Chimera and the Shrubbery
Part 1: Parades of Carbon and Intrinsics
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.”
“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.
“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?”
“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.”