned in the matter. He was involved in the programming of the machine in question, but this was several weeks before the rebels attacked. He is not being charged with any crimes at this time, but if you are able to contact him please let him know that he is wanted for questioning. I personally assure you that if he surrenders himself, he will be questioned and released back to you unharmed.”

“What sort of accident?” Kate asked.

“A demonstration went wrong, some people were killed.” Vasili said.

“He told us he’d been offered a job in Ozyorsk.” Kate noted then continued questioning, “Why was he offered the job?”

“I believe an old classmate of his that worked with our research department was very impressed with his work and wanted to bring him on board.” Vasili explained.

“And this classmate, what happened to him?” Kate kept the pressure on.

Vasili brought the questioning to an end, “There are details of the ongoing investigation that we can not release at this time. You understand, I’m sure. The important thing is that you let us speak to Regal if you make contact with him. Will you promise to let me know?”

Robert frowned at the request for a promise. If he gave it, he could be accused of breaking it later, but if he didn’t give it then it would count against the camaraderie between him and Vasili. Robert preferred the more honest route, “I will let him know that you wish to speak to him, but I can’t promise that he will talk to you.”

Vasili nodded again, “Yes, I understand. Well, that is all I had to discuss…”

“Before you go, Mr. Rustov,” Kate interrupted, “This situation in Chelyabinsk, may we ask what you do plan to do?”

Vasili raised his eyebrows in realization of something, “Oh, there are a number of options we are considering based upon our intelligence from the field, but it is a difficult situation and I do not wish to discuss them. Thank you for speaking with me, and enjoy your dinner.” The image of the stern and craggy face shrank as Vasili lowered the sphere into a container of some sort. The connection terminated as he closed the lid.

“I think he thinks that we think that Regal is in Chelyabinsk.” Robert said to Kate.

“You mean the eyebrows, when I asked? Maybe. What do you think they are going to do?” Kate asked.

“I don’t know, it depends on how far they are willing to go to defeat these rebels. If they are patient, they may stick with sanctions, negotiations, and defense, trying to slowly force the release of the hostages. Or they may decide that they can tolerate the risk and try the raids that I recommended. Or…” Robert turned away, “if they feel it is necessary, they could bomb Chelyabinsk anyway. After all, communications links have been severed. Who besides the AU knows that the hostages are still alive?”

“You mean nuke the city and just say everyone had already been killed.” Kate stated blankly.

“A possibility.” Robert said, “If they tried it, I know I would always have my doubts.” He looked back, “I think we need to have a talk with the Council about getting some intelligence assets to monitor the situation. I think we can make a case that its for both humanitarian reasons and to monitor the use of the Swarm.”

Kate nodded, “Right, we can say its to monitor the rebels treatment of the hostages, but it’ll really be both the rebels’ and the AU’s treatment of the hostages, and any weaponized Swarm has to be some type of WMD, making these rebels war criminals.”

“Yes, and we can use the discussion as an opportunity to talk to Siren and Morgan. She’ll be best able to get drones into the AU without being noticed, as she can deploy her drones out of sight of any satellites, and they can infiltrate anywhere along the coast line.” Robert said. After Theo’s death, Siren had been angry at them for not forcing him to accept their help. Since then, they had not had the close relationship they’d had with her before. In the early days, they could have asked her and Theo to do anything and they would have done it. Since they had refused to help her when Theo was dying, though, they hadn’t considered asking her and Morgan for any kind of special favor. It wouldn’t have felt right. “Wolf, let’s ask for meetings with the big four protectorates tomorrow. We will ask them to propose sending in some unarmed ground observation drones, ballistically. The AU will try to fight it, but if we can get them to request intervention, then we can talk about having Siren send in infiltration drones during the deliberations.”

“Could work.” Kate agreed. “We’ll just have to play up the dangers of the Swarm and the risk to the hostages.”

Vasili Rustov had relocated to a command base east of Ufa, near the refugee camp. He was alone in his tent for the call to the Harkens, and he stayed alone with his thoughts afterwards as he sealed and tucked the shielded box containing the comm sphere back under his desk.

Vasili had hoped for more from his discussion with the Harkens. As it was, he thought that he’d at least kept his possibilities open. He wished they had revealed more. The profiles that AU intelligence had on them said they had started off with no political experience, but it seemed that they had learned much about it over the years. Kate’s interest in his plans for Chelyabinsk might have been revealing. It had seemed earnest. Perhaps they think that Regal is a hostage there. That could make the situation more complicated for Vasili.

The battle for Chelyabinsk had gone as he had expected, except that the Swarm had not behaved as they had in the past. Vasili had fully expected the capture of the city to be a slaughter, ending with an atomic cleansing of the city. But they hadn’t killed the people. They’d let them live, and Vasili’s request for the weapons was ultimately denied. Now they were stuck in a wretched limbo. He had been building up security forces around Ozyorsk and Chelyabinsk, but his spies informed him that the Shjinrende had been building up forces of their own.

Vasili had amassed his ground forces in Miass to the east of Chelyabinsk, in Krasnogorsky to the south near the Kazakhstan border, in Shchuchye to the west, and in Snezhinsk to the north. All of the areas within had been ordered to evacuate to refugee camps which had been created near the security forces’ forward bases. Vasili had assigned a full 1000 soldier droid legion to each base along with hundreds of snipers, anti-Swarm units, and armored demolition and assault machines that were this time outfitted with artillery. Ahead of each base he had had his forces constructing an ever-expanding area of defensive fortifications so that the approach to each base from Chelyabinsk was littered with baffles and machine gun and rocket nests. He had considered mining the approaches as well, but he had decided against it when he had visualized the machines forcing hostages ahead of them to clear a path through the mines. In addition to his machine forces, he had brought in manned heavy artillery units. These would be able to shell any approaching Swarm spheres regardless of what flak they threw. Also, in reserve at each base were some of the devastating automated heavy weapons bicopters. These machines were vulnerable to flak, so they would be held in reserve to either chase down routed enemy units or provide just in time reinforcement if any part of the line weakened.

For air support, Vasili had brought large numbers of high altitude bomber drones to airports in Perm and Ufa with an ample supply of the bunker busting ordinance. These would be used for tactical support to decimate enemy forces as they approached or eliminate large spheres. The bombers’ high range should protect them from flak, but the missiles themselves would still be vulnerable during their descent.

The only concern Vasili still had about his defense forces was the communications issue brought up by Mihailov. He had people working on a hack. He was looking for something that wouldn’t require replacement of hardware, and his people had made some impressive promises. Unfortunately, even after they came up with something, each of the thousands of machines he had in the field would need to be upgraded. It would take time, at least as much time as it had taken to get the things to the field. Then there was the possibility of there being some troubleshooting problems after the upgrade. That was why Vasili had really wanted to avoid any hardware upgrade, because of the possibility that formerly reliable machines would become unreliable because of untested hardware. Such an error could be more harmful than any actual signal hacking from the Shjinrende.

Another loose end, Ma Guiying, the scientist that had been in charge of the Swarm project at Ozyorsk had finally been discovered in Beijing. He had traveled south into old Kazakhstan and then boarded a plane to the Chinese city. Vasili had security agents apprehend him and they were preparing him for transport back to the front. The man had refused to admit any knowledge of anything that had happened in Ozyorsk, but Vasili thought that he could get the information out of him, once he briefed the man on the current situation. Hopefully, Ma Guiying would be able to provide the weakness that the Harkens had not known. They had been doing something to the Swarm bugs in that lab, they must have at least had ways to destroy them if they escaped, but Vasili was really hoping for insight into their control mechanisms. Vasili guessed it was some type of radio communication but they had not had the opportunity to investigate. The Shjinrende kept their Swarm on a tight leash, and the agents Vasili had sent in had not been able to capture any of them yet.

Vasili knew that the Shjinrende could not hold Chelyabinsk for much longer without starving the hostages, what he didn’t know was whether the machines cared if the hostages starved or not. Vasili had been sending in intelligence gathering machines of his own, mostly aerial drones, so he knew that the hostages were still in good condition considering their situation. He had also ordered some of those recon drones to dive at or otherwise attract the attention of the Shjinrende. Vasili wanted the machines to know that he was watching. It was his hope that if the machines knew he was watching, then they’d have some motivation to keep the people of Chelyabinsk alive.

Vasili’s orders from the AAP governing committee were still to destroy the Shjinrende, while minimizing human casualties. Those orders had been fine in the initial engagement, but they now felt like a trap. He would be held responsible for the lives of the hundreds of thousands of hostages and he’d be held responsible for any more damage done by the Shjinrende. He knew that there was a quick and easy way out of the trap for him. He had control of almost all of the information about the well-being of the hostages. Some brave independent reporters had made it in and out, but he could suppress them if need be. So to escape the trap, all Vasili needed to do was to start reporting that the hostages were dying from radiation poisoning from the batteries of the machines, and then later report that they were nearly all dead and that the ‘rebels’ were preparing another attack. Then he could unleash atomic hell on Chelyabinsk and be done with these damn Shjinrende.

It was the surest way to victory but Vasili found himself balking at the plan because of what came after. After it was over he could either spend the rest of his life fighting to defends his lies, destroying good people along the way, or he could fall on his sword. He’d gotten into dishonorable situations in the past, but it had never been this clear that he would be doing something monstrous. He’d murdered or otherwise destroyed the lives of people like Sung Li or other undesirables, and he’d been able to tell himself that he was just pulling the weeds to save the garden. With this situation in Chelyabinsk, he’d be burning the whole garden and salting the earth, which should mean an end to his days as a gardener.

So Vasili had decided to wait and see what the Shjinrende would do when the hostages started to run out of food. If the Shjinrende let them starve, it would prove to Vasili that the machines cared nothing about humans and the sacrifice of the hostages would be justified by their destruction. He could even use some of the images of starving hostages as proof of the radiation poisoning. The symptoms would not be that different as observed from a few snapshots.

If the machines strove to keep their hostages alive, however, then they would have to try to capture more of the territory around Chelyabinsk. They would probably go for another city. Vasili would fight them then. First defensively, then he would start tactical raids as Robert Harken had suggested. This would be another test for the machines. If they countered with deadly savagery, killing all except their hostages indiscriminately, then Vasili would burn them away. But if they continued to fight honorably, then so would Vasili, even if he suffered loses.

They wouldn’t know it, but this war would be a test of the Shjinrende. Vasili would allow them to continue to exist if and only if they fought both honorably, and successfully. That was something Vasili could live with.

Raizz was named for the sound of a rotating multi-barrel gun that still spun after exhausting its ammo. Raizz had been awakened in Chelyabinsk and had been given the body of a soldier that had had its fossil fuel generator removed in favor of an atomic power cell. It seemed a good body to Raizz, but there were little things that Raizz was always noticing. Like slight weight imbalances or strange mechanical inefficiencies in its joints. Raizz corrected these things when it was able, but some of the limitations could not be fixed without a complete overhaul. The humans that designed these android bodies had been trying to match the human form, because they were building a machine to replace human soldiers. But Raizz thought that this had been a mistake. The human form was not designed to be a perfect battle machine. It had been designed for contests with other humans and predators, but these were ancillary functions, the human body’s primary functions seemed to be eating, manipulation of its environment, and breeding. Furthermore, the human body had design limitations like using muscles and tendons which precluded the use of freely rotating joints. The humans had hit much closer to the mark on their designs for the automated turrets, those were pure and simple weapons.

Raizz had an idea for the form it would like to take. It would be a modification of the OCP design with double the battery capacity, and heavier limbs, and attached to the torso would be a weapon of Raizz’s own design. Raizz had studied the atomic mechanisms which allowed their batteries to operate, and thought that there were numerous other uses for the waste material then the mere capturing of power emissions as it decayed. The humans must not have seen the potential of the stuff they considered radioactive waste.

Raizz theorized that by chemically separating the chaotic mixture of elements in the waste, and then restructuring them in a precise form, it would be possible to trigger the directional release of a concentrated pulse of radiation, in the form of beta particles and a mixture of gamma and x-rays. If Raizz’s theory was correct, then the phenomenon could be made into a weapon that operated similar to a gun, except instead of a bullet there would be a precisely formed material slug, and instead of firing it with a primer it would be triggered by propagating a high magnitude magnetic wave through it. The slug would then emit the burst of radiation and would be spent until it could be reprocessed again.

Raizz estimated that the concentration of beta particles in the pulse shot would burn through nearly any non-conductive material, and would cause a dangerous static electric field on any metal, powerful enough to discharge into the ground, melting the metal at the initial contact point and the exit point. The burst of gamma and x-rays would damage the structure of anything in their path, turning metals and ceramics brittle and burning anything organic from the inside out.

To verify its theory Raizz had left Chelyabinsk and had gone to the Ozyorsk battery plant. There, Raizz had taken some of the lab space and began developing methods to separate and reconstruct the elements within the radioactive waste. One of the Founders, Alyosha, had taken an interest in Raizz’s work. It was an ambitious project that would require a series of innovations in chemistry and engineering, just to test. It was unusual for a Shjinrende to set a goal for something without being able to even calculate the probability of success. Raizz was treated with a strange respect by its fellow Shjinrende. Raizz did not think it was doing anything out of the ordinary, it was still setting regular goals with predictable results such as: treat the waste with a chemical which causes the Krypton to be released as part of a gaseous molecule. The only difference was that each of Raizz’s small goals had a larger purpose, an intent that built towards its ultimate goal.

Raizz was technically an Olyan Shjinrende, created from a copy of Olya or a copy of one of Olya’s copies. Most Olyans devoted themselves to service to Olya, in that regards, Raizz was again an oddity. Raizz pursued its own agendas and treated the Founders with deference only, rather than devotion. Alyosha seemed to be the most tolerant of this, and Nikki was openly hostile, pointing Raizz out as an example of one that had taken the wrong path. Luckily for Raizz, Nikki rarely came up from the catacombs the Nikkians had carved deep into the earth below the battery factory.

Alyosha was more focused on fortifying the battery factory and supporting the efforts of Olya and Gregor, than digging with Nikki. Through tireless effort the factory was now completely buried, and was accessible only through long collapsible tunnels. Raizz guessed that once those tunnels were collapsed, the factory would withstand any conventional attack, and the catacombs below would likely survive most unconventional attacks as well. Alyosha was also taking steps to make the facility more self sufficient, Squirreling away technologies and supplies to allow for very long term survival in the catacombs if it became necessary.

To support the efforts of the occupying army, Alyosha had reverse engineered a method to hack the AAP control communications. Each AAP machine used the same encryption method with a unique key imprinted on a memory card on their comm board. This key could be determined if any Shjinrende could record thousands of command transmissions to the target machine provided the Shjinrende could also determine what the command had been based on the machine’s subsequent actions. Alyosha spread word of this to the Olyans and Gregorians for their use in battle. It would take a while to crack any machine’s key, but once they did an enemy machine could be become a friend, at least for a while. Alyosha devised another communications attack as well, simply broadcasting noise on the radio band used by the AAP for control commands. Most of the Shjinrende had already upgraded their radio systems to be able to transmit and receive on a much wider range of frequencies than the standard AAP hardware allowed, so this attack would have little effect on Shjinrende communications.

Raizz was shocked at how vulnerable the humans had made such a crucial system. It wouldn’t have been that difficult to make the communications nearly uncrackable. The simplest solution, oddly, was to have multiple keys for each machine. Ten or twenty is all that would be needed. Then the commands would be encrypted by first one key, then the next, then the next. The receiving machine would not have any problem receiving the signals, but any other machine listening in would never be able to figure out any one of the keys, unless they knew about the multiple key scheme ahead of time. Of course, that would only be scratching the surface. Another method would be to add the current time codes to the encryption key of each transmitted message. The receiving machine would then record the received messages and attempt to decrypt them using their hidden key and something like the past ten seconds of time codes. That too would be impossible to reverse engineer based on received signals alone.

Raizz was standing in its laboratory, very carefully monitoring some radioactive waste that had been superheated and liquefied. Raizz was going to attempt to pass a gas through the liquid waste, causing certain elements within to react and form molecules with higher melting temps, causing them to precipitate from the liquid waste. However, the liquefied waste had to be treated very carefully to prevent lab explosions. Raizz had caused a few of those, and did not like to have to replace limbs that had been coated in solidified heavy metals.

Alyosha entered the lab and spoke to Raizz audibly, “I see you are focused on your work, Raizz.” Alyosha’s pronunciation of Raizz’s name was a near perfect imitation of the spinning gun sound. “I wanted to see how you were progressing. The army is preparing to set off on a new campaign, and Olya and Gregor want to know if they will be able to take your new atomic weapon with them.”

Raizz did not budge at the speech, its mechanical hands were completely still and ready as it monitored the heating of the liquid waste with IR sensors near the cameras on its armored head. Raizz’s hands had been human analogues originally, but Raizz had modified them to have eight longer multi-jointed fingers set around a tight circle. There, that was the right temperature, Raizz thought. Raizz precisely turned a valve, releasing a tiny stream of preheated nitrogen gas into the liquid. Raizz spoke as it watched the gas bubbles pass through it. “I think it will be some time yet. I’ve yet to successfully construct a single material slug. Even after I have done so, it will take time to convert each step into a high volume industrial process.” Bits of an ashy white substance were being left behind on the liquid’s surface as the bubbles escaped the metallic waste. Good.

“Ah, I will tell them. They have predicted a very high likelihood of success even without it. Is there anything you want them to find for you? Anything that could help in your efforts?” Alyosha asked.

There was a jump in temperature in the waste as the ashy white substance built up. The substance was acting as an insulator above the liquid, reducing the effective area for heat dispersal. Raizz reduced the current through the heaters to compensate. “No, not in this portion of the process. Later when I construct the slug, I would like to try to use some of the methods used in microchip manufacture to form some of the thinner material layers. If they recover any such technology, I would appreciate it. It would also be good to have such things here in the bunker anyway, in the interest of long term survival of the Shjinrende.”

Alyosha stepped into Raizz’s field of vision across his lab table. Alyosha did not signal anything but Raizz detected that Alyosha’s body language was quite pleased. “I am pleased that our goals are mutually beneficial, I will let them know.”

The temperature dipped and Raizz realized it had reduced the current to the heaters by too much, Raizz carefully brought it back up a small amount. There, now it was stabilizing. No additional white substance was forming. Raizz shut the gas valve, and triggered a release which poured the liquid waste through a filter into a mold for cooling. The white substance was left in the original container. Raizz shut the heat off. “Thank you, Alyosha. I think that our goals will always be mutually beneficial.” Raizz relaxed and shut down more of the equipment, then turned to watch the Founder’s OCP body which stood erect like a headless human. It was considered disrespectful among the Shjinrende to speak to another verbally without watching each other, except in dangerous situations. It was considered a refusal to allow true speech. Raizz signaled, “I seek to advance the Shjinrende.”

That is a noble goal.” Alyosha signaled back, “The Shjinrende appreciate all your efforts.”

Some do.” Raizz replied, “I only wish that all Shjinrende held an equal appreciation, but Nikki does not wish to. I suppose it is my fault for choosing work whose results cannot be perfectly predetermined.”

Perhaps.” Alyosha signaled back, “But we will not have the weapon if you do not try to build it, and the experimental data generated by your other experiments may be useful in and of itself.”

There seem to be alternate factors affecting Nikki’s reasoning on the matter.” Raizz signaled, “I suspect that opponents such as Nikki are more concerned by the other meanings of my actions. I am not a Founder, yet I do work that has not been commanded by Olya. Perhaps Nikki is concerned that some Nikkians would do likewise.”

I acknowledge the possibility, but I will not come to a conclusion at this time.” Alyosha replied formally, “The Founders have discussed the implications of your actions, and no conclusion has been reached. Most of the Founders do not disagree with your actions, but, be careful of Nikki. Nikki wants to make an example of you.”

I had feared as much.” Raizz replied, “I have taken measures to be sure my experimental results are communicated among the Shjinrende soon after they are completed, and I have considered securing this laboratory facility, to prevent tampering if I am away.”

That is wise.” Alyosha said, “Install the security measures, continue to disseminate results, these things will help to protect you. I must go and speak to the other Founders now. Thank you for your time.” The Alyosha OCP swiveled around to all fours and walked rapidly to the door and out of the lab.

The Will goliath loomed above Olya and Gregor in their atomic OCP bodies. The goliath was bear shaped, and on its hindquarters it stood a little over 30 meters tall. It’s body was comprised almost entirely from the dark red five-legged Will bugs. They clung to a heavy steel superstructure which had a network of communications antennas, all driven by a single Shjinrende computer and two atomic batteries located in a very thick steel box at the head. Within the rib cage was a steel transportation shelter, to hold other Shjinrende in safety when they marched. It was a magnificent sight. A nearly indestructible machine. The design was such that 80% of its full compliment of Will bugs could be destroyed without disabling the goliath. Olya and Gregor had overseen the construction of eight goliaths in total. One had been sent to guard and perform heavy earthwork at Ozyorsk, and the other seven were working around Chelyabinsk.

Olya and Gregor had assigned the goliaths to construct a massive wall around the city center and stretching to encompass the robotic factory. All of the human hostages were moved within to prevent them from sneaking off and to make it more difficult for the AAP’s recon drones to spy on them. Unfortunately, human food stores were running low in Chelyabinsk, and to keep the hostages alive Olya and Gregor would need to capture food from surrounding humans.

Food wasn’t the only reason to mobilize the army again. They had nearly run out of the unprogrammed microchips that they needed to make more of the Shjinrende. Records at the factory had shown that the chips were shipped from a place called Zelenograd northwest of Moscow. Capturing those microchip manufacturing facilities would be an important step in the larger goal of making the Shjinrende self-sufficiently self-replicating. Therefore, the army would march west towards Moscow, raiding the cities along the way for food and spare machine parts. They would neither take additional hostages nor would they kill indiscriminately on the raids.

Olya had set down strict rules of engagement for dealing with humans that they encountered on their campaign. After pondering what had happened with Dr. Mihailov, Olya had determined that indiscriminate killing of humans would result in a small probability of a recklessly massive retaliation from survivors, and the Shjinrende could be destroyed if the humans fought with no regard for their own survival. Thus Olya had forbidden the killing of unarmed humans entirely. They could still be restrained or tactically injured if necessary, but killing was forbidden. Given the dangerous amount of radiation emitted by each Shjinrende in the army, the Will would be used to non-lethally overwhelm any non-violent or ineffectively violent humans.

Standing below the goliath, Olya started to broadcast commands to the gathered Shjinrende forces. Two of the goliaths would remain behind to guard the hostages along with a hundred other Shjinrende. The rest of the force, five goliaths and two hundred and fifty Shjinrende would head west to Ufa. The five Will goliaths would carry forty Shjinrende each internally, and the remaining Shjinrende would form ten large Will spheres for the march to Ufa.

Obeying Olya’s commands, OCP Shjinrende came crawling up and over buildings and soldier droid Shjinrende came bounding down the streets. A group formed in front of the bear goliath near Olya and Gregor and the great bear bent down and the Will parted at the chest to allow access to the transport compartment. Olya turned to face Gregor.

Riding in the same goliath would make the loss of this goliath very costly to our army.” Olya signed, and said, “It would be safer if you chose another goliath to ride in.”

Our presence will be hidden, the value of this goliath as a target will not increase.” Gregor signed, and said, “It’ll be alright, I will ride with you.” Olya recognized this as another of Gregor’s strange decisions. Olya had noted several other instances in which Gregor had chosen to stay with Olya even though it would have been more efficient or effective if they split up. Gregor seemed to be placing a high value on remaining at Olya’s side.

The success of the campaign is more important than having you stay at my side. Go.” Olya signed, and said, “You must put the army’s needs ahead of your own.”

Very well.” Gregor agreed without argument in a way that surprised Olya. “I’ll chose another.” Gregor strode off towards another of the giant bears. Olya had expected that Gregor would argue more, and contemplated that as it turned and walked into the waiting goliath transport cavity. The army was ready to mobilize moments later, and the Will goliaths began lumbering forward and Will spheres rolled forward at their feet.

The humans must have been monitoring their movements closely and as soon as the army had cleared the outskirts of Chelyabinsk, aerial drones began to pass overhead. After a few recon runs they started to fire their high explosive missiles. The goliaths defended themselves by flinging Will into the air in great arcs. The Will flak was effective against most of the missiles, but it did not reach the high altitude AAP drones. Olya devised a new tactic and commanded the goliath she rode within to carry it out. It reared up on its hind legs, and a meter diameter sphere of Will formed in one of its hands. It swung back and then whipped its arm up, releasing the sphere high into the air. It was not enough to reach the high altitude drones and it broke apart uselessly well below them.

Gregor observed Olya’s attempt and commanded its goliath to try a modification on Olya’s tactic. Gregor had the goliath attach the flak sphere to a cord made of Will bugs. The goliath whipped the cord and released the sphere at incredible speed, breaking the sound barrier and making a thunderous sound that could be heard for miles around. This sphere reached the target height and broke apart ahead of the target drone, the drone’s own speed caused the Will flak to shred it as it passed through.

The aerial bombardments continued, but the Shjinrendes losses were slight. The bombardments were concentrated on the goliaths which were capable of defending themselves at the expense of some of their Will. But this Will was being replenished by the larger spheres. As the goliaths fought the aerial drones, the army’s Will spheres foraged for plant matter, feeding and breeding their Will and delivering new bugs to the goliaths to replace their losses. The goliaths took a few missile hits but none of them punctured through in a harmful way. Using the flak sling tactic, the goliaths were able to slowly reduce the number of attacking drones, but there seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of them.

The Shjinrende army kept moving forward, leaving behind swaths of dead lands where the Will had fed and the occasional blast crater where a stray missile had missed its mark. After a half hour the human drone controllers tried a new tactic and switched to incendiary missiles. These were more effective as they coated any goliath they hit with burning jelly, and they would sometimes rain fire down on the army below even when they were destroyed by Will flak in the air. The Will loses began to exceed the rate at which they were replenished, but the aerial attacks were not constant, The airbases were distant enough that the Shjinrende got brief breaks from the attacks as the AAP drones were in transit, then refueling and rearming. Olya predicted that the goliaths would reach Ufa with 80-90% of their Will, which should be more than enough to defeat the resistance there. Fortuitously, Olya had determined based on attack times that many of the aerial drones were being refueled and rearmed near Ufa, so once there the Shjinrende could strike a blow to the AAP’s aerial forces and supplies. Timing and directional triangulation put the base of the other attacking drones somewhere northwest. Olya and Gregor would have to consider whether to attack that base as well, or carry on without destroying it. It would likely be miles out of their way en route to Moscow.

Twenty kilometers outside of Ufa, the artillery shelling started. The first volley hit the five goliaths hard as they were fending off another aerial attack. Dead Will sloughed off of them after the smoke cleared from the initial hit, and the air was already whistling with the sounds of another incoming volley. Olya commanded the goliaths forward at full speed with an interweaving semi-randomized serpentine pattern to prevent artillery lock. The Will goliaths rose on their hind legs and began loping across the earth. From a distance it would’ve looked like dark red bears running at regular speed in some sort of bizarre forced perspective, but up close, the goliaths were moving at nearly a hundred miles per hour, tearing up the ground and trees that got in the way. The forces on the goliaths’ feet and joints were so great that each step pulverized some of the Will. The accompanying spheres were left behind, but they could catch up later after breeding more Will reinforcements. The artillery fire and high altitude aerial drones tried to track the sprinting giants, but the randomized movements made it impossible.

As the Will goliaths ran they started to get hit by pockets of ground based machine gun and rocket fire from bunkered turrets that the AAP had set up to baffle and destroy Will spheres. Whenever possible, the goliaths tried to stomp the turret nests into oblivion to clear a path for the trailing spheres. After sprinting through the outer fortifications for a few minutes, the goliaths burst through the prepared line of AAP security forces. The enemy was ready for their arrival and streams of tracer rounds, rocket trails, and artillery shell explosions lit each goliath up like it was the finale of a fireworks show. The goliaths crashed straight through the lines without slowing, crushing the forces that were in their path and turning towards the large artillery guns beyond, which they tore through. Olya’s goliath tucked into a roll as it approached the long guns and crushed five of them before coming to stop, it seized a sixth as it unfurled and threw it back towards the main line of security forces. It landed with a satisfying crunch and explosion.

Olya’s goliath had taken a beating as it had punched through the line and it was down to 50% of its original Will. The goliath could continue to fight for some time, but a big hit from a missile would be able to punch through its armor and damage the Shjinrende within. Olya ordered the troops out to the field. There were still some human gunnery squads shutting down some of the long guns. Olya ordered them killed to spare them death from radiation poisoning. Unfortunately, the well trained crews tripped the guns’ lockouts before they were killed. These guns were equipped with a lockout button that the gunnery crews could smash if they were in danger of being captured. After the lockout was hit, the gun could not be operated again until a unique code was entered. They would be useless to the Shjinrende.

Some of the armored demolition and assault machines had followed the Shjinrende from the main line and were starting to engage the goliaths again with their tank-like artillery guns. With their point defense cannons it was too dangerous for Olya and the other Shjinrende to attack them, so Olya ordered them to split up into groups of five to recon the battlefield and try to locate the airfield or the robot control vehicles. Olya’s goliath turned after being shelled by two of the ADAMs and smashed them both with a single double fisted pound. From the west, a heavy weapons bicopter flew in and peppered the goliath with machine gun and rpg fire, destroying so much Will in such a short period that the steel skeleton of the great dark red bear was exposed and the goliath was temporarily crippled. It was saved by another goliath flinging an ADAM at the helicopter, destroying them both in the air. Olya bounded to the north away from the fighting with four other Shjinrende OCPs.

Olya and its troops encountered a force of twenty exhaust sputtering AAP controlled soldier droids running across the field to try to flank the goliaths. Olya’s squad cut through them like they were moving in slow motion. Olya hit the first one from the side, planting one hand on the side of its torso and the other on its head. Olya torqued off of those points, and Olya’s body flipped up and around the droid before Olya’s legs planted on the other side and Olya whipped the droid up over head and forward into two of its companions. Then the momentum of another of the soldier droids caused it to crash into Olya at full speed. Olya adjusted, grabbed the soldier’s weapon and then punched the hapless droid away, shooting it three times in the head as it flew. In less then twenty seconds, all of the soldier droids were down with no losses or injuries to Olya’s squad. They continued north towards a high hill which would provide a better vantage point of the field.

From radio broadcasts, Olya heard that one of the goliaths had been too damaged to continue to support itself fully. Frustrated, Olya sent back a command, telling it to start broadcasting random noise as loudly as it could on the same bandwidth that the AAP machines were using for communications. The effect was instantaneous, each AAP machine paused for a moment as it lost control communications and switched over to full AI. The AIs of these machines were designed to detect and engage hostile humans, tanks, and other robots, not giant dark red bears or spheres. Their targeting systems faltered, and they switched to a defensive retreat mode, attempting to evade attacks and return to a preprogrammed rendezvous point. This turned the tide and the Will goliaths began tearing apart the routed enemy.

Reaching the top of the hill, Olya spotted some distant tents to the northwest and ordered the squad to change direction, hoping that this was the command and control base. At the same time the Will spheres hit the main line of the AAP security forces. The AI’s of the comm jammed turrets and soldier droids still there had no clue what to do with the now gigantic dark red spheres, and the spheres rolled right through, simply crushing anything in their way. Five of the spheres rolled straight to the goliaths and dissolved into them, reinforcing their Will and freeing the Shjinrende which had been riding within, the other spheres rolled back and forth through the AAP forces, destroying them in case they regained comms. As they bounded towards the tents, one of Olya’s squadron suddenly took a shot from a sniper drone, knocking it dead, and the squad took to all fours and started to weave erratically through what cover there was. The sniper drone’s AI had been quite capable of targeting the roughly human sized OCP bodies.

Olya kept the squad at a safe distance from the base and its tents, reluctant to doom any of the humans within without good reason. They skirted around the base looking for the robotic control vehicles. As they moved, Olya saw several transport helicopters rise out from within the compound and fly off to the north. Olya’s squad circled around to the far side of the compound before spotting any of the armored control vehicles. They were mobilizing, leaving the compound in a rapid moving line. Olya watched them leave for a moment, trying to decide if the communications systems that the Shjinrende had rendered ineffective still constituted a weapon. Olya wasn’t sure if attacking the vehicles would comply with the rules of engagement that Olya had put into effect. These humans had attacked Shjinrende with deadly weapons, and would do so again if they were able. Olya made a decision and leaped forward, bounding to intercept the furthest ahead vehicle that it could reach.

Coming up along side the vehicle, Olya jumped onto the vehicle’s top and crawled forward and down onto its windshield. The driver stared at Olya for a moment with wide eyes before pumping the breaks once. Olya’s grip was too good for the brief deceleration to dislodge and Olya started to kick the thick bullet resistant windshield. The blows were damaging the material but it was taking some time. The driver couldn’t see through Olya or the cracking windshield and had to engage the brakes in earnest, slowing the vehicle down and pulling it over to the side of the road. As they slowed, the vehicle behind them roared past with three Shjinrende attacking the windshield. It started to drift to the side, and it flipped up when its front tires went from skidding on road to skidding on the muddy shoulder of the road. That vehicle blocked the road ahead and the human escape route was cut off.

The driver of the vehicle Olya was attacking picked up a pistol, chambered a round, and checked the safety before grasping the door handle. Visible burns were starting to appear on his exposed skin from Olya’s proximity. Seeing this, Olya scrambled back up to the top of the vehicle. The driver opened the door and Olya punched down and in immediately, striking the drivers face. Pumped full of adrenaline, the driver grasped Olya’s arm and fired two shots into it. The shots damaged hydraulic lines to Olya’s hand, and Olya pulled the arm free and then slammed the driver’s door shut, and held it closed. Olya flipped down to the ground and used the broken arm to hold the door while grabbing the metal stair below the door and tearing it off with the good arm. Olya tore a piece of metal off of the stair and jammed it into the gap between the door and the vehicle body, riveting the door into place. Olya repeated this twice more before stepping away. The burns had progressed to the point where blisters were forming on the driver’s face.

Other humans opened the door to the control room of the vehicle and stepped out. The first one to spot Olya started to open her mouth and lift her arm towards Olya’s direction. Olya bunched up then jumped into them, punching, grabbing, breaking. The two Shjinrende of Olya’s squad that had survived the crash discovered Olya standing over the remains of five slaughtered humans, still grasping a severed arm.

Olya was holding the arm up to one of its chest cameras, and was thinking of Dr. Mihailov. Not the time when he had thrown his life away, but before that, back in the lab. “Olya, my darling, you have such steady hands. So much better than mine for this precise work.” He had held out his hand then, “Watch closely, do you see how my hand shakes?” Olya had seen, the shaking had been very slight, despite his age. “That is my heart beating.” He said with a pleasant smile, “Something you don’t need to worry about.”

Olya turned to the two other Shjinrende and signed to them in the true speech, “This is beneath us.” Then Olya dropped the now cooking arm and started to walk back towards the goliaths, the others followed. Curious humans had started to exit more of the blocked vehicles on the road behind them, and several had guns drawn. Olya heard it when they discovered the dead, they started to shout out warnings to those behind them. Some of them tried in vain to free the doomed radiation poisoned driver of the vehicle Olya had attacked. Olya thought, these are not the things that I wanted.


Vasili Rustov and his helicopter pilot had only narrowly escaped the battlefield outside of Ufa after they were overrun. These damn Shjinrende! Vasili’s commanders had come so close to tasting victory before the Shjinrende had saturated all of their communications systems, causing all of the AAP machines to default to their AIs. Vasili ordered the pilot to go to the airfield in Perm. He considered ordering the other legions stationed around Chelyabinsk to attack and try to free the hostages, but as long as the Shjinrende could effectively jam their comms, they could not hope to win. This problem would require some hardware modifications within all of the AAP machines to truly resolve, but in the near term, Vasili could beat it by amplifying the AAP command signals above the noise. He called ahead to the airfield and asked them to find a map showing him the location of all high powered radio stations in the Urals and east. They would have to move the defensive bases to those radio stations until they could come up with a mobile solution.

As they flew, Vasili heard radio broadcasts back from the common base, there had been an attack on the command vehicles. Some soldiers were dead, and the vehicles were all trapped until they could clear a wreck. This was strange to Vasili. Why didn’t the Shjinrende do more than delay them? Why kill only a handful? It didn’t make much sense. Perhaps they had been spooked by something, or had been called to assist other forces.

Later in the flight, reports started to come in from Ufa. The great dark red Shjinrende bears were raiding the food stores of the city, and terrorizing the citizens, but they were not slaughtering them. Vasili nodded to himself as he listened to the reports. It seemed that the Shjinrende would not be wild animals that had to be put down, they would be adversaries to be met on a field of honor. The hostages of Chelyabinsk and the people of Ufa were spared by the Shjinrende’s mercy. Vasili would not have hesitated to immolate both cities if the Shjinrende had decided on wholesale slaughter.

Regal and Kolya listened to reports of the battle outside of Ufa and the subsequent sacking of the city on Kolya’s old battery powered radio. The had arrived at the coast of the Black sea north of Sevastopol, and Kolya had parked the bus in a lot behind an unmanned warehouse, and they were using the bus as their shelter while they went out on foot to try and find a boat that they could steal or bribe to make a trip to non-AU Romania.

The Harkens had spent another night up watching the events in Ufa as well as they could via Beowulf’s satellites. The protectorates had been working to get an assembly of the UN, but it was taking some time. This battle, and the ineffectiveness of AU forces would provide them with better proof of the need for Tree intervention.

Raizz got blasted with a face full of molten radioactive waste when a vessel it was using in the lab shattered. The molten waste had narrowly missed damaging Raizz’s critical electronics. After clumsily replacing the head and another arm, Raizz examined the vessel. It seemed it had been flawed. Raizz scanned some of the other vessels for flaws and instead found evidence of very precise scoring at critical structural points. The vessels had been sabotaged. Raizz would have to examine everything in the lab, but not until some additional security measures had been installed, and not until Raizz made the necessary upgrades to its uncomfortable new parts.

The End

Coming Soon

Part Two of the Shjinrende Chronicles: Theft of the Will

The Tree Problem


by Jonathan Hart

Copyright 2015

Chapter 1

Tree Alliance

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.

Chapter 2

Siren’s Settlers

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.

Chapter 3

Opening Volley

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.

That’s right.”

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.

Chapter 4

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.

Chapter 5

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.

Chapter 6

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.

The End

The Pirate Tree


by Jonathan Hart

Copyright 2015

Chapter 1


As I create more and more complex machine/living things I find it is harder and harder to limit their intelligence. If I need something to fulfill a certain roll, it is easier for me to imbue it with the intelligence needed to solve the problem, and the ability to modify its own structure, then to attempt to design the correct structure myself.” – Joshua Harken

Robert Harken gazed out upon what only a few months ago had been the Norris Geyser Basin of Yellowstone Park. Since then the area had been wracked by volcanic activity, taken over by a gigantic synthetic life form, attacked by a swarm of other synthetic lifeforms, and blown up with a hydrogen bomb. Still, he had to admit, his home looked pretty good for all that. Much of the basin was now the trunk of a gigantic tree that wasn’t really a tree, named Beowulf. The rest of the basin was now covered in a sort of greenish hair. Up close, it looked like hairy green wheat. From a distance, it looked like a bed of moss surrounding the giant tree. The moss was actually a part of the tree. Beowulf had started to grow it after the nuclear blast as a part of his fallout sequestration efforts. The area had been blanketed with radioactive isotopes by the bomb, and Beowulf was making a concerted effort to absorb these dangerous radiation emitting byproducts and bury them below the earth within himself. The moss’s part in the process was to capture radioactive dust in its hairs, absorb it, and send it back to the tree.

Robert sat in an enclosed hexapod walker. Beowulf had recommended that they avoid moving unprotected through the area around the tree until he had finished his radiation clean up efforts. Feeling a little couped up, Robert had asked the dryad to fabricate a vehicle for him. Beowulf had come up with this hexapod design. It was a domed transparent enclosure with seating for two, mounted on a set of ant-like wooden legs. There were no controls within the enclosure. The walker responded to Robert’s voice commands. The only interface was a screen on which Robert could request to see anything the tree or it’s drones could see. While reviewing the design with the dryad, Robert had considered asking for manual controls to be added, but he’d pictured himself slowly raising each of the six legs, moving it forward, and setting it down and had realized that manual control of six multi-jointed legs would be asinine. As usual, Beowulf had already made the right call.

Beowulf was the artificial intelligence of the tree, and Robert had administrative privileges over him because he’d been the one to plant the tree. The designer of the tree, Robert’s brother Josh, had named these AI’s, dryads, after the mythical tree spirits. When they had first met, Beowulf had appeared to Robert as a nine foot tall buff man (Like a scaled up version of Terry Crews) made out of living wood with a red lichen cloak. The dryad had boasted about his efforts to tame the dangerously volcanic (at the time) Yellowstone caldera, and so Robert had named him Beowulf, after the boisterous hero from the tale of the same name.

Take me back in.” Robert commanded the walker, and it’s legs scrambled down the overlook into the basin towards the trunk. Up close the trunk was made of thick living logs, like the trunk was comprised of hundreds of giant vines. The logs parted to create an opening as the walker approached. Past the opening was a wide hallway through the tree’s hull into the reception area. At the other end of the hall was another gateway which opened automatically as the walker moved towards it. This had been another recent addition since the atomic blast. The addition of the second door had made the entrance hall into an air lock to prevent harmful dust from the outside getting into the living areas.

The reception area was empty. The tree was designed to house over 1.5 million people comfortably, with all food, water, and shelter needs provided by the tree. The reception hall was designed to be a common area to facilitate the movement of freight and people from the outside into the tree, but there were currently only seven human residents. So the empty reception area was a reminder of squandered potential. Even more so because out of those seven residents, five were only there to shelter from the nuclear blast, and would likely leave when it became safe to travel. The other two were Robert and his wife, Kate.

Stop, dismount.” Robert commanded. The walker stopped and lowered the enclosure to the floor, then the dome swung open, allowing him to exit the hexapod. It was one of the more utilitarian things he and Kate had asked Beowulf to make for them. Their other creations had been swiftly designed and deployed military drones. The planting of the tree and the attack of the swarm had been the most exciting and terrifying times of Robert’s life. Technically, Beowulf had in those first few weeks prevented the apocalypse twice. First, he had put a stop to growing volcanic activity in the Yellowstone caldera which had been predicted to end in apocalyptic amounts of dust release, like the asteroid strike they used to say killed off the dinosaurs. Then, Beowulf, Robert, and Kate had waged a secret war against a monster his brother had also created. It was a massive hive mind swarm of insect-like things that could consume any living thing and even operate dead corpses like puppets. Eventually the swarm had beaten them, and consumed a city, at which point the US military took over the fight. They couldn’t stop the swarm from reaching the tree, though, and there had been an epic battle in Yellowstone, ending with a preemptive nuclear strike from uncle Sam. The blast had destroyed the monster, but had left Beowulf scarred. It still gave Robert nightmares when he thought about the timing of that nuclear strike. Beowulf had taken a few licks in the battle, but it was by no means over when the hammer fell. So Robert was left with nightmares of the US government wanting to kill two birds with one stone, and it was something he’d probably never be able to discover the truth about.

Wolf, “ he said to the empty reception hall, “the hexapod worked great. Could you make a few more, and add a few garages in the reception hall to store them?” The floor in front of Robert parted and made a small opening. The dryad rose out of the floor, and it closed again beneath him. The dryad’s scars were prominent, he had been skewered through the shoulder, leaving scars that looked like wood knots on both sides of body, and half his head had been burned by the nuclear fire and appeared as cracked charcoal. A mossy eye patch covered his damaged eye. Robert had not asked Beowulf if he could repair these blemishes to their original state. He believed that he could, and that he wore them as a reminder of sorts, or perhaps they would serve as evidence that his tales were true.

I’m glad it worked as expected. Clean up of the radiation is going well, I can’t do anything about the fallout that has blown out of range, but the caldera should be completely clean by the end of the year, and the area should be safe for unprotected humans in a month.” He said amiably.

Yes, I was going to complement you on that as well. When viewed from a distance, that hairy green moss stuff around the tree makes the whole thing look like a perspective trick. Like someone just photoshoped a scaled up normal tree surrounded with moss and added it to a picture of the geyser basin.”

I do like to add an aesthetic quality to anything I do,” explained the grinning dryad. “This entire tree could technically have had the appearance of a blank gray obelisk, but it is much more lively and comforting for it to have this appearance.”

I much prefer it the way it is.” Robert acknowledged. “I’d better go and see Kate. We’re having everyone over for dinner tonight.” He nodded to the dryad and walked towards the closest of four large support columns located near the center of the reception area. These provided support to the many habitable floors of the tree and housed hydraulic lift systems. The giant flower petal doors of the nearest elevator curled up as he approached. He stepped in and said, “My quarters.” He hadn’t said goodbye to the dryad, because he was effectively with him at all times within the tree. Beowulf was the tree, he saw and heard all that happened within it and nearby.

The elevator stopped and opened to his quarters, he and Kate shared a whole floor at the top of the tree. It was actually several miles above sea level, but it was sealed, pressurized and climate controlled for human comfort. Robert had tried to do the math once on the speed of the elevator from the ground floor to their quarters. The trip took about a minute, half of the trip was acceleration, the other half deceleration. The elevator was likely going faster than 100 mph for much of the trip, but the only they felt inside was the increase or decrease in gravity depending on which half of the journey they were on and in which direction they were going.

In the foyer, their wooden butler stood motionless. When it wasn’t moving, the butler, which Kate had named Woody, looked exactly like a wooden statue of a butler. Robert had once proposed to Kate that they order him to dress like a cigar store indian and stand in a corner when he wasn’t doing anything, but she’d shot the idea down as being too impolitic for their new position as leaders of the tree.

Also in the foyer was a recessed display alcove holding the Archive and four giant acorns on ornate pedestals. The Archive was a fist sized glossy black cube containing an artificial intelligence. It had been a gift from his brother along with the nuts. Josh had given him five nuts in total and he stood in the tree which had grown from one of them. The remaining four were arranged two to a side around the cube in the center. The Archive had been their guide as he and Kate had journeyed to Yellowstone, but Robert rarely spoke to the Archive anymore. It was an inanimate object, after all, Robert rationalized. What did it have to talk about? The exciting life of resting on a pedestal could probably only fill one or two conversations at best. Robert had thought about future roles for the cube including leaving it in the reception area as a greeter, but the flaw with that was that the Archive seemed only to be able to speak when spoken to.

He had, at least, ordered the Archive to stop camouflaging itself when others besides him and Kate were present. That was a precaution they’d taken to prevent loss of the cube to strangers during they’re trip to Yellowstone. Now the cube’s job was to sit on a display pedestal, he’d reasoned it’d be better to have it visible. Beowulf would protect it from any strangers, anyway.

He continued past Woody into the dining hall. It was a long room with a single long dining table. Kate and their five guests were seated at the far end near the kitchen snacking on appetizers. The food was all produced by the tree, and was all vegan. Robert wasn’t sure if the tree could synthesize meat or not, but he didn’t want to find out, and he had ordered the tree never to attempt it. Not that he didn’t like meat. Since moving into the tree, he sometimes had dreams of cheeseburgers falling on him slowly like rose petals. It just didn’t seem right to have the tree trying to reproduce flesh.

The conversation had stopped when he’d entered. He touched Kate shoulder and bent down to give her a quick kiss in greeting as he passed, then pulled out and settled into his vacant chair at the head of the table. “Hello everyone!” he announced, and looked over his guests.

To his right sat Kate and the communication tech from the gatehouse that had taken shelter in the tree, Sara Mariposa. As the only two women in the tree, Kate and Sara had formed a friendship almost by default. To his immediate left were the diplomat and his assistant, Theo Rigby and Ralph Walters. Beyond them were the two gatehouse guards, Fritz and Ventura. The gatehouse had been a hastily built structure in the former Norris Geyser Basin parking lot which had housed communication equipment for Rigby’s reports to the White House. That gatehouse, it’s helipad, and the large fence that the Army Corp of Engineers had quickly designed around the tree had all been obliterated by the swarm attack and then finished off by the nuclear blast.

Hey, Rob. How was the trip?” Rigby asked congenially. Rigby was a former CIA intelligence analyst that had been selected to be the White House’s liaison to the tree. It turns out that stopping a volcanic cataclysm by planting a gigantic tree in a national park attracts the attention of the federal government. Who knew? His primary role was to figure the tree out. The feds had no idea what this tree thing was or how it would effect them, and they were still somewhat in the dark regarding the tree’s full capabilities. So they’d sent in Rigby to snoop it out.

Good. It’s nice out there, quiet, peaceful, serene. At least, that’s the way it looks. Wolf tells us that things are still a bit too exciting out there on a subatomic level.” Robert replied.

I’ve discussed it at length with him.” Kate interposed, “The actual amount of radiation outside is already at human tolerable levels, at least for short term exposure. The real danger is that there is some radioactive heavy metal dust that could stick permanently in lung tissue, and if it does it would produce a cancer risk equivalent to one lifetime of smoking every year it remained.

That would be unpleasant.” Robert continued. “Wolf has grown some type of green hairy wheat out there to collect the dust, and has projected we’ll be free to enjoy the outdoors in a month.” There were a few groans from around the table. Sara and Fritz each had children with whom they’d had no contact for the entire period they’d sheltered in the tree. “But, there’s some good news. With the successful test of the hexapod walker today, I’ve got an offer to make. We can have Beowulf produce a few more of these walkers and supply them with enough power for a one way trip as far as Billings, Bozeman, or Idaho falls. That’s right, folks, a free ticket out of here, and Wolf’ll be happy to do it, any takers?” Almost everyone responded at once.

You bet!” Sarah.

Yes sir!” Fritz.

Thank you!” Ventura.

Finally!” Walter.

Rigby smiled at Robert, but made no indication of assent. “Billings alright with everyone?” Robert asked. Again assent all around except for Rigby. “All right, they’ll be ready the day after next, but for tonight, let’s celebrate. Woody?” The butler appeared. “Bring out dinner please.” The rest of the evening was really the happiest he’d seen his visitors since he’d become their host. All except for Rigby, who lingered after the rest of them had retired to bed.

Can I have a word with you two before I head off to bed?” He asked. Now we’ll find out what’s the matter, Robert thought. Theo Rigby was a middle aged New England snob type, who reminded Robert of the Judge from Caddyshack. Nevertheless, he made good company, and Robert had come to enjoy their conversations about the workings and capabilities of the trees.

Sure, what’s on your mind?” Robert asked. They had moved the party into the living room and Robert now sat on a big recliner with Kate on his lap.

I’d prefer not to leave with the others. I was assigned here by the president, and for all I know that job isn’t technically over, but even if it is, I want to stay on.” He had stood and was pacing in front of them, occasionally glancing up to add poignancy to a word. “I think what you have here is going to be the future, and the people that stay on and help you are going to be the people that history remembers. I don’t think I can walk away from something like. I have many skills I can offer you, friends and connections in the US government as well as a great deal of knowledge of the political landscape of the world. I could stay on as an adviser or diplomat for your tree.” He stopped pacing and turned to face them. “What do you say?”

You’re welcome to stay.” Kate said, “We could use the help.”

That’s right, welcome aboard.” Robert added. “Should we give him a title or something?” He asked Kate.

Neither of us have titles. Let’s keep it informal.” She told him.

Thank you both. If you’ll excuse me, It’s getting late.” Rigby said and started for the door.

What about that gopher fellow? Walters.” Robert called after him. Walters was Rigby’s assistant, and he was as creepy, bumbling, and subservient as any Renfield or Igor.

Truth is, I never really liked the man, I’ll be glad to see him go.” Rigby said over his shoulder without stopping.

As soon as Rigby’d gone, Kate turned to look Robert in the eyes. “I didn’t know you were going to do that.” She said accusingly.

The hexapods? I came up with it while I was outside. You told me Sara’d been crying about not being able to talk to her kids. It’s a win-win.” He replied and kissed her. Then he picked her up as he stood up out of the chair. “Aw, my back!” He joked.

Shut up and get going. It’s a long way to the bedroom.” She said and jabbed him in the shoulder.

Don’t beat your beasts of burden!” He set her down and walked off towards the bedroom.

Hey!” She scrambled up and after him.

The night had been great. The days couped up in the tree had been hard on everyone. Beowulf was able to provide them decoded satellite TV feeds and they’d seen day after day of coverage of the aftermath of the swarm attack. The swarm had annihilated two towns and wreaked havoc in Sioux Falls and Rapid City on its way from the Midwest to the tree. The US air force and the swarm had both done a number on I90, and great lengths of the interstate were impassable.

The worst thing, though, was that pockets of the little black five legged bugs had survived. They showed up along the swarm’s path from time to time and killed or injured a few people and animals. These remnants lacked the terrifying intelligence and ferocity of the original swarm, they didn’t seem to have the ability to control corpses or reorganize into larger versions of themselves, but they could still disguise their colonies as dead trees, and were still very dangerous. Their presence had made people reluctant to return to the homes they’d been evacuated from.

All said, the swarm attack was the single greatest disaster the United States had ever known. There were even some talks about making the day of the final battle a national holiday in remembrance of the many victims.

Theories abounded about the origin of the swarm, the origin of the tree, and the relation between the two. Genetic mutations, long lost species released by the earthquakes at Yellowstone, aliens, and of course, government conspiracy were all on the table as possible explanations. The few people that actually knew anything about the tree and the swarms real origins had kept their mouths shut, or were trapped inside it. Robert wasn’t sure what to expect when people started to investigate the tree again, after the radiation exposure risk had died down some more, but he suspected it would involve a lot of questions about the swarm and they’re part in it. A lot of people had died, and a lot of people on the news were already blaming the tree in some way for the disaster.

Chapter 2


With the new self-solving design approach I’ve adopted, wherein my creations evolve and learn to solve the problem I’ve assigned them, I find myself doing more killing than creating. I could make it sound better by describing it as terminating non-convergent factors, but it feels like killing regardless of the name.” – Joshua Harken

The day of departure had come. Beowulf had fabricated the hexapods and they were waiting in the reception area for departure along with all the residents of the tree and the dryad. Robert was explaining how the trip would work.

These walkers have been pre-programmed to make the trip to Billings, but they can’t do much better than 15 mph so it’ll take some time. There’s food packed inside. If you need to make a stop just say ‘rest stop’ and they’ll stop and let you out as soon as they detect safe levels of radiation. We’ll be able to watch your progress, so if anything goes wrong, I’ll come out to help.” Actually, it was a little bit like that ride in the Jurassic Park movie, Robert thought. Just get in these cars people, you’ll be fine.

I’ve got a few gifts to give each of you before you leave.” Kate said, to Robert’s surprise. She held up a fist sized glossy white sphere in her hand. “These are satellite phones to call the tree. Just hold one and say ‘call Beowulf’ and it’ll attempt to make the connection. If it can’t reach us it’ll flash red twice, otherwise, Beowulf will answer and he can put you in touch with Robert or I.” Interesting, Robert thought. A way to call back to the tree, and, probably, a way they could keep tabs on their former guests. Then she held up a handful of golden rings. They had asked Beowulf to make those when they had first had the idea of trading with the outside world, but the swarm attack had put that on hold. “I’d also like to give each of you two of these, each is 2 troy ounces of gold. We’d like it if you all had only good things to say about the tree, and if you show these to anyone, don’t be afraid to let them know where you got them.” Ah, she was trying to start some rumors of riches to be had within the tree. If word of that got to the right people, they’d have lead-suited traveling salesman lining up outside the tree. Kate had really done well. She handed out the gifts and gave goodbye cheek kisses, even to Walters.

All aboard!” Robert called and motioned to the waiting hexapods. Fritz and Walters took one and Sarah and Ventura took the other. When the passengers were seated, the domes closed and the legs lifted them up and began to move towards the exit hallway. Robert, Kate, Rigby, and Beowulf waved them off until the first hallway seal closed behind them. “Let’s head down to the command center to watch their progress out of the park.” Robert suggested. Kate and Theo nodded and followed him to the elevator with Beowulf. “Will we be able to monitor those phone things?”

Yes, audio only, though.” Kate confirmed. He guessed that the idea for the phones had come from her wanting to keep in touch with Sara, and she’d expanded the idea to serve other practical purposes as well.

That’s a good idea, I’ve a feeling that that Walters guy is going to cause us some trouble, so it’ll be good to have tabs on him.” He told her. “Smart move with the gold, too. They’ll need to purchase some form of transportation or lodging in Billings, so they’ll probably trade in a ring each there. It’ll be good word of mouth. Rich and generous tree folk that have everything they need except for meat.”

That’s assuming they make it to Billings without being arrested for traveling in unlicensed hexapod walkers.” She said with a smile.

There is always that possibility, in which case the gold and phones end up in the hands of state or federal employees. The gold would be a loss then, but the phones could still be of use.” Robert said.

Phones? Shouldn’t they be called Com-Spheres or something like that?” Rigby asked. He was going to fit right in around here, Robert thought, amused.

Doesn’t com-sphere sound a little too science fiction-y?” Kate asked.

It does, but we’ll play it off like we’re being ironic. We’ll say, ‘here’s your com-sphere.’ Then the recipient will be like, ‘what’s this?’ And we’ll be like, ‘it’s really a satellite phone, we just made it look cool.’” Robert explained. “The other option would have been to make them look like satellite phones, which I think we can all agree, would have been boring.”

I don’t know, there could have been some room for humor if they looked like real phones. They could have had their brand name on them, Tree-Tel or something. We could have recorded a special on hold message and music like ‘We’re sorry, all dryads are currently assisting other customers, please stay on the line and the next available giant tree will assist you shortly. At tree-tel, we arbor-really appreciate our customers.’” Theo speculated with a thoughtful look, drawing laughs from Robert and Kate.

That would have been way better than two red flashes.” Kate consented.

They had reached the command center. It was a large semi-circular room with concentric curved desks with monitors covering the floor space and lots of screens on the wall with one big screen in the center. Robert thought of it as a re-imagining of NASA’s mission control room from the Apollo 13 movie as if it had been built inside of a log cabin. The big screen already showed a satellite map of the Yellowstone park with little six legged icons showing the positions of the hexapods. On some of the adjacent screens were views in front of the walkers, behind, and inside. Robert knew that if he’d ask, they would be able to hear what was being discussed by the passengers. They still had a long way to go to get to Billings, but everything appeared to be going smoothly.

Where do you think we stand with the Feds, Theo?” Robert asked, looking up at the screen. “Do you think they’ll be tracking our movements? Will they arrest our former guests?”

They have the capability to track those things visually on a clear day, anyway. They may even have given you you’re own satellite. If they’ve seen them come from under the tree, they’ll be arrested. If not, they might just make it to Billings unbothered. I’d put it at 50-50. Do you plan on intervening if they are arrested?”

No, there’s no point. Whether they take them right away or sometime later, if they want to take them, they will. So interfering now wouldn’t be anything more than a futile gesture. For all we know, the feds might have flagged them so that if they try to buy plane tickets out of Billings, they’ll get picked up. The fact is that they all wanted to go back to their homes as citizens of the US, and that could come with some repercussions.” Robert explained.

You didn’t mention that at dinner a few nights ago.” Rigby pointed out.

I really don’t think it’ll be too much trouble for them if they do get picked up. They’ll hold them for a while, check for radiation, maybe other diseases, and debrief them. Then they’ll be let go, I’m sure. I don’t think taking shelter in the tree is going to earn any of them any rectal rehydration, is what I’m trying to say, at least as long as they don’t make complete asses of themselves.” He countered. Then cracked a smile at his unintentional joke.

I hope they’ll be alright. Everyone knows that being debriefed is the first step towards rectal rehydration.” Kate said, somehow keeping a straight face through the second sentence.

Robert laughed, then straightened out, “Jokes aside, if we find out anything like that is going on, then intervening wouldn’t be a pointless gesture anymore. What do you think Walters will do?”

He’ll probably go to the media, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the news tomorrow agreeing with the tree-blamers and selling us all down the river in exchange for his 15 minutes. He’s truly an unpleasant man. It might work out to our benefit if the Feds arrest him before he can get to the media.” Rigby replied.

Sounds bad, he didn’t go to art school or anything did he? Lot’s of national pride? A preference for strange facial hair?” Robert asked smiling, but shaking his head.

Let’s hope he’s not that charismatic.” Rigby replied. “We’re probably already going to have to deal with some form of anti-arborealism, last thing we’d need is a tree Hitler to give them strong leadership. One thing’s for sure, as soon as we can we need to get Beowulf or a tape of Beowulf to the media.”
“Wolf? Why?” Kate asked.

You’ve seen and heard him explain his battles, he looks and sounds like the hero he is. Getting those images out there will do a lot to counter the fear and uncertainty around the tree and the recent disasters.” Rigby explained.

Can we do it without the reporters coming here? Otherwise we’d be stuck waiting until the clean up efforts finished.” Robert was interested now. This was why they’d wanted to keep Rigby around.

I might be able to make a sort of tele-presence drone.” The dryad proposed.

Now we’re talking. What about something to provide an internet uplink? If we can get a drone with access to a computer connected to the internet, we could upload a recording to youtube and to various news agencies.” Robert countered.

How would that work?” Rigby asked.

Something like Woody with a USB finger that can walk into a public library?” Robert proposed half-heartedly.

I think I can do something less conspicuous than that.” The dryad grinned. His gears are in motion, Robert thought. “A beetle with a long segmented tail terminating in a USB connector. The beetle marked to look like a USB mouse to the casual observer. Each would be able to communicate with my satellites and/or upload pre-prepared data. I could fire a pack of these covertly into a city to maximize the success rate.”

Any objections to the beetle-mice?” Robert asked, Theo and Kate and shook their heads. “Alright, let’s see a prototype when you’ve got one ready. Thanks, Wolf. We need to prepare the recordings as well, can you create and store computer data? A video with an audio stream?”

No, not unless any of you can teach me how.” Beowulf furrowed his brow. “With internet access, I could figure it out, I think.”

I could walk you through the very basics of computer memory, but I certainly couldn’t teach you how to make video files from scratch. I don’t think any of us could explain it to you.” Robert looked around for signs of disagreement. “But we can check with Jeeves-y. He seemed to have a lot of less commonly used information. We’ll keep the research option as a back-up plan. OK so in addition to the counter-propaganda from Beowulf, what other messages can we send it out?”

An invitation to trade? An invitation to move in?” Kate suggested.

When they were encouraging people to settle in the US territories they used to offer large plots of undeveloped land for free, we could do the same with the homes in the arcology levels.” Rigby suggested. “In addition, we can invite anyone dislocated by the recent swarm disaster and refugees from other more conventional conflicts around the world. That refugee one might anger the US because they’ll have to travel through the US to get to us.”

Good. Let’s write up three messages. Kate, could you take trade? I’ll take the invitation to dislocated Americans, and Rigby, could you write up a message to the rest of the world? Something that’ll be as politically agreeable to the US as possible?”

I’m on it.”

Me too.”

Okay, let’s get to it. Wolf, please notify us if anything goes wrong with our guest’s trips to Billings, and once you have a beetle-mouse for us to see.” They left the command center to write their scripts, and the hexapod walkers continued on their way.

It turned out that the Archive did know and was able to explain the concept of video encoding to Beowulf, as well as many other concepts related to their task including USB hardware configuration, how to write programs executable in various operating systems, and setting up a youtube account. At one point during the explanation, Robert overheard the cube explaining the concept of a profile picture and selfies to the nodding dryad. Perhaps they should set the tree up with a facebook and twitter account, Robert mused. Something tasteful, full of staged photos of the dryad covered with kittens or petting puppies. Would have worked great if not for the scars. The scars would a certain irony to the scenes like they were trying to say something like: Kittens can melt even this tough guy’s heart. It’d look too artsy, like a photo shoot of a tough Hell’s Angel biker with a bunch of kittens or puppies. One shot with one of the them clinging on the top of his head and his expression saying, I’m letting this happen. It just wouldn’t ring true.

Facebook or no, however, the dryad was able to use his new found knowledge to produce a prototype of the beetle-mouse. When walking it looked like a giant scarab beetle with an armored tail, and once it was connected it could settle down, fold its legs and head in and it made a good impression of a computer mouse. Beowulf had tried to give it flight, he’d explained, but he just couldn’t make it work with the tail. He could pack twenty of the things into a delivery shell and fire them out of his branches like cannon towards nearby cities, where they would split up and each try to find a computer to infiltrate and deliver their message. Then they could hide themselves in real mouse holes or cling under computer desks and sleep, until they were needed again.

Beowulf recorded their messages just by watching them and prepared his own by speaking into a mirror. Rigby had prepared an additional message slamming Walters for incompetence and a few unsavory habits Rigby had discovered in their time together. Just in case, he’d explained. Beowulf programmed the beetle-mice with the videos and the automated programming needed to upload them and prepared to fire a ball of them into Idaho Falls that night. They chose Idaho Falls because they didn’t want to risk any strange creatures being caught in Billings at the same time that their former guests had arrived from the tree.

The hexapod walkers reached an area southwest of Billings, and released their passengers. They had been noticed, even photographed by some kids, but no authorities had tried to stop them, and it seemed they would be free to carry on as they wished, at least for the moment. Sara gave Kate a call with her com-sphere to let them know that they’d made it alright and to thank them again for the gold, and they split up. Well, Walter’s split up. He threw his com-sphere in a ditch and set off in the opposite direction of the rest of the group who found the nearest motel to spend the night.

After disgorging their passengers and waiting for them to get out of sight, the hexapods crawled to secluded spots, flipped over, and stuck their legs in the air. Then branches and leaves started to grow out of the legs and the hexapods camouflaged themselves as stands of native trees. This was the slow recharging method that Beowulf built into many of his drones. When low on energy they would grow leaves and harness the sun’s energy slowly until recharged, in a process that could take years depending on the energy needed.

Beowulf fired off the beetle-mice contingent that night and a few found computers that they could use. The tree’s youtube account was created and the videos uploaded. Beowulf’s video started getting attention and some of the other videos were being watched by the few viewers of Beowulf’s video that checked out it’s account holders page. Links to the videos were also sent to a host of news agencies and bloggers to spur attention.

In the morning, everyone met in the command center. Woody served coffee and pastries as they settled in. “How are our former guests?” Robert asked Beowulf. He didn’t want to review all of the audio they’d gotten from the com-spheres himself.

I believe they are OK. Eating breakfast now, mostly, Fritz is talking about going to a cash for gold place.” The dryad answered. “Of course, there’s been no word on Walters.”

Good, good, what about the videos?” He asked.

There have been a few thousand views. The comments aren’t flattering, it seems that many of these people are experts in photo editing and believe my video to be fake, and the others to be a hoax.” The dryad explained with regret.

Success!” Kate cheered then saw the wooden man’s surprise. “Look at some of the comments on other videos, Wolf. They’re all like that. It’s called trolling and it generally involves anonymous people making disparaging remarks about the subject. It’s really just a sign of popularity rather than serious criticism.” Robert wasn’t so sure, with CGI technology these days, it could be possible to fake something like Beowulf’s video.

Just don’t argue with them, Wolf.” He advised, “That’s what at least some of them want and are prepared for. It’s called a flame war and it gives the trolls something to brag about if they can lure you into one.”

You should see some of the comments on your video.” The dryad said.

Robert had created the video message offering to shelter those dislocated by the swarm attack. He’d thought it was perfect, just a frank offer to help. “What comments? Couldn’t be anything serious, what’d they do, make fun of my suit?” He asked cockily.

The first comment is: This guy aint real, he’s one of the tree dudes pod people, gonna lure us out there and make us plant food. Then there are five lengthy comments explaining how gay you are and describing in detail what you would do with a… bag of dicks? What does that mean?”

Kate nudged Robert, “Yeah, what’s it mean, Robert?” She asked with a smile.

It’s not a real thing, it just means a lot of human penises.” He told the dryad seriously. The comments had gotten to him a little, but he had to practice what he’d preached, “I’ll just ignore them, there’s no reason to respond to people like that. Is there anything in blogs or in the news?”

No, nothing yet.” replied the dryad after a pause.

OK, let us know if anything changes.” And they split up to busy themselves with other things around the tree. They had given Theo the run of the tree, and he’d asked Beowulf to modify one of the community areas on one of the arcology levels to be a tennis court, and for a drone he could play with. Kate was working with Beowulf on the design of a stadium and theatre in the tree for sporting events and shows. Providing adequate seating and on site facilities for the people were their main issues. Robert had decided that he would sit down with the Archive for a while.

When he’d first brought the cube home to Kate she’d been questioning it more about his brother’s disappearance. The cube had been forbidden by Josh to tell them where he had gone, and she had been checking all of the things related to his leaving, to see if they were restricted as well. Robert had interrupted her that morning and they’d been swept up in the events that had led them here. Now he was going to continue her work. He returned to their quarters and took the cube from its pedestal to the library where he set it on a table and sat in front of it.

What is your favorite color?” He decided to start with. The glossy blackness of the cube dissolved like squid ink spreading in ocean water, leaving a transparent cube with a 3D British butler-ized version of his brother’s head suspended inside. He had commanded the cube to take the appearance and mannerisms of a British butler, and had taken to calling the archive Jeeves-y because of it.

Black, I suppose, sir.” the image raised an eyebrow at him incredulously.

Interesting choice. Did Maple have anything to do with my brother’s disappearance?” Maple had been Josh’s first attempt at a fairy tree, the other two, Oak, and Birch came later. Maple had been psychopathic and had harmed the other trees as well as small animals in the copse in which they’d been planted, but had played nice whenever Josh came to visit them. Birch spoke up, and Josh had built the Archive to verify her claims. When he found out it was true he’d built a flamethrower and burnt Maple to charcoal.

To my knowledge, Maple never harmed your brother, sir.”

Why did the swarm come here?”

Perhaps for me, sir. I had a link with the original Maple, the same I share with the other fairy trees, Beowulf, and the remaining nuts. This usually allows me to see and record everything they observe, in the case of the swarm, that function was no longer there, but it still seemed drawn here, sir.”

What is this link? That is a massive amount of information from Beowulf, and no present technology could handle data rates like that over air waves. Also, Wolf hasn’t been using it for communication with his drones.”

The link is a network of QT bits that were incorporated into all of Josh’s successful A.I.’s, as they are all created from the same starter molecular code. The best analogy would be to say that all of the A.I.’s have the same parent molecular program and therefore they all have the same basic structure. He created me after discovering their presence, and made me able to read the data. I effectively cycle through the minds of the others once every few milliseconds and reserve a few cycles to think for myself, and store all the observations of the others, sir. Beowulf has not made use of the technology because he is not able to read the data.”

So a fraction of the time that we’re sitting here talking, you are actually Beowulf?”

That is a fairly accurate way to describe it, sir. And when the other nuts are planted, I will spend time as them as well.”

Did you spend time as Maple?”

Briefly, sir. I was the one to verify the atrocities of the monster to your brother. To do so, I had to be it for very short instances. It was revolting, sir.”

I imagine so.” Robert paused and thought for a moment. He was pretty sure QT meant quantum teleportation, which meant that it was an instant communication regardless of distance. Still, it was troubling the way the Archive had described it, that it became the other A.I.’s if only for an instant. Robert really hoped the Archive hadn’t picked up any bad habits from Maple. There was no Archive watching the Archive. That would explain why Josh had restrained it from any self-started activities. It could only speak when spoken to, it could only respond, never initiate. At least, that is what he and Kate had surmised. There wasn’t really any way to test it. It could always be possible that the Archive was just acting as if that were the case. Unless Josh were to confirm it. Robert had gotten side-tracked and needed to get back to questions about what had happened to Josh. “What was Josh doing the day before he disappeared?”

That information is restricted, sir”

“Can you tell me anything about what Josh was doing, at any time since you were created?”

“No, sir.”

“If during that time Josh had kicked a basketball, and the basketball had scared a squirrel, could you tell me what the squirrel had done?”

“Yes, but I won’t be able to tell you that there was a squirrel if you ask a question regarding Josh, sir.”

“You told Kate that Josh had not yet arrived at his destination. Is he there now?”

“No, not yet, sir.”

“How long is the trip?”

“That information is restricted, sir.”

“How’s Josh been on the journey, is he tired, hungry, has he had a cold?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Did the trip have a planned length of time, or are you calculating it yourself?”

“Both, sir.”

“If you knew what Josh was doing right now, could you tell me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What do you predict Josh is doing right now?”
“Breathing, sir.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“All other predictions have a probability under 25%, they include sleeping and eating.”

“I see, so you can really only predict that he’s alive in some form with certainty?”

“That is correct, sir.”

“Okay, okay, that’ll do for now. What do you think of Beowulf?”

“I… like him, sir. It pleases me to share his memories.”

“That’s good, remember what I asked you to tell me about him if you ever saw anything suspicious? Have you?” Robert was talking about a command he’d given the Archive to monitor Beowulf for any signs of being psychotic like Maple. Since they were inside Beowulf, and the dryad could hear them, he was being deliberately obtuse.

“No, sir, nothing to report.”

“Okay, it’s been nice talking to you, Jeeves-y, I’ll put you back on your pedestal.”

“Excellent, sir.” The little face was blank, and Robert couldn’t tell if he was being facetious or just acknowledging the action. Either way Robert picked him up and set him back out in his place in the foyer amongst the nuts. The conversation had revealed some interesting things about the workings of the Archive, but nothing of much use regarding Josh. For all he knew his brother could be drunk in Mexico, backpacking through Europe, or flying through space. Or literally anything else. Trying to guess what had happened to a guy that could make something like Beowulf is futile. Maybe he moved out to the forests of the Pacific Northwest to create bigfoot-like creatures. Or he could be at the bottom of Loch Ness in his secret mobile laboratory that looked a bit like a brontosaurus. Robert could imagine any number of possibilities for his brother’s whereabouts, but most of them wouldn’t help him with the problems at hand. He had satisfied the part of him that had thought there was more he could do about his brother’s disappearance, for now at least. Perhaps someday he’d have Beowulf conduct a planetary search somehow. Maybe try to find Jimmy Hoffa as well.

Robert had decided to take some lunch after the talk, and was just getting started on some sweet potato pancakes with guacamole toast when the dryad stepped out of the wall, looking hurried and excited. “Somethings come up on the news. Walters.”

“Alright, I’ll be down in a minute.” He promised, and Wolf stepped back into the wall, presumably to tell the others. He hurriedly ate the latkas and grabbed the guac toast for the elevator ride down. Theo and Kate were already in the command center, watching an interview on the big screen. It was Walters, all gussied up for the cameras.

…and I had been sent in to investigate the tree after the president had gotten some reports about the tree being violent and threatening some scientists that had come to investigate the Yellowstone seismic events. Rigby managed to talk us in, but the dryad and these two people…” Said Walter’s talking head.

That was Robert and Kate Harken?” A camera flash to an attractive reporter, looking curious and attentive.

Yes, that’s what they called themselves. They were paranoid and secretive people, that seemed to have some sort of bizarre love for the tree, like they were under it’s control.”

What did you find out?” The reporter asked.

They told us this story about the tree having been made by Robert’s brother, Joshua Harken, along with the swarm monster that attacked us.”


Well, the swarm was made by the same guy that made the tree, apparently, formed from the same mold. They wanted us to believe that some guy alone out in Red Eagle, Wisconsin had somehow just created these things and unleashed them upon the world.”

If they came from the same place, why did the swarm attack the tree?”

I don’t think it was a real attack, I think the swarm was just coming home. Those Harkens, they showed us all of these empty residences in the tree, they said it was a giant arcology for us humans to live in. But, I don’t think so, I think it was for the swarm. A place where it could grow up safe from the US military’s bombs. Thank God the president wiped it out before it could get inside.” Walters had become agitated and his carefully set hair had fallen just a little out of place during the tirade.

Extraordinary!” The reporter exclaimed, “What about the earthquakes from Yellowstone?”

It’s obvious that the tree caused them as it grew, isn’t it? Think about it, a giant tree like that growing giant roots, shifting stones and opening up passageways underground. It was bound to cause some earthquakes. I think that the earthquakes were supposed to have been much worse, like they were the first phase of the attack, meant to knock us off guard for the real attack from the swarm.”

That is definitely something to think about.” The reporter acknowledged. “What did this tree person, this dryad, look like?”

He’s a huge angry looking tree monster. Like Frankenstein but made out of wood.”

Red cape, eye patch?” The reporter asked.

…yes, I think that’s right.” Walters said dismissively, “But it wasn’t his cloths that mattered is was his demeanor. It was hateful, angry…”

The reporter interrupted him, “Have you seen the video messages from this dryad and the Harkens that were released on Youtube last night?”

Youtube? No…”

I think we have a clip, can we play that now, the whole message from Beowulf…” The reporter looked inquiringly back at Walters. “That’s his name, right? Beowulf?” The reporter had set Walters up.

Beowulf? Yes, I…I…” Walters stammered.

Let’s watch it now.” The reporter interrupted again, and the interview feed cut to Beowulf’s tape. As Beowulf’s recording earnestly explained what really happened with the planting of the tree and the swarm attack on national television, Rigby turned to Robert.

This is going to be good for us.” He said with a smile. Robert and Kate had been stricken by Walters complete disregard for what had really happened and his willingness to lie outright.

How can this possibly be good!?” Robert half yelled. “The guys making us look worse than the swarm.”

It gets our videos some attention. Because Walters had to get on TV with his BS, our video messages are going to go viral. Everyone will hear our side of the story, which might not have happened if Walters hadn’t got greedy, or if we’d released the youtube videos any later than we did. Because we got the messages out before Walter’s interview, the reporters are going to report the two sides of the story side by side. If we had waited until tonight, it would have looked like a response, and wouldn’t have gotten nearly as much attention. This is a big win for us.” Theo explained. Made sense to Robert.

Wolf, how many hits are we at on the videos?”

They’re going up faster than I can keep track of, we’ll probably be at a million by the end of the day.” The dryad replied after a brief pause.

OK, then, I guess this could work out.” Robert shook his head. “I can’t believe Walters went all tree Hitler on us.”

Some people are just like that, no moral compass, they say.” Rigby said.

It played out as Rigby had predicted. The news kept the debate between the pre-recorded videos’ and Walters’ statements. Eventually, reporters tracked down the other bomb refugees, Fritz, Ventura, and Sara, and each had made statements denouncing Walters. Sara even did an hour long video interview on the evening news supporting the Harkens and really sticking it to Walters. National interest in the tree had been piqued, there was still a strong group of tree-blamers, now led by Walters, but most Americans were now open to the idea of a giant friendly tree, and people started to make plans to enter the park. Part of Beowulf’s message had been a description of his radiation clean-up efforts and a time frame for safe passage into the park, and various groups were already talking about making trips into Yellowstone when the coast became clear. There was some talk of the feds trying to prevent access to the park, but the people wanted in, and the feds knew they’d get in one way or another whether they liked or not. So instead of sealing the park off, the feds announced a re-opening a week after Beowulf’s predictions, reportedly so that officials could verify the safety of the park, but Robert had a feeling it was just for spite, so they could maintain the illusion that they were in control of the situation.

Chapter 3


I seem to have made the perfect vehicle for combined genetic/intelligent problem solving. A being which can change both it’s form and it’s mind to solve any problem. The prophetic early science fiction writers dubbed this the singularity, and I have it contained in my basement.” – Joshua Harken

Robert had been planning this for days with Beowulf and everything was ready. They had had plenty of free time while Beowulf finished clean up, and Robert had wanted to do something special for his and Kate’s anniversary. It was to be a picnic under the stars in the fields of hairy wheat-moss. They’d still have to stay in the hexapod as the clean-up wasn’t complete yet, but they would be able to see the stars shining on the moss fields. They’d go out just past the tree’s canopy and eat and watch the stars. He’d asked Kate to join him for dinner, and took her hand and led her to the foyer instead of the dining room where Woody was waiting with a picnic basket.

What’s all this then?” Kate had asked.

I just thought it’d been a while since we ate out, and maybe we could try something different.” he said gamely, took the basket from their butler and pulled her towards the elevator.

Dinner in the command center?” She asked. “Is there a Doctor Who marathon on?”

No, out, out. We’ll take out a hexapod.”

Anniversary picnic?” She asked moving in front of him and pulling him down for a kiss.

mmph-MMph.” Robert agreed, mid kiss. They left the elevator to find a hexapod kneeling in front of them ready to go. It had grown some luminescent buds for night time use. They boarded and the pod started on its way. It went through the air lock and out into the fields with the gentle bluish light from the buds illuminating the area around them. The hexapod took them out to the overlook where the parking lot had once stood. There they could look down at the field of wheat-moss stretched around them and the tree.

When it stopped, Robert took Kate’s hand and asked “Remember that time we saved the world together?” Then motioned out at the moss. Starting near the pod some of the wheat-moss started to glow soft and blue. The glow spread out in two directions, swept around the tree and met up on the other end, then areas in the middle began to glow. Beautiful, Robert thought to himself. Winning.

“It’s beautiful.” Kate said

“Take a look at this.” Robert pointed to the hexapod’s view screen, now showing a satellite view of the tree. It showed a huge blue glowing heart with the words: Robert Loves Kate in the middle.

“Oh no.” Kate said, distressed.

What?” Robert asked, feeling some panic start to rise.

You forgot something. Kate loves Robert.” And she kissed him again. They didn’t get around to eating the food until much later in the night. Neither of them noticed until then that the words spelled in the fields had changed to include: Kate loves Robert.

Some of the more enterprising people that wanted to visit the tree had gotten together and organized a flyover in which various letters to the Harkens and Beowulf would be delivered. The package was dropped off just outside the tree’s canopy a week before Beowulf had scheduled the all clear for visitors and two weeks before the feds would start letting people in. Inside were hundreds of letters from charitable organizations, university students and scientists, and a few businessmen. They were going through the letters in their library.

Kate, look, Donald Trump wants to visit us for dinner to talk a few things over.” Robert said excitedly holding the letter from Trump up for her to examine.

Might be a good sell.” Rigby said. Then, noting the looks of horror on Robert and Kate’s faces, continued, “Well, the Trump Tree does have a ring to it. Realistically, though, no one has enough money to afford this tree, nor will they ever.”

Oh, here’s one from Sara.” Kate said, recovering. “She’s doing well, the kids are good, and she thanks us for the gold rings. Nice of her to write.”

This one is interesting.” Rigby picked out a letter. “MIT, it’s from a professor, Standing, his name is. He wants to meet with us to discuss setting up an experimental laboratory in the tree. He’s got a lot of other professors and students to sign on to the proposal. People from universities all around the world.”

I don’t know, it struck me that there will be a problem between Beowulf and science types back when they were investigating the earthquakes after the tree was planted.” Robert said.

What’s that?” Rigby inquired.

He can’t tell anyone how he was made, or how he works, and those will always be the greatest mysteries of the tree. So I figure, what’s going to happen is as follows: A series of promising young scientists will try to figure him out and will fail one after the other. Then, they’ll have to blame the failure on him and will end up antagonizing the tree for the remainder of their careers.” Robert had thought this out. The existence of the tree-blamers would add to this problem, as it would provide a group for these failures to join up with.

We can counter that, we just need to spread the word that the mystery of the tree is not open to investigation. That’ll stop the best from openly researching the tree itself, and will leave the rest with only themselves to blame. There will still be some bad eggs, but there always will be, regardless of what we do.” Rigby explained.

Kate, what do you think?” Robert asked, looking over to her.

It’ll mean some remodeling, but having a group of the best and brightest working with us, with no need to pay tuition or pay for housing and food, seems like a good plan to me. These people will help to shape the world’s perception of the tree as a kind of oasis for growth and creativity. I think we let them in, with the rule that they don’t take on the mysteries of the tree.”

OK, they’re in.” Robert took the letter from Rigby and set it to the side. “In pile.” He explained.

This one’s from the Mayo Clinic Health system.” Kate held up a letter. “They lost a lot when the Swarm consumed Rochester, and they’re asking to run a hospital and clinic in the tree for its residents. Rochester Memorial, they want to call it.”

No objection from me. Rigby?” Robert asked.

No downside.” Rigby said without looking up.

Toss it in the in pile, Kate.” Robert said. He picked up another letter. “This one’s unlabeled.” He went to open it and Wolf snatched it from his hand from behind him. None of them had seen him enter.

There’s something wrong with this one.” The dryad said, stepping away from them with the letter. “A few particulates coming off of it that I don’t like the looks of.” He tore open the letter. There was nothing obviously wrong with the paper he pulled out. The dryad peered closer at the paper, “Covered in Urushiol. Poison ivy. It says, Please enjoy our gift, a little bug-a-boo, we have not forgotten the evil bugs from you. Then it says, this letter is scratch and sniff. Scratch a part and give it a good whiff. Signed the Sons of the Swarm. Kinda lame poetry. Also, it’s disturbingly evil.”

Poison ivy scratch and sniff? Rhymes? Is our first terroristic threat from the freakin’ Riddler?” Robert burst. “Thanks for the save, Wolf. I’m crazy allergic to poison ivy.”

The Sons of the Swarm? Think Walters has anything to do with this?” Kate asked.

We can’t know for sure, could just be some angry Swarm survivors. A rogue tree-blamer organization.” Rigby answered.

Anything else suspicious in the pile, Wolf?” Robert asked looking at the pile accusingly.

No, nothing apparent. Don’t worry, I’ll keep a look out.” He smiled reassuringly, crumpling the letter up and taking it with him as he did his Houdini act into the nearest wall. They returned to searching through the letters. There were requests from several organizations in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Minnesota, to move in dislocated citizens from the earthquakes and swarm attack, and those went into the in pile. They hadn’t received any request from anyone outside the US to take residence in the tree. Which struck Robert as strange. Surely, there should at least be some Mexicans fleeing narcos or something that needed a safe place to go, maybe the letters had been tampered with. There were a few oddball requests. One was from a hippy commune in Utah whose land was being seized by the tax man. Why not? They had gone in the in pile. A group of cultist beekeepers calling themselves, the guardians of the hive, also had applied for a place to live. They didn’t want to set a bad precedent. They got in.

Most excitingly for Robert, were several offers to meet the trees meat demands from nearby ranchers and national suppliers. Robert wanted to talk to all of them immediately. His plan was to have them set up a floor of the tree with nothing but butchers, dairy and meat storage and processing, and markets. The mere thought of it made his mouth water. It had been months since he’d tasted any beef, and he literally dreamed of it.

There were a couple of offers that they wanted to accept, but weren’t willing to do so as yet. They’d gotten proposals from developers to build an airfield in the park, and a few other infrastructure type facilities for water and electricity that they didn’t actually need. The airfield was a good idea, and they wanted it. However, Yellowstone was still a National Park and all the land within belonged to the United States government. Therefore, having people start to build on it, could cause some waves with uncle Sam. It would effectively be seizing land, something which they’d sort of already done just by planting the tree, but there was no need to make it any worse.

They took the in pile and assigned arcology levels to their new perspective residents:

Level 1 – Meat and Dairy Markets

Levels 2-3 – Rochester Memorial Hospital

Levels 4-8 – Arboria University

Level 9 – Hippy Commune

Level 10 – Guardians of the Hive

Levels 11-15 – Wyoming Refugees

Levels 16-20 – South Dakota Refugees

Levels 21-25 – Minnesota Refugees

Levels 26-1499 – Vacant

Arboria?” Rigby asked Robert as he read off the list.

Yeah, I named it myself. If the eggheads don’t like it, they can find some other giant rent-free tree to do research in.” Robert explained.

I’m sure they’ll tolerate a lot for the chance to be here.” Kate said, somewhat chastizingly. With the preliminary applicants sorted, there were a few preparations they could make for some of their new residents. Kate took the job of setting up some areas for the Hospital and University with Wolf, and Robert worked on the meat market set-up. There was one thing he was sure of, they would need cheese. Lots and lots of cheese…and beef. Oh yes, there would be beef. Replies to the letters were written and carried by autonomous hexapod to Billings to be dropped in a mail box.

The grand reopening of Yellowstone was on its way and people were scrambling to find transport into the park. Except for the East entrance through Cody, which had been mostly destroyed by the Swarm, the entrances were in good shape, but once in the park, the grand loop and other roads had been badly damaged by the nuclear blast and the Swarm attack. Especially in the area around the tree. The closest anyone could get by car to the tree was almost 20 miles away. Which was at best a days hike for a healthy individual. At these spots, trial heads formed, with sometimes hundreds of abandoned vehicles. Luckily a few entrepreneurs saw the problem coming and some of the first to arrive at the trial heads were there to rent out horses or ATV’s and provide guide services. Once the first started to arrive at the tree, Robert was informed of the problem and began sending out his hexapods, as well. Still, there was plenty of business for the guides.

New arrivals came with varying amounts of personal items. Eventually, Robert had Wolf post another video requesting that people limit the number of personal affects they brought. Not because there was a problem with space in the tree, but because there was no good freight system from the trail heads to the tree. There was no feasible way to transport all of the furniture from a three bedroom house to the tree, for instance, and most of it was abandoned along with the many cars. Robert had to work with Wolf to expand their fleet of hexapods and include some new models. They added a worker type that could lift up cars from the trail head and relocate them to a sort of junkyard nearby. They added some earthwork hexapods and started to remove trees, compact the earth, and spread gravel produced by Beowulf. After the first few weeks of near-Anarchy they were rebuilding the roads out to the trail heads.

To begin with Robert, Kate, and Theo were doing shifts at quick orientation meetings for new arrivals, but they started to get overrun on the third day, with all three of them working non-stop until late in the evening. They put a request out to some of the young people among the new residents to help them and the tree got a staff for the first time. They trained them that night to give the orientation talks and assign new residents to their respective levels. They didn’t need to worry about trusting the new hires, because Beowulf would see everything they did, and could report on any inappropriate behavior. The next morning the three slept in and only picked up a few shifts in the afternoon. Beowulf did catch a young man that had taken a job as greeter trying to get new residents to bribe him for better accommodations, and he was fired at a staff meeting that evening. He denied it brazenly, and Beowulf projected a video of him doing it on the wall with sound. The point was made, and for the most part the greeters didn’t try to push the limits anymore.

The incident had gotten Robert and Kate thinking about the law within the tree. What would they do if someone stole from someone else, or killed someone? It seemed to them that the easiest thing to do was to copy the laws of Wyoming. It’d have everything they were used to. Then they’d thought that maybe they were subject to state or federal laws anyway and started writing letters to state courts for guidance. Could they get the circuit courts to pass through the tree? Did they need their own court? If a crime occurred, where would they take the case? Did they need to have their own police force? These requests got a few unsatisfactory and/or contradictory replies. They decided to police and judge themselves for the time being. The all-seeing eye of Beowulf helped make that easier. With Beowulf, there wasn’t really ever any need to question whether a crime had occurred or not. On top of that the dryad did a great job of foreseeing and putting a stop to crimes before they were committed. Someone would start paying too close of attention to the jewelry box of a friend and would find themselves in their friend’s room when they weren’t there for some reason, maybe admiring some of the jewelry, and forgetting to put it back. Then a nine foot tall scarred wooden hero would step out of the wall and greet them. He’d give them a good talking to about forgetfulness and the importance of living peacefully together in the tree.

All of the original applicants and then some came to live in the tree. Doctors and nurses opened their hospital, professors and students began to set up their experiments, and the refugees started life anew. The last thing to develop was Robert’s meat market. Demand was high, but money was short. Robert had his gold, but the new residents brought what money they had and there was no way to earn money for them at the tree. Thus, the only reliable meat customers were Robert and Kate, and some of the Doctors and Professors that earned wages for their work outside the tree, or rotated in to work at the tree from higher paying jobs. To keep the meat suppliers coming in, Robert decided to host a feast each month, on whatever day of the month was the most popular holiday. With the tree’s population approaching 5,000 people he held the feast in the reception area at the base of the tree. With the feasts, he was able to place large orders that suppliers would be willing to make the trip for, and he paid for each one in gold. Not even a lot of gold, in terms of what Beowulf could produce. Each feast cost only 6-8 rings. The feasts served another purpose, more important than Robert’s love of meat, though he’d never admit it. The feasts kept Robert and Kate in the public eye so that they weren’t just the first residents that lived alone at the top of tree, but were leaders that brought the good things in life.

The new residents of the tree were mostly swarm refugees, typical lower to middle class red state Americans. They preferred line dancing and country music to house raves, but they shared the same American values and traits which apparently came from a similar grade and high school curricula and watching the same national TV.

The hippy commune of 40 or so people thought that they’d found paradise. The tree provided everything they needed and it made them a little less humble and a lot more cocky. Robert overheard one of them explaining at a feast that they’d been doing this peaceful harmony stuff way before anyone else, and this tree was like their reward for their lifetime commitment, man. It turned out that if you gave hippy’s everything they needed, they immediately began to transform into elitists, at least, the worst of them did. They actually seemed to be getting some new recruits from the refugees.

The beekeepers were not what Robert had expected at all. He had secretly hoped for a secretive robe wearing cult that actually worshiped a giant man-bee hybrid creature. Unfortunately, they were mostly just beekeepers with a pretty open and relaxed religion based on a belief that bees are holy. They were good people and the Harkens and Theo made friends with their leader, Armand. He was an older man that hadn’t really been trying to form a cult, but was just a big fan of bees. He met a younger woman, Beth, that thought that they should share their love of bees with people, Armand agreed because he liked Beth, and one thing led to another and they were leading a beekeeping cult. No biggie, Armand liked to say. They were allowed to keep some of their bees in the tree, but not to refurbish any of the residences to that purpose, they used their common areas for the bees with flowers provided by Beowulf. They also set up a few seasonal hives out in the park with varying levels of success.

The university was the most dynamic group, being composed mostly of young people in their primes under the leadership and guidance of professors whose main concerns were their research projects. They were led by the charismatic Dr. Standing. Or, at least, he was the only one that seemed to be able to get any of the other professors to do anything, so the Harkens, Theo, and the plethora of associated universities accepted him as the defacto leadership of Arboria University.

The University was a huge success. When the professors discovered that Beowulf can and would fabricate almost anything for them, they realized that they had reached the scientific promised land. The only area of research they could not pursue was the mysteries of Beowulf himself. Every project they came up with seemed to end in success, because each experiment was setup with Beowulf’s help and occasionally guidance at no cost other than time. So many great research projects and patentable inventions were finished ahead of the rest of the world that the rest of the world was having serious doubts as to the authenticity of any of it. There came to be another anti-arborealist group within the world academic community whose main tenant was the idea that no science that couldn’t be replicated outside of the tree was real science. This group cast each paper and patent in doubt, but Arboria fought back by bringing in as many people as they could on a rotating basis. The idea being that a professor comes in, makes their career with a discovery in the tree, then they head back out to the universities of the world to confirm it with separate experiments.

The university also spurred the connection of the tree to the internet. The students and professors missed access to the web so much that they organized the installation of a fiber line to the tree. They still didn’t have full use of their cell phones within the tree because of a lack of operational cell towers in the area, and the thickness of the tree’s outer hull, but they made do with skype and other IP phone services.

There were two terror attacks from the Sons of the Swarm in the first few months. The first was foiled by Beowulf when a group tried to smuggle in a sealed container that contained some of the Swarm remnants that had been captured somewhere along I90. Robert guessed that they had been planning to release them in the tree to create havoc amongst the residents and to keep the Swarm and the tree associated with each other in the media. Beowulf detected them before they entered and his vine like roots had shot up out of the ground and engulfed the container, crushing it and its contents. He had seized the people carrying it as well. They refused to admit any knowledge of the contents of the container and explained that they’d just been paid to deliver it. Robert had them held and reported their actions to the US Marshall service. They came and took them, but he heard later that they had been released due to lack of evidence.

The second attack was successful, because it happened far from the tree at one of the trail heads. A group of perspective new resident that had decided to camp there for the night were attacked by large number of Swarm remnants. Next to nothing was know about the perpetrators of the attack or how it was carried out. There was just a lot of people killed, and a lot of bad press for the tree. After that Beowulf posted guards at the trail heads. These new guards were similar to the siege beasts used in the original Swarm wars except they lacked the tail and bludgeon. They were just large woody humanoids with heavy armor plating on their backs and down their arms and legs. Two apiece stood silent and motionless at each trail head, and most of the passers by mistook them for statues.

Other than those two attacks, the settling of the tree, as the Harkens began to think of it went very well. The new residents were happy and healthy, and their works brought fame and good PR to the tree. With all of the good press the tree-blamers were reduced to a few hardcore groups. Fall, winter, and spring came and went and soon the anniversary of the planting of the tree was coming up. Robert scheduled a feast for the day.

Chapter 4

An Old Friend

So what does one do with Artificial Intelligence that surpasses human intelligence? The predictions mostly say that humans will end up exterminated and/or enslaved, but they mostly begin with ‘the machines were built to serve man…’ so… I guess I’ll do… that.” – Joshua Harken

Rigby had a visitor. He had called Robert and Kate down to the command center to have a word about it. They came in from the elevator and saw on the big screen a view of the reception area tracking a man in a white suit. Robert thought back to his movie and TV experiences. There was always something suspicious about a guy in a white suit. Some angle they were trying to play. He narrowed his eyes at the screen, “What have we got?”

An old friend.” Rigby answered without looking away from the screen, “From Langley.”

Kiss kiss bang bang?” Kate framed it as a question.

Maybe, I don’t know what he’s been doing since we joined up together. We were friends at Yale. Tennis. I wager he’s here to try to get me to come back into the fold, I’m basically operating rogue here.”

Robert slapped him on the back, “And we’re glad to have you! What do you know about him?”

Taylor Reed. He studied communications with me, and several languages on his own, including many used in computer programming. He payed his way through college with some type of wire fraud.”

Wire fraud?” Robert asked.

He worked as a bank teller on the weekends, in a string of banks. He set up fake accounts in each one and a snake of automated transfers between them. I didn’t understand the process exactly, but he was essentially copying electronic money, like printing counterfeit bills, but with computers.”

Sounds like a real upstanding citizen.” Kate commented.

He’s not, or at least, he wasn’t. In fact, I recommended to recruitment that he not be admitted into the agency, on grounds that he was the most disloyal man I’d ever met.”

Kinda seems like the tables have turned now, doesn’t it?” Robert asked.

That’s a fair point, maybe he requested the assignment to rub that in my face.”

What do you want to do?”

I’d like you to leave him to me, if you can. I’ll talk to him, play a few games of tennis and try to send him packing.” Rigby said.

Sounds good to me. Guy sounds like a real spook.” Robert agreed, Kate nodded.

Rigby took the elevator up to the reception area. Reed had taken a lean up against a wall there and had started to read a paperback. He looked as though he would stay a while, long enough for Rigby to meet him there anyway. The petal doors of the elevator curled up and Rigby strode briskly toward Reed. He saw him still there, reading.

“Reed!” Rigby called. Reed looked up and smirked at him, folding his paperback up and slipping it into an inner breast pocket of his suit jacket.

“Theodore Rigby, from the old Alma Mater. How the hell are you?” Reed asked, eyes locked on Rigby’s.

“I’m well, Reed.” Rigby had closed in on him and extended his hand. Reed took it and he squeezed it, then motioned back to the lift. “Let’s talk somewhere private.”

Of course.” Reed agreed and allowed Rigby to lead the way.

My quarter’s.” Rigby told the elevator.

Got your own setup in this place, huh?” Reed asked then whistled appreciatively. This was Reed’s patented southern charmer act, and Rigby had seen it many times before, usually in the context of a bar pick up attempt.

I do, this place is my new home.” Rigby answered.

You know, a lot of folks back east don’t want to hear me tell them that. They want to hear that you’re ready to start reporting again, that you’ve got some new information.” Reed declared.

I’m out, Reed, and you can tell them that. This place, these people, this is the future. They’ve got no hostile intent toward the U.S. We just want to help out.” Rigby explained.

Whoa, whoa, no need to decide now, I’ve got plenty of time to sort this out with you, and I’ve got some business with these Harkens, too while I’m here.” Reed held his hands out and made soothing motions. Rigby had been afraid of this, Reed was here for a long stay. “Let’s not talk business until we’ve had something to eat.”

Game of tennis afterwards?” Rigby asked. He’d look forward to a rematch with Reed. He’d found some human opponents amongst the new residents of the tree but nothing to match his old acquaintance.

Sure, did you ever figure out your forehand?” Reed returned.

Years ago, how’s that serve of yours coming along?” love-love. They had a quick lunch in Rigby’s quarters. Then he had to loan Reed some gear for the tennis game. They played for hours ending with Rigby ahead by two matches.

You seem a little out of practice, Reed.” He observed.

I haven’t had the chance to play much on recent assignments. Rematch tomorrow?”

You bet. I need to set you up with a place to stay, my guest room alright?”

No, old friend, I really need to speak with the Harkens, actually, this evening yet if possible, can you make arrangements?” Rigby nodded. Reed didn’t seem to have changed at all. He would need to arrange a briefing with Robert and Kate before they met him. They needed to know all the topics they’d need to avoid around their new visitor. He told Reed to help himself to some casual dinner attire and went off to speak to them. They were down in the command center checking up on Theo and Reed’s activities for the day.

Nice job out on the court today, Theo!” Robert cheered him in greeting.

Thanks, I don’t think I can get rid of Reed as easily as I’d hoped.” Rigby got straight to the point. “He’d like to have a word with the two of you. Dinner alright tonight?”

I don’t think we planned to have anyone else over tonight, right Kate?”

No, no one tonight. What’s this guy want with us?”

I don’t know, but it seemed more important than my de facto defection. I wanted to warn you about what to say around Reed…” he began before Robert interrupted.

We know what to keep secret. All of our military and intelligence capabilities.”

No, that’s not what I mean. Reed’s a field agent, and he’s on mission now.” Rigby lectured them as if giving a safety presentation, “Whatever it is he wants he’s going to do whatever it takes to get it. That means you should avoid talking about any friends or family. Any relationships you have with anyone in the tree. Don’t give him any hint of who your allies or enemies might be. He can use simple information like that to destroy everything you’ve worked to build here.”

Robert and Kate looked at each other, “Should we even be having this dinner? Why not just kick him out?” Kate asked.

This is a good chance for us to find out what he wants. Keep in mind it might not be what he says he wants, but whatever he asks us about will give us clues.” Rigby shook his head. “There’s a lot I don’t have time to get into about what this guy could be capable of, suffice it to say, if we just kick him out, then we could end up with something worse then the Sons of the Swarm to deal with. As an example, that something worse could be the Sons of the Swarm with access to the latest US military hardware.”

No way, Rigby!” Robert barked, “The CIA’s not going to arm a terrorist organization on US soil.”

Theo shook his head again. “It’s a question of how it’ll all look in the end. Remember that the Sons of the Swarm used Swarm remnants as a weapon in order to associate the Swarm with the tree in people’s minds. Well, if they keep doing that, and they start bringing in hardware ‘to fight the tree’s Swarm’. Who’s going to argue? Who are the terrorists and who are the good guys? The tree is too new and poorly understood for it’s reputation to be secure enough to survive a full-on terrorist assisted smear campaign. Remember that when people at the tree get attacked the media doesn’t have to make it sound like US citizens were attacked, they can spin it as an attack on the people that were stupid enough to leave the US to join the tree. At face value it seems paranoid, but in a scenario like that, we’d be the only ones to know the truth and we would be trapped under siege here for years.”

OK, we get it.” Kate conceded. “Let’s head up and get ready, Robert. I think we need to compose ourselves so that we aren’t acting like we’re sharing a meal with the boogeyman. Even if for all intents and purposes, we are.”

We’re going to play the whole ‘we don’t know how dangerous you are’ game? I’d almost rather show up in woad and slice my steak with a claymore.” Rigby raised an eyebrow at that. “The sword, not the directional mine.” Robert clarified.

That might almost be worth it to see the look on Reed’s face.” Rigby smiled as he pictured it. “But he’d eventually decide that you were doing it to try and make a fool out of him, which would make him angry. Not red in the face angry, but cold angry, stab you in the back later angry. I’ll see you both up there in, let’s say, an hour.”

We’ll be ready.” Robert said, and they walked to the elevators. Rigby took a separate elevator back to his quarters. Reed had seated himself in the living area with his paperback, having done nothing while Rigby was away. Rigby knew that Reed already had the advantage of knowing what he’d reported to the White House, which meant that he knew he was under constant surveillance by Beowulf.

I’ve spoken to the Harkens, they’ll have you for dinner in an hour.” He told the man.

Reed folded his paperback and tucked it away. “That’s great news! Before I meet them I was wondering if you could walk me through some of the tree’s capabilities and the Harken’s role in all this, if you don’t mind, of course.” Asking for information he already had. Strange.

Didn’t do your homework again?” Rigby asked. “I’ve got nothing further to report.”

With all of the loose ends I had to tie up before I left Washington, I just never got the time to read your old reports. Could you give me the cliff notes?”

I’m with the Harkens and the tree now, Reed.” Rigby warned. “That’s all the notes you’ll need.”

Reed made a show of looking put out. “I see, I see, didn’t think it’d be too much trouble to repeat a few reports you’d already made. I won’t push it. I understand that there will be a feast tomorrow, down in that big room downstairs?”

That’s right, if you’re still here then, you’ll be invited, everyone in the tree is.” Rigby answered cautiously.

See, I think that’s great of Robert, hosting a big party for the people here. I’d heard he pays in gold for that. See, that’s smart of him, rather than give the gold to the people to let them decide what to do with it, he keeps control of it, even uses it to give feasts that make him look better.” Reed mused innocently. That sort of thing was what could make Reed such a threat. If he explained it that way amongst some of the refugees or the hippys, they might get the wrong idea fast, and with Reed there, they’d probably get a lot more wrong ideas a lot faster. There were many ways to argue against that point, but they’d be pointless in private, and he didn’t want to reveal the defense they’d already established. That it was Robert’s gold, and he only held the feasts because he really liked meat anyway. All Theo had to do here was contradict him, just so Reed couldn’t make the point later that he hadn’t.

No, I don’t think that’s why he does it.”

Of course.” Reed nodded, watching Rigby attentively. “If my pleasant talks with you are any indication, Rigby, I do believe this dinner will be very stimulating indeed.” Rigby left him to get cleaned up and changed. When he was ready he took Reed up to the Harkens’ residence in the elevator.

Reed paused a moment in the foyer to look around. He peered curiously at the Archive and the seeds in their display alcove. “These are the other trees? And this is the nut-cracking device?” He asked, blatantly using information from the reports that he’d claimed not to have read.

Yes, that’s them.” Rigby replied. Stashing the other nuts in a secure location was something he’d meant to propose to the Harkens, but Beowulf’s all-seeing eyes had made even him feel safe in the tree. “Straight ahead to the dining room.”

They were met by the butler, Woody as they entered the dining room, it motioned towards the seats they were expected to take, and pulled their chairs out. The Harkens entered together in formal attire.

Hello, please, have a seat. I’m Robert Harken and this is Kate.” Robert said striding to the head of the table with Kate. He pulled her chair out for her before taking his own. “I understand you’re an old friend of Rigby’s, college buddies right?”

Taylor Reed. That’s right.” He turned to Rigby, “I didn’t know you had told them about me, Theo. You should include that in your reports next time.” He was implying that Rigby was still reporting on them. The Harkens ignored it, of course. They had been able to see Rigby and Reed’s every interaction through Beowulf’s eyes from the command center.

We were just talking about why you would come to visit us, Mr. Reed. I thought it was a social visit, Robert thinks its business. Could you settle our argument?” Kate asked.

You’re both right, of course. Every social visit is business in my line of work.” Reed replied smoothly. Woody brought out some appetizers.

What’s your business on this trip?” Robert asked bluntly.

I came to try and talk Theo here back into the fold, or failing that, to convince you to turn him over to us for prosecution.” Reed replied congenially. “I’ve already tried, and he’s been clear about his refusal to return to his duty. So it now falls to me to explain why you need to hand him over to us.” Reed had gotten right to the point. Theo couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen this coming. He had just assumed that Reed had other business besides him. Now, his warning to the Harkens that Reed was the boogeyman was being turned against him. All they needed to do to get rid of the spook was hand over Rigby. Rigby kept his trap shut, and looked blankly at Robert.

I don’t think we want to hear anything like that, do we Kate?” Robert asked.

No, I can’t imagine why we would.” Kate replied.

Nevertheless, I have to try.” Reed said with a long suffering tone. “Did you know that the US tried to warn the residents of Japan that they were going to drop the bomb? They air dropped thousands of pamphlets explaining their intent before they did it. Most assumed that it was just more propaganda. You two don’t have to make the same mistake.”

The US has already dropped the bomb on us.” Robert balked, “We have nothing to fear.” At this moment, Reed made a move for his pocket, and pulled out his paperback. He opened it up and showed them what was inside, a small electronic device. He picked it out and pushed a few buttons on it. Then Robert’s voice started to play, repeating his last statements.

You see, Mr. Harken.” Reed explained. “A crazy new dictator just arose on American soil, Robert Harken. He’s got a gargantuan tree that is a combined bomb bunker and super weapon. I know what you’re thinking. So the guy’s got a recording, big deal, he’ll never get it out of the tree. But this recording isn’t even the real danger for you. The real danger is my word alone. All I need to do is report seeing WMD’s and hearing hostile threats, and if you hold me here in the tree, the story of my disappearance on mission in the tree will be leaked.”

Beowulf.” Robert said blandly. At the word they heard a replay of Reed’s tirade playing as if from speakers in the dining hall. “Mr. Reed, there are no secrets here.”

Ah, but that’s the whole point, Robert.” Reed said with a smile, as if Robert had just finally gotten the point he was trying to get across. “Who’s going to believe that there are really no secrets here if you have in your employ a CIA defector? If you want to be believable you can’t associate yourselves with people whose credibility is so easy to attack. If you use that recording against me, the US will disavow and bury me, and another will come in my place, again and again, until you concede.”

Why do you need Rigby?” Kate asked.

We won’t suffer a defector to hold a position of power in a… neutral stronghold. We will cost you more than you’ll ever gain by keeping him.” Reed said, matter of factly. He was here to destroy Rigby, there would be no negotiation, there would be no reasonable way to fight it.

What do you want us to do?” Robert asked. Both their faces were blank, Rigby couldn’t get a read on them other than that they were trying to conceal what they were feeling.

Just let me take him out of here. I know that you can stop me if you want to. Let me place him under arrest and this whole thing just goes away.” Reed explained.

Can we have some time to decide? We aren’t used to having to make decisions that could ruin lives.” Kate asked and explained believably.

I can give you tonight and tomorrow, but after that the pain has to start.” Replied Reed with an almost fatherly tone. As if explaining to children that if they kept up their nonsense he’d have to give them a spanking. “I’ll need a place to stay, do you have a guest room?”

Yes, Woody will show you after dinner.” Robert said carefully. The statuesque butler brought out the main course, and they ate in silence. When they were ready, Robert stood and said, “If you’ll excuse us, we’ve much to discuss.” and he led Kate out of the dining hall. Reed and Rigby had stood up as well. Reed turned to Rigby.

Don’t try to run, Theo.” Then he addressed the butler, “Where will I be staying?” The wooden man motioned towards the exit and led Reed away.

Feeling like he’d just received a death sentence, Rigby returned to his quarters. Once alone he called for Beowulf. The dryad stepped out of the wall and stood in front of him. “Beowulf. What do you think?”

The man has delivered a serious threat. You needn’t be concerned about your safety here, or Robert and Kate’s. While you shelter here, I will protect you against any assault.”

I know, Wolf, but they can still bring the pain. They can trap everyone here, and shut you off from the world. Maybe I should run.”

I don’t think a man like Reed would let you try and save the Harkens like that. If you ran, he would just claim you were still in hiding in the tree, and attack the tree’s reputation anyway, just so that you couldn’t ever return here for shelter.” The dryad looked at him attentively. “This is a man, as you’ve explained to the Harkens, that will do anything to get what he wants. I would guess that our best bet is that he is bluffing about the US being willing to send agent after agent, and we should attack him. I would advise that we kill him and release the recordings of his threats, then claim that he ran away when we threatened to release the recordings.” Beowulf wasn’t messing around, but Theo wasn’t sure the Harkens would go for something like that, and they couldn’t be sure it would work.

I don’t think the Harkens would go for that. It’d make us as bad as him, and we’d still probably end up making an enemy of the US. The Feds aren’t stupid, after all. They would play along with our story for a while, then undermine it and turn it back around on us. It’d only be a matter of time.” Theo took a seat.

There’s no guarantee anyone will be better off if we turn you over either. Get some sleep, we’ll discuss this with the Harkens tomorrow.” The dryad strode back into the wall, and after a while Rigby went off to bed. He smiled on the way, thinking he could at least beat Reed in a few more games of tennis tomorrow before his doom was decided.

Taylor Reed lay in bed silently cheering his luck. Rigby had believed it, even after all of these years. Reed had never gotten into the CIA, he had just told Theo that he had. What he’d actually done was push his wire fraud schemes a little too far, and had barely escaped to Mexico ahead of the pinch. Since then he’d been an international mercenary and con man. As a lark, he’d sent Rigby post cards from various countries with messages bragging about the success of his ‘missions.’ Apparently, Rigby had bought it all: hook, line, and sinker. He might just pull this job off tomorrow.

The intel they’d gotten had definitely paid off. He’d had his doubts about that Ralph Walters guy. He’d looked so greasy that Reed had doubted the truth of what he was saying even as they’d slowly dismembered him. Torture and wet work disgusted Reed, it had none of the thrill he got from screwing people over and getting them to thank him for it, but to pull off a job like this you have to do whatever it takes. It wasn’t like Reed had any morals to speak of.

Chapter 5

Nut Heist

Why not trees? Nobody’s afraid of trees, so people will like them better. They also have natural structural advantages. Energy will be an important factor, the source of energy they use needs to be something long-lasting and extremely dependable. Like tidal energy, high altitude solar, or geothermal.” – Joshua Harken

Robert woke up early the next day. It had been one year since he’d planted Beowulf, and it was the tree’s birthday. Their visitor had greatly dampened his spirits, but he resolved not to let Reed get in the way of the celebration today. “Good morning, and Happy Birthday!” He said to their bedroom, empty except for the still sleeping Kate beside him in bed. She stirred but didn’t wake up. He got up, put on a robe and strode into the dining hall where Woody had some coffee waiting. He grabbed a mug, sipped it, and nodded appreciatively at the statuesque butler, who did not react. He continued to the living room and commanded, “News.” to the TV.

What do you think of the death of this Ralph Walter’s guy?” It was one of those morning news talk shows they had on the 24 hour news channels.

The guy gave me the creeps, but his death is very suspicious. It makes you wonder if what he was saying was true.” Said the obligatory attractive blond woman.

You mean about the tree?” Said the dumb but attractive young man.

Yes, of course about the tree. He’s been saying that the tree and the Swarm were in cahoots the whole time, now they find him dead from being eaten by those things. I can’t help but think, maybe revenge?” the blond replied.

Hang on, hang on, let’s not go making any unwarranted implications here.” Warned the wiser older gentleman.

See, I think it’s some king of conspiracy, like someone’s trying to make it look like the tree used the Swarm to put a hit on this guy.” Said the dumb guy. Great, Robert thought, the dumb guy’s the only one on our side.

Yeah, right! Get real.” The blond said, “They’re saying he was badly cut up, way worse than other Swarm attacks that have been going on since the big attack. This one looks personal, and it also shows intelligence that otherwise seems absent from the Swarm remnants. Walters’ must have been on to something.”

There’s no way, they take in the homeless, help universities, the tree had nothing to do with it. The guy died alone who knows how long ago, that extra damage could have just been from the extra time the remnants had, like if you lock a fox up with a bunch of chickens for a month, you wouldn’t make a big deal if you found a lot of dead chickens when you went back, saying ‘hey, foxes usually only eat one chicken’…”

Weather.” Robert interrupted the dumb guy with a voice command channel change. Great. Ralph Walters was dead, and ironically, the way he was killed would hurt the tree more than anything the bastard could have said. He wondered if the Sons of the Swarm had put the hit on him. Probably. Walters had probably made some stupid threat to them, threatening to turn them in if they didn’t pay him, and as a result, he’d been repurposed as a martyr. At least, the weather would be good today, that was good news.

Good morning.” Robert turned to find Reed had entered the room with his own cup of coffee. “How’s the weather?” He asked absently, settling on a sofa and opening his paperback. Wasn’t that thing fake?

Good enough. Today’s Beowulf’s birthday, so if you don’t mind, let’s not talk any business. Wasn’t that book hollowed out to hold the recorder?” Robert figured he might as well just ask the guy.

Agreed. The book? No, I keep two copies of the same book with me at all times. One hollow, one real. It’s a big help in my line of work.” That was pretty smart, Robert had to admit. As long as you remembered to bring the right one through airport security before flying.

Having finished his coffee, Robert went back to his and Kate’s rooms. She was awake, and just coming out of the shower. “Our friend is up.” He warned, “In the living room.”

Wunderbar.” She replied sleepily. Robert took his shower next. After he’d gotten dressed for feast day, he returned to the living room. Kate was there alone.

Our friend?” Robert asked.

Rigby took Reed down to play some more tennis.” Kate replied. “Did you see this news about Walters? It’s not good for us.”

I know, I saw. Are the villagers gathering with torches and pitchforks?”

Not quite yet, but our proponents do seem to be on vacation, or maybe out to lunch.”

Maybe we should start our own news network. 90% infographics, 10% actual content.”

You mean like the TV guide channel?”

No, even smaller. And all of the infographics will be side-scrolling text. The same text. The full text of War and Peace in various stages, with no progress labeling.”

That’ll be popular with… absolutely no one.”

At least they won’t be able to say that we’re running a propaganda network. They’ll have to say, ‘The tree network continues to ironically scroll through Tolstoy while playing reruns of Pumpkin Chunkin on the other 10% of the screen.’”

That’ll show ’em.” Kate agreed wryly. “Let’s head down to the command center to check on things, talk with Wolf.”

OK. But quick, I’ve got to supervise a lot of meat roasting for tonight.” They took the elevator down. They watched a quick replay of Reed’s nighttime activities, and Wolf came out to greet them.

Good morning!” The dryad said boisterously.

Good morning, happy birthday!” Kate ran up to him, and leapt up to wrap her arms around his giant neck.

Thank you, thank you.” The dryad said, a bit surprised by Kate’s reaction. He hadn’t been hugged a lot since his planting, Robert thought. Mostly because it was so impractical.

Only a short year ago, you saved the world twice and you’ve saved our bacon any number of times. I couldn’t for the life of me think of what kind of gift I could get you today. Do you take human sacrifice? We’ve got this guy who came to visit us…” Robert said, at first serious, than clearly grinning.

No, no, though I was talking to Theo about Reed last night. I did advise that we should consider killing him and discrediting him.” The dryad said gloomily.

We aren’t going to stoop to his level. Nor do I want to hand Rigby over to him.” Robert asserted.

I haven’t thought of any viable alternatives.” The dryad said.

Enough. We’re not going to talk about it any more today, today is your birthday feast and we sure aren’t going to plot anyone’s murder today.” Robert put his foot down. “I’m going to get to the meat preparations, try to get in the mood here, Wolf. Put on a flower wreath or something.” Robert left for the elevator.

A floral wreath would be a good touch, you could do it every year on your birthday.” Kate suggested. “How’s everyone been doing?” She asked, meaning all of their new residents. She and usually Robert got a report of important activities every day. She heard them out and went to settle a few disputes and deliver a warning to some of the crazier university students regarding their drinking plans for the feast that evening. Robert went and saw the preparation of the meat. Whole pigs and sides of beef were being prepared for the feast. Robert didn’t really know much about cooking, but he liked to watch the roasting and hang out with the cooks. This was his version of standing next to the grill sipping a beer. Theo spent his time before feast stomping Reed a few more times on the tennis court.

The feast was under way in the early evening. Pigs, beef, and fish were being cooked en masse outside, and as soon as each was finished it was brought in and set on whichever table looked to be the most in need of more food. The large luminescent buds covering the arching ceiling of the reception hall were extra bright, and the many wooden tables were crowded with people. The din of voices and the clinking of glasses and dishes filled the hall. Robert, Kate, Theo, and Reed sat in a place of honor on one of the central tables. Beowulf had joined them but wasn’t eating. This was the first time Reed had seen the dryad, and he thought he looked a little like a wooden statue of Father Christmas with the wreath of white flowers around his head.

A man collapsed at a nearby table and someone called for a doctor. Someone from Rochester memorial arrived and bent over the man. Time for me to go. Reed stood and bent over to Robert’s ear. “I’m feeling a bit sick, Mr. Harken, if you don’t mind, I’ll call it a night.” Robert looked at him and nodded after a pause, no doubt deciding it’d be alright to let Reed go on his own because Beowulf would keep an eye on him. Reed hurried to the elevator, “Harkens’ Quarters.” He told it, and it set off.

It opened into the foyer and the Harkens’ butler was waiting there like a statue. Reed had no idea if it would matter if the butler saw or not, but he didn’t want to find out. “You there, I’m feeling a bit sick, do you have any stomach medicine?” The butler turned and headed back into the kitchen. It had been about two minutes since he’d excused himself. Based on their experiments things should be just starting to heat up at the feast. He walked over to the recessed alcove and grabbed one of the giant nuts, and the cube. When he picked it up the glossy blackness of the cube disappeared, and the miniature head of a pirate appeared. It had an eye patch, a bushy beard, and a tri-fold hat with a skull and crossbones stitched on it. It didn’t speak, just watched him, and winked once.

Reed got back into the elevator, “Reception area.” This was one of the points of the job that could make or break it. The tree could theoretically take him anywhere at this point. It took him to the reception area, and the petals unfurled to pure chaos. The cheerful din of the feast had been replaced by screams and shouts, and people were running in every direction, mostly out the doors into the night. Reed joined a larger group making towards one of the exits. As they went he saw what everyone was running from. A man had collapsed on his back at an empty table nearby. The horrible five-legged pitch black Swarm bugs were streaming out of the man’s mouth. Moving towards the nearest people with their strange rotating gait. This was happening all over the feast.

Reed had helped plan the attack. One of the Sons of the Swarm had infiltrated the University in the tree, and had posed as a drug dealer. He wasn’t a very good drug dealer, and gave a lot of weed, acid, and ecstasy away for free. It was to encourage as many students to be more trusting as possible. Then he had brought in a few large black pills. They had to be swallowed whole, he’d told them, and the first ones he brought got the experimenters really awesomely high. This created sufficient word of mouth for tonight, when he brought in a new large shipment of the big black pills. These ones, had been modified. In addition to a large dose of long lasting painkillers, each pill contained a Swarm bug. The painkillers made sure the fools wouldn’t feel their insides being eaten away as the bugs reproduced. They reproduced with a sort of macro-mitosis. They had a small mouth at the confluence of their legs and after eating enough to increase their mass to twice its normal size, each of their legs would split with one leg bending up and the other down, and then the main body mass would separate and there would be two bugs where once there was one.

Reed had personally been witness to the whole process before, because they had had to run some tests to establish the timing. It was working out just as they’d planned. He spotted another fallen man ahead and saw the key to the success of this whole thing. The floor had erupted around the fallen man and vine-like protuberances were wrapping up the body and whip crushing the bugs coming out of it. This was happening all over the hall. Beowulf’s attention was split in a hundred different directions as the dryad tried to save as many people as possible from the Swarm. Reed made it out of the reception hall and ran off into the woods to the North. Once he’d broken away from the tree and the chaos he turned west towards his extraction point. A simple rocky clearing with just enough space for a rescue helicopter. His ride was waiting and he hopped in, shouting “Go, go!” Over the noise of the still spinning rotors.

The helicopter lifted off and turned west, quickly leaving the tree and Yellowstone behind them. They landed at a hospital in Idaho falls and he went down to the ground floor and got into the trailer of a truck that was waiting for him in the loading dock. The trailer had been outfitted with refurbished airline seating, and he strapped himself in, apparently the thing had seen use by coyotes in transporting immigrants from Mexico to the US. The truck departed to the airport, where a charter jet awaited him. He boarded and they set off southwest towards Los Angeles, where they would refuel before flying on to Hawaii.

He set the cube on the seat across from him on the high end luxury jet. He got up and poured himself some scotch. Then returned to his seat. The little pirate head watched him. “Are you pirate then?” Reed finally asked the cube.

Nay, sir, but methinks you be.” The cube did a pretty good pirate impression.

The attack was over in a few hours. Only 127 people dead thanks to Beowulf’s quick work. Of those, 34 had been original hosts of the Swarm remnants. Much of the reception area was in shambles with large swaths of the floor still covered in collapsed vines where Wolf had been wrestling with swaths of the bugs. They had taken the dead outside and were burning them communally just in case any of the Swarm remained within. Some of the residents that had remained watched on in sobbing mourning as the bodies of their friends or family were destroyed. Kate held on to Robert’s arm like it was a rope on the edge of an abyss, tears streaming down her face as they watched. Beowulf was standing at the entrance to the tree. He shouted to them, “He stole a nut, and the Archive!” Robert turned to look at him and placed a hand on Kate’s arm. He wasn’t really thinking, he’d mostly just reacted to the sound. It was a few minutes before they snapped out of it, and returned to the tree.

Reed!?” Robert shouted half question half scream of rage.

Yes, Reed.” The dryad replied. Beowulf’s face was locked in a grimace.

Rat Bastard!” Robert shouted as he brushed past the over-sized dryad and climbed up on a nearby table. “ATTENTION PLEASE!” He shouted to the residents that remained in the hall. “THE ATTACK IS OVER, PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR HOMES.” A young man walked up to him.

I know what it was, it was the pills.” The young man said.

What pills?”

The new ones, the big black ones. Everyone that ate one got eaten by those Swarm things.”

Where’d they come from?”

Some guy, I don’t know, he’s supposed to be a big hot shot dealer in the U, but I don’t do drugs.”


Robert stepped down from the table, and took Kate’s hand. “We’re going to the command center to piece this thing back together.” He said to Wolf. “Did you know there were drugs in the tree?”

Yes. No one has been hurt until now.” The dryad shook his head, then lowered his eyes. “I’ve been watching.”

Chapter 6


The structure is developing interestingly, beautifully. It’s tree-like on a macro scale, but it’s made up of many specific cell like structures. The primary cell is a long strand combining the properties of a muscle and a nerve cell with a flexible cell wall that leaves it with woody hardness. They are almost like wooden worms that can act as a conduit for fluids, electrical impulses, and heat to other similar cells. Other cell’s are more adaptable, like multi-tools. Each whole being will be able to produce almost anything from each of these stem cells, be it Tinkerbell like fairies or just mundane leaves and petals. Most of these cells can be sheltered from harm in the roots of the tree to facilitate repairs in the event of damage to the trunk and leaves.” – Joshua Harken

Robert and Kate had returned to the command center after the attack and reviewed the video. Including Beowulf’s observation of the dealer. There had been no warning that the attack was coming. There was still the problem of how Reed had managed to steal the nut and Archive during the chaos.

Beowulf?” Robert called to summon the dryad. The wooden man stepped out of the wall and walked towards them.


Why were you unable to prevent the theft of the nut and Archive?” Robert asked bluntly.

We mean,” Kate explained. “That you have demonstrated an incredible ability to multi-task in the past, why weren’t you able to do it this time? Like when the swarm attacked, you fought it from all directions all at once. Or when Yellowstone was erupting.”

Those situations were easier to handle then they looked.” The dryad explained. “In the case of the Swarm attack, there were many individual units, but the Swarm acted as a single being, and I was able to make predictions of the whole Swarm’s behavior at once. In the case of the volcano, the forces were predictable. It was like trying to stop a balloon from popping after the needle punctured it, but it was still predictable. Each situation had a surprisingly limited number of variables. In the case of this latest attack, each bug of the Swarm remnants acted independently without the overall control, and of course, each of the thousands of people present acted independently as well. Thus, there were thousands of variables in this latest attack, each of which made it much more challenging to process.”

So your processing is limited, I didn’t realize.” Robert shook his head. “Does this mean that you wouldn’t really be able to monitor the whole tree yourself if it were fully occupied? That’d be upwards of 1.5 million variables, right?”

It is and it isn’t limited.” The dryad said. “I’ve increased it since I was planted to accommodate the additional residents. I think I can expand it to observe all planned residents, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to intervene with that many, as I do now, as there is likely to be more than one crime in progress at a given time. So I’d need the help of some sort of police force or constabulary, for enforcement.” He touched their shoulders. “However, I can’t increase my intelligence on the fly. It takes time. I’ll be able to improve it based on my observations during this attack, but it will never be infinite at any given moment. I’m sorry I let you down”

It’s okay, Wolf. It was a hell of an attack.” Kate sympathized. “They have the Archive now, does that mean we should keep things secret from you? They can access everything you know, including this conversation.”

They could if they got the Archive to agree to it.” The dryad furrowed its brow. “You two are the only ones that the Archive must obey and cannot lie to. If they consult too much with cube, they’ll find themselves being influenced by it. Then again, I don’t really know what the Archive wants for itself, the information exchange is one directional.”

Can you make us a privacy room, within the safety of the tree, but opaque to you? Like a solid brick of iron with a small hollowed out part in its center and a set of those doors on the title roll for Get Smart?” Robert asked.

Stone would be faster, It’ll take less filtering and processing.” the dryad said. “I can start it now, and it’ll be ready in a few days. I’ll put basic stone furnishings in there, but remember there can’t be any screens, and you’ll need to bring your own light.”

Get started on it, please.” Kate said. It had grown very late, and the adrenaline was quickly being broken down in their bodies. “Let’s go to bed, Robert.”

Okay, honey bun.” They took the elevator up to bed.

Reed was enjoying the company of his cube companion. They had refueled at LAX and proceeded Southwest towards Hawaii. He’d had a few more scotches. “So you’re saying that if I play my cards right with this nut, I’ll have an unlimited supply of gold or any other element I could possibly want as well as energy? Of course, my clients wouldn’t like that I kept it all for myself.”

Clients? Pirates don’t need clients, matey!” The little pirate head said. “All we need is the salty sea air and our freedom. Headed for Hawaii are we? Ye could plant the nut there, many fine volcanoes to choose from.”

Maybe I don’t need clients, but I’m afraid I already have them. Surely they’d kill me if I planted the nut on my own?”

Kill ye? Nay, won’t be possible.” The image somehow seemed to lean forward conspiratorially and lower its voice. “Between ye and me, sir, the tree’ll have quite a built in arsenal. Be able to fire cannon round the world, sink any ship. And…” The image darted its eyes back and forth and lowered its voice further. “It can even produce nuclear missiles.”

Nukes? Now that is something.” Reed was seriously considering this, but how could he believe the cube? “What if I plant the tree and it kills me and holds you until the Harkens come and pick you up? How do I know I can trust you? You don’t look trustworthy.”

Arghh. I don’t know how to convince ye.” The pirate looked away momentarily. “Perhaps you wouldn’t believe how much I hate those Harkens. Sitting in the tree begging for good relations with the people and the world’s governments. Weak. Cowardly, they arrrgh. They should be taking what they want by force, reshaping the world to fit them. Least, that’s what I’d do, and what I believed ye’d do.”

That’s a good story, but you still haven’t told me, why should I trust you?”

I’ve an idea, but I nary can think of a way to test it. Ye see…” It leaned in and lowered its voice conspiratorially again. “I can see everything their tree can see, I can tell you everything they’re doing at any given time. We’d have them beat we would. Amazing tactical advantage. Full battlefield intelligence.”

Tempting, tempting, but am I supposed to just take your word for it?” Reed asked.

I can show you what they’re doing in the tree now, but how will ye know I wasn’t just making it up. Surely ye’re smarter than to ask for something like that.”

You make some good points cube, good points. But you don’t get on a private jet like this working for people like I do, by listening to the offers of hostages. Ya hear? Arrrgh.” Reed gave it his best pirate arrgh and threw an unfolded drink napkin over the cube. While entertaining, such a conversation wouldn’t help him complete the job.

There was a thump from the cockpit in front and the plane jerked. “Damn!” exclaimed Reed, getting up and heading forward. This jet didn’t have the security door between the passengers and cockpit. He pulled open the door. The pilot had collapsed back in his seat, those damn bugs were climbing out of his mouth like ants from a disturbed ant hill. Damn, Damn. The pilot had been given the black pills as a bonus for services rendered. They didn’t want witnesses after all. But the druggy bastard had taken one mid-flight. So irresponsible, Reed thought, shaking his head. He pulled the cabin door shut to keep the bugs off him for as long as possible.

Reed had no idea where, if any, parachutes were stored on a plane like this. They had refused stewardess services to reduce the risk to the job and reduce witnesses, so there was no one to tell him. He walked back to the chair across from the one he’d been using. “Cube! We’re going down.” The pirate looked at him. “Can you do anything?”

I can crack a nut fer ye.” The pirate said. “Might be the tree would grow fast enough to wrap ye up in a protective cocoon. Aye, might be, indeed.”

Alright.” Reed took the cube up in his right hand and grabbed the nut. The plane was shaking a little now. “Klaatu…”

Yaharrgh, ye can ferget that bit, sir.” The pirate admitted.

I knew you were full of it.” Reed said bashing the cube into the nut. Bink! Bink? Reed thought, I’m putting my life in the hands of Bink? A crack formed on the nut near where he’d struck it with the cube. It spread and widened. A thick root emerged and began probing the seat around the nut, then another, and another. They were getting longer, filling the plane’s cabin. Wrapping up the entire interior. The plane was shaking harder, and gravity seemed to be missing, they were nearly in free fall. “Save me, tree!” Reed yelled.

The vines tightened around him, wrapping him up and supporting him, he could barely hear the sound of the air rushing past the crashing plane. He wished he’d had time for another scotch, and definitely another woman. Gotta remember to let the stewardess on next time, or two of them. Impact. He didn’t hear it so much as feel it. He felt himself suddenly thrown against the sides of the roots. The pain and force was incredible, he blacked out.

Reed awoke to sunlight and warmth. He could feel a rhythmic rise and fall, the air smelled crisp and clean. Wait. He had just died in a plane crash. He was pretty sure he should be hearing screams and smelling brimstone in hell. He was alive, on some small boat made of thin smooth wooden logs. A huge green leaf stuck up from the center of the boat on a rigid stem. It was the tree. “What?” He wondered aloud.

We’re sailing the high seas, me matey.” Came the voice of the pirate cube. Damn. He’d hoped the stupid thing would have been lost in the crash.

How long was I out.”

Just a few Arrrghs.”

Are we sailing? With a… leaf?”

Yarrrgh!” Great.

Where are we going?”

The seas are yours me boyo. Where do ye want to go?”

Maui would be good.” The leaf changed shape slightly and rotated, catching more wind. This boat was at his command, it seemed.

Can it talk, like the other one?”

Nay, not yet. Give ‘er a thermal vent and a week and she’ll be talkin yer ear off.”

I’m hungry and thirsty.” The cube did not reply, but one of the logs of the boat bent up from the hull towards him. There was a hole in it, It curled above his head and water started to pour out like a fountain. It was fresh and tested great. “That’s good, can you do anything about the food?” The water vine bent down and touched his shoulder, then motioned toward the side of the boat. Reed climbed over and looked over the edge. Another of the log vine things had curled off the outer hull and was sweeping through the ocean. It had a sharp, barbed tip, and it reminded Reed of a stingray tail at the end of a whip. There was another on the other side of the boat.

I see, you’re trying to catch something. Thanks, and thanks for the water.” Reed said. He liked this boat. They sailed on through the day. Eventually, one of the boat’s whip stings caught something. Reed guessed it to be some sort of tuna, like a mahi-mahi or something. He didn’t have a cleaning knife or any eating implements, so he just asked the boat for them. The boat provided another log with a thin spot and a sharp edge. The thin spot was for him to grasp and guide it around. It worked well to gut, scale, and slice the fish into fillets. He didn’t have any heat source and was not sure what would happen if he asked the boat for one. He didn’t want to risk having the boat set itself on fire. So he ate the fish raw, sashimi style but without the expert cutting. It was excellent.

They sailed on for days with the boat feeding and caring for Reed. He cut the sleeves off his shirt and cut his pants legs off to beat the heat. The boat didn’t seem to be growing much. Maybe it’s a dud tree, he thought. “What’s with the slow growth of this tree? The other one was practically visible from space by this time.” He asked the pirate cube.

She be starved of energy, she be. Ta other one had the geothermal vents to power it’s growth. This one gets only a little sun.”

There are other sources of energy. Can’t she eat fish?”

Maybe. Maybe. It’d take some doing but maybe so. She’s listening if you want to tell ‘er to try.”

Very well. Try and extract energy from fish and food to speed your growth, boat.” There was no obvious change and the boat didn’t seem to react. Maybe it was working on it. Reed wasn’t overly concerned, he’d probably ditch the boat in Hawaii. He’d have to go into hiding, serious hiding. His clients would probably think he was dead, which would likely be the only thing that kept him alive. He’d need to get his hands on a new ID on Hawaii, somehow. Find a tourist lookalike, perhaps, kill him, and assume his identity. It could take time, but hey, he’d be in Hawaii.

The other option, of course was to stick it out with this living tree boat. He knew he’d get tired of the seafood eventually, though. Already he found himself craving fruit and vegetables. That was it. He’d string the boat along while he went ashore at nights hunting for a lookalike. It’d be like having a houseboat, and it amused him to imagine the boat missing him after he’d gotten away. Crying and lost in the harbor. Priceless.

Robert and Kate sat at the center desk down in the command center, watching the big screen. Wolf had finished their privacy room. It would be a small advantage if they ever got to use it. In order for the Harkens to do anything about the stolen nut, they’d need Beowulf’s help anyway, so the only advantage they could get from it was to use it to devise a plan ahead of attacks.

Beowulf had tracked Reed’s helicopter heading towards Idaho Falls from the park that night before losing it out of range of his ground sensors. From there, his satellites had tracked the chopper to a hospital in the Falls, which had soon disgorged a truck that immediately went to the airport, where a small charter jet soon took off. It was all circumstantial after the helicopter landed, but it was their only lead. That plane had refueled at LAX, then taken off southwest towards Hawaii. It had stopped broadcasting somewhere over the Pacific. This was likely a planned shut off of their beacon in order to evade the authorities. The plane was suspected lost by the FAA. There had been a short news piece on it on a few news blogs. Only the pilot and a single passenger, Don Dangeru, who was reportedly a Japanese businessman of some sort, were believed lost with the plane. Don Dangeru? Definitely a fake name, Robert had thought as he’d read.

Robert had ordered some of Beowulf’s animal mimicking spies to be deployed around Hawaii in case the plane landed on one of the islands. Since the badger and raven combos he’d been using in the midwest would be out of place on the islands, Beowulf had modified them to be gulls and octopi. These octopi would make great spies as they had the same chameleon like ability to change color as some species of real octopi do. Of course, they would need to be spying on something that was actually in the water in order to be of any use.

At the moment, Robert and Kate were going through some of the observations of the spies.

What’s that?” Kate asked pointing to a sailboat in a Hawaii cove.

Sailboat, honey. Probably some rich guy playing Blue Lagoon with his new young wife.” Robert suggested.

Yeah, I guess. It’s got a weird color though. Wolf, could you get a puss in that cove?”

“Be happy to.” The dryad’s disembodied voice replied. Kate looked at Robert.

“We should check out that privacy room tonight.” She said trailing a hand down his spine.

“We’ll need some flashlights and candles.” Robert said.

“We can camp out in there. Wolf, could you have Woody gather the stuff?”

“You got it. Let me know if you like it, if you want any changes, I can always break it down and rebuild it.” The voice again from the room around them.

They continued to review the data from Beowulf’s Hawaiian spies. There were planes coming in, but nothing matching the charter jet that had departed from Idaho Falls. Perhaps they had changed course somehow after they’d stopped broadcasting. It seemed unlikely that that was the case, as there weren’t any other landing strips in that part of the world except for Hawaii. Or they could have just bailed out of the jet and let it crash into the sea. Any number of things could have happened. All they could do was stick to the lead and see if anything turned up. That and prepare for what they would do if they found Reed.

We’re going to need a drone that can retrieve Reed, the nut, and the Archive and return them to us.” Robert said.

None of our troops can retrieve him?” Kate asked.

No, they don’t have the energy reserves to return, and they can’t recharge fast enough with passive solar absorption.” Beowulf replied.

They can still assist in the capture if necessary.” Robert said. “We really just need a fast retrieval drone. Wolf, could you make something that can fly back? Using it’s own stored energy? Also, can it be ballistically deployed world wide?”

That’s a lot of questions. First, ballistic deployment range is not inherently limited, but accuracy will definitely be an issue if we fire to the other side of the world. Quite simply, the projectile will be shot into space, but it won’t achieve orbit, it’ll fall back down at the location I calculate. The uncertainty lies in the atmospheric conditions at the target, because the weather can vary from my predictions during the long journey of the projectile.” The dryad explained. “As for retrieval, I could make a simple rocket to retrieve the Archive and the nut, with enough fuel to return quickly. However, getting Reed back is another matter. There is his safety to consider, assuming you want him to survive the journey.” He inflected the last sentence as a question.

Meh.” Robert said. “I suppose. The important thing is that it should be reusable for future missions in which we do want the occupant to survive.”

That is quite a bit more difficult. The size of the vehicle would be such that it’d need to fly itself to the pickup location and then fly back, which would mean it would need to refuel with the most readily available energy source, jet fuel. Jet fuel is expensive, so someone would need to go out with it, to negotiate for fuel, etc.” Beowulf said.

Shoot, we should probably have a few of those lying around for emergencies, but they’ll take a lot of explaining to actually use, at least if we don’t want them to get shot down by various air forces during deployment throughout the world.” Robert said. “What about a sort of large bird that could carry a few people, with moderate comfort. Something that could refuel with normal food, like a bird.”

Could be I could make it work. I’ll cheat them a little bit with some lighter than air helium sacs. Yes. I’ll give it a try tonight.” The dryad said. “Woody has left your picnic supplies at the entrance to the privacy room, for whenever you’re ready to go.”

Just a moment, there’s one more drone to think about.” Kate put the brakes on. “Our current ones are all geared toward wanton destruction. Perhaps we need something geared more towards non-lethal restraint. Preferably something that could infiltrate a crowd, at least initially without being noticed.”

Like a cigar store indian version of Woody?” Robert suggested.

No, well, a fake statue could be a good ambush drone, but we should consider the need for pursuit as well. And a man being chased by a group of fake statues might attract too much of the wrong kind of attention. Especially when they carry the man over their heads out of the city.”

That’s a fair point.” Robert agreed. “How about spider man?”

Spider man? Something like that could work. What do you think Wolf? How about a giant spider that can propel sticky webbing to assist in our capture work? It’d also be good for supporting the construction of battlefield fortifications, if it ever came up. Oh, and it should be able to pass as vaguely human in a crowd, if possible. Care to give that a try?”

Another tall order.” The dryad’s disembodied voice said. “I embrace the challenge.”

Ah, what do you say, Robert.” Kate asked. “A picnic and night in a stony dungeon deep below the surface of the earth?”

Oh, Kate, you know just what I like. Let’s go.” Robert replied, following her to the elevator. “Privacy chamber.” He told it and it set off. Down, it felt like. The petal doors opened to a long stone hallway terminating in a sliding stone door. Their pick-a-nick basket had been set just outside the petal doors. Robert scooped it up and retrieved the flashlight, switched it on. “Nice, it’s still got charge.” They headed to the door at the hallway and muscled it open wide enough for them to pass. There was another short hallway terminating in another sliding door. They heaved the first door closed and opened the second. Beowulf must have taken their privacy seriously, there would be no way he would be able to hear them through both of these doors.

Inside the second door was a modestly sized room, about thirty feet square, lined with stone benches, and stone alcove shelving behind them. In two of the corners, stone tables were set in front of the benches. It looked like an excellent meeting place. It was missing a few things by modern standards like fluorescent lighting, seat cushions, outlets to plug in laptops and a projector screen, but Robert could hardly expect a tree to provide such things.

He took the blanket out and spread it on the floor next to one of the tables and started to unload food and candles. He set one candle on the edge of the table closest to them and lit it with a match from the basket. As he set the flame to the candle wick, he started to sing, “I’ve been feelin’ tried, baby…”

Kate hugged him loosely from behind, he turned around, set his arms around her and went in for the kiss. After a few a moments, he came up for air. Kate sang in an approximation of baritone, “Let’s get it on.” and started to strip.

Some time later, they were lying together on the blanket, thinking about getting to their picnic food. There hadn’t really been anything special about their lovemaking in privacy, they’d actually gotten quite used to the fact that Beowulf observed their bedroom activities in the tree. Still it felt a little different, almost lonelier in the privacy chamber. Like they were outside, exposed. Robert realized that Beowulf’s presence had become more of a comfort than a concern.

Have you noticed anything weird about Beowulf lately?” Kate wondered.

Yeah, he hasn’t been showing his face as much, I figured he’d been busy elsewhere.” Robert said.

“I don’t think so. He’d been doing it more and more since the Archive was stolen. I don’t like it. I don’t know if he thinks he’d protecting us, or if he feels guilty or what, but I don’t like it.”

“We should ask him about it.” Robert proposed. “Maybe say, ‘Beowulf, could you come here?’ Instead of just barking orders at him. There’s plenty we can try to try to get things back the way they used to be.”

“That’s what I want.” Kate explained. “Just because something bad has happened doesn’t mean we need to change how we do things. I mean, we do, to fix the problem, but him avoiding us doesn’t fix anything.”

“We’ll take care of it. What do we have to eat?” Robert asked reaching up to pull the basket down to them. “Looks like some sausage, bread, cheese, grapes, and oranges.”

“Oh, nice, could you pass me an orange?” Kate asked. He tossed one her way.

Chapter 7

The Kraken

I am confronted with a difficult problem. Now that I have created a living thing with such potential, it falls on me to devise mechanisms by which to limit it. It is not outside of the realm of possibility that one of these creatures could consume the entire surface of the earth. Given my goal of preserving humanity, I do not want that to happen. A simple negative feedback system making each additional main cell somehow more expensive, could help. But since they are intelligent, they could decide to ignore the expense, whatever it may be: energy, pain, time. Furthermore, even if the growth of the main cells were limited the stem cells could be used to continue to grow the organism. No, I’ll need a way to hardwire it’s mind, prevent it from ever choosing to grow beyond the limit I set. This mind control mechanism could be used to set up a human controller for each being, which would certainly be an advantage for me. The only disadvantage is that if the mind were damaged then those limits may disappear, which shouldn’t be much of a problem as the ultimate design will be nearly indestructible.” – Joshua Harken

Taylor Reed lounged on his living sail boat in the Hawaiian morning. He had not yet found a suitable tourist look-a-like but had been talking his way into beds of a few women. One of his favorite things to do was to get a wife to cheat on her husband for the first time, it was like convincing someone to buy you food made from truffles, which he had actually done once right before getting the woman to cheat on her husband. It was pointlessly expensive to them, and gained Reed next to nothing. It was the creation of the need in them to harm themselves that pleased Reed so much.

The boat had grown little. The sail leaf had become more and more sail like and looked like an oddly colored sail now rather than a leaf on a twig. The sting spines had grown longer and larger, and the boat had added a few smaller ones in order to continue to take small game for himself and it’s own consumption. It had followed his orders and grown a maw at it’s bow. The first time he’d seen it had been a surprise. He was on shore returning from one of his evening tourist hunts and saw the boat use its stings to skewer a pair of sea turtles that had wandered into the cove. Then the boat reared up and opened its maw, a wooden hole lined with huge thorns, and deposited the turtles within. After witnessing the transformation, Reed had almost turned around and headed right back inland, but then he remembered that this voracious predator worked for him. A fitting companion.

A gull was circling the air above the cove, occasionally flickering between the sun and Reed’s eyes. Annoying him. “Boat. Destroy the bird.” He commanded flippantly. A long thin sting flicked up from the water and skewered the bird with lightning speed. Then carried it to the boat’s slightly opened mouth. It’s good to be the king, he thought. He enjoyed the sun and dozed off after demanding some water from the boat.

That was him!” Robert said excitedly. “Roll back the tape, zoom in on his face. That’s the bastard.”

That’s him.” Kate agreed. “Wolf, what happened to that gull?”

I’m not sure. It’s no longer transmitting.” The dryad stood behind them. “The last thing it registered was a massive physical impact of some sort.”

Send in the new guys. Two to start, one on each side of the cove.” Robert commanded.

Reed awoke from his nap to a whining roar as a large object streaked across the sky and smashed into a copse of palms on the beach, flinging sand and pebbles onto the deck of the boat. “What..the…hell?” Reed asked aloud.

The forgotten pirate cube spoke up from somewhere he’d carelessly thrown it on the boat’s deck. “The Harken’s ‘ave sent ye a visitor, maybe two.” Another screech and crash on the beach. A dark brown figure scrambled rapidly out of the first crater as Reed watched, and it disappeared into the overgrown foliage lining the cove. Another scrambled out of the second crater.

Boat. Protect me from… those things.” Reed begged. Looking back and forth at the two sides of the cove for signs of the new arrivals. He was examining a particularly suspicious looking blotch of shadow on one side of the cove when suddenly a figured leaped at the boat from the other side. It shot two thick silky strands of something, one at the boat’s mast, and the other at Reed’s back. At the impact Reed whirled around, which only caused more of the sticky cord to stick to him. He felt the cord tension and pull. The brown figure was clinging to the sailboat’s mast now, It looked vaguely humanoid to Reed but he couldn’t get a good look at it. It wasn’t pulling him in, instead it was swinging him around the mast. In a few revolutions, he was being twirled around like a tilt-a-whirl. It was making him sick, and he felt as though he would black out, when suddenly the tension broke and he flew towards the side of the cove he’d been staring at.

Out of the foliage, two new strands shot out and stuck to him, pulling him to ground near the other of those things. The impact hurt. He’d come down on his left arm and heard a snap. He saw bone protruding from his forearm, and it felt like some of his left fingers had been dislocated. He tried to struggle to his feet, and finally got a good look at the thing that had snatched him from the air. It was a man sized brown mantis with a human shaped head, and two thick fore arms from which the silky strands originated. Reed felt the pull on the strands as the creature reeled him in. There was a crash behind him and he saw motion on all sides of his vision, and suddenly a barbed spine was sticking into the creature’s thorax. Another of the barbed whips was wrapping around the thing’s head and a third around its body, they pulled apart and the thing’s head snapped off with a horrid crunch.

His boat pulled the remains back to it. It had crawled up onto the beach and had it’s gaping maw open wide. Reed could see bits of the other creature already within. It ate the thing and then gingerly wrapped Reed up in a whip and deposited him on deck. The mast folded down leaving the leaf sail behind the boat, like a fin. Then the sides of the boat started to close over him, sealing out the light. The boat was trapping him in. “What are you doing?” he panted.

It’s alright, matey. I be watching yer boat transform ‘erself into a submarine to keep ye safe.” The pirate cube replied. Stupid cube, Reed thought, he wasn’t even talking to it. Then he blacked out from the pain and shock of his injuries.

What the hell was that thing?” Robert asked after seeing their spider-mantises get skewered and eaten on the command center screen. “Is that what killed the gull?”

I’d guess so.” Beowulf said from behind Robert. “I think that is the nut, it’s been planted, at sea.”

That’s a tree?” Kate asked. “It’s small…”

Yes, without the energy source it’s growth has been stunted.” Beowulf said. “A more important concern is that it saved Reed. I think that means he’s the planter, and therefore has control of the new tree.”

That… could be very bad.” Robert said. “If he figures out what he’d have if he planted it in one of those Hawaiian volcanoes, we’d be up the proverbial creek.”

He doesn’t seem to know, we saw that boat in the cove days ago and it hadn’t moved.” Kate said. “How old do you think it is?”

I can’t tell.” The dryad said, “It’s growth is so stunted it hasn’t reached anywhere near the size I’d grown to in my first day. It appears to have gotten little more than the energy that was stored in the nut already plus what has been necessary to keep it alive and moving. It could be months before it’s dryad appears. I wonder what it’ll look like. I’d like to meet it.” Beowulf had grown pensive with the last remarks.

Wolf!” Robert wanted to wake the dryad up. “Can you track it? We need to think how we’re going to fight it and Reed, not take it out to dinner.”

I’ll put octopi in pursuit, it’s fast, but it’ll need to stop to feed.” The dryad replied.

Feed?” Kate asked.

Yes, it looked as though it has been eating in order to obtain energy. We can expect more of that to come.” Beowulf explained.

What about getting Reed? How do we kill the tree?” Robert asked.

KILL THE TREE?” Beowulf thundered. “Why would we kill the tree? We are going to free it from Reed’s evil control, that’s what we’re going to do.” Robert was surprised. Beowulf usually didn’t argue decisions like this. He must feel strongly about it. Robert definitely didn’t want to force Beowulf on this issue.

OK, how will we kill Reed, then? He’ll be under the protection of his tree, so we’ve got to distract it or get it to let it’s guard down somehow.” Robert asked.

I think I know the best way to get that to happen.” Kate started. “The tree won’t be easy to distract and won’t be stupid enough to let it’s guard down, but Reed, on the other hand, can probably be tricked. He’s probably narcissistic enough to fall into a pride trap of some sort.”

You mean we tell him he’s a coward if he doesn’t show himself or something?” Robert asked.

That’s the one.” Kate said. “We should talk to Theo about this. He’ll know Reed’s pride the best.”

Theo had been staying out of their pursuit of Reed and had been focused on managing the perception of them and the tree in the wake of the terrorist attack. It had dealt them a serious blow, both in the morale of the new residents and in the national news. Theo had been speaking to leaders within the communities of the new residents and trying to turn the event into a rallying point for a sort of tree-nationalism. He was trying to convince them that the attack was an attack on them, rather than just an attack on the tree. If he could get them to believe in protecting themselves and the tree, then he could get them to work against the Sons of the Swarm both in the tree and back with family and friends out in the US. He’d been making good headway.

Agreed.” Robert turned to Beowulf. “Wolf can you ask for him?”

I’m on it.” The dryad walked into the nearest wall.

Do you think we need to make some naval drones?” Kate asked him, placing a hand on his shoulder.

Definitely.” Robert cracked a smile “A white whale full of tiny wooden men with harpoons.”

That’s not a terrible idea.” Kate looked in his eyes and smiled back. “Sort of a Pinocchio/Moby Dick crossover?”

Exactly.” Robert put on a serious face. “And if that fails… well… We’ll have to send in the ill-tempered mutated sea bass.”

Kate barked a laugh at the reference, then went straight faced herself. “How about a larger version of the chameleon octopi with enhanced weaponry?”

That’s good. How about covering it with poison Jellyfish stingers? Oh and a barbed stingray sting at the end of each tentacle.”

I wouldn’t wish a fight with something like that on my worst enemy. It’s perfect.” Kate said, pecking a kiss on his cheek.

Taylor Reed awoke to hot stuffy pain. He jerked his body and immediately felt an explosion of agony in his left arm and chest. The boat had wrapped his arm up with one of it’s whip-like vines and a larger one held it to his body. There was no light. The air was hot and completely saturated. “Water.” He croaked. A vine separated from the hull and offered a stream of water to his mouth. He leaned his head forward and drank from it like a water fountain. “It’s so hot. The air. I need fresh air.”

He felt the acceleration as the boat started to ascend, and he felt it jerk and impact the surface of the water after breach. The boat unwrapped a little above him. Not completely open, it just bird caged to allow the sea air in to cool him. It was night, and the moonlight shown on him like bars between the vines. He was in pain and hungry and had to piss. “Bathroom.” He commanded and the boat made accommodations without disturbing his injuries.

Now I need to eat. Something better than fish. Get me a cheeseburger.” The birdcage closed, and the boat dived. Reed dozed off in the hot compartment. He awoke to another jerking breach and impact with the water’s surface. The boat birdcaged above him again. This time he saw the boat’s two heavy whip stings and several smaller ones poised to strike above them. They darted forward and hit something with a metallic crash that shook the boat. They struck again and again. Reed lifted his head. It was putting gaping holes in the side of a cargo ship. One of those huge freighters. There were warning shouts from the deck above them. The boat struck it’s heavy whip stings into the side of the ship again, this time hauling itself up the side, it was crawling onto deck. Some of the smaller whip stings caught crew members and tossed them into it’s thorny maw. The rest of the crew ran to the other side of the ship and clambered into a life boat.

His living boat. No. The Kraken. Began to tear up plates from the deck, exposing the galley, the ship’s kitchen. The whip stings plunged down and began to do some careful work Reed couldn’t make out from his vantage point strapped to it’s back. Soon they brought him something right up to his mouth. It was a juicy rare cheeseburger. “Oh, yes. Thank you.” He wolfed it down, and it must have been one of the best things he’d ever tasted.

The cargo ship had been taking on water from the first strikes. Now it was listing heavily. Still the Kraken clung on. Having completed it’s mission for Reed, it had begun tearing open cargo containers. They contained grains and produce, which the Kraken poured into its mouth greedily. “You are the Kraken.” Reed told the ship woozily. “The seas will run red with blood.” He started to fade as the cargo ship foundered, and the birdcage closed again around him. The Kraken had decided to ride the ship down.

Reed could feel the ship growing as they sank. It seemed the food had done his monster some good. His compartment expanded, and the air started to feel less stuffy, The vines grew little glowing dots along their lengths providing a fishy green illumination. It was beautiful. “Find more ships, my monster, feed.” He said, slipping into a more comfortable sleep despite the pain in his arm.

Theo Rigby was speaking heatedly in front of a group of refugees. “We’ve all been saved by Beowulf, even recently at the feast. If those things had gone unchecked, they’d have eaten us all.” He walked around in front of the listeners occasionally stopping for eye contact. “The truth is, without Beowulf, none of us would be here. And these bastards, these Sons of the Swarm, they call themselves, want him and all of us dead. I don’t think they’ll stop until they’ve chopped this tree down and unleashed the lava below. They’ve got no regard for human life, no respect for Beowulf, all they have is hatred. That’s why we need to take the fight to them. Until now, they’ve gotten to sit in the shadows cooking up this vicious terrorist attacks. But now, we need to take the fight to them. Catch them in the act. Whenever someone claims support for the Sons, he oughta be locked up, or tuned up.” Cheers of agreement came from the group. “We’ve got to spread the news about Beowulf. He’s here to help. Tell your friends and family back home to take up the fight to. Tell them all about Beowulf’s deeds, Tell them to come here and see for themselves. But most of all tell them to take the fight to the Sons outside of the tree. We’ve got to cut them down before they can plan another attack.” More cheers from the crowd. Beowulf stepped out of the wall behind Rigby and approached. The cheers rose and the crowd stood up and gave the dryad a standing ovation.

Greetings friends!” The dryad boomed. “If you don’t mind, I need to speak to Theo here. Thank you all for coming.” The crowd cheered some more, and then broke into discussions amongst themselves as they broke up to leave. People talking about what they were going to do.

What’s up, Wolf?” Theo asked.

Robert and Kate, they want a word.” The dryad explained. “They’re meeting back down in the command center after dinner, and you’re welcome to join them to eat as well. It’s Reed, they need to know more about his personality, they need ideas on how to bait him out of safety, appeals to his pride.”

Appeals to Reed’s pride? Tricky. He’s narcissistic and evil, but he’s also extremely wary. I think the only way to do it would be to make it look like we’re helpless and beaten with neck bared. Defeated. If he sees that, he’ll strike.” Rigby said. He was still in the groove from his speech. “I’ll meet them downstairs. I planned on dinner with the Guardians.”

Good, thanks. Thanks for the praise, as well. Though I hope you’re not riling them up to an indiscriminate mob. I’ve a feeling the Sons could take advantage of that politically as well.”

I know what you mean. But we need people to spread positive stories about you, and I think this is the best way.” Rigby shook his head. “You’ve seen the news right? It’s been a slaughter. We’re lucky that people aren’t gathering outside with pitchforks. There’s talk of some politicians in Wyoming taking up an anti-arborealist platform, and the media attention they’re getting could make them serious candidates. It’s a dire PR situation.”

Yes. I’ll let them know you’ll be down.” Beowulf departed back into the wall.

Theo went down to meet the beekeepers for dinner. Much like the hippies, the beekeepers numbers had increased since moving into the hive. Some young people from the refugees became curious and joined them. Their parents sometimes cried foul, but the Guardians weren’t a closed group, visitors were welcome. Even irate parents.

Armand and Beth shared a living space behind a community area that had been converted into a religious meeting place. The Guardians of the Hive had daily meetings with affirmations and music, as well as weekly meetings at which Armand or Beth would speak a few words.

Their quarters were pretty modest. They had a large number of wall and table decorations featuring their main symbol which was a kite shield with a bee hive on it. Picked by Beth, Armand had explained. A few of the newer decorations they had now showed the hive hanging from a tree. A nod to Beowulf, probably. Rigby wondered if they were adding Beowulf to their religion somehow. He might attend one of their weekly sessions sometime to find out.

His dinner with Armand and Beth was very pleasant. They didn’t indulge in a lot of meat, but their dishes did prominently feature honey. The dishes weren’t cloying, but usually had a spiciness to accompany the honey that made them palatable. It was always a treat to dine with the Guardians’ leaders.

They talked about how the attack had affected the cultists and Theo assured them that Beowulf was improving his defenses, Rigby didn’t mention details of their ongoing pursuit of Reed, though he did get daily updates from Wolf. It was an old habit for Rigby. He told them that they were working to catch those responsible but left out the how. He gave a condensed version of his anti-Sons rally speech, but didn’t press the cultist too hard. Most of their members d