Chimera and the Shrubbery – Part 1 – Chapter 11

Chimera and the Shrubbery

Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics

Chapter 11

“Execution. Both of you.” The guard stated the sentence to the two captives with disinterest, as if announcing the weather.

“No!” screamed Sasha, and rushed forward, clanging her hands on the bars and rattling her cage. Her central unit became flushed with fear that she couldn’t suppress, that clouded her mind and her vision with red. “What about a trial? I didn’t do anything!”

“No trial,” said Jeremy grimly, turning to face the wall with disgust. “We’re soldiers, not civilians. Our commander decides the punishment. And Vato has decided death.” He spat the last word with contempt.

The guard who delivered the news nodded his head. Debris caught his eye on their cell floors. “You two have been shedding parts.” He pointed at the scraps of wire and bolts that littered the floor. “You been self-harming?”

Sasha snorted, and instead asked, “When will the execution take place?”

“Tomorrow, midday,” replied the guard. He then recalled how little knowledge of time the two bots would have underground in their cells, and added, “Twenty hours from now.”

The guard began to ascend the ladder to the surface without another word.

“Will Vato be there?” shouted Jeremy.

“Yes,” the guard said, without looking back. He opened the manhole cover, giving the room a brief burst of daylight, climbed out, and fast replaced it.

“I will talk to Vato,” muttered Jeremy, half to Sasha, half to himself. “I will explain it all too him.”

“You!” wailed Sasha. “You bigged up your precious emotions so much! But all I feel now is fear! What do you feel?”

“Fear, too.” Jeremy bowed his head solemnly.

“And regret, I hope. Your antics got us into this.”

Jeremy dragged a hand over his face. “This again?”

“Well, do you feel regret?” Sasha demanded.

“Too much of it. And not just for getting you into trouble.”

“Denver too?”

“Right.”

Sasha paused. “There’s really no way to bring her back?”

“No way. The central core is gone, and that’s what shapes a person.”

Sasha squirmed. “But her central core would be identical to every one of her model. Hundreds, if not thousands, all the same.”

“Yet, discrepancies appear. It isn’t just our experiences, and time, that shapes our personalities. From the very start there is something in there that will shape a person. You say that at birth we’re all identical-”

“All from the same model.”

“-but I believe deep down in the code there are differences. Something that blooms as we grow older. A person, waiting to happen.” Jeremy’s head drooped forward. “Waiting to die.”

“How will they execute us?” Sasha face was trembling.

“Decapitation. Then they will burn the heads, and strip the bodies for parts. That way there’s no coming back. I’ve seen it done before, a few times, in clan skirmishes. If a particularly aggressive combatant from Clan Dobrasaw or Argus would be captured, the commanding officer would often put them down, even after the battle was over.”

“But right now, with us, there isn’t even a battle! Vato is executing his own side! Was your crime really that bad?”

“The crime was bad.” Jeremy nodded. “The partaking in it was ill judged. Worse still, the commander is mentally unbalanced.”

“I think he’d prefer the term ‘ruthless’.”

“I think he’d see it as a positive quality.”

Sasha sat down. “Still thinking about talking your way out of this?”

“We’ll see.”

The blazing sun had a harsh, surreal quality to it as Jeremy and Sasha were eventually hauled out of their hovels, guards’ hands clamped around them, cuffs tightly wound around their wrists. Silence rung throughout the base, and they saw lines of troops watching them solemnly. The execution came with circumstance. Vato had not tried to do it secretly outside the base somewhere; rather, he had forced each and every man and woman out to watch. Whether this was so their crime could serve as an example, or whether Vato just revelled in the killing, was anyone’s guess.

Jeremy trod through the sand, standing tall, towards the pedestal that had been erected. There was no sign of an executioner in sight, yet. Another of his senses became alert: smell. There was a deadly aroma in the air, something like charred metal..

“Oh no!” Sasha wailed, stopping dead. “Jeremy, look!”

Hung from the walls were nine black bodies, malformed and stinking. Sasha recognised them instantly, as they looked identical to her; the same thin long limbs. They were her comrades from Town Shou-watch, her classmates. She reeled back and collapsed to her knees as she watched their lifeless bodies creak in the slight breeze. They had been burnt to a crisp, every one of them.

The guards pulled Sasha back to her feet, and she struggled against them. They dragged her whimpering body along towards the block. “Why?” she wailed.

“Defective stock.” Commander Vato himself stepped out from the silent crowd, proudly surveying the bodies. “Once you showed you were capable of committing a crime, you silly girl; why, that means that any one of them was capable of the same. You’re all cut from the same cloth.” He reared up his blank face as Sasha was dragged past him. “So you see, you were the one who signed their death warrant, little Sasha.”

“They were young, Vato!” shouted Jeremy, tussling in vain against the guards. “Too young to fight in this war. And far too young to be put to death, certainly!”

Vato merely bobbed his head smugly.

“And, all of you!?” Jeremy’s voice echoed throughout the base, into the ears of the hundreds of soldiers lined up, watching still. “You let him do that? They were thirteen years old!”

Many of the soldiers began shifting uncomfortably. Murmurs abounded.

“You won’t spread your dissent here, Jeremy,” Vato spat, quickly, and indicated to the guards to speed up the process. “Where’s the executioner?”

“Right here, commander.” Beetlebum stepped from the crowd, sounding content.

Jeremy let out a baffled gasp. “Beetlebum! You escaped!”

Both Vato and Beetlebum burst into laughter, which was nervously mimicked by some of the most loyal troops.

“Escaped?” said Vato. “Why, he was the one who gave you up in the first place. He contacted me the instant you suggested breaking into the forbidden archives.”

Jeremy froze on the spot, and even the guard’s pulling him along stopped moving.

Beetlebum snorted from his triangular face. “Come on, Jay. Don’t look at me like that. You were committing treason. You shouldn’t have expected me to go along with it.”

“You?”

Beetlebum circled around the shocked Jeremy and the distraught Sasha like a vulture. “You two are looking worse for wear! Sasha, your guts are practically spilling out of your wound there. And Jay, your chest plate looks as if it’s about to fall off.” He visibly shuddered at the sight of them. “You two won’t be going out in style. Just two forgettable bots who thought they were better than the system. You’re practically falling apart anyway.”

“I understand you turning me in, Bee,” snarled Jeremy quietly. “I hate you for it, but I understand it. But why are you the executioner?”

“I volunteered.” Beetlebum stepped closer to Jeremy and lowered his voice. “See, I have a little bit of a personal reason for wanting you killed, too. You, who always got promoted above me, who always berated me for not being a better soldier. I’m tired of living in your shadow. I’m going to be much better off without you. Hell, I even embellished some of the details to Vato!” Beetlebum backed away, and shouted, “And so, the great Jeremy dies a traitor, and the world carries on. You didn’t measure up after all!” He let out a manic cackle.

“Okay, that’s enough,” ordered Vato, even he apparently shocked at Beetlebum’s glee over the execution. “Let’s get this over with, now.”

Jeremy felt his hands clamped down onto the block. He struggled and wrenched, but he was unable to move them. A posse of nearby armed guards watched nervously, tinkering with their weapons. Jeremy smirked. His reputation had become more inflated than the truth. They were expecting him to pull right out of his shackles and disarm them. He wished it was the case.

Sasha eventually stopped her wriggling too and settled into the block, losing her defiance. It was a painful sight to see.

Beetlebum revealed his weapon; a long pole with- when he turned it on- a bright white light fizzling at one end. A laser axe. Lasers were designed to cut through metal for construction, but they were easily weaponized. At close proximity they were deadly: no material, metal or otherwise, would survive a swoop.

Jeremy glared as Beetlebum, his former best friend, tossed the axe from hand to hand recklessly, putting on a show for the crowd. Most of the younger soldiers cheered, egging him on to execute the traitors. Many did not even know what the alleged crime was supposed to be, Jeremy expected. Some personalities just loved the killing. They’d see plenty of that when their front lines crossed the Chimera. But for now, they were satisfied to see one of their own die.

“Commander Vato!” Jeremy yelled, causing everyone in earshot to pause. “Since you’ve already gone ahead with assigning our sentence, I will explain my reasoning as briefly as possible.” Without letting Vato cut him off, he proceeded as to speak quickly as he could, explaining the dangerous forest nearby and that he had only acted in the interest of the UFFJAH.

Vato waved a hand, irritated that the execution was going so slowly. “Enough nonsense. Beetlebum; destroy him.”

Beetlebum pondered for a moment, then spoke. “Actually, commander; sorry to say, but what he’s saying is technically.. well, it’s true.”

“True?” Vato bellowed.

“I saw it in the archives. There is a forest.. and it’s been swallowing up our people for over a century.”

Vato paused, the thoughts audibly whirring in his head. Jeremy watched him pace back and forth in the sand, and shook at his shackles futilely.

After twenty seconds, Vato turned to Beetlebum, who was tapping his foot impatiently. “How big is this forest?”

Beetlebum shrugged. “About a square mile.”

Vato beckoned over two of his highest ranking men. “Take the Flying Cobras and do a sweep. Seek out this forest and unleash the bombs. Burn it to the ground. And that’s how you solve that, see!” He banged a fist against his chest proudly.

“Wait one second!” yelled Sasha. “There’s thousands of life forms in that forest. They don’t deserve that!”

“Sentimental! Like I thought: defective stock. Beetlebum?”

Beetlebum nodded, and needed no more prompting. He raised the axe up high, relishing the movement, and swung it down in a throw of ecstasy. “Bye bye, Jay!” he squealed in delight as the laser swooped through both of the prisoners’ necks together.

Their faces fell silent. Their eyes stopped glowing. Unceremoniously, their heads clunked onto the block, making a ringing hollow sound, and they rolled around for a moment before laying still. They was a tiny amount of movement in the two bodies, some shuffling and tinkling in their hands, before they too lay still.

The crowd was now silent. Many were already retreating to other duties far away from the awful sight of the severed heads, perhaps not so pleased with the sight of death as they first expected.

Vato stared grimly at the furry bunny head lying still, a perceptible air of regret surrounding him. He nodded at Beetlebum. “Remove their central cores. Then burn them with the others.”

Beetlebum gingerly picked up the rabbit head by its long ears. As he did so, metal parts and wires tumbled out and clattered in all directions.

“Clumsy fool!” reprimanded Vato. “Get his central core!”

“But- commander- it’s not in here!” Beetlebum gasped, picking up the tubes from the ground. “This is only- well- it’s not his central core. It’s- grenades!”

Grenades?” Vato tumbled backwards, staring in open horror at the small tubes that were scattered across the ground.

The crowd gasped as one. The tubes exploded in white flame. Vato dived in amongst his men, scattering them around him. All of the crowd’s eyes were blinded.

Beetlebum stumbled and landed on his back, dazed and confused. As quickly as he could, he dragged his singed body back up onto the execution block. “Impossible!” he roared. “The prisoners are gone! Gone!”

All that was left there were the ashes of their grenade-laden heads, and two pairs of hands, still in the cuffs, dismantled from the wrist.

“Excellent idea to move our central cores and eyes safely into our chests, partner!” yelled a headless Sasha as they scampered towards the gates. “You really know your innards!”

“Thank you!” replied Jeremy, his legs whirring to keep up with her. “I liked your plan to get Rascal to fetch us some spare flash grenades from the armoury. A dazzling touch!”

“When do you think they’ll twig that we’re gone?”

“I think they already have, I’m afraid!”

Beetlebum was bellowing obscenities at top volume. “Close those gates, someone! Is anyone actually on duty here? Jeremy- I will get you! Do you hear me?!”

The escapees skipped out of the exit and continued speeding into a rocky trench, ducking under the shadows of airships zooming overhead. Their eyes poked out of self-made holes in their chests as they zoomed forward.

“Where are you leading us, Sasha?”

“Back to the forest, of course! You heard Vato, he’s planning to bomb it to dust. We can’t let that happen to the Guardians, nor the other creatures. I guess we’re going on a rescue mission, again!”

Arguing with myself.

Hey people :)

I feel a tiny bit lost at the moment. I will relate this back to writing in a moment, before any of you are immediately put off by something that closely resembling soul-searching/moping! But yes, I feel a bit lost. I keep trying to search for that thing inside me which is the reason why I write.

Do I write for myself? Well, no. If there was nobody but me reading my work I would endlessly procrastinate, and give up the whole thing entirely. If I was the last girl on the face of the Earth would I sit writing? I doubt it, I would probably do what Will Smith did in I Am Legend and watch every film ever created n alphabetical order (skipping out the film I Am Legend, note, because it was pretty awful.)

Do I write for others? I’d like to think so, but being in this odd state of having never published anything as of yet, I feel in limbo. I am writing, not for now, but for that future moment, probably sometime next year if I really stick to it, when I can proudly put my work up for self-publishing.

But my problem is, I’m lacking in motivation, and confidence, two things you need in spades to keep on writing.

On top of that, my usually very quiet personal life is for some reason becoming frantic, as if I am suddenly becoming a popular young lady. And “Sorry I want to sit in my dark flat hitting keys furiously and scolding myself audibly for not making my characters likeable enough” seems like a poor excuse to not come out.

After this big whining post, all I am trying to say is that writing my story is feeling very tough at the moment. But I’m going to do my best to not give up. And part of that includes stopping writing this blog post and starting writing about my lovely characters Jeremy and Sasha, and the scrape they are in…

Thanks for reading!

-Vera

Chimera and the Shrubbery – Part 1 – Chapter 10

Chimera and the Shrubbery

Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics

Chapter 10

Dribbling trickles permeated through the holes dug beneath the ground. Hastily installed light fixtures blinked erratically. To those who had the ability to smell it, fetid liquid flowed from pipes, the type of waste products that were created when guns were molded together, or when old parts were melted for scrap.

It was the sewers, and it doubled up as the jail cells.

Jeremy awoke, and the first thing he saw was unbreakable iron bars crisscrossing all around him. Soon his other senses came online, and he heard the steady dripping and sniffed the refuse. He grabbed his head.

“Awake?” came a voice, blurrily, drifting into Jeremy’s ears.

He looked down to check he still had arms. He did. He carefully made sure to activate all of his touch sensors, and he regained feeling in his whole body. He looked through the bars and saw Sasha, in the cell next to his. She was not pacing about nervously, looking for a way out, as he had half expected. She was sitting in a corner far away from him, staring at him with what he could only perceive to be a look of hatred.

“I don’t remember the past few hours,” stated Jeremy, his modulator fuzzy, as if it had been bashed about. For all he knew, it had. “Did I activate my sleep cycle?”

“Some sort of pulse fried your circuits for a time. Non-lethal. I’ve seen it before: we used it in training.” She looked like she was going to say more, but she stopped herself, and resumed her glare.

Jeremy got to his feet. Scrapes along all his limbs, but nothing serious. “I’m sorry, Sasha.” He walked to the bars and clutched his hand to them.

“Well!” Sasha’s eyes grew narrow. “I expected you’d be far too stubborn to actually apologise.”

“You’ll take a while to get to know me.” Jeremy offered a smile, but it was not received well.

“I certainly won’t, not anymore!” Sasha leapt to her feet and flung her fists through the air. “One day of active duty, and that’s how long it takes you to get me arrested, thrown in a cell. Now we sit and await sentence. This is just too much.”

“I’m honestly sorry, Sasha. I didn’t invite you to come.”

“I only did come to try and talk you and your braindead friend out of it!”

“Maybe if you hadn’t, then the guards wouldn’t..” Jeremy’s voice trailed off. He stopped talking.

“Don’t even go there.” Sasha scraped her hand across the bars angrily, sending sparks out. “One second you’re apologising, the next you’re blaming me?”

Jeremy was at that moment thankful that he had a set of iron bars separating him from the fuming Sasha. He recalled now that the guards in the archive room did enter just after she did. He did not see any plus side from bringing that up though. He said nothing.

He wandered over cautiously to where Sasha had her back to him. “Your wound.. are you okay?”

“What do you care?” she spat, and stormed away, clutching her side.

Jeremy sighed, and cricked his neck. “Sasha. Don’t be such a child. Come over here. Let me see.”

Sasha spun around and screeched. “You do understand what you’ve done, right? Just by being associated with you, I am probably never even going to get to tell my side of the story. What if they decommission me? You’ve had your life, but what about me?”

Jeremy frowned. “You think I want to die?”

“And now you call me a child! You were the one breaking the law!” She stopped and tried to flush the strong emotion from her system. She found it difficult. “What were you doing in that room anyway? Why did you care about the Guardians enough to break into the archives?”

Jeremy shrugged. To be honest, he wasn’t completely sure. It could have been something about that graveyard full of parts, where he’d found Denver’s disembodied head. Or it could have been the staunch nobility from Papa that he somewhat admired. To protect one’s homeland no matter what; it was a feeling he could relate to all too well.

Sasha let her hands fall to her sides, and her spindly body shuffled over to the bars. “I know. They kinda got under my skin too.”

“We were going to be reassigned. Me and you. To another base.”

“Oh?”

“I didn’t think I’d have another chance to find out anything about them.” Jeremy moved closer. “They killed my partner, Sasha. I just wanted to know.. why. There has to be more of a reason behind it. I couldn’t just accept the fact that they were just creatures. They are not like us, but they speak our language. There has to be more to it.”

Sasha nodded. “To be honest, half the reason I was going to keep quiet about their existence was not just to cover you. I wanted to protect them. They aren’t bad.”

A thousand memories of Denver appeared at once in the surface of Jeremy’s mind, and he shuddered. “I’ll reserve judgement for now.” He reached through the bars and gently took Sasha’s hand. “Let’s see that wound.” He paused. “Partner.”

She snorted. “Don’t push it.”

The wound was far more serious than Sasha had let on. Her memory and personality was all perfect and intact inside her head, but the hole in her side had disabled much of her fast reflexes, and even moving across the cell was difficult for her. It took Jeremy ten minutes (and much difficulty, given that he was poking both of his arms through holes in the bars whilst Sasha kept fidgeting) to rewire past as much of the damage as he could. At the end, she flexed out her arms and did a quick handstand.

“Okay, you’ve done a pretty good job,” she said, padding around on her hands. “Why didn’t you become a doctor?”

Jeremy rubbed his nose, embarrassed by the compliment. “You know how it is these days. Either you sign up for the draft, or you live your life as a second class citizen. It doesn’t matter how much good you do as a doctor, an architect, an engineer.. if you aren’t a soldier then you get no respect.”

Sasha returned to the right way up. “Some of us don’t even get a choice,” she hummed. “I was built for war.”

“What else would you want to do?”

Sasha paused. “I never thought about it.” She shrugged. “And before you get any ideas: no, I don’t forgive you yet.”

“‘Yet’ implying that you will forgive me in the future. Right?” Jeremy grinned, proud of his work.

“Only if we don’t both get executed.”

“Okay. I can work on that. As long as I get to speak to Vato before any rash decisions are made, I can talk our way out of this.”

“Would you stake your life on that?”

Jeremy pondered. “No. I wouldn’t. As much as Vato respects and likes me, he is an unpredictable old sod. Hell, he’s reckless. I’ve only been under his command for the past couple of years, but that’s long enough to be able to tell. He is always trying to make a name for himself, as some kind of war hero. He doesn’t care who he gets killed along the way.

“You know, I remember a week ago, when he first announced that he was moving his entire army down south to set up a new base in new territory. We thought he’d lost it. We thought he was acting against the High Council.”

Sasha scratched her head. “But he must have had Council approval: because the Council sent me and my classmates down as reinforcements.”

Jeremy nodded. “Yes, I suppose so. But my point is, I can’t rely on him to spare our lives. We might just have to escape.”

“Another of your secret schemes!” Sasha said, attempting to sound disapproving. But, against her will, her mouth formed into an excited smile.

They started by exploring every cranny of their cells. The bars had been thrown up, as jail cells were standard part of any base. The reality was that placing their own soldiers under arrest was something that commanders almost never did, aside from the night in the cells that occasionally came when petty squabbles turned into fistfights. However, despite how little use the jail cells were thought to see, they were built impenetrable. Not even a construction automaton, built for hauling huge girders, would have the strength to tear through the solid bars. The gaps between the bars were large enough to reach an arm through, but that was all. After picking away desperately at the floor and walls for an hour, both robots collapsed to the floor, exasperated.

“Where’s your friend, Beetlebum, anyway?” Sasha said after a few minutes of silence.

“You tell me.” Jeremy glanced around at the few other cells in the underground hollow, but all were empty.

A short gust of water came gurgling down the river of sewage and off, coming from the darkness on one side of the room and dribbling away to the other side. Moss had already started appearing on the newly paved ground.

“So.” Jeremy got to his feet, trying to keep focussed on escape. “We have no satellite access down here. Probably a cheap jamming device. Better than the alternative, which is cutting us open a ripping out our transceivers. Good thing they didn’t do that, as they’d have to get past half of our basic systems to do so.”

“You really know a lot about .. innards, don’t you?”

“It comes in useful now and then.”

“But it’s not useful now.”

“Just then, then.”

Another fresh wave of green liquid rolled down the stinking river. As the water washed away, it deposited a small object on the muddy shore. A black slimy ball of hair sat quivering, drenched in a tar-like substance. Slowly, carefully, the ball unfurled.

“Rascal!” screeched Sasha, running over. “Dear me, you look awful! You need a bath.”

The tiny mole scampered up to the bars and stuck a red tongue out at Sasha in defiance.

“What a smart animal!” Jeremy extended an arm and tickled underneath the creature’s chin gently. “And so far from home! How did you find us?”

“No eyes- he must make up for it with other senses.” Sasha looked on jealously as Jeremy hogged the attention of the animal. “He certainly likes you, Jeremy.”

“He’s got good taste. Say, what’s that the little guy is holding?”

Rascal eagerly held out his paw and proffered a tiny metal cylinder.

“Looks like a backup battery.” Sasha regarded the item with bewilderment. “Where’d you get that from, eh, Rascal?”

Rascal hopped and squeaked in reply.

“The sewers must directly connect to the spare part assembly line,” Jeremy guessed. He contemplated, his parts vibrating with excitement. “Say, Rascal, can you understand me?”

The creature whistled and nodded his head.

Jeremy turned to Sasha. “He must’ve picked up the basics of our language from those Guardians you’re so fond of, Sasha. But if our furry friend can bring us an item or two, I might just have a plan!”

Chimera and the Shrubbery – Part 1 – Chapter 9

Chimera and the Shrubbery

Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics

Chapter 9

“Two guards out front as you’d expect.” Beetlebum scratched his tin head, trying to look over towards the tower whilst not drawing any attention to himself. “Come on, Jay, let’s leave it. There’s no way in.”

“We could bluff our way past them.” Jeremy watched with his optical vision magnified as the guards at the door mumbled dull conversation to each other. The moon was clouded, and the little light in the base came from the windows of the buildings. “But that’d leave witnesses we were actually inside the building at the time. It might get traced back to us.”

“I hate how it’s ‘us’ now.” Beetlebum sighed. “Even when- I mean if- we get inside, how are you planning to access these files, exactly?”

“You.” Jeremy hushed his voice as a pack of rowdy soldiers walked past, returning to their quarters for sleep. They passed on. “There’s no door you can’t unlock, no file encryption you can’t break, Bee.”

“And what if I’d have said no?” Beetlebum rasped haughtily.

“There’s no if. Come on.”

Jeremy strode towards the tower, and the guards, without skipping a beat. Beetlebum followed behind nervously. Just as they got close, Jeremy raised one hand quickly, and lowered it again. The guards recognised him from his bizarre mask and his veteran status, and they waved back. Instead of stopping to talk, Jeremy continued straight past them, moving quickly as if he was late for an important engagement.

When they were back out of earshot, the tower behind them, Beetlebum laughed. “So you chickened out in the end, then?”

Jeremy stomped his foot, and it met the ground below them with a ringing echo. “Not exactly.” He reached down into the sand, buried his hand for a few seconds, then pulled it back out, carrying with it a thick circular lid. Sand slipped away beneath them rapidly, gradually slowing to a stop and revealing a newly created black hole in the ground. “Twenty paces north. I thought this was right. The cooling vent, for the archive servers. I watched the automatons dig it up a week ago. It’ll lead us right inside the tower.”

“Hmph.” Beetlebum was reluctantly impressed.

Even in the dim light they noticed a thin shadow fall across them. “What are you two doing?”

Jeremy squinted, adjusting his eyes in the darkness. “Sasha?” He laughed in relief. “I thought we were busted! What do you want exactly? Isn’t it past your bedtime?” He poked a finger in her direction.

Sasha smashed her fists together in frustration. “You do not get to talk to me like that! I am not a little girl!”

“Woah, honey, keep your voice down, please..” Beetlebum hissed, glancing around nervously.

“What I am doing here, Jeremy, is going to the bar to tell you that I’m willing to keep quiet, for you- about what happened in the forest- on the condition that from now on everything we do is above board. No more secret missions.”

“Sasha, I’m sorry-”

“And yet I find you up to who-knows-what, digging up holes near the command tower! This is exactly what I’m talking about!”

Jeremy moved face to face with his partner. “Okay. I understand you’re annoyed. But keep shouting and I’ll pull your modulator out. Got it?”

Sasha squeaked, and her eyes fluttered. Her thin crease of a mouth drooped, and she stepped backwards. “I’m asking Vato for a new partner tomorrow.”

“Fine.” Jeremy couldn’t help feel a pang of disappointment, and he didn’t try to ignore it, or kid himself. He liked Sasha. Not many new recruits would’ve told a lie for him.

Sasha turned around to run, but turned back, unable to suppress her curiosity. “What exactly is it that you’re doing?”

“Checking the Council archives for information on our Guardian friends,” muttered Jeremy.

“You’re mad.” She ran away.

Beetlebum let out a quiet whistle. “Will she keep quiet about this?”

“Yeah,” Jeremy replied, trying to hide his sadness.

“You sure?”

“Come on.”

They dropped into the vent and carefully replaced the lid behind them, sealing them in the long black tunnel. The light at the end of it represented the server room at the bottom of the command tower. It took longer than either of them expected to wriggle their way to it. Their elbows and knees scraped painfully along, and they slowed down even more to minimise the sound.

Jeremy exited the far end of the pipe, which was inconveniently placed midway up the wall, and collapsed with a crash onto the floor of the server room. He gazed in wonder at the huge servers bolted to the walls of the round room, their lights blinking blue and green intermittently and thick bundles of wires sprouting out of them and coating the floor. Beetlebum then landed on top of his head.

“Watch out!” moaned Beetlebum as he climbed off of Jeremy’s head.

“Maybe say that before you jump on me?” whispered Jeremy.

“So what next? Your precious data could be on any of these servers.” Beetlebum looked around at the various doors nervously, as if expecting them to open at any moment.

“Don’t get coy now. You know they’re all connected. Look, here’s the interface. Are you going to help?”

Beetlebum glanced at the keyboard that sat in front of the small interface monitor, and then at his own fingertips. “Do you think they can identify us by any filings we leave behind?”

“You’ve been reading too many detective novels.” Jeremy pushed him aside and began typing. The archives offered little computerised protection, and in moments the culmination of centuries of information lay open to him.

He pulled up a map of UFFJAH territory. On it were marked the capital cities, all of them with hundreds of secret files on important personnel, and events from far in the past. The territories of the three clans- Clan Dragomir, Clan Dobrosaw and Clan Argus- spread across the map in colours: black, red and yellow. Scrolling along a timeline into the past would animate these colours and show how the territories changed over time. Given that the United Front was supposed a completely stable entity, and infighting between the clans was reported to be nearly non-existent at this point, the colours changed a dramatic amount, even when only looking back over the past year.

“Stop messing about Jay. Get your data, and let’s get out of here.”

Right down in the south of the map was the expanding frontlines: Vato’s new base for Clan Dragomir. Oddly, the entire area was not sporting the colour of the clan, but instead an ambiguous shade of diagonal lines. The base had only just been established, so it was likely that there would be some time before it would be entered into the archives.

Not so far to the south- not nearly as far as Jeremy would have hoped- was a pool of dark green that stretched right across the map, filling the continent. This one was easy: the Chimera. Their land mass was easily three times that of the UFFJAH and ever growing. Jeremy shuddered. He had never seen the bigger picture like this, but it spoke clearly: the war was going badly. And this newly established base was far less safe than Vato had made out. They were in dangerously close to Chimera territory. Jeremy could only hope that the reward- the tonnes of invaluable minerals waiting to be mined- was worth the risk of riling their most hated enemy.

But: not his problem. He was here to dig up data on the forest, and there it was. Clearly marked on the map, just to the west of the base. Scrolling back in time, Jeremy could see it had been there for a long time; decade; centuries. The forest had been known about since the very formation of the UFFJAH. Dozens of addendums were attached to the location. Jeremy waded through the files. Bot after bot, Missing In Action. All in the vicinity of the forest. No investigation ever conducted. It was war, people went missing and were simply presumed dead unless they turned up. That was the way of it. Until right now, nobody had managed to connect the dots, that all of them had died at the hands of these Guardians.

“What the sparkplug?” Beetlebum irises widened to maximum, his eyes glued to the monitor. “You were.. right?”

“You expected any less?” Jeremy gloated. He regarded the data that clearly showed he was correct. Denver’s death, and that of all of those in the graveyard they had found, were clearly documented. The Guardians had been protecting their land for hundreds of years, at least.

And yet, aside from the multiple missing persons, there was no further data. Jeremy had wanted to know who the Guardians were, where they came from and whether there were any more of them. He frowned, his pink nose wrinkling in irritation.

Beetlebum still gawped. “I just didn’t believe-”

There was a beep. The main door to the room slid open. Beetlebum and Jeremy stared at each other, then, as one, they dropped to the floor and stayed crouched in the dim of the room.

Footsteps entered, and a torch activated. It began crawling across the floor, painting intricate shadows as it shone through railings and machinery. Jeremy and Beetlebum slid down into lying positions, hoping that the cover of darkness and wires would allow them to stay hidden.

The torchbeam settled over Jeremy’s foot, and slowly but surely crept up to his face, his long ears drooping in disappointment.

“Do you two know how silly you look?” Sasha let out a quiet giggle.

“You again!” shouted Jeremy, more in surprise than anger. “How did you get in here?”

“The front door, bozo.”

“Didn’t the guards see you?”

Sasha prepared to answer, but was cut of by a siren directly behind her. She screeched at the same time as a burst of red energy cut through her chest. She stumbled forward, her white facemask set aflame.

Don’t move!”

Jeremy watched as she collapsed forward onto a railing with a metallic clang, her eyes and his meeting. She lay still.

Guards filled the room. The main lights flicked on, revealing Jeremy and Beetlebum crouched on the floor, unable to process what had happened. Ten guns trained on their heads. Beetlebum raised his hands in surrender. Jeremy got to his feet.

“Breaking into Vato’s tower-”

“What kind of plot is this?”

“Throw both of them in the cells, right this second.”

“And this one? She’s one of the brand new reinforcements.”

The guard captain kicked Sasha, to see if she had any life left in her. After a pause, she squirmed on the ground, clutching the hole in her side with both hands.

“Her too.”

Chimera and the Shrubbery – Part 1 – Chapter 8

Chimera and the Shrubbery

Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics

Chapter 8

Jeremy and Sasha returned to the base as inconspicuously as they could manage, making out they had just been on a standard patrol. They entered just as the sun was setting. But, as soon as they were inside the secure walls, a familiar figure bore down upon them.

“Hey, Jay,” said Beetlebum, rapping a clawed hand against Jeremy’s chest. “Out past curfew? Oh- I see you’ve got company. Hey, little girl, nice to see you again. How’d you first forray go with bossy boots here?”

Sasha offered a polite smile. “It’s Sasha- and it went fine. Nothing unexpected.”

“Good, good.”

“Excuse me. Later, partner.” Sasha strolled away without another word.

“What’s up, Bee?” Jeremy turned to his friend.

Beetlebum’s large circular eyes continued to watch Sasha as she wandered away towards her quarters. His grill mouth at the point of his lank head let out a hum. “That kid didn’t seem so uptight earlier. What’d you do to her? Make her recite her vows to the Front a hundred times over?”

“Nah,” replied Jeremy. “She doesn’t need me drilling it into her. She’s obedient, and she believes in the cause. Far more than you ever did, anyway.”

“Hey, hey!” Beetlebum raised his hands in protest. “I’m a veteran, watch your modulator.”

“Are we going to the bar? I have something I want to talk to you about.”

“Actually, Jay, no. I’m here on Vato’s orders. He wants to see you. Now.”

Jeremy observed Beetlebum’s flat, triangular face, and tried to discern if he was being serious. It was difficult.

“Don’t gimme that look, I’m not joking. Come on. Commander’s orders.” Beetlebum beckoned him. “If you still wanna chat after, you know where to find me.”

As the elevator rose in the central watchtower, Jeremy ran frantic predictions about Vato’s purpose in calling for him. If he had found out that Jeremy had spent the day off grid, did he also know about the forest? Jeremy had tried desperately to explain the situation in that morning, but Vato had not listened. Maybe he would change his mind now. Or maybe he would just give him a reprimand and put his brain on a shelf for a cycle..

“Sit,” said Vato simply as Jeremy entered. He shooed Jeremy’s escorting guards away, leaving the two of them alone. “Busy day,” he said.

Jeremy was unable to make out whether it was a statement or a question. He tried to keep his voice completely stable, and conceal any telltale signs that he was hiding anything. “Commander Vato, I have been on a standard patrol today with my new partner-”

Vato loomed over Jeremy suddenly, coating him in shadow. He clamped a hand together, silencing his soldier. “Don’t talk, Jeremy. Just listen.”

Jeremy froze still, and nodded.

Vato leaned over the desk, his gigantic head hovering centimetres away from Jeremy’s twitching nose. “Success,” he said.

“S-success?” repeated Jeremy, confused.

Success!” Vato fell backwards into his chair, shooting out chortles of laughter, waving his hands. “We’ve done it, Jeremy. We have located a mineral vein just to the south of the base. We’ve had the lab bots run tests. It’s rich.. and it’s deep. We’ve done it!”

Jeremy tried to disguise his relief. ““That’s excellent, commander.”

“Excellent is underselling it, Jeremy: they are saying that it will allow construction of a thousand brand new soldiers. Plus heavy armaments to secure our frontlines. Not to mention providing new bodies for all those lonely brains we have sitting on shelves in storage. It will turn this base from an outlying trench to a new capital city.” He pulled himself back up to the desk. “We’ll need time of course, to mine the mineral, ship it back to the factories, and get the new bodies trained up at the academy. A decade, two at the most. But I’ll be right here at the centre of it. I have been invaluable to the war effort. Do you understand that, Jeremy?”

“Of course, I do.”

Vato frowned very slightly, perhaps irritated that his subordinate was not openly sharing his enthusiasm. “After this, they’ll be mad not to put me on the High Council itself, I think. Don’t you agree?”

“I do, commander.”

“Good, good.” Vato paused for a few seconds. “Now, of course I didn’t just call you here to share in the news. I have a new assignment for you. I want you and Sasha to head up security at the new mine. It is a mission of the utmost importance, and I do not use those words lightly.” Vato let this sink in. “I know you’ve shied away from command positions in the past- for whatever reason- but now this is a direct order. I need someone with your skills and experience to ensure that the mineral is completely safe from the enemy. Understood?”

There was nothing to say. Jeremy knew that the commander was right, that such a deep mineral vein was a highly valuable find. If it was to fall into Chimera hands, the results could be catastrophic. “I understand, sir. I accept.”

Meanwhile, in her quarters, Sasha was unable to stop thinking about the day’s events. Monstrous creatures hidden in secret forests! She had at times dabbled in reading the fictional writings of famous authors, available freely from the satellite connection, and apparently a prestigious pastime in the capital cities. But nothing she had ever read had even approached the kind of wondrousness she had witnessed today. If she documented the events exactly as they had happened, and submitted it for publication, she would be mocked for her runaway imagination. It was literally too unreal to be true..

And yet, documenting the day’s events was the task that she now faced. All new recruits were required to write reports on their first few weeks with their assigned partners, to ensure that they were being taught the right things, and that both parties- the mentor and the mentee- were performing adequately.

Her bunkmates had already submitted their reports and were vocally describing the mundanities of their first days: patrolling the wall, target practice, sitting through old war stories, and being reminded for the umpteenth time to never underestimate the Chimera.

Sasha closed her eyes, shut down her ears, and stared at the blank template inside her brain, waiting patiently for the words to come.

Her problem wasn’t exactly that she was worried about not being believed. Both her and Jeremy would have images in their memory banks that could corroborate it. She wasn’t even that concerned about Jeremy being reprimanded for going on secret missions. She, weirdly enough, was worried about the trees.

Hilda, and Papa, and their new little friend Rascal. Not even just them, but every single piece of wood or leaf in that forest, the countless bugs and mammals, the birds and the flowers. Every one of them was alive. Did they walk around and speak? With two notable exceptions, no. But did they think, did they ponder and speak inside their own minds, just as she was doing right now? Who was to say? She could not deny the possibility.

I will see you again soon, I expect. When you bring your armies back here.

Would that happen, if she revealed the existence of the forest to Vato? Might they move in and extinguish it, just for existing? How often in her lifespan she’d seen grass sprayed and exterminated to make land easier to walk on, or a shelled creature kicked aside for polluting a clean metal walkway. She’d never given it a thought until today. Until she’d seen what life could really be. And it was closer to her than she’d ever imagined.

If she wrote the report accurately, she could well be signing the death warrant of a father and daughter, of every creature in the forest. She knew it wasn’t her decision to make, but every time she started forming the words in her head, she would quickly delete them and start the report over.

She sighed, and rubbed her face. The white mask was itching. She closed down the template and got to her feet. The report would just have to wait.

The bar stank of the dirt and grime of a hundred unwashed soldiers, and all of their individually negligible exhaust fumes collectively painted the air an arid grey. Flies and moths were buzzing around, drawn inside by the heat and light.

“Well, you know, I always find it hard to keep friends for very long. I think I must be made from recycled deconstruction bots: I have a knack for burning bridges!”

“Booo!” shouted thirty robots at once.

The robot on stage shuddered from the negative reaction. He continued. “Everyone asks me why I wanted to become a comedian, and I always have the same answer: my head got dropped when I was on the factory line!”

“Boo! Off the stage!” Beetlebum hollered above the crowd, throwing a spare bolt from inside his chassis which clinked against the hapless performers forehead.

“If you hate the acts so much, why even come here?” Jeremy appeared at his side, waving a hello.

“Oh, you know.” Beetlebum grinned, and greeted Jeremy. “Same reason all of us do: a bit of rest and relaxation.”

“You find jeering at the poor guy on stage relaxing?”

“More than that, I find it fun! Come on buddy, let’s hit the poker table.”

“Ha!” Jeremy couldn’t help but find Beetlebum’s unashamed nature impressive. “Your idea of a poker face is just disabling your head’s movement circuits. That’s hardly fair game.”

“Don’t get sore, just because I don’t wear my central unit on my sleeve like you.” Beetlebum pulled on one of Jeremy’s whiskers harshly.

“Ow!”

“If you don’t like it, just turn off your pain sensors, genius!”

“Pain has its positives too, you know.”

“Always the poet.” Beetlebum pulled Jeremy aside to a less crowded area, and sat them down. “Say, how’d it go with Vato? What was that about?”

“Oh, nothing. Just reassignment, that’s all.”

“Oh?” Beetlebum raised an eyebrow, suspicion brimming in his features. “Where to? I’ll come with you.”

“Sure, of course. But forget about that for now. There’s something I want you for. Tonight.”

“What could this be?” Beetlebum chuckled. “I don’t like that reckless look in your eye. I’ve seen it before- like that time you jumped off a hundred metre high cliff to catch that fleeing Chimera scout. Can’t we just enjoy the peace and quiet while it lasts?”

“Are you going to help me or not?”

Beetlebum folded his head into his hand and groaned. But he didn’t say no. “What is it?”

“Vato’s command tower. He didn’t build it here, did he?”

“No.. he brought it right from his last base, on wheels. Way cheaper that way.”

“So it’s got in its base a direct connection to the Council’s archives?”

Beetlebum stopped looking disapproving, and started looking deadly serious. “Council archives are way off bounds for someone of our rank. Have you asked Vato about this?”

“No I haven’t, because he isn’t interested in what I’m looking for.”

“What are you looking for?”

“There is a forest, nearby. And I have reason to believe that tens, if not hundreds of our soldiers have died there over centuries. It’s like a living, breathing deathtrap. I need to see if the archives have anything on it.”

Please!” scoffed Beetlebum. “It’s not like you to tell stories like this. Come on, what’s going on?”

“It’s true, Bee,” Jeremy said, though he knew that it would be a long shot to get Beetlebum on his side on this. Their friendship was never that great, and he was asking a lot.

“You know full well that this land is uncharted by the UFFJAH.”

“Well, if that’s true, then the archives won’t have anything. I want to confirm it.”

“This stinks,” stated Beetlebum loudly, and he checked around to make sure they weren’t being overheard. “Just take this to Vato, and ask him about it. The only other way to get access to those archives is breaking in, and that is not a route you want to take. You don’t want to bend the rules like that. Just trust me.”

Jeremy nodded, and his eyes wandered around the room. He’d expected it to go pretty much exactly like this. “Fair enough, pal. Just do me one favour, and erase this entire conversation. You owe me that, at least?” He got up, and didn’t wait for an answer.

Beetlebum grabbed his arm and pulled him back. “I take it by your demeanour that you’re going to do this anyway?”

Jeremy nodded his head a tiny amount.

“And if I said ‘trust me’ again, you’d just ignore that, right?”

Jeremy smiled.

“Who am I kidding?” Beetlebum grunted. “You’re about as hard to budge as a twenty megatonne generator. Fine. I’ll meet you at the command tower in ten minutes. But we’re both gonna regret this.”

Chimera and the Shrubbery – Part 1 – Chapter 7

This chapter was never supposed to exist. But I just started imagining a bit of a random encounter, and then the chapter almost wrote itself.

I hope you all are enjoying the story so far!
—————

Chimera and the Shrubbery

Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics

Chapter 7

The woods were eerily quiet, and the late afternoon sun cast a pink glow over them. Jeremy called for his partner a few more times, with no reply. He looked around in every direction, but they all seemed identical, like looking at a painted backdrop of brown and green. The setting sun informed him which way would lead him back to the base.. but there was still the matter of rescuing Denver; no matter how many pieces she might be in.

And Sasha, for that matter. He certainly seemed to be making a habit of losing partners.

He picked a direction at random and marched on. His young new friend scampered after him, chirruping eagerly.

“What do you want?” asked Jeremy.

The mole let out a belch and squeaked some more. It placed a paw in its mouth and start drooling.

“Care to translate that?”

The robot stopped. Trees stood to his left and to his right, all identical; a path for him to walk up. He stepped forward cautiously, scanning every one in detail. He stopped again midway, and his eyes veered to his right.

“Are you comfortable?” he asked the stationary tree.

Hyaa!” it roared, and spun around on the spot, revealing its ravenous face.

“Hilda was your name, wasn’t it?” asked Jeremy, dodging backwards, avoiding several swipes.

Hilda drew up her arms, itching to fight. Her eyes were drawn to the baby mole that sat and listened to both parties curiously. “What did you do to its mother?”

Jeremy barked, “The beast is dead! Next time you want to kill me, don’t throw me down a hole with some poor creature that’s just defending its children! Next time, just come at me yourself!”

Hilda screeched a warcry in response, and lunged forward in fury. She swiped at his rifle, but Jeremy dodged backwards and fired a shot above her, singeing the leaves sprouting from her head.

“Play nice, now,” demanded Jeremy, “or I’ll burn you to ashes! Got it?”

Hilda slammed her fist down onto the ground in tantrum, creating fountains of uprooted grass. “Unfair!” she cried, and turned to flee.

Jeremy leapt front first onto the ground and clamped his hand over one of her trailing tentacles. He jumped back up, wrapped it around his wrist and was pulled along, his feet sliding along and digging deep into the soil. He tugged sharply, and the vine got caught around Hilda’s face, dragging her back.

“Owee!” she moaned, and collapsed onto her back, her arms and legs flailing in the air. She tried desperately to right herself.

“Just stay still, damn it, or I’ll shoot your legs off!” Jeremy boomed, and he jerked the tentacle again, tightening it around her trunk. “I’ve had enough of this for one day!”

Hilda ceased her struggle and exhaled, lying flat on her back. Her eyes drifted up towards her captor, and all of the malice seeped out of them, replaced with anguish. “Please don’t shoot my legs off,” she mewled. “Please..”

Jeremy glared. “So now it’s ‘please’? Last night your attitude was kill on sight!” He stamped his foot and his head shuddered in anger. “Where is Sasha? Where did you take her?”

“Don’t know!” Hilda stuttered, raising her wooden hands up. “I tried to chase it, but it got away. So fast, it was!”

That certainly sounded true. Sasha could run when she wanted to. “She’s not an it,” insisted Jeremy, holding onto the green leash tightly.

Even in her dire situation, Hilda could not help but giggle for a second at the idea of the metal people being called ‘he’ and ‘she’. Then she realised that Jeremy was being completely serious, and she stopped her laughter. “She got away.”

“My other friend: Denver. From last night. Take me to her. Now.”

“But we killed it! I mean- her! Oh, I’m sorry! Please don’t shoot me..” Her mouth sagged again and she began to blubber.

“I know you took her apart. I want you to take me to her pieces. I won’t ask again!”

“Okay, okay! We keep all the pieces of the invaders in the same place. I’ll take you..”

All the pieces? thought Jeremy. Were their other bots who had also been caught up in the snare of this forest? How many?

Hilda carefully got to her feet, slipping up as she did. She wriggled slightly and drew most of her tendrils back inside her barked body. She stared at Jeremy, taking in the details of his body up close, until he waved the gun up at her again, and then she shrieked and started dashing forward with speed. The young mole hopped along behind them as they ran.

“And you’d better not be lying to me,” Jeremy warned gravely. “Or leading me into another trap.”

“Lie?!” spat Hilda. “We are the Guardians of the forest. We never lie. We have honour; something you could never understand.”

Jeremy lowered his gun slightly, and read the insignia on his chest: ‘United Front For Justice and Honour’. He shook his head. “Guardians? More like murderers.”

“You can’t murder what’s not living, invader!” Hilda spoke brashly, then immediately sobbed and raised her hands placidly.

“Yeah, well.” Jeremy continued moving forward, his gun trained on his enemy. “Living is in the eye of the beholder.”

“This is it. We’re here.”

Hilda had stopped next to a colossal tree in the centre of the forest. Its trunk was as big as Vato’s command tower, and bulges stuck out chaotically from its dirty grey trunk. Despite its thickness, it was not tall, and the branches housed few leaves. It was pale, and its thick roots sunk into the wet dirt around it. On the side of it was a small opening, from which a shimmer of light was shining out.

Hilda waved her arm at the hollow. “In there.”

Jeremy looked at the wooden doorway, which seemed to slope deep underground. He stayed planted on the spot. “You first.”

She didn’t move. “I can’t.”

Jeremy let out a frustrated growl from his voicebox, and pointed the gun at Hilda’s face.

Hilda’s mouth dropped open in shock. “Wait! I can’t go in there! I swore to my father- it’s forbidden. But I know that’s where she.. where Denver.. is.” She paused for a moment, then muttered, “Well, what’s left of her.” She nodded at him imploringly.

“Let her go, Jeremy.”

Jeremy spun around. “Sasha!”

“Yes, partner.” Sasha stepped out from the bushes and winked at him, her pistol in hand.

“You’re okay? I thought-”

“Don’t worry about me. I do wish you’d have told me what we were facing here.” Sasha stepped towards Jeremy and gave him a friendly pat on the back. “You look a tad worse for wear, if you don’t mind me saying?”

“I don’t mind you saying,” replied Jeremy, “but only because you’re alive.”

“I couldn’t exactly die on my first day. What would be the point in that? Anyway, let the little one go. She’s not a threat anymore.”

“Little one?” scoffed Jeremy. “Her actions are deceiving, Sasha; she’s older than she looks!”

Sasha said, “Well, we can hardly talk, can we? You’re like, what, a hundred years old?”

“Oh, me too!” Hilda blurted out.

The robots stared at her.

“Just kidding!” she muttered, and tried to smile innocently.

“Regardless,” continued Sasha, “don’t pretend you’re going to kill her in cold blood. Besides, the older one is inside.” She pointed to the opening in the ancient tree.

“How do you know?” asked Jeremy.

Sasha tapped the side of her white head. “Once I knew what to listen for, I could hear him from half a mile off. Oh! I see you’ve made a friend.”

“She’s not a friend!” asserted Jeremy, glowering with hatred at Hilda.

“Actually, I meant this little guy!” Sasha reached over with her free hand and tickled the young furry mole under the chin.

It giggled and grabbed onto her thin leg like it was a tree branch.

“What do you call him?” she asked, staring adoringly at the creature.

“Nothing.” Jeremy rolled his eyes. The animal knew how to get attention, that was for sure.

“Rascal, then. That’s his name. Because he is one.”

Jeremy turned to Hilda. “You can go. I am going to assume that the only reason you attacked us last night was because the older one told you to, and that you harbour no ill intentions towards us.”

“Assume whatever you like!” Hilda yanked her tendril back from Jeremy’s grasp, and it slid back inside her with a sucking sound. She leaned forward and stuck out her tongue, then backed away until she was enveloped by the foliage.

Jeremy and Sasha ducked down into the tunnel carved into the tree. It was filled with a glimmering blue light, much to Jeremy’s relief: he’d had enough of dark caverns. As they walked it became apparent they were sinking deep underground, beneath the base of the tree, spiralling inwards.

Sasha spotted it first, dangling from the roof from a frayed wire. “Is that..? A bone?”

Jeremy leaned forward to inspect it. “Yes,” he said glumly, taking hold of the hanging object and squinting at it. “Rusted.. metal.. missing all its nuts and bolts, but definitely from an arm. No insignia visible. This could have been here for a thousand years.”

“There’s more!” Sasha moved through the tunnel, which widened out. It was a graveyard: the chasm became covered in old scrap parts. Mounted to the walls and scattered on the floor were torn apart bits of hollow armour, circuit boards in smithereens, central units split into fragments.

Jeremy darted up to a mound of rotting parts and scattered it noisily to the ground, and started picking through the parts with purpose. When he didn’t find what he was looking for, he moved on to the next pile.

“What are you looking for?” asked Sasha, baffled.

He hurled a dismembered foot to the wall with a bang and shooed Sasha away in frustration.

“Jeremy, please, will you stop?” she implored, to no avail. “At least tell me what you’re searching for and I can help!”

Jeremy stopped dead. In his hand was the charred remains of a bunny head, the fur brittle and black. It was Denver’s head, burnt to a crisp. He tore a hole in the fur anxiously and pressed a latch, opening up a panel.. but the inside was only dark ashes and scraps. There was no recovering it. The central unit, Denver’s mind, was just dust in Jeremy’s hand.

Sasha recognised the shape of the head as similar to Jeremy’s. She tentatively moved closer. “Who was it? Did you .. know them?”

Jeremy shot her a dark look. “Why do you think you got assigned to me, girl?”

“I don’t- oh.” Sasha looked at her feet. “Your old partner. I didn’t realise-”

“Then you’re stupid for not realising! You never get assigned to someone unless they’re brand new.. or they’ve just lost a partner. Got that?”

Sasha nodded, and laid her hand on the back of his neck. “I’m really sorry.”

Jeremy whimpered, dropping the remnants. “It’s burnt.. there’s no way to get her back, Sasha.”

“We burn them all.” Papa stood at the end of the hollowed room, the blue light sparkling wildly behind him.

Jeremy roared and spun his rifle up to aim at the wooden figure. Papa didn’t flinch, nor did he attempt to run. Sasha leaped in front of the gun.

“Don’t shoot, Jeremy. We don’t even know what these things are yet!”

“They’re the enemy!”

“Last time I checked, our enemies sure didn’t look like that, nor did they talk back.”

Jeremy grunted, and tried to push Sasha aside. “They’re killers! Don’t you trust me?”

Sasha shook her head, and stayed still resolutely. “Right now you’re the one holding a gun to the unarmed man.” She tilted her head. “Well, unarmed.. thing.”

“Guardian,” interrupted Papa, walking forward calmly, his hands raised. “We are the Guardians of this forest.

“What’s so special about this forest, that you murder all who enter it?” screamed Jeremy.

“Why, it is nature,” said Papa, his voice calm. “A relic of old times in this barren age. Tell me, both of you, have you ever seen another forest like this in your lifespan?”

Both robots shook their heads.

“Such is the will of your kind. You would see all of the earth void of life if you could. For what do the hundreds of animals that habit here mean to you? What does life mean to you soulless beings? Nothing.”

Sasha winced at this suggestion.

“And our lives mean nothing to you, either,” replied Jeremy coldly. “So what does that mean?”

Papa smiled thinly, and bobbed his head, intrigued by this new perspective. He pointed a wry finger at the blackened parts of Denver’s body. “She was your mate?”

“Yes.”

“I had a mate once. A wife. Killed, by you and your kind, of course. Now I only have my daughter left. Now we’ve both lost someone. Is that fair?”

Jeremy shook his head furiously, unwilling to subscribe to this logic. “What happens now?”

“You came back here to kill us, didn’t you?” goaded Papa, baring his crooked teeth.

Jeremy sighed, and let his gun lower. “I came back here to find my friend.”

“Is that so?” Papa raised an eyebrow, glancing from Jeremy to the scrapheap that was his dead friend. “I didn’t know that you .. I didn’t think that you.. cared..”

“We’ve found your partner now, Jeremy,” insisted Sasha, putting her hand in his. “Time to go home, right?”

Jeremy found it difficult to find words. “Right.”

The two of them got up and turned away from Papa.

Papa shouted to them as they walked up to the surface, “I will see you again soon, I expect. When you bring your armies back here.”

Sasha turned to reply, but Jeremy stopped her. “Leave it,” he said. “He will believe whatever he wants to believe.”

“Okay, partner.” Sasha nodded.

“We are not here to destroy life, like he said.”

“I know.”

“Our war is not against him.”

“Right.”

They walked back outside into daylight. The sun was setting, and they had a way to march home.

“Jeremy?”

“Yes, Sasha?”

“You know.. life?”

“Yes?”

“I never knew that life could talk.”

Chimera and the Shrubbery – Part 1 – Chapter 6

Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics

Chapter 6

Sasha waved her hand around her face in annoyance, cutting through swarms of buzzing insects. The academy had taught her to master her various gizmos for gauging her surroundings, but they had never taught her about just how varied her environments could actually be. They had simulated icy, snow-peaked mountains, and crusted sandy terrain, but nothing had prepared her for the dense, humid atmosphere of the forest. She was receiving so much incoming data about constant movement and sounds in amongst the bush, but none of it told her anything concrete. Was it one large animal moving or a hundred tiny ones? Like Jeremy had suggested, it was her visual data that she should be focussing on.

How was she supposed to know which creatures were hostile, and which weren’t? She didn’t have any instincts yet, not like her much older partner.

She slowed down her pace, stricken with glumness. At the academy she had been top of her class, and had received praise from her teachers, and awe from her peers. Out here, in the thick of the forest, she had none of that. She was bottom rank. Rookies like her died in the war every single day, and were fast forgotten. All she had out here to protect her was Jeremy.

“Jeremy?” she whispered.

He spun around with his fingers to his lips, frowning.

Sasha didn’t recognise the gesture. “I need to know what to be looking out for.”

“You’ll know when you see it.” They continued edging forward.

A crack pierced through the hum of the living forest, loud and clear. Jeremy leapt up, aimed his rifle, and stared into the distance. “Just like before..” he muttered.

“What’s that?” asked Sasha, on her feet with her pistol drawn too now.

“We’ve been spotted,” he said grimly. “Sasha- keep an eye on our rear. They might try to circle around us. They’re devious.”

Sasha shouted, “Yes, sir!” and faced backwards, and thrust her gun in front of her. There was so much sound, and so many tiny creatures flitting about. Would she be able to shoot fast enough? Come on, Sasha, she thought to herself. You are trained for this. Top of your class, remember?

Jeremy strode forward. He no longer cared about keeping quiet, and conversely much of the background noise had died down. “Come out!” he yelled into the greenery. “I just want to talk with you.” He could see everything in the daylight. They wouldn’t get the drop on him. He knew their tricks now.

There was a shuffle. Leaves cascaded from trees. A squeaky, bodiless voice sung out, “Help me!”

“Denver!” shouted Jeremy, and plummeted forward, bounding over a log, pushing aside long sharp blades.

“Slow down!” Sasha yelled to him, awkwardly trying to keep up whilst also checking nothing was going to ambush them from behind. “Jeremy, I said wait!”
But Jeremy didn’t, he was tearing through the foliage searching for the source of the voice, hoping beyond hope-

He slipped and grabbed out into thin air. The ground below him disappeared, and opened a wide black mouth to swallow him up. He tumbled down into it, plunged into pitch darkness. He landed with a thump, and some internal circuits bleeped in disgust at the damage he was doing to them. He looked upwards, but the sky far above was gone from his vision, and with it all light. He felt around and found his hand moving through slimy dirt.

“Jeremy?!” Sasha’s voice echoed from far up high. “God, you’re careless! Don’t you look where you’re going?” There was pause. “Can you hear me, you silly lump?”

Jeremy groaned as he stood up, and his head hit the ceiling of whatever underground hovel he was trapped in. He tried to shout up a reply to her, but no sound came out. Great, he thought, now that’s not working.

There was a gurgle from the darkness. Jeremy spun around, and stared blindly. Then, deep breathing, like a huge vacuum sucking in and expelling tonnes of air. A guttural growl followed.

Jeremy felt his limbs shaking. He grabbed for his gun, but he had let go of it during his fall, and now it was lost. He quickly switched on his head-mounted torch, praying that it wasn’t damaged..

A bristling object swung from the darkness and knocked him against the cavern’s wall with a thud. His torch beam blinked and fluttered, illuminating images of a ravenous beast, with a grin five metres wide, lined with rows upon rows of white needle teeth. The monster bellowed, filling the small space with a putrid stench and making Jeremy clutch his ears.

Before Jeremy could get a good look at the thing, it was on him. Pinning him down with its hard belly, and snapping its jaws in his face.

Sasha yelled from up above, “Are you okay down there, partner? What’s with the commotion?”

Jeremy poured all of his energy into his arms and lifted the beast up, just enough for him to slide out from under it. It swung its paws at him again, knocking him left, then right, like a ragdoll. It reared itself up on two legs, roaring, and Jeremy got his first good look at it. It had no eyes on its head, just sharp brown furs slicked back by mud and its gaping mouth, grinning, relishing the fight. Its round head sat on a fat belly with flab that hung off it, that swung and jiggled as the beast danced left and right.

It slammed its front paws down and waited, listening intently, and sniffing into its singular chasmal nostril.

Snickering echoed throughout hidden tunnels, the sound of the Guardians somewhere nearby, observing the fight.

“Jeremy.. I think there’s something up here with me,” Sasha called shrilly.

Jeremy lay still as a corpse, waiting for the beast’s next move. He couldn’t beat it on strength alone; its thick muscles and heavy body could twist and bend his rusty arms. He had no rifle. His only weapons down here were grenades, and the space was far too confined for that: he would be incinerated too in the blast.

The beast had no eyes, but by smell alone it approached Jeremy’s vicinity until it was almost on top of him again. Jeremy dodged up and over the next two swipes and landed in the mud, and slipped over. The next swipe revealed protruding knife-like claws, that cut three shiny horizontal holes in Jeremy’s side. He pulled his face from the dirt and rolled away as the beast leapt at him, landing inches away with a crash that caused the whole room to shake.

Jeremy’s torchbeam was spattered with dirt now, and became a dull burnt amber, making it harder for him to see. Something glinted, barely visibly, but he noticed it: the handle of his rifle, sticking upwards out of the mud.

The beast roared with frustration, opened its mouth wide, and moved in for the kill, storming forward with saliva gushing down its slimy black lips.

Jeremy grabbed for the rifle and fired, almost blindly, holding down the trigger and filling the room with fire. His torch beam spluttered and died. The cavern filled with a new stench; that of burning flesh. He heard one final long exhalation of breath, and then all was quiet.

Jeremy tapped his head gently and the light returned. It confirmed what he had hoped: the beast was dead. He lowered his head and glanced down at his body. Matted with dirt again, and this time he had suffered some real damage. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to go beyond the surface, and most of his internal systems seemed unharmed. His voice modulator even flicked back to life after a bit of poking and rewiring.

He watched the dead beast with disgust. Another enemy of this forest, attacking him for absolutely no reason. But wait-

“Who’s there?” Jeremy called into the maze of dark tunnels, after hearing some distinct footsteps approaching. They didn’t respond, but they kept coming. “I’ve defeated your monster! What else have you to throw at me?”

Jeremy raised his rifle, ready.

A tiny creature, no bigger than Jeremy’s foot, emerged and waddled over slowly, on two feet. It was grey and fluffy, with pink paws and feet, and from its minute mouth two front teeth stuck out. It let out a soft whimper, and began butting the lying beast with its small dome of a head. It pushed the hulking body with all its might, seeming confused at why the larger creature was not responding. It whined and cuddled up close, its pinhole nostril sniffling.

Jeremy sighed as he watched. Family ties.. something that robots did not have to be concerned about, ever. But still, he knew exactly what it was like to lose a loved one. He reached over and patted the young one’s head.

“I’m sorry, little guy. Come on. Let’s go find Sasha.”

The mole creature bounded up onto his shoulder and began rubbing his head against Jeremy’s facial fur.

Jeremy, with some difficulty, climbed directly up the sheer vertical hole that he had fallen down. It was easy enough to dig his hands into the earth, but more difficult to do so whilst balancing his new furry friend on his shoulder. They made it to the top.

“Sasha?” Jeremy shouted into the deathly silent trees.

But there was no sign of her.