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Sunday, 22 March 2015

'Can't see the wood for the trees' - part 2 of 2


Part 2 of 2

Nik Morton


Ilex - holly - Wikipedia commons

Ilex, looking to all the world like a holly tree, sent his dispatches from Chequers:

            Election in the offing. Parties equally divided: the upcoming SDP likely to cause consternation. Opinion polls predict that they will hold the controlling votes in Parliament. Plans afoot to carve up the country into a tripartite state.

            Thirty-five miles outside Brussels, at Casteau: The secrets of NATO here at SHAPE are no longer hidden. Russian agents also possess this information. Follows...

            Outside the white concrete and tinted glass buildings at the Manned Spacecraft Centre at Houston, a couple of saplings had great difficulty penetrating the sound-proofing, but eventually their ultrasonic capillary lifted details from the men of NASA.

            At the Kapustin Yar cosmodrome there were only a half-dozen brother Larix larches. Enough.

            Data seeped in continuously, night and day. Now the gigantic Sequoias were brimming full. They would shortly have to send out what they held so far, to make room for additional input. The picture was nowhere near whole; but it was emerging, clarifying...

            Privately, Sequoia G pondered on the human designs on Space. Was that why the Conquest had begun?

            Many trees, such as Acer in Oxford, moved at night, seeking out better sites. Movement was incredibly difficult and ponderous in Earth's gravity, though their hyper-sensitive antenna-like leaves afforded ideal early-warning of any approaching human creatures; the dogs they could contend with...

            It was a sluggish business, a night-long ordeal. First, the roots that had continuously sought water had to heave themselves out of the earth. This was not easy. The roots' delicate tips had penetrated the soil with a corkscrew motion, circumventing rocks or simply heaving them aside or cracking them wide open with secreted dissolving acids. So they were deep, in some cases like the icebergs of the sea, two-thirds of their bulk submerged.

            As their own scientists had long ago discovered, sonic-waves continued to exist long after their emissions, for it was impossible to destroy energy. Now, Salix was able to sweep the leaves of the newly harnessed vassal-trees of Earth and learn what they had 'heard'.

            The broad picture possessed many promising aspects. Yet there was a gloomy side also.

            Presently in existence were innumerable nuclear arms silos buried deep beneath the Earth's surface, poised, watchful, primed. True, most were targeted on ideologically opposed countries. Even Ailanthus, the 'tree of heaven' reporting back from China's Sinkiang Province, indicated that they were aiming at every Western country, including those in possession of merely token military forces.

            But should an invasion from Space occur, it seemed logical to assume that all this weaponry would be speedily deployed in the defence of the planet in a common cause.

            So Sequoia G was far from happy when he issued the 'send' message to his confederates. Within the breadth of a nanosecond, the entire mass of data collected hitherto was beamed out of the Earth's atmosphere, way beyond the planets of Neptune and Pluto, far off into Deep Space.
For two hours Roger seethed on the cottage doorstep. Where the hell was she? He stepped up and down the ash-covered driveway, trying to keep warm. It was forecast to be a grim, cold winter. Though only the first week in October, there was a nasty bite to the air. His thoughts repeatedly reverted to that day only two weeks ago, in Port Meadow. It seemed incredible that it had been so warm then.

            He must make Pauline see sense. She can't possibly be happy with Michael deVille. She must have realised, he told himself, he wouldn't just be content with her brush-off on the phone. After all they had meant to each other, to end it with an impersonal phone call? Had meant to each other? But he still loved her! There's irony for you. At first he had enjoyed the chase. She had simply been yet another conquest. But that had backfired shortly after their first illicit night...

            He pulled his glove back. She was due here with Michael well over an hour ago. Where the hell were they?

            Impatience getting the better of him, Roger took a swig of whisky from his glove-compartment's metal flask.

            If only he could end it amicably, like she had said. But he intended going through with the confrontation, baring their deception for Michael to see. It was a risk; he might alienate her completely. But he had to try it. He was desperate for her.

            This is ridiculous! He shrugged inside the wool-lined car-coat. They could have had a puncture. Michael was too frail and impractical to change a wheel. And Pauline probably wouldn't be able to unscrew the wheel-nuts...

            He slumped into the sports car. I'll give them five more minutes, he decided. Then I'll go looking for them.

            Another whisky wouldn't go amiss, either. The act of scouring the road for them might cool his rising impatience. And, if they are stranded with a flat, his 'timely' appearance might serve him in good stead with Michael.

            Five more minutes then.
It would take the Earth's astronomers some time to make out Arbor's shape, for there were few light surfaces on him to reflect Sol's rays, leaving his unlit mass to merge with the blackness of space. Only the gradual obscuring of distant stars would give any clue that he was there at all.

            Arbor stretched about three miles wide, seven miles from topmost branch to his nether roots, with a mighty girth of six miles. He was travelling at maximum velocity now, forty miles per second.

            Whilst sailing steadfastly through space, he was in the fall of his life span. He possessed no leaves, for they had provided the initial boost to send him on his way. Deep umber, pitted and scored, roots gangling and crawling to the fore, Arbor's gigantic naked boughs pointed abstractedly in the direction he had travelled. Silently, ominously, he moved through space, heading roots first for the blue-green orb of Earth.

            Not long now...

            At a distance of 933 million miles, Sequoia G's second transmission of massed data homed in on Arbor's central taproot. Hungrily digesting these facts in an instant, Arbor commenced evaluating, planning, deploying stratagems.

            It was strange how trees - so closely resembling his own people - should be quite common on Earth and be trusted and regarded as harmless, planted in places of honour, thought of with sentiment, even love. Most strange.

            The primary problem was to devise some method of effective defence against the Earthside nuclear weapons. Arbor decided to dispatch the information to the prodigious force to his rear. Fifty thousand warriors of his age and sagacity fanned out in a circular van and when eventually spotted would appear to any astronomer merely as a stray planet - until it was too late.

            As the forward scout Arbor hoped the scientists with the Conquest Force would come up with something before he arrived.

            In the meantime, his duty required him to issue authorised orders to Earth: As the building youth of our race, you were specially chosen for our preliminary thrust force. The time has now come for you to select your targets: Use utmost caution. On no account must any clues be left that would lead to suspicions being aroused.

            Arbor steeled himself to pursue with the final directive: Those whose sacrifices entail perishing for our noble cause, our supreme Conquest, they will be honoured beyond their dreams. Their names shall go down in our Esteemed Annals as the harbingers of doom to all Earth people!

            There, it was said.
'Christ!' Roger couldn't believe his eyes. He tried braking but he was too late, travelling too fast, reactions sluggish. He felt the reverberating dull thump and sensed the car jerk up onto its hind wheels and continue growling forward, up into the air.

            Tyres screamed and burned. The ear-rending crash jarred his entire body. The seat-harness dug into his chest and stomach, made him retch, short of air, head spinning.

            Shards of glass stung his face. Contorted metal creaked and groaned. His legs were numb. Drunkenly, he wiped his brow and his hand came away clammy, wet, red.

            Through the mists of semi-consciousness, he peered between the splintered, starred windscreen, over the crumpled bonnet; the headlights had ploughed through the Daimler's front seats, embedding the engine deep in the rear.

            He wasn't capable, but he wanted to be sick.

            Acer, mortally wounded, struggled off the roadside into the undergrowth and lay down, shaking in unremitting agony. Dimly he remembered his duty, and rose ponderously, each movement excruciating, tearing his nerve fibres to shreds. Slowly, he sank his roots under the soil once more, his mission accomplished. Scarred, branches splintered and missing, Acer stood unbowed and proud, and died.

            Roger was shaking violently behind the steering wheel when the police accident unit arrived. Pale with shock, he was mumbling incoherently to himself.

            'What a mess!' exclaimed a case hardened constable. 'He's driven right through the windscreen!'

            Paling, his companion replied, 'The other car. Looks like Mr deVille's Daimler - the Foreign Secretary and his missus...'

            The voices barely penetrated. Roger sensed the constable's gentle hand on his shoulder. Forcing his lips to cease their maddening tremble for at least a few seconds, he whispered, 'The tree - it - it jumped into the road!'

            Smelling the whisky-breath, the constable swore. 'Jesus, if I've heard that once, I've heard it a thousand times!'

* * *

Previously published in World of Horror, 1974 under the penname Platen Syder.

Copyright Nik Morton, 2015.
If you enjoyed this story, you might like my collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’.  He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.

Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.

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