It’s alive, but not merely in the way one might think a tree is alive.Christopher
It is a tree. Of that I am immediately sure. An ancient tree with a scarcity of leaves on top, and bark thicker than my torso, chipping in places. It’s alive, but not merely in the way one might think a tree is alive. No longer sedentary – bound by its roots to the soil – this tree stands. It does not stand under its own power – the mechanism lifting the tree must have been built by man, or alien, or something with opposable thumbs. I watch on with trepidation as a massive arm breaks the surface with an elbow, and another follows. Dirt and rock bursting upward. Both arms plant their hands on the forest floor and push, drawing itself up while rocks and critters and dirt pour out of the now deep hole where the thing rested. Dirt and dust and decay fall from its dirty tech.
The whining of the tree’s engines, the hydraulics, and the pistons firing is tremendous as it turns and moves towards me. There is no hesitation in the thing. It stops a few meters in front of me, straightens up, and releases a terrible screeching sound from its heavy steel and mesh carapace. When I gain control of my senses, I notice the tree itself stands four metres on its own, but when brought to its full height atop this machine body, it towers ten metres easily. The tree sits atop the construction like the head on a man. Much of its roots and dirt are contained within a claw-like structure, but more spill out over the claw, tangled and torn to resemble an unkempt beard, while the worn bark of the trunk and sparse branches create the illusion of a face on the beast.
Bi-pedal and with two arms, the machine portion of the tree mimics the human form. To be sure, a giant amongst us, clearly designed to meet the expectation one might entertain in meeting an intelligent, alien being.
“I have not used my machine in many turns,” a voice erupts in a rusty baritone from the Things’ chassis. “Pardon me,” I beg of the giant, my knees now jelly. Debris continues to fall from its many crevices, slamming into the ground around it. It’s an alarming scene and one I intend to stay well back from in fear of being crushed by a falling boulder. Strange animals scurry down the tree’s steel legs to the safety of the forest. Birds burst from the tree’s inadequate canopy.
“I have no authority to pardon you – thing,” the tree admits, raising its massive hands, working them into fists. “You are not of my world.”
“I – I am not, no,” I manage, head bowed and eyes now shut tight, unprepared for this or what might come next. I’m stunned into place but make a conscious effort to look back up at the mighty tree. Though it has no face, the tree itself seems to act as the brain to its manufactured body. It is beyond impressive and many, many years old. The tree would be well over eight-hundred solar years by my count, and as this mission’s Botanist, my opinion is the final word on the subject of life we encounter on any new planet. Though precisely in what way this specimen could count as life is yet to be determined.
“Have – have you a name?” I ask the tree.
“Of course I have a name – thing,” the tree insists. “I am Orwell,” he offers.
“Orwell,” I repeat, my arms extending from my sides as if to balance myself against this revelation. “I am Christopher,” I offer back, somewhat convinced it is the tree itself which is speaking through the tech and not merely the tech wearing a tree as a hat.
“A thing called Christopher,” the tree says amusedly. “You are a tiny thing, Christopher.” The tree’s body comes down on one knee, apparently getting a better look at me. The ground shakes, and I hear the tech in its chassis struggle to focus.
“When did you last use your body, Orwell?” I ask, taking a cautious step forward, the beast still five metres back.
“It has been very long,” Orwell says, placing a giant, metallic hand palm up in front of me. “Approach.” He says.
I walk tentatively onto the hand and kneel as the tree-man rises to its full height. Once reached, I stand on unsteady legs. “Are you the tree or the tech?” I ask it.
“I am the tree,” Orwell replies. “I have been in conference with the forest for six-hundred-years.”
“That is a long time,” I concede. What must drive this tech, I wonder. “Yet your batteries continue to power your suit.”
“Photosynthesis powers my suit,” Orwell explains. “Photosynthesis excites electrons, which then become an electrical current using the specially designed electrodes embedded into my mechanism.”
“Sustainable,” I state, impressed by the technology. “Are there others? Like you?”
Orwell turns himself 180 degrees to look upon the infinite woods which stretch to the horizon. The planet’s sunlight envelopes the treetops, turning the many coloured leaves a uniform gold on this early autumn morning.
“There are many,” Orwell answers. “We are many.” His baritone voice softens.
“But not all?” I wonder, visualizing the scene before me, should each tree in this vast and varied forest stand.
“Not all, but all are sentient. All experience what we experience, but most are tethered to the dirt.”
The tree shakes above me as Orwell shifts his shoulders. Dead leaves and twigs and moss fall from the limbs. Mechanical sounds echo out of the body’s chassis. Six-hundred-years without moving about, I think. It’s a wonder the mechanism still functions. A testament to its creators. “Who built you this body?”
“A race of bi-pedals like yourself, Christopher,” he begins. “They inhabited this planet with us for a short time. They were mighty in their intellect. Ageless beings. Creators.”
“Are they here still?” My group had only arrived three days earlier and found nothing of intelligent life, until now.
“No, they took to the stars Seven-hundred-years ago,” he explains. “They seeded this planet. They are the creators. The builders. They left this planet in our charge.”
“But you’re trees,” I say innocently.
“Yes, we are trees,” Orwell agrees. “But the builders gifted us our external bodies to maintain the land and protect its interests. They also gave us a voice to communicate with visitors, like you. We have many thousands of species’ languages to reference. I speak them all at once, but you hear only your tongue.”
“Fascinating,” I say, careful not to reveal my anxious energy over the fact that the Creators, as he calls them, knew my language. “Have you had to protect the land before?”
“Not long after the creators left, a species calling themselves the Jal’Aktat arrived to undo all the creators had accomplished.” Orwell pauses. “They were… unsuccessful.”
“You stopped them,” I say.
“We did,” Orwell confirms, the sun now full on his ancient trunk, illuminating its cracks and crevices; it’s crown dieback, broken limbs, dead branches, fungi, and decay. “It was a terrible time,” he continues. “Nearly fifty of our days of war with a race capable of traveling between the stars. We were unprepared for such cruelty. We saw entire continents burn—a great dying in waves of violence. The Jal’Aktat wanted the land. They wanted the resources. The creators knew this of other species and their greed. That is why they gave us our bodies.” A whirring sound vibrates Orwell’s frame, and I bend on a knee, reaching for Orwell’s rigid fingers for stability. His left arm raises, opening at the forearm, and what looks like a turbine extends out. It takes me only a moment to realize it is not a turbine but a canon.
“You’ve been weaponized,” I say, slowly standing. “You won the war.”
“We did. But at great cost.” He places the hand with me on it in front of his chassis. The whirring of something mechanical pulling into focus causes me to step back slightly. “I have rested while our lands replenished since.”
“That is happy news, Orwell.” I nod enthusiastically. My small landing party would not stand a chance against an army of these marvels.
“You do not wish to plunder our planet, Christopher?” The question seems more a statement. I shake my head, no.
“No, absolutely not, Orwell,” I reassure him. “We’re a small group that only landed just days ago. We’re explorers, not conquerors.” I’m nervous – it’s a considerably large weapon resting on Orwell’s left arm – and I don’t know this tree from the hole in the ground it emerged. Regardless, there’s something about the way he carries himself that is reassuring. He speaks for his planet. Nature can be cruel, but not in the sadistic way people can be. It’s just the circle of life.
“What do you intend to do on this planet?”
“Well, for one, does it have a name? What do you call it?”
“This world is called Dahlia,” Orwell offers, bending to set me down.
“A beautiful name, Orwell.” I step off the metallic hand, happy to have my feet back on solid ground.
“We’d like to study flora and fauna, uh, with your permission, of course… Our mission directives are to scout out habitable worlds.”
“For your species to terraform?” Orwell does not like the sound of this. I can tell from the edge of his voice.
“Uh, well, yes, that is the purpose of our mission, Orwell, but it certainly doesn’t have to be the only result,” I explain quickly so as not to upset the giant. “Should we discover that a planet is inhabited by intelligent life, we would rather make first contact – as you and I have done today. We would work to become friends and potential trading partners, rather than willfully forcing ourselves onto your planet – onto Dahlia.” Is he buying this, I wonder?
“We have nothing we wish to part with on Dahlia, so trade is a non-issue,” Orwell tells me. “The creators did not build this place to be used or squandered by another.”
I notice further irritation in his voice and take it as a warning. “I’m only explaining how we approach every habitable planet with an intelligent life form, Orwell. I am not suggesting we carry out our directives.”
“Very well,” he tells me. “You have found your intelligent life. It does not wish to become trading partners. If you would like to be friends, then you will respect that we are happiest when left to our own devices.”
“Yes, of course, but that’s just it, isn’t it,” I say with renewed courage as I notice the armed members of my party huddled behind the trees along the outskirts of the forest. “You’re not quite like other intelligent forms of life we’ve encountered in our journeys. You’re different. You’re trees.”
“Yes, we are sentient.”
“So you say. But were you not fitted with these mechanical bodies, would I reach the same conclusion on my own? I cannot talk to trees on any other planet. We have talked to robots which were very capable in that they’d overthrown their organic masters and became the ruling intelligent life on their planet,”
“But?” Orwell says with inference in his voice.
“Yes…” I begin to move toward my hidden comrades. Slowly. “But, we do not recognize robots as alive. Intelligent though they were, they were not living in the sense my species is alive.”
“And so, you feel you will not find in my favour either?” Orwell follows my path with his body, turning to watch me move further away.
As a scientist, I realize the great discovery a thing like Orwell is. I spin scenarios where we take down the beast and dissect it in a lab, stealing its secrets and incorporating them into our tech. As a Botanist, I’m torn to disturb this incredible lifeform in fear of destroying it before we can recreate it. A talking tree: it’s the stuff of fairy tales!
“I know you are alive, Orwell, but I do not know whether it is the tree or the mechanism doing the talking. Artificial intelligence is one thing, but a talking tree is quite another.” I turn when I am a dozen metres from the thing calling itself Orwell.
“Whether you believe what I am or not, Christopher, you will be asked to leave only once,” Orwell states in no uncertain terms. “Should you like to leave as friends, that would be preferable. As enemies, I will be the victor.”
Just a couple of meters from my landing party, I need to decide how to proceed. Do I signal them to open fire? Do I motion for them to back off? “And where are your creators now, Orwell?” I ask with my back to him, eyes scanning my group.
“As I said, they left seven-hundred-years earlier. I do not know where they are.”
“Then they cannot help you if you were to face another war.”
“I would not require their help, Christopher. Are you attempting to rationalize an attack on Dahlia?”
“Not on Dahlia, Orwell. No.” I turn to face the tree giant. “Just you.” I motion with my hands to take the monster down and twelve of my armed landing party slip from the outlying trees’ relative safety and fire their pulse rifles at the beast’s chassis.
…the guns light up Orwell’s carapace in a red-hot glow…Colonel
As the guns light up Orwell’s carapace in a red-hot glow, I order them to cut away the left arm which houses the canon. If my instincts are right, Orwell is the last of his kind, and it’s essential to take him alive. “Do not hit the tree!” I shout. “Take the arm and then the legs.” I hustle back another few meters to avoid the firefight. Upon looking back, I see Orwell point his canon at the center of my team and fire.
The weapon fizzles out, and a loud bang follows. The canon is long dead. Orwell rushes the group next and stomps on three members of my party with his heavy steel feet. He is enraged, but he lied to me. There aren’t others like him. He was bluffing. If not, they would be popping up all over the forest floor to come to his aid.
“Christopher!” Orwell cries as his left arm falls away in a burst of light and sparks, and his right knee gives into the pulse rifle’s punishment. “Christopher!” His voice echoes over the landscape as he drops on his right side and bends his left knee to stay upright. The group encircles the tree man and fires their harpoons to bind his remaining appendages. The fight has left him. He appears tired.
“I take no pleasure in this, Orwell,” I explain. “But you are unique, and we need to study you.”
“You could have asked,” the tree man replies angrily.
I laugh, “You are too proud to have volunteered yourself, Orwell. It is better this way.”
“The others will come for you,” he threatens.
“I don’t think so. You talk too much, Orwell. But, in doing so, have given away much, and for that, I thank you.” I turn and begin to walk toward our encampment. “We want your technology, Orwell. I want it,” I clarify. “You’re a wonderful oddity, and I suspect your tech will integrate nicely with our own. But do not flatter yourself by thinking you are all I want. Those who made you what you are – it is they who I want an audience. Perhaps this is how to get it.”
Orwell’s body groaned.
“Relieve him of his other appendages and keep him here,” I order the soldiers. “I’ll return with the portable lab. Until I do, make sure he is comfortable and cooperative. He is our greatest discovery to date.”
At base camp, I hail our mother ship orbiting the planet Dahlia. I explain what I’ve found and request they lance the woods beyond the great river which divides it from ours just a few kilometres away. My drone offers up the coordinates and returns to my position before the concentrated beam penetrates the cloud cover moving in from the west and pummels the woods for a solid two minutes, igniting an immense forest fire.
I can hear Orwell cry out as he struggles against his new reality. Smoke pours over the treetops, forced further east, away from our location, away from the meandering river. The Biologist in me hates to see such loss, but the Colonel feels I must meet these creators Orwell has described. If seven-hundred-years ago, they could create something like Orwell, their technology today would be of great interest to the Establishment, Earth’s military machine.
My only play; to ignite the planet and burn it like an ancient smoke signal. Beyond that, I have no way of hailing the aliens – these Creators. Perhaps they have a satellite in orbit to survey Dahlia, which we have yet to discover. The Establishment watches over each of our planets in this way. If the creators see the world burning uncontrollably and the atmosphere filling with smoke, surely, they will appear to extinguish it. Why else place sentinels on your planet if you didn’t want to defend it? But if what Orwell
said was right and they haven’t returned in seven-hundred-years – perhaps they are no more. If this is true, then I will have to be very careful in dissecting Orwell. If this is true, then he is all who is left of this marvelous technology.
I toss a small ball into the air when I return to where the tree man, now resembling more just a tree than a man, rests, unable to move. The ball makes a snapping sound mid-air and bursts into a large tent of three by three meters. The men scramble around me, relieving me of the small cart carrying my tools and plasteel boxes filled with instruments I will use to understand Orwell’s impossible transformation better. They set everything up in the tent as they know to do. Dhalia is the fourth world we have
conquered together. The three dead from my party watch on from their place on the forest floor.
“Christopher,” Orwell says my name like a curse word from his newly dug hole. His chassis sits a meter above the dirt, taking on the appearance of an enormous potted plant. “Why burn my forests?”
“Nothing personal, Orwell,” I assure him as I busy myself with instruments from the tent’s interior. “It is just a tactic.”
“It is my world,” he pleads.
“You may be amazed to know, Orwell, that there is an infinitesimal number of worlds just like this one,” I explain.
“Are there so many that you can defend burning something as beautiful as Dahlia to its foundation?”
From the corner of my eye, I could have sworn I saw his branches twitch. No doubt they want to reach out and crush me. I don’t blame him for his hostilities. Again, I feel it is the tree talking. Even the A.I. I’ve encountered did not care so much when we fire-bombed their planet. Orwell could very likely be the tree and not the tech. I certainly hope so. This will be a major win for the Establishment if Orwell’s tech can be integrated into our own.
“There are so many planets, Orwell, that we do not have enough people to spare to terraform them all,”
I tell him. “We procreate like rabbits, but still, not enough to cover the vastness of our empire.”
“Then, why come here?” A sensible question from a rational tree.
“Because we can?” I shrug as if the destruction of his beloved planet is little more than a reaction for me. Which, in a way, it is. Had he not risen from his grave, I’d have never discovered him. We would have tagged the planet as ours, yet probably not returned to it in another hundred years. Maybe never.
“We are mapping the cosmos, Orwell,” I tell him. “We like to know where we are in the universe and what, or who is near us. It is knowledge, and it gives us power.”
“It has made you wasteful,” he retaliates. “If you’ve no use for a thing, then leave it.”
I place a scanning device beside the incapacitated giant and turn it on. It rises and harmlessly scans the chest of the chassis and then the tree itself. I can taste the fire in the air now. A heat that was not present before the lancing creeps over our camp. I look to my screen and inspect the scan’s data.
“We would rather meet your Creators than forever wonder about them, Orwell,” I say plainly. “I burn your forests for that reason. We want contact.”
“Because we like knowing we’re the ultimate power in the universe, and if we’re not, then we like to meet them.”
“For what purpose?”
“Not every life in the galaxy is a xenophobe, Orwell. Some like to make friends. Other’s like to make enemies. Which will your creators be to us, I wonder?”
“If you burn their planet, it reasons you will be their enemy.” Orwell has a point there.
“Indeed. And so, I need to understand the level of intelligence this new enemy possesses, and so I need to reverse engineer you.” I place a hand on his chassis and push where the data scan found a hydraulic hinge. The portion opens, and I peer inside.
“Do you ever make friends, Christopher?”
“Do you mean personally or as a collective?”
“Your Establishment,” he answers.
“The short answer is no. We don’t like thinking there is intelligent life that could rise against ours.” I place a light inside Orwell’s torso. “We don’t sleep so well knowing a species might be plotting against us.”
“So you destroy all you encounter.”
“Yes.” I tell him, taking a laser knife to the chassis, not satisfied with the tiny door I’ve located. “And we intend to destroy your creators when they take the bait.”
“You are a cruel thing, Christopher.”
“Yes,” I agree resolutely, as I might to any other obvious statement. “Humans cherish survival over all else, and work toward that goal beyond all others.”
“Then you are not alive as I would classify an intelligent lifeform.” Orwell sounds disappointed in me.
“I don’t suppose that much matters now, does it, Orwell?” I say smugly, cutting the last of the chassis. It falls hard to the ground. One of my Corporals rushes in to carry the section away, and I place my palms
on my lower back and stretch.
“That would depend on whether you felt compelled to change,” the tree man says.
“Because of the opinion of a tree?” I laugh at this.
“Yes.” Says Orwell.
“Not likely,” I reply, knowing full well the only reason Humanity had made it as far as it had was that we left no one alive long enough to confront us. I wonder if Orwell’s creators would present a challenge.
“I grant you permission to meet the Creators,” Orwell states. Do I detect a sense of arrogance in his tone? “They will first greet your ship in orbit,” he explains. “Then I will ask them to join us in the forest.”
I don’t like what I’m hearing. I nod to my Corporal, “Hail the mother ship,” I order him. He leaves a moment and returns.
“No answer, Colonel.” He tells me – the colour washed from his face.
I look up toward the blue-grey sky and then back to what I believe is the tree’s eye in his chassis.
“What’s going on, Orwell?”
“Your mother ship has been well met, Colonel,” he replies. “I am sorry for your loss.”
“Sorry for my -” I turn and order the soldiers to rally their arms. “Dig in. We need to be ready.”
“You are human,” Orwell says. “You are from planet Earth. You are a young species amongst ancients. Children playing at war.” This is beginning to sound like a lecture. “It is unfortunate you have advanced so little in your time. Had you shown any compassion toward me, we would have
“What do you mean?” I ask, adrenaline pounding at my temples.
“You do not act alone. You are a pawn in a hierarchy. You alone will not be punished for your cruelty, Colonel.”
“What do you mean?” I ask again, my palms wet.
“Humanity will share in your punishment.”
“Humanity? What gives you the right?!” I shout at the tree, ready to cut it down with my pulse rifle. Does he mean to wipe out our species?
“We are the creators, Colonel,” he explains. “We operate through our creations. Orwell is a tree. You were a fish, once. You were allowed to evolve into your present form and left alone to become a contributing member of the universal good. But you have only brought pain and fed your greed. Now you will be ended.”
“W-wait! You can’t end an entire species over a single act!” My knees are shaking. I study the nine soldiers forming a semi-circle around me. They look distraught.
“As it turns out, Colonel, you talk too much. You have admitted to multiple crimes humans have committed over your time in the universe. You’ve confessed to wiping out intelligent species just to ensure the preservation of your own. You are a selfish genus. There is no place for such cruelty in our
universe, thus no place for you.”
The lights in the eastern forests cease to twinkle. The fires are out. The horizon begins to clear. A ship descends from the smoke and glides silently toward us. I can se that it is much larger than anything the Establishment possesses. It is silent on approach. It is not broken up into sections, as are our vessels. It is a distinct shape shining brilliantly in the midday sun. I struggle to describe its form. My palms soak through my light pants as I rub them slowly against the fabric, head craning as the ship centers itself a thousand meters above us. When it settles there, I lower my gaze and shake my head, setting my jaw in preparation for my end. It becomes clear that even the human Establishment would be no match for this advanced race.
Light falls upon us from the belly of the ship, and before I can react, my body becomes rigid. I watch the light envelope my soldiers as well. It binds each of us, frozen in place. I watch in horror as my men are forced into the fertile soil, up to their knees. I follow. The pain is exquisite. My shins snap under the pressure of an invisible force. I can feel the skin peel from my muscle below the dirt, my feet tearing away, toes digging deeper. My arms fold up, bending at the elbows—my spine compresses and fuses. My clothes burn away, and my skin darkens, taking on a rough, earthy appearance.
You are a selfish genus. There is no place for such cruelty in our
universe, thus no place for you.Orwell
It’s all happening so fast. My mouth dries up, and my nostrils close. The last thing I witness before my eyes are forced shut is my team writhing against the metamorphosis.
The forest speaks next. A network of fungus that traverses the entire jungle – the continent – beneath the forest floor explains its intentions within moments. Orwell has returned to his place amongst the trees. I feel his presence.
“You will have what may seem an eternity within the fellowship of the trees now,” Orwell explains. “The creators do not often show such compassion to those who show such aggression. You should be honoured. You few will be all who is left of your species in a matter of moments.”
My mind spins in every direction, searching for a way out of this. My mind – I still have my mind.
“You are still sentient, Christopher,” Orwell answers my anxious thought. “This is a blessing, not a punishment. When you have had five-hundred-years to consider your position, perhaps then you will receive a body, as I have, and understand your mistakes.”
I am a tree. I am a tree…
The Tree-Man of Dahlia by Michael Poeltl – Find more short stories here