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
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?”
“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.”
“Our war is not against him.”
They walked back outside into daylight. The sun was setting, and they had a way to march home.
“You know.. life?”
“I never knew that life could talk.”