Treeherd Potemkin

   The only more monstrous crime than mankind’s abuse of the Earth and ruination of its ecosystems was that long after they knew what they were doing, they continued to revel in its destruction. Rains fell in poisoned sheets across swaths of the earth while others dried, withered, and died. As forests and plant life were destroyed, like the weft being pulled from cloth, the world unraveled. Eons of accumulated biomass, whole ecosystems, slid into the poisoned seas. Despite their best attempts, the upheaval accelerated, and man stood on the precipice of total planet-wide collapse. Technology man’s greatest triumph and most prideful failure was seen as the solution. To leave the Earth and journey to another world was thought to be the only solution, and so the rape of the planet recommenced in earnest. Some did not believe that all was lost. Instead, they believed that man’s place was Earth and that as the ultimate destroyers of Mother Earth, they must also be the progenitors of a new Earth. From this idea, the Treeherd was born.

   Both history and law had forgotten when the Treeherd had been built. Nobody could remember a time before their walking forest. The larger trees or the smaller groups of trees, the plants and the life-giving soil, the animals that live in and around them: all travelled in the arborpeds. Towering over human heads the arborpeds walked the Earth like giant hemispherical ships suspended on tens of delicate, almost arachnoid-looking legs. It was as if a giant’s ladle had scooped into the pre Earth-death ground, pulling up enormous divots of healthy living soil. The walking forests marched in search of sustenance. Like ants, the last earthbound sons of man crawled over these marvels. The Arborals tended to the trees and vegetation, the Entomen managed all manner of animal life, the Solumites, hands black with soil and chemicals, and the Robotniks maintained the arborpeds. The arborpeds were a giant gestalt organism set on their path long ago, self-perpetuating and self-correcting. Their goal was to survive in the blasted land until the planet’s homeostasis returned.

Men and Maggots

   “Matyush, why we pick stupid bugs off veg rather than bloody Entomen? Lazy bastards! Or better Robotniks! Sit around do nothing, bloody Robotniks!” Vakuli picked sulkily at the base of the old oak tree where he lay in the rich loam. “Robotniks the worst! They never do nothing then ‘ped go wrong and they boss and boss everyone!”

   “Peace, Vakuli! Your way is not Robotnik, and their way not Solumite. And we both young, and we do what we told.” Vakuli’s picking revealed a fat, glistening grub under the bark of the oak, and Matyush’s hand shot out and grabbed it. He mashed its head against the spreading roots and tossed it into the pail sitting a few feet away. Their conversation continued back and forth, younglings exploring the social order of the Treeherd like a tongue teasing a wobbly tooth. A sickening shriek of rending metal screamed in the distance, and the shuddering under their feet, the lulling perambulation of the Treeherd, abruptly stopped.

   “What tha hell Matyush! We go see now! No more bloody bugs!” Vakuli leapt up, and on soil darkened feet sped away towards the edge of the Oak XVII arborped. With a worried look towards the great tree arching up and away over his head, Matyush also rose and sped after his friend.

   Spiraling down like an uncoiling spring, gripped firmly in the metal grasping tendril of the arborped, Matyush tried to make out his impulsive friend as he was lowered to the dead Earth. Although travel was possible from arborped to arborped across the ever-changing bridges made by interlocking tendrils, most of the time the fastest way was across the Earth’s surface. Sometimes, looking to the horizon, Matyush forgot the poisoned earth so far below. It was always a sobering journey and a reminder of the Treeherd’s mission when he set foot on terra firma.

   As his feet touched home in the shadow of the arborped he oriented himself and heard a commotion coming from up ahead. He rounded a clump of the thicker elephantine support trunks and saw the sources of the noise. As he has expected from the earlier screech and the Treeherd’s cessation of movement, a twisted, half-collapsed support trunk was slowly rolling back and forth like a snake cut in half. Unexpectedly, in front of that lay Vakuli in a fan of shining tools and wires, with a Robotnik standing over him screaming and kicking at him.

   Hearing Vakuli’s cries, Matyush immediately sprang to his friend’s aid and charged headlong into the Robotnik, driving his head into the man’s side. As he went down, his last kick aimed for Vakuli’s chest instead hit him square in the face, and Vakuli stopped moving.

   “We not go on like this Vonrims! You bastard Robotniks! He beat my boy! Think you all better than us! Call us bastard dirt monkeys! I see him, I cut his throat and throw him over side to earth.” Matyush tried to open his eyes, tried to move, but his body didn’t respond. He could smell the faint ozone odour of the arborped’s interior mixed with disinfectant—the infirmary. Without the ability to move, he carried on, listening to Vakuli’s father and doctor Vonrims.

   “Kulinchuk! Quiet, or I will have you thrown out! I am of Robotnik, yet I am here to heal your son. We must protect that which is all. Now be quiet and let me work.”

   “If he die there be hell! Too much we take from some of you. We speak out, why wait? All the world fallen, we the last? We all make Treeherd, not just Robotnik. But you are good man, Vonrims. You are good man.” The room fell silent as Kulinchuk’s tirade petered out. Matyush had never before heard so many words from the stoic Solumite, and with that last thought, he fell back into the embrace of unconsciousness.

   From outside the door, Giliaros listened, shaking in an almost uncontrollable rage. That dirty little shit of a Solumite had come careening from under the arborped and run straight into him as he tended to the broken perambatrunk. His tools had flown everywhere, disappearing into the detritus littering the dead ground. Those tools had been in his family for more than ten generations—some of them were irreplaceable. Didn’t these dirt-eating brown-feet know that their very lives depended on his delicate, skillful hands, his quick mind, and those tools? The boy had deserved more of a punishment than he had got, he needed to be taught his place. And now his idiot father was badmouthing and threatening him and his Robotnik brothers. His anger almost overcame his sense, and he nearly stormed in to remonstrate with this Kalinchuk—but sense prevailed. As Giliaros calmed himself, he heard an ear-splitting bellow from the infirmary, followed by loud, wet sobbing. The voice of Vonrims cut through: “I am sorry, Kulinchuk. I am so sorry. The damage was too great and his young skull to weak. There was nothing more I could do.”

   As Giliaros turned to beat a retreat he heard Kulinchuk reply, his voice low and dripping with menace: “This does not end here, Robotnik. This will not stand!”

Drama on the Deck

   Deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Robotnik arborped, Giliaros stood in front of the Robotnik Grand Apparatchik. Dedicated as it was to technology, of all the arborpeds, this was the only one to carry no earth, vegetation, or animals. The other peoples of the Treeherd still grumbled about its having even been created. The Robotniks claimed it was impossible to restore the biome that had once survived on this element of their flotilla, but the others knew this wasn’t true—just another example of Robotnik pride and arrogance. “Grand Apparatchik,” intoned Giliaros as if beginning a prayer, “during my travels amongst the lower peoples I have heard rumblings of dissent and a stirring of hate for the great Robotniks!” At the mention of the ‘lower people’ some amongst the gathered Robotniks grumbled and coughed. The middle majority accepted that the Treeherd was an amalgamation of all the peoples — each with their own skills and each as essential as the others. Always though, like the swinging of a pendulum, minority groups would arise: extremists bent on twisting the system to their aggrandizement and personal gain.

   As the grumbling increased Giliaros changed tack: “To not act would endanger the Treeherd! We must protect that which is all!” The last phrase, spoken like a mantra all over the Treeherd brought cheers from the more extreme Robotniks, drowning out the moderates.

The Grand Apparatchik raised the staff of interwoven metals in his hand and crashed it down against the metal floor. The resounding boom silenced the room.

   “What would you have us do, Giliaros? You must remember that the Treeherd is the Arborals and the Solumites and the Entomen as much as it is the Robotniks. We must work together as surrogates for the systems of the Earth, which we destroyed. Come, what do you suggest?”

   Smiling at being given the opportunity to speak, he wasn’t sure when he connived this conclave with his cronies whether they might be caught out, Giliaros replied, “The figures that The Abaci have shown me indicate a rise in the Arboral and Solumite numbers. They are beginning to throw off the homeostasis of the Treeherd. This cannot be allowed. We have turned a blind eye to them rutting like beasts in the dirt—” Again grumbles rose from the crowd. “My apologies—my passions run high. We must reduce their numbers. The Entomen will support us and the Abaci have indicated twenty-five of them must be returned to Mother.” The room was silent as Giliaros mentioned “returned to Mother.” All poison-free biomass on the Treeherd was recycled. It was a great honour for all aboard to continue to tend their charges even after death, but forced return was rare, used only in the most extreme cases.

   “And you have suggestions of these twenty-five, Giliaros?”

   “I have suggestions, Grand Apparatchik.”

   Later on the surface of an arborped a crowd of Arborals and Solumites gathered. “Kulinchuk?” Hearing his name, Kulinchuk stopped his conversation with the man beside him and wound his way to join the line of men already standing facing the crowd. That made twenty-five in total. The men looked down the line, at each other and at the crowd, confusion obvious on their faces. Giliaros stood to the side on a slight rise and as he announced, like a king delivering a decree to his people, of the forced return to Mother. The Robotnik enforcers moved to surround the twenty-five. Realisation dawned on those who had been singled out. Some fell to their knees, acquiescing to the rule of the Treeherd, but others began to shout and curse the Robotniks. As Giliaros called for the enforcers to begin and have done with it, the first rock fell at his feet and the crowd of Arborals and Solumites surged forwards.

   In seconds the enforcers were swinging their batons into the crowd, trying to hold back the screaming mob. Giliaros, sensing the ugliness and danger of the situation, tried to find safety within the cordon of enforcers. In doing so, he brought himself face to face with Kulinchuk. The Solumite wiped a brawny dirt-stained arm across his face, already sheeted with blood from a blow to the head. “You killed my boy, you dirty bastard Robotnik, and now I do for you!” As the enforcers were punched and buffeted by the raging Arborals and Solumites, Kulinchuk felled a screaming Giliaros with a haymaking punch that split the smaller man’s face from chin to nose. He fell on top of him and began choking him, crushing his throat with all his strength. As Kulinchuk screamed “Vakuli! Vakuli!” over and over again, tears cut runnels in the blood and dirt crusting his face. As Giliaros stopped squirming and the light went out of his eyes, Kulinchuk stood and lifted the frail Robotnik’s body onto his shoulders and began a drunken stagger towards the edge of the arborped. There was a deafening crack, and a bloodstain blossomed in Kulinchuk’s back. He stumbled once, and dropping to his knees threw Giliaros’ lifeless corpse over the side. The crowd turned to the only standing enforcer, his eyes darting back and forth like a cornered animal. Clutched in his hand was an Old-World pistol.

   “We must protect that which is all!” he mumbled weakly, and the crowd fell upon him.

A Dead Man Calls for Justice

   “We must protect that which is all!” The murmur, as Kulinchuk’s shroud-wrapped body was lowered into the grave among the roots of an oak, was repeated and swelled until it was so loud the leaves on the tree shook. The Arboral overseeing the ceremony dropped his arms—and silence fell.

   “Return to Mother, Kulinchuk. Father of Vakuli. Be together in her embrace.” Dirt was piled onto the grave, and a carved wooden sign was pushed into the earth. The use of the most sacred wood was a sign of great respect from the Arborals to Kulinchuk. People’s heads were lowered as they observed a moment’s silence.

   “Bothers! Brothers!” Those gathered turned towards the sound and saw a tall, slim Entoman climbing over the edge of the arborped. As he closed the gap, moving in the nervous staccato way of the Entomen, he began calling: “The Robotniks come to crush the Arborals and Solumites! The Entomen stand with them. Make ready!” For a second all was still as the interloper slid to a panting stop among the crowd, and then a cacophony of shouted questions and curses drowned out thought. A high-pitched cry shocked everyone, and they turned to see Matyush standing on the mound not long before occupied by Giliaros. In his hand he held the sign from Kulinchuk’s grave, dark earth still clinging to its base. Hefting the sign above his head he shouted the words carved upon it: “We must protect that which is all!” The crowd cheered and Matyush shouted again, “For Kulinchuk! For Vakuli!” The crowd cheered even louder, a chorus of voices raised together and a wave of activity spread across the arborpeds like ripples on a pond.

The Odessa Steps

   The fighting had dragged on for days, with intensity rising and falling like the crashing of waves on a beach. From the view of a bird flying over the Treeherd, the battle would have seemed like a ballet performed in slow motion as the arborpeds rushed towards each other, slid past, and retreated again and again. Closer in, the fighting was brutal and bloody, fought hand to hand and with occasional projectile weapons. It seemed even as the earth had lain dying that man had thought to clean and smuggle and stow his weapons of war. Despite the attempts to protect the arborpeds and their precious cargo, the damage wasn’t exclusively human. Pushed past their limits, and themselves used as weapons, some arborpeds had fallen. Like giant, metal puppets of spiders with their strings cut, they had toppled, landing on their sides—their structures crushed and splitting. How long the Treeherd had kept these motes of its collective safe no one remembered. In these few days, thousands of tons of living biomass were spilled like blood across the poisonous earth to mix and become death as all else on the planet’s surface. Tears were shed by all the tribes of the Treeherd—for loved ones, for the arborpeds, and for Mother.

   Since Matyush had stood on the mound after the attempted return of the twenty-five to Mother, he had become a rallying point for the Arborals and Solumites. Many Entomen had joined their cause, even some Robotniks. Most Robotniks, driven by the death of Giliaros and the lies of the extremists, and armed with their superior knowledge of the arborpeds, continued to fight and win against the other tribes. “Bastard Robotniks are driving us back! We can’t last much longer!” Matyush heard in hushed tones from a ring of squatting Solumites half concealed in a thicket of Silver Birch. All too often he was hearing these mutterings. Their spirits were low on this side of the temporary lines drawn across the Treeherd. “To protect that which is all” was more than just a mantra — it was their heart, the heart of humanity, of the Treeherd. Yet once again, like the dark days so long ago, men fell upon men, destroying each other and their world, and for what? For one tribe to place itself above another, one man above another? The spirit of the Treeherd was fractured perhaps never to be healed. Tears welling in his eyes, Matyush walked on.

   “Fight Arborals, fight Entomen, fight Solumites, fight Robotniks! For the Treeherd! To protect that which is all!” screamed an Arboral spotter high in a Giant Redwood. A wave of battered Robotnik-controlled arborpeds surged forwards and crashed into the smaller group with a deafening roar like the fist of a god striking the Earth. The spotter’s cry turned into a scream as he was flung from his perch and fell towards the Earth. With a sickening crunch he hit back-first on the rim of the Redwood XI arborped, and his twisted, lifeless corpse slipped over the edge and out of view. With their smaller force and less experienced arborped controllers the defenders were driven back, and as the Robotniks had planned, they found themselves corralled onto a broad floodplain, the last of the free tribes not yet defeated.

One against all

   As the Robotnik arborped slid through the other parting arborpeds making its way to the front line, the Grand Apparatchik likewise made his way to the dias installed on the metal deck. The lead Arboral arborped came forward, and both lowered to settle on the Earth, meters from each other. With one gnarled finger the old Robotnik tapped on the cobbled-together microphone, and a whining boom echoed across the floodplain. From their perches in the beleaguered arborpeds, backed by certain death on the boggy plain, the remaining tribes listened with bated breath. The Grand Apparatchik’s mouth moved, and a split second later his voice, magnified a hundredfold, pealed forth from the ranked Robotniks. “People of the Treeherd! This conflict must end! We must lay down our petty differences. We must protect that which is all!” A cheer rose from the Robotniks, whilst taunts and jeers rose from their opposite lines. “Surrender, and you will not be harmed! The honour of the Robotniks and the Treeherd I stake on this!” Next to the Grand Apparatchik stood Vonrims, clean and neat as always, nodding his head in agreement. On the ground of the opposite arborped Matyush emerged from the crowd. In his hand he held the sign from Kulinchuk’s grave.

   “What of the Return of Twenty-Five to Mother? What of Kulinchuk? Of Vakuli? We will not surrender!” Cried Matyush, his face red and his voice petulant. A cry went up from the defenders, and a stone sailed out of the crowd, striking the Grand Apparatchik a glancing blow. Somewhere deep inside the Robotnik arborped, a horrified Robotnik thrust forwards on a lever, and the metal behemoth lurched forwards, striking the other arborped under Matyush’s feet. In slow motion he stumbled forwards, and losing the sign, tried to right himself. Arms flailing, he disappeared over the side and plummeted to the Earth.

   With a roar of battle cries, both sides surged forwards. They poured down the sides of their respective arborpeds, and as each man reached the Earth they tore across the gap to clash with their enemy.

   The charge stopped. The cries ceased. Where the two sides met they formed a silent circle. People from behind pushed and craned their necks to see what had stopped the battle dead. Lying in the circle formed by the now silent foes, shadowed by the arborpeds overhead, lay the battered, broken body of the Arboral Matyush. His chest heaved as shuddering breaths rasped between his bloodstained lips. Next to him, in a pool of his own blood, half trapped under a severed perabatrunk was the Robotnik Vonrims — the doctor. His face was white and covered with sweat, and he winced at every slight movement as his crushed legs ground under the metal trunk. His hands were steady, though, as he administered aid to Matyush and his lips moved, quietly calming the boy.

    The Treeherd moved off the floodplain, together once again. It would heal. It had to heal. It must protect that which is all. Like the Earth, it walked ceaselessly until the day homeostasis returned, the Treeherd would go on.