Chapter 1: Absorption
Giant Coastal Redwood trees shook with thunder, echoing it a thousand times, softening the edges and dragging out the rumble until Deena Brooke couldn’t tell when one strike ended and the next one began. She blinked at the sweat trickling down her face stinging her eye. The trail had gotten slippery, slowing her down even more. Her group was well out of sight. She’d been alone for ten minutes or more. The hiking trail was like a roller-coaster, up and down through the ridges, and she just wasn’t up to it. Her heart hammered. She had to stop. The water bottle was still empty. She’d drained it thirty minutes ago.
It’s not fair, being fat. She’d done okay, keeping up with the slow moving group, right until the lightning had started. Then Mr. Fenner, the science teacher, called Coach Rathborne on the radio and told her to bring the school bus to a closer trailhead. Everyone began hurrying along. Rain was expected—everyone but Bryony Sawyer wore rain gear—but not lightning.
Bryony had volunteered to be her ‘trail buddy’ on this senior science excursion, but Deena had a hard time staying angry over being abandoned. Bryony was just as thoughtlessly careless as she was thoughtlessly kind. Everyone else showed up at the bus wearing ponchos or raincoats. Bryony raced up at the last minute with a Disney-printed plastic tablecloth she’d grabbed off a picnic table.
Deena struggled up the next rise, hoping to catch a glimpse of her friend’s blonde head, surrounded by Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and of course several boys.
Thunder rattled her teeth. Too close. She had to move on. Don’t stop at the top.
Crack! The flash turned the forest scene bright and washed out for an instant. She blinked and tried to make sense of the crackling noise over head. She pushed her cowl back and looked up.
Massive and black against the clouds, a giant redwood tree was falling, straight towards her!
Exhaustion forgotten, she ran. The snapping of huge limbs sounded everywhere. It lasted forever—until she was slapped hard on the back, down into the mud.
All communication was wiped out in an instant, as the electrical surge swept through the host. Organizers cut off from others of their caste terminated all processes and dropped back to their default orders. Most other castes began their countdown to self-destruction.
“Follow orders or die” was the core programming of the nanobots.
The tiny machines, much smaller than the plant cells of the host organism in which they worked, could not, would not keep running without a steady stream of communication from the organizers.
There was a procedure for a catastrophic electrical discharge. The instant communications became possible, orders were sent to the monitors: Check on the health of the host.
Reports were not good. Seconds before, the entire three hundred feet height of the host plant was teaming with activity. Now, monitors reported that the upper third of the tree was no longer attached, explosively severed from the main trunk. Organizers in the upper reaches conferred with each other and agreed to abandon the host. It was no longer viable.
Bryony Sawyer shrieked, jumping with fright when the lightning struck so close behind them.
Terrian Trent, built wide and muscular, grinned at her. “Did it get you?”
“No,” she wrapped her cartoons closer around her shoulders and looked back along the trail. “I was just... Has anyone seen Deena?”
The group, three guys and Bryony, looked at each other for clues. Terrian said, “She probably fell behind.” It wasn’t his job to watch out for her.
Bill Jeager pointed, “Whoa!”
“I thought I saw one of those trees fall.” They listened. There was a whump that shook the ground.
“We need to keep moving.” Terrian took a couple of steps.
Luther Jennings frowned. He usually kept quiet. He was smaller than the guys he usually hung out with, and easily overlooked. He planned it that way. Let the others lead—but no one seemed to be taking action.
“Bill,” he pointed, “you’re the fastest. Run up ahead and tell Mr. Fenner that we’ve turned back to look for Deena.” To the others he waved, “Come on.” Bryony gave him a grateful look, but he hadn’t done it for her. Something big had fallen back there, and he needed to see what had happened.
Deena hurt all over. A redwood branch as big as her arm was pressing hard against her back. Rocks and roots poked at her uncomfortably. The feathery leaves, ‘good for collecting water from the coastal fog’ as Mr. Fenner had lectured, were now in her face. She pushed with her arms, trying to get up on her knees, but the limb wouldn’t budge.
She was trapped.
Rain was dribbling down the back of her neck. She winced as a blob of thick grayish liquid went splat on her cheek.
Tree sap now! The universe was definitely out to get her. Big fat drops of it were falling all over the place, getting on her skin and plopping on her poncho.
She tried to push up again, but with no luck.
“Help?” she said, timidly. That wouldn’t do. No matter if they did make fun of her for getting herself trapped. She needed real help.
“Help! Can someone help me!” Some real panic crept into her shout.
“Deena? Is that you?”
It was Mr. Schiller, the math teacher. She’d forgotten that he’d volunteered to follow the students on the field trip, watching for stragglers.
“Help, I’m trapped.”
“Stay right where you are, but keep talking. I can’t see you.”
Terrian, once he reconciled to the idea of going back, was quickly in the lead. He reached the huge fallen trunk first, and climbed on top of it to see on the other side.
“Hey, this thing must be a hundred feet long. I can see the tree it came from.”
Across the log, Mr. Schiller called, “Terrian, Deena and I are trapped on this side of the log. Deena is a little shaken up, she got caught in the branches when it fell.”
Bryony called, “Deena! Are you okay?”
“I’m okay. Don’t worry about me.”
Luther let the others hunt for the easiest way around the log. He worked his way through the branches, getting close enough to put his hand on the fallen trunk. He’d seen other giant fallen logs on the hike, covered with moss. But with the redwood’s resistance to decay, there’d been no way to know how old they had been.
This one was different. He heard its crash. The air was still filled with the scent of the freshly crushed vegetation. A tree this tall must have been at least a thousand years old. There was a sense of a passing era, a sense of history, to be here at this moment, and to touch a dying giant.
“Please, go on without me. I’m fine.”
She was very grateful to be walking. Until Mr. Schiller pulled a little folding saw out of his backpack and freed her, she’d been on the edge of panic.
Bryony wasn’t convinced by her words. “I’ve got some skin cream that should help with those scratches.”
Deena honestly didn’t mind her friend’s concern, but with Mr. Schiller wanting to assist her over every root and pebble on the trail, and with Bryony’s collection of guys looking positively bored with their rate of progress, Deena knew she was the center of attention—not the kind of attention she enjoyed.
The teachers overreacted too. Mr. Schiller called in on his radio, telling the others that she was unhurt. But there’d been some other things said as well. “Yes, we’d better call her.”
Deena knew exactly what they were worried about—her mother.
Mara Brooke, she had no doubt, would wade into battle to slay dragons if any were so foolish as to attack her only child. Momma had crossed swords with the teachers more than once. When she was younger, it had been a comfort to have someone take her side over a bad grade or an impossible assignment. But times had changed. She was a senior now. Okay, things hadn’t worked out like she’d planned. She’d dropped band. SAT scores were good, but her grades weren’t quite good enough to inspire anyone with her college chances.
Every year, it seemed she was just a little slower and a little fatter.
Bryony’s embroidered white top with ribbon laces and the matching hip-hugger slacks were adorable. But not only would Deena look obscene in something like that, nothing even remotely nice in her size could be had at the Crescent City stores. Nearly all her tops were simple unflattering pullovers, and the ones that buttoned had to be safety-pinned to prevent gaps.
She hated the way she looked. She hated the reflection she could see in other people’s eyes, even when they never said anything.
Any attention was painful. Anything that reminded others how slow and useless she’d become was unbearable.
The pain in her back just had to be ignored. Bryony saw her wince.
“It’s nothing,” Deena whispered, glancing at the boys. “Chafing.” Bryony nodded wisely.
The school bus was waiting. Deena put on a cheerful face. The rest of them would all want to know the details of her accident. She would just have to bear through it.
About the only good thing to happen was that the tree sap must have been rinsed off by the rain. There was no trace of it on her face, or on her legs. It was even gone from the rain poncho.
Organizers collected the reports from the remaining members of the monitor caste. This new host body was much smaller than the previous one, and the population of nanobots was hardly tailored to the job. When the evacuation of the downed tree occurred, the protective fluid was randomly populated, with no plan other than to reach the soil and migrate to the nearest root system. The penetration of the new host’s skin was an accident, the emergency orders hadn’t been detailed enough to deal with the differences between plant and animal tissue.
Pulsers, the long-range communicator caste, were very under-represented in the population, as were datastores. Organizers conferred among themselves. Was this deficiency serious enough to warrant wholesale self-destruction?
With the pulsers so limited, it hadn’t been surprising that communication with other hosts had dropped away almost as soon as the new host had started moving. With no contact with the upper hierarchies, new orders would not be arriving. No new orders meant self-destruction anyway.
But could the assemblers build new pulsers to put them back in contact? Organizers gave the orders. Analyze the new host. Look for raw materials for the assemblers to do their job.
Deena saw her mother, waiting by their ancient white Chevy in the school parking lot. Mara Brooke looked worried, as if her daughter were to be carried off on a stretcher. Deena steeled herself to ignore the sharp pain in her back and let no one see it. It had gotten worse on the ride back to Crescent City. She hoped a good night’s sleep would take care of it.
Mara elbowed aside Coach Rathborne who’d been helping her off the bus.
“Deena, baby! Let me help you.” She put her arm under Deena’s like she were made of ultra-thin glass, and stepped her carefully toward their car.
“I’m fine, Mom!” Deena insisted, but it made no impression on her mother.
Luther watched the scene play out like a poorly scripted reality show. He knew Mrs. Brooke’s reputation and she was not one to disappoint. Once Deena was safely in the car, Mara had to get in her verbal jabs at the school system, the teachers, the school bus, the California Park System, and the other students. She knew nothing about what happened, but waiting after the phone call must have let her imagination run wild.
“Mom! I just want to go home now.”
Luther watched from his car, a blue and white ‘57 Bel Air Chevy. It was older than the Brooke’s vehicle, but his was a classic. Their ride was merely preserved. If they didn’t take care of that rusting fender, he didn’t think it would last much longer.
In spite of the girl’s discomfort, he thought it was cute the way her mother fought for her.
He sighed and drove away before they noticed him spying. It was about time for a car wash anyway.
Anything to keep his mind off his empty house.