Chimera and the Shrubbery
Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics
“You lost her?” spat Commander Vato, his rectangular mouthpiece quivering in anger.
“Yes, commander,” replied Jeremy soberly.
It was the following morning. Gone was the eery forest brimming with life, left behind in the night. Jeremy had diverted every watt of power to fleeing, and by the time he had reached the base his power cells were near depleted. He’d spent the night in the infirmary. Then, first thing, Vata had sent for him. The two of them sat now in Vato’s stark office at the top of the lookout tower. Sunlight streamed in through the windows.
“Well, let’s hear it, then! As quickly as possible, soldier. What happened?”
Before speaking, Jeremy replayed the incident from the previous night to himself, from his memory banks. Even though he was playing back the exact events as seen from his viewpoint, he couldn’t help notice a disparity. Last night the danger had seemed so real. But this morning, the images seemed unclear, fuzzy, dark. There was a lot of movement, but he needed a crystal clear image of the enemies he had fought against if he was going to convince the commander to send troops back to the forest.
“Well? Was it the Chimera?” demanded Vato. The only two movable parts on his oblong head were his two eyebrows above his dull red singular eye. They were all he needed to convey his expression: impatient.
“Not the Chimera, commander.”
“Thank god for that.” He blew a wheeze of steam out from under his chin in relief. “If they were that close already, we’d be in knee deep.” He leant back into his chair. “So, stop stalling. What happened to Denver?”
Hearing Denver’s name roused emotions deep inside Jeremy. “Trees, sir,” he said plainly, aware of hos ridiculous his words sounded. He maintained eye-contact, hoping that it would aid in conveying the seriousness of his recounting. “In the forest, there were two creatures that looked like trees, but they could move- they could talk. Not some babble either, it was our dialect. I spoke to them. They were hostile, commander. They took Denver apart. I believe she’s gone sir. I think she’s dead.” His whiskers twitched and his ears drooped at this last admission.
Vato remained totally unmoving, frozen. Jeremy fidgeted for around ten seconds, before realising that more was probably expected of him.
“I tried to fight them, but the satellite link was down. I didn’t mention that yet. We thought at the time it might be the storm, but I believe it’s clear now that the hostile elements in the forest must have jammed it to trap us there, on purpose. There wasn’t any negotiations, they just attacked-”
“The trees?” Vato spoke, a hint of scorn in his voice.
“Yes.” Jeremy shifted on his seat. “Well, no. They looked like trees. They were made of wood. But they were fast, and fleet, and experienced in combat. No weapons, but they were.. dangerous.” He leaned forward and raised both his hands out. “Commander, we need to go back to the forest,” he implored. He tried to convince himself that his main objective would be to find what was left of Denver, but secretly he kept thinking the same word: revenge.
“You said they had a device that blocked your satellite link?”
“Yes. I believe so. I didn’t see it, but, they must have.”
Vato said nothing for a while, but he rotated his neck around in a way that suggested he was thinking, and expected only silence from Jeremy. Without warning, he rose from his seat.
“Wipe the mud from your arm, Jeremy. What is that symbol there?”
“Why, commander, it’s the symbol for Clan Dragomir-”
“Clan Dragomir.” Vato slammed his elbow onto the desk between them and showed the same symbol on his own bicep plate: a triangle with a moon shape hollowed out from it. “Our clan. And, Jeremy, do you know what separates us from the other two clans?”
“Commander.. we are forward-thinking. Brave. Merciless. Just.”
“You could have stopped at forward-thinking, soldier. For that’s the only thing that truly separates us. Both Clan Dobrosaw and Clan Argus share our numbers, our technology, our faults and our strengths. But we are the clan that is out here pioneering, uncovering new ground, searching for new mineral veins to propagate our species.” Vato paused, and moved over to the nearest window. He gazed with pride at the base, still being built up and secured, but magnificent all the same.
“Clan Dragomir has a long and untarnished reputation,” Vato continued, pacing up and down the long window. “Even now, two centuries- centuries, Jeremy- after the founding of the United Front, the merging of the three clans into a single army, there is still in-fighting. The clans have petty squabbles over territory. Such a petty waste of life, and resources, when you consider that the Chimera is out there, and is the enemy of us all.
“But, my point is, that Dragomir has never backed down from a fight. We have secured our land, and we are now pushing out to expand it, without having to war with anyone. We are progressive-”
“I know that, commander.” Jeremy knew the rudeness of his interruption, but he found being lectured on his own clan’s history frustrating and patronising. He had put in years of fighting. One mishap in the forest didn’t make him deserve to be treated like a child.
“All I’m trying to say, Jeremy,” said Vato, turning back to face him, “is that much of our strength comes from soldiers like you. Loyal, smart, and damned good fighters.” He paused and glanced outside again. “Let’s go for a walk.”
They took the elevator to ground level and emerged from the tower into the orange glow of morning, in the centre of the base. All around them automatons whizzed about, still working around the clock to build up brand new structures. Short silver lawnmowers clattered along the ground, sucking up flowers and grass, making the earth barren of life in preparation for construction. Other diggers explosively blew holes into the ground, so that swiveling buckets could lumber over and fill them with hot cement. Already the perimeter of the base was marked by a tall black wall with towering gun emplacements, spikes covering the outer side, and soldiers patrolling along the top of it, their footsteps as they clanked along the walkway ringing through the open area. A landing pad was prepared for incoming vessels that docked at irregular intervals. What little fuel the United Front had in storage was being fast expended by Vato’s constant call for new supplies.
A shooting range, armoury, guard towers, vehicle factories, barracks, and even the odd play area for rest and relaxation: all built within the past week. They were, indeed, pioneers.
“And old, I might add.” Vato’s hulking legs created clouds of dust with every step, that he wilfully ignored. “You’re a veteran of sixty-five cycles, aren’t you, Jeremy?”
“Sixty years, sir.”
Vato regarded some busy worker robots carefully placing a girder with great pride. “Well, who’s counting? You’re a veteran who all the younger soldiers look up to. And yet, what is this?” Vato reached over and tugged, not softly, on one of Jeremy’s long bunny ears that hung from his head.
“Just a mask, sir..”
“The mask of an animal probably long extinct. You parade around with it on.. why, exactly? A desperate plea for individuality? Or is it just a joke that I don’t get? Don’t answer, Jeremy. I am not going to tell you how to dress. I could, but I won’t. Denver wore one too, didn’t she?”
Jeremy paused. Red flags were appearing in his central unit, signifying a strong emotional response. A response that could drastically alter his actions. He calmly collected himself, then responded. “Yes, she did, sir.”
“You and her were partners for many years. You rubbed off on her, and her on you. To be honest, I don’t know quite how to put it, but there was talk amongst the soldiers here, about the two of you. I don’t think I’ll elaborate too much, but suffice to say people thought you had been partners for too long. Spent too much time together.” Vato stroked his chin absent-mindedly. “It’s odd that that situation has seemed to rectify itself.”
Jeremy felt his hands responding to an order that he didn’t send. They were squeezing themselves into tight fists; so tight that the polished sheen on them was being scraped away as his fingers dug into his palms. “Sir, if I could have just ten troops-
Vato pretended not to hear him. “We have a long future ahead of us, out here!” He waved his hand in the air, and made a fist, as if he owned the blue sky itself. “And I want soldiers exactly like you to be my closest lieutenants, Jeremy. Not these new young things. You.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Jeremy blankly.
“Which is exactly why I’m going to disregard what you said in my office.” He held up a hand to silence Jeremy instantly. “Trees? Coming alive? Look, regardless of what really happened, it will look bad on your record if I just state that you got your partner killed. So I’m not going to state that. I’m going to state she died of.. an unavoidable accident. Nobody’s fault. It’s not as honourable as dying in combat, but hey, it’s a far cry better than the fairytale you told.”
“She did die in combat,” protested Jeremy.
“If you don’t die against the Chimera, then it doesn’t count as dying in combat. That’s the law of the United Front, plain and simple. Now, go and get yourself cleaned up, right away. Scrape the dirt from your knees, get the clumps of grass out of your head. You need to go and meet Sasha.”
“Sasha? Who is that?”
“Didn’t I say?” said Vato. “She’s your new partner.”