Chimera and the Shrubbery
Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics
Everything looked different during the day. Jeremy, with his lost partner Denver, had first approached the dreaded forest from the west whilst lost on patrol. Now Jeremy and his new partner Sasha were approaching from the east, heading directly there in a straight line, awkward terrain not withstanding.
“They didn’t build you for long distance, huh?” Jeremy laughed, leading the way, his head held high.
“Just go easy on me,” muttered Sasha as her heavy feet dragged along the rocky ground. “It is my first day.”
“Don’t worry! You’ve had extensive training!”
“How long until you stop with all the ‘rookie’ jokes, partner?”
“Until I stop finding them funny, I reckon.”
They began ascending towards a rocky outcrop, the baking sun radiating from their plating.
Sasha was spinning her head in a full circle, pointing her visual sensors in every direction. “Do you know this territory, partner?”
“I’ve been here once. Last night.”
“How can you be so brazen, then? This whole land is uncharted. How do know you there’s no Chimera around?”
Jeremy laughed, but suppressed it quickly. He realised that his young partner expected Chimera to be lurking in every bush, or just over the horizon, or up ahead on the path, waiting to ambush them. “When there are Chimera near, you will know,” was all he said.
They reached the top and gazed out. Jeremy had half expected the forest to just have been a dream, a corrupt sector in his memory block. But it was there: a hue of various shades of green stretching out for a mile or so in the valley beneath them. From above, it was almost perfectly round, and the edges turned from foliage to barren brown sharply, as if the whole forest had been scribbled onto the landscape by a hand from above. Somewhere down there was Denver.
“Look how high the trees are.. they reach up to the sky..” Sasha’s white face crinkled as her eyes widened dramatically, staring at the deep texture of the woods. She reached over to Jeremy, and her shiny digits delicately grasped his hand. “Make all the jokes you like, but they really didn’t teach us about anything like this. I had no idea such abundance of life still existed. It’s.. the whole forest is alive.” She thrust her hand forward, nearly taking Jeremy’s arm off with the movement. “Look!”
A flock of birds erupted from the tree tops and made their presence known to all with loud screeches. They circled around, squabbling, and as quickly as they had come they disappeared below the surface of green again, and all was silent.
Sasha was standing poised. She had removed her pistol from her waist and was holding it, unsure if she was ready to shoot or not. Her hands were quivering, and her joints reverberating quietly.
Jeremy regarded her with curiosity. She had had such a strong emotional reaction to seeing the forest. An instant bond had been formed between her and this primitive collection of life forms, stronger perhaps than she had formed to any of her academy friends, or even to him. Different robots responded to different stimuli. You could never predict that kind of thing.
“You can relax,” Jeremy said soothingly. He decided against trying to take her gun from her. Who knew what she’d been trained to do in that scenario.
“Yes,” she replied, and regained her composure. She went to put her gun back in its holster, but paused. “Sir, will there be any hostile elements on this mission?” she asked, her professional training taking hold.
“No,” replied Jeremy. He was not going to explain the situation to her, explain who or what was in that forest. Sasha was only here because she had been assigned to him, something he had no say in. He could do with the backup, maybe, he thought. Then he silently scolded himself. He didn’t need any help. The kid would just be too hard to get rid of. That’s the only reason he’d brought her along.
Sasha’s pistol returned to its holster. “Race you to the bottom?” she asked jovially.
Jeremy moved in quickly and grabbed hold of her arm, not lightly. He stared at her furiously, causing her body to become limp. She gazed down apologetically.
“Sasha,” he said seriously.
Jeremy launched himself away from her, pushing her backwards in the process, and leapt down the cliff face. Sasha released a garbled explosion of noise in delight, and sped after him. They tumbled down the steep hill, Jeremy frequently slipping and scratching his new paintwork, Sasha nimbly aiming perfect jumps from ledge to ledge without hesitation. Despite Jeremy’s head start, Sasha was still at the bottom first and tapping her foot in faux impatience before he reached her.
He collapsed into a heap, ran a five second diagnostic- nothing was damaged- then jauntily jumped to his feet.
“Just when I was thinking you were no fun!” Sasha giggled.
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that.”
They paced along, and the grass quickly became taller, until it reached their knees. Sasha trudged up to the nearest tree, and knocked twice on it. She seemed to enjoy the sound it made. Though it was nothing Jeremy had ever really thought about, he could guess why. A city girl growing up in the steel walls of the academy; she had probably had nearly no access to nature. It was a brand new experience to her.
Nature: it was not the purposely constructed confines of their towns, cities, and buildings, not the jail cells that were their tin bodies. It was purposeless, chaotic and unpredictable. With all of the robots’ colourful insignias, their masks, their vibrant population centres and their fun-based simulations, they tried to copy it. They wanted to be like it. But it was only counterfeit. As Jeremy stared into the infinite complexity of the forest, with tiny red bugs crawling along drooping leaves, with sharp-beaked birds eyeing them menacing, it became all too apparent.
Jeremy searched his memory banks for the time, forty odd years ago, when he had first seen a tree, trying to dredge up memories to see if his own reaction matched Sasha’s now. But the memories had been pushed aside to make room for more pressing matters; compressed, partially deleted. He sighed inwardly, and felt old.
“I have turned on my audio sensors,” said Sasha, with her head up against the hollow tree. “I can hear a hundred tiny creatures! It’s incredible.”
“Good,” said Jeremy, staring defiantly at the living creatures that fluttered and crawled, that would always be something he could never be. “You will need them.”
“Your audio sensors.”
Something suddenly dawned on Sasha, and her face crumpled like a scrunched up piece of paper. “The satellite link! We’ve lost it. We’re not connected.”
“It’s happening just like before,” said Jeremy, nodding, staring deep into the depths of the verdant woodland.
“Look.” Sasha marched up to him, on edge. “I don’t mind you taking me on unannounced missions, but-”
“But what?” asked Jeremy sternly.
“But- you said it was a rescue mission. It’d be nice to know exactly who we are here rescuing. And why you kept it a secret from Commander Vato.”
Jeremy turned away from her, and softly bent his knees into a crouch. “Use your ears. And your eyes. Be alert. And follow me.” He hunched down and began creeping forward.
“You said there were no hostile elements!”
Though the two robots tried to sneak along as quietly as they could, their presence was still felt. The birds and other, long-armed furry creatures noticed them right away, and sang at the top of their lungs about their discovery. Soon after there were many species quickly circling, staring with intrepidation at the invaders who had returned again. In daylight they seemed far less frightening, just two shiny skeletons awkwardly stumbling through foreign ground.
The song warning of new invaders rippled outwards, being repeated by all the creatures who heard it. In this manner, it fast reached the wardens of nature..
“Father!” yelled Hilda, pouncing down from the treetops, her spider-like body landing with grace on top of Papa. She scuttled around his trunk until she was face to face with him. “Wake up, and listen!”
Papa groaned and plucked her off with a thick limb and tossed her aside in annoyance. “What are you waking me for, child? We need to rest to gather our strength.”
“Your hearing is going, father!” Hilda found her feet again and glared at him. “Listen: the invaders are back.”
“What? Already?” Papa hushed her with an elongated, wiry finger, and listened to the song of the forest. He gasped: his daughter was not wrong. He collapsed down to his knees and sobbed. “They’ve come too soon..”
“Father! It is time to fight! Like our kind fought in ages past!” Hilda was leaping from tree to tree, shaking barrel-loads of leaves from each one she landed upon.
“Yes. You are right.” Papa stopped his crying and drew himself up, but sorrow was still on his face, and tears of sap were in his dark, wrinkled eyes.
Hilda stopped leaping around. Her forehead creased. She regarded the pain and misery on her father’s face, and prayed it wasn’t infectious. “Father?”
“How many of you were there when you last fought the invaders?”
Papa winced, as if a old wound had been opened up on his body. “We go to war, today, Hilda.”
“Answer me!” she moaned. Whilst she rarely paid attention to most of the old ways of the Guardians, the nuggets of information that were kept secret from her were constantly alluring. “There used to be more than just the two of us, I know that much. I know that once, I had a mother. I remember her, calming me when I was a seedling. It’s my earliest memory. Tell me, father: did they all die fighting the invaders? Is that why you’re crying?”
Papa sighed, but nodded. “Walk with me, then, Hilda. Let us go and meet our enemies, and on the way I will tell you the rest of what I know.”
“Are you going to tell me of the forbidden place?” Hilda’s eyes lit up with glowing red, and a smile split across her head. Her eyes darted towards the precise centre of the forest, where an ancient, weathered, bulbus tree housed the sole place in the forest that she had sworn a thousand times never to enter.
“Not that place. That’s not for now.”
“That is for if we lose.”
They began marching towards the invaders, squinting their eyes and looking out for signs of their enemies. The surrounding fauna pointed them in the right direction.
Papa began his story. “You were right, my perceptive young daughter. Some of us were killed by the invaders, last time they came. Killed in such horrible ways that I couldn’t bear describe it to you.”
Hilda gulped, and pictured the flaming explosion that had incinerated a vast area of plants the previous night. She shuddered to think of that happening to her.
“During the battle, the invaders killed eight of us. One of those who died was your beautiful mother.” A fresh wave of tears began dripping down Papa’s coarse face, and he looked away from Hilda, embarrassed. “I loved her then and I love her now. We both of us agreed that protecting the forest was our sacred duty. I know she died for what she believed in, but I still wish.. it hadn’t happened.”
Hilda bobbed along, nodding, listening eagerly.
“Afterwards, twenty-five of us remained. Including me, and you, Hilda.”
“I knew it!” she yelled, and the sound echoed. “I knew I remembered lots more of us. Please, father, tell me what happened to the rest of them? Why are we the only two left?”
Papa’s flapping ears suddenly became rigid, and pricked, stopping him in his tracks. He fast scraped the tears from his face. He silenced her with a stern look, drew back, then leapt forward. He sailed and landed on a rocky mound.
Hilda scrambled up quickly to join him, digging deep handholds as she climbed. He pointed, and she saw it too. The invaders were crawling along in the undergrowth, up to their chins in the sharp grass, but fifty metres away. Hilda and Papa sunk into the ground, keeping eyes on their prey.
“That is the one from last night!” exclaimed Hilda, trying to keep her voice as quiet as she could.
Papa shrugged this off. “They all look the same,” he insisted. “What matters is that there’s only two of them!” He chuckled, and an eager smile crossed his face. “They escaped, but they only brought back two. You know what this means, Hilda?”
Hilda shrugged, unsure as to why he was suddenly so enthusiastic. “We can kill them?”
“Exactly!” He laughed hoarsely, watching the metal people move along in the near distance, ineffectively trying to remain concealed. “Now, daughter, let’s see what you have learnt. What are the conditions of combat?”
Hilda bit her tongue in concentration. “Um.. daylight..”
“Daylight. Which means we lose the advantage of stealth.”
“..lose the advantage of stealth,” Hilda said with him.
“So we will lay a trap for them. Lure them into it.”
“What trap, Papa? Tell me!” Hilda’s eye were wide and mad, and she was making guttural sounds of pleasure in her throat.
Papa chuckled, far more mirthful now. He beckoned her in close. “You know every creature who lives here in this forest of ours, correct?”
“Do you have names for them all?”
“Every one of them larger than a vore-rat, father.”
“And what do you call the one who lives underground, with seventy teeth on each of five rows, which can see even though it has no eyes, which hunts once a week only and devours its prey whole, in the dead of night?”
“That one! Who even we can’t tame.. I just call it The Beast.”
Papa nodded, in agreement with the name. “The Beast. That’s where we’re luring the robots to.”