33. in which danny discovers the heart

•February 23, 2009 • 1 Comment

Danny found herself sprawled across the forest floor, face pressed to the ground. Sounds of crashing reverberated through the understory.

When she looked up, the cyborg was gone. It had blazed a path through the forest, leaving a gaping hole through the trees in its wake. She stood slowly, first getting to all fours and then putting each leg underneath her, relishing the sudden calm. As she did, her gaze remained trained ahead of her, at the hole through the trees. A dazzling green color took her attention, and she began to walk forward, her feet moving — one in front of the other — almost of their own volition.

Danny came to stand beside the white-and-metal mass that had been the cyborg, and stared. The tree trunks here were velvet with green moss. Some branches still swayed, supple, with the cyborg’s upset. The leaves that spread from them were a vital green. The air was suddenly damp with the respiration of plants. It was ripe with flesh and life.

The ground that Danny stepped forward onto was springy with leaves and fallen foliage. Somehow, this portion of the forest had remained untouched by the metal and silicone. The air virtually thrummed with magic. For several long moments, Danny found herself turning in circles, dumbfounded by this sudden change. She was…home. Engulfed in enchantment and green, growing things.

Danny’s final turn brought her face-to-face with it: the most immense tree she had ever seen.

At first, Danny did not recognize it for what it was. Its broad trunk was merely a backdrop for the trees in front of her. However, when she drew closer, she found that the forest thinned. She gazed down a stretch of bare forest floor toward a tree as large as a high rise. Its head was so vast that it precluded the growth of any other trees for hundreds of feet from its base.

“The heart,” murmured Danny.

Energy radiated from the tree — a skin-tingling, pulse-throbbing quickening of the air. Despite Danny’s enmeshment in the Suit, she could feel it on the back of her tongue and trembling against her skin. Magic. Forest magic.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey

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32. in which danny gives wild chase

•February 18, 2009 • 1 Comment

Like a squirrel being chased, Danny sprang from the end of a branch. The bough bent sharply under her weight, and half of the tree shook with the force of her jump. Leaves showered to the floor below. Her extended hands grasped a thick hanging vine, and she slid down it, crying out in surprise when the vine’s leaves turned out to be razor sharp wafers of metal. If not for the armor of the Suit, she would have been cut to ribbons.

She landed in a crouch on the ground below, unharmed. She stole a quick glance upward. The cyborgs were sliding down the vines toward her like spiders toward their prey.

Not today, she thought.

But that did giver her an idea.

As the cyborgs sped down toward her, Danny flipped onto her back in a roll. As she faced up, she extended her arms in front of her and splayed open her palms. All the while, she spoke hurried, harsh words of description. Her palms opened — she finished the sentence as the tendons went taught — her breath caught —

And her words came true as twin sprays of white liquid shot up from her palms, bursting in the air into wide, gooey nets. Each net wrapped around one of the cyborgs, then hardened on contact. As Danny completed her roll, she hastily shot off one last net, then sprang to her feet. Immediately, she ducked to the ground and covered her head with her arms as two of the incapacitated cyborgs hit the ground heavily as roundish messes of metal and hardened white cement. The ground trembled with each impact.

Unscathed, Danny glanced up and started. The third cyborg — one of the two lackies — had escaped her attacks. It was less than ten feet away and falling toward her, its metal strut legs spread wide like a terrible halo. Its face twisted, and it let out an ear-piercing scream like rending metal.

Danny rocketed forward just as the creature hit the ground and skittered forward on its eight nimble legs. Using her momentum, she ran up a tree, then flipped forward from it, grabbing onto another tree’s branch. She swung onto another branch and ran.

The cyborg leaped easily after her. When it did, Danny somersaulted to the ground. She gave it wild, evasive chase.

The cyborg kept pace, springing after her and almost premeditating her next moves as she turned this way and that, running, leaping, rolling. It dodged two more of Danny’s attempts to net it, gaining ground with each of those brief pauses she took.

The clack of its legs grew loud behind Danny. She had to try netting it once more, and without losing her forward momentum this time. She could not afford to lose any more distance.

Danny leaped into a forward flip. Her hands extended in front of her. At the turning point of the flip — as she turned to face the cyborg upside-down — she shot two nets from her hands.

The cyborg was snapped up in an explosion of white glue. Just as Danny landed on her feet from the flip, she was knocked forward through the air. The boulder that had been the cyborg crashed past her and shot through the forest with its unchecked momentum.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey

31. in which the forest becomes a twisted cybernetic wonderland

•February 9, 2009 • 1 Comment

As she watched, the haze of nanomachines began to glow softly so that Danny was surrounded in a milky luminescence. If it wasn’t for the ground beneath her feet, Danny would have thought she was suddenly floating in a dream. Streaks of brighter light began to ripple through the glow — zipping faster and faster — until all of the nanomachines had drawn together into one ball of mysteriously glowing light. It hovered for a moment, ethereally, then floated off into the trees, like a will-o-wisp. Then, disappeared.

Danny’s surroundings were now clear to her. The trees here were completely indistinguishable from machines. This was a cyberpunk vision of a forest: thick coils of silvery cable twisted around each other into the thick, sinewy trunks of trees. Leaves were radiant bunches of circuit boards. The air absolutely hummed with a chorus of exhaust fans.

Once she had confirmed again with the satellite map that she was indeed traveling deeper into the heart of the city-forest, Danny jogged on. Patches of ground were lit with sprays of fiberoptic grass that cycled psychedelically through the colors of the rainbow. Hanging vines that tapered into computer wires dangled from the branches. Everywhere, the glow of green and red power lights and the blinking blue of modems. She no longer felt as if she was running through a forest, but a surrealist’s image of a computer wonderland.

Danny’s audio input detected a new sound. A clicking, like the ticking of a loose part. The sound was familiar — naggingly so — but she could not place it. Almost subconsciously, she was aware of something watching her, so when she ran up a small ridge and abruptly confronted a trio of centaurs, she was startled, but not surprised.

“Centaurs” was not an adequate term for them, really. They may have been centaurs, once, in a prior incarnation, but the resemblance was shallow. Rather, they were fantastic, alarming cyborgs. Their naked human torsos were studded with cybernetic implants and sat atop metal chassis of eight clicking, spider-like legs.

There were three of them, all appearing masculine. Their bald heads reflected the lights of the machine-forest. Their black eyes stared at her with the dead gaze of robots’ opticals. The one in the lead — a barrel-chested, bronze-skinned monster — threw its head back to shout a command to the two that flanked it. Its mouth opened, and out came a barrage of bleeps, stutters, and high-pitched whistling. It was speaking in digital, but its message was clear.

Kill.

The leader splayed open its palm. Quicksilver bubbled up from its metallic skin and snaked outward, hardening into a rod in its grasp. Like a child’s toy weapon, the rod telescoped outward into a staff. The length of it glistened like mercury. Two fang-like prongs jutted from its point. Electricity arced and crackled between them.

They rushed her. Gasping, she went in the direction her muscles instinctively propelled her — straight upward. She caught onto a branch and dangled for a moment. The cyborgs, having charged through the spot she had just been, stumbled to a sudden stop. Their gazes swung upward. The quicksilver staff was raised. Again, the leader barked a digital command.

Meanwhile, Danny swung onto the tree branch and was sprinting through the canopy. To her dismay, the cyborgs seemed even better suited for the trees than the forest floor. They scuttled easily up the trees after her and quickly began to catch up.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey

30. in which danny runs in circles

•February 2, 2009 • 1 Comment

Chapter Five

Danny ran hard and headlong, but after she had leapt over a log she thought she’d already passed a while back, she came to an abrupt — if not entirely graceful — stop.

She stalked around to the front of the log and immediately recognized it as one she had encountered some time ago. It was split through the middle, as if some giant’s axe had been taken to it, so that it resembled a giant clothes pin. A peculiar, softly luminescent purple moss colored its side.

Behind her expressionless Suit mask, Danny scowled. She drew up her satellite map to review her course and found that she had, indeed, doubled back on herself. She was a couple miles behind the last point she had checked her position. All told, possibly four miles behind.

Danny swore. Somehow, she had been running so fast that she had lost track of her surroundings — and her way. How she had ended up this far back was beyond her.

No matter how hard as she glared at the log and the surrounding trees, they offered her no answers. After a moment, she decided that she had lost enough time already. She resumed her sprint. This time, she kept a corner of her eye on the map.

When she ran into the fallen log for a third time, she knew something was wrong. The map showed that she had clearly made ground this time — but there was the log again in front of her, with its unmistakable split and the velvet covering of purple moss. There was the low-lying branch that hung over it, as if the tree that stood nearby was leaning down to offer its fallen companion a hand up. And there was the disturbed ground vegetation where she had tread before.

This time, Danny spent several moments scrutinizing her surroundings. Something wasn’t meshing, and she intended on discovering what.

At the edges of her vision, the forest wavered, as if from heat waves. No matter how she turned, she could never catch the trembling of air in her direct line of sight. It was always there in the periphery, like the faint light of a far away star that can only be seen when one looks away. It lent her surroundings an air of surrealism, as if they were —

An illusion. Danny was quite sure of it. She was being led astray.

“The magical illusion that deceives her falls away, revealing her true surroundings,” Danny said.

Nothing occurred. The landscape remained unchanged, and the wavering at the edge of her vision remained. However, she was positive of the deception. Apparently, it wasn’t magical. It had to be technological.

If technology was behind the illusion, the mechanism could be any number of things. The forest could be manipulating her sensual input on the Suit. Or, it could be a huge hologram.

Danny addressed each of these possibilities, first by narrating an end to any neural or input interferences, and secondarily by narrating that any holograms be turned off.

Still nothing.

Danny’s mind fished for other possibilities. Wetware hacking? Manipulation of actual surroundings? Was she just going crazy? Science fiction was not Danny’s forte. By nature and by lifestyle choices, Danny was a creature of fantasy. If this forest was merely an enchanted forest, she might have had an easier time with it. But the forest had assimilated much of the cyberpunk setting it had transplanted into, and — like an exotic, invasive species — was growing unchecked. Part magic, part machine. The question was: how much was magic now, and how much was machine?

It was not supposed to possible — the Smart Suits were made to be impervious to nano attacks — but what if nanomachines and infiltrated her system? The right kind of machines could be feeding any sort of input to her.

“The function of all nanomachines contributing to the illusion meant to lead Danny astray turn back to standby, and her true whereabouts are revealed.”

The entire scene with the log fell away around her. Danny found herself standing among unfamiliar trees. A haze hung in the air.

A nanoswarm. The illusion had not been created by nanomachines infiltrating her system, but by projecting the illusion around her. Billions of nanomachines, so many they hovered around Danny like a cloud.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey

29. in which danny’s wood elf nature causes a pause

•January 12, 2009 • 1 Comment

Danny stepped back to regard the whole of her surroundings. She recognized the synthetic gleam of the other trees now. Wires, like thin vines, draped between the treetops. Sparks of light ran up and down them like currents of electricity.

When she stilled herself to listen, she could hear the background hum of machinery — of smoothly running computers en masse. As Danny walked slowly through this cold forest of dead calm and electric aliveness, her skin crawled. It had an overwhelming, aloof presence, like the weight of a hundred gazes upon her. Her gaze flashed this way and that, as if to catch a glance of prying eyes. There was nothing. Only the still, still trees.

The wood elf in Danny — the part of her that was Tzeme, adopted daughter of the Forest That Knows, student of written lore, lover of Drev’o — felt at home in the trees, but also completely ill at ease. These trees were alien, and felt wrong. Sudden homesickness for Saliy’a stirred in her, along with a sick dread.

She rechecked her position on the satellite map. Her wild sprint had brought her closer to the heart of the city-forest, and she was still traveling in that direction. She was not sure yet how she planned to confront the forest. Yes, she had its name. It was a powerful weapon, but how should she wield it? The heart of the forest called her. She felt that answers awaited her there.

Perhaps it was the kinship she felt with all forests that led Danny to seek the heart of the forest. A deep knowing, an intimate familiarity, the kind of understanding that allowed a woman to read her partner’s thoughts through the set of his jaw or the subtle change in his posture. Or, perhaps it was the tactician in Danny — the cold, efficient hunter: seek the heart of a thing to slay it.

Tzeme was appalled by the thought of killing a forest — even this strange, alien forest. That part of Danny recoiled, stung. Her walk slowed. She blinked, as if suddenly wondering where she was and what she was doing.

Tersely, Danny shook her head, as if to shake her wood elf personality away. She began to jog. It was as if this action restored her sense of purpose. She was not on a stroll through the Forest with Drev’o on her arm. She was on a mission — and she was running out of time.

With the Smart Suit, the jog was effortless. Her muscles did not fatigue; her breathing did not labor. She soared over the forest floor, bounding easily through the trees. Like an arrow toward its target.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey

28. in which a tree attempts to eat danny

•January 4, 2009 • 1 Comment

Two branches from the tree dove down to seize Danny’s wrists. Another root lassoed her free ankle. Suddenly, she was yanked upward by her wrists and suspended — limbs splayed — in the air. A knot in the tree gaped at her. As she watched, the hard trunk stretched with sudden suppleness, and the knot yawned open like a mouth. A groan issued forth.

Danny could barely think fast enough. The tree was pulling her toward that mouth. The air was almost moving almost too fast past her lips — her heart pounding almost too strongly in her throat — for her to speak. But she forced the words out. They were her only weapon.

She seized the first thought that came to mind and gasped it out. “A swarm of nanomachines severed the limbs from the tree!”

Her face was close enough to the open mouth of the tree that she could smell the cloying scent of the sap that dripped like spittle from its woody lips. A grey haze settled over the tree at that moment, and — one right after another — the branches fell. Thump-thunk-thunk-thunk-thump-thunk-thump! And a whoosh! of air through the leaves.

The offending roots also fell, and Danny with them. She landed under a heavy pile of branches, thoroughly entangled. If not for the Smart suit, she would have been crushed to a pulp and pinned. But, unscathed, she tore loose from branches and roots that still curled around her wrists and ankles, then pushed aside the boughs that trapped her. She climbed free.

Above her, the naked tree trunk trembled in shock and surprise. The mouth stretched and distorted. It wailed.

Instinctively, Danny clapped her hands to the sides of her face, only to remember that she was not hearing with her ears, but with the suit’s receptors. She lowered the volume of the input, and the screaming became a distant noise.

She took off into another run, bidding the swarm of nanomachines to follow her. It hovered just behind her like a small raincloud. The other trees began to scream now, raising eerie voices in echo. Wherever branches reached for her, the nanomachines instantly cut through. Danny ran through a rain of leaves a flying wood.

It seemed to Danny that she ran for a long time until, finally, the forest became once again quiet and still. She slowed to a walk. In the suit, she could have run much longer. She was not winded or exhausted, but only slowed now to take in her surroundings.

A creepy calmness settled over her. The trees here seemed to stand as straight as sentinels. When the smallest branches moved with the slight breeze, it was stiffly. The light filtering through the canopy reflected here and there off of the facets of the tree bark. It glinted annoyingly at her curiosity. Cautiously, curiously, she approached one of the trees. It remained still at her approach. She placed a hand flat against the trunk and marveled.

The trunk was a petrified monolith of shining brown, semi-precious stone. The facets of the bark were smooth and shone like tigerseye, while the crags of the bark were rough and dark. Her gaze scanned the height of the tree. She zoomed her vision in on the leaves above her.

Danny took a moment to realize what she was looking at. On the one hand, she saw spade-shaped leaves. On the other, she saw circuit boards. Hundreds of small, thin circuit boards.

The circuit board leaves quivered slightly in the breeze, tiny metal veins flashing in the sunlight.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey

27. in which danny is rooted from her spot

•December 29, 2008 • 1 Comment

Thunder rolled off over the treetops, and the trembling of the earth stilled. Whatever the humans had been planning — whether the plasma assault had been an experiment in tactics or a last, desperate attack — they had failed. Completely.

A relative calm followed the explosion. She had the sense of being profoundly alone with the forest. The last of humanity. The final hope. She braced herself against the trunk of the tree and narrowed her thoughts. She was armed with all the weapons of her imagination — and with the forest’s own name.

Danny’s quiet reprieve was short-lived. From above her came a sharp creaking sound like tree branches complaining under a heavy wind. The trunk of the tree that she was pressed against began to shift under her palms, and the ground underneath her feet suddenly shuddered. In startled dismay, Danny looked up. A thick branch flew toward her like a whip.

Danny dropped to a roll. The branch punched into the ground — close enough for some of the smaller leaved branches to whip against her. In an instant, she was on her feet and running. Another branch whistled through the air. It cracked sharply behind her like a whip, but she was free of its reach — barely.

All around her, the trees came alive, stretching as if suddenly waking from a deep sleep and then quickly bowing for Danny as she sprinted past. The forest was a blur as she ran, dodging whip-like limbs. A giant root in her path ripped free of the ground and rose to meet her. She dropped to the ground and slid past it on her belly under a rain of dirt. Without losing an ounce of her momentum, she sprang back into a run.

She didn’t get far. Something heavy clubbed her across the back of the head, and then she was tumbling over the ground. She landed on her back in time see the root plunging toward her. With a swift scissor-kick, she flipped to her feet and leaped up just as the root lashed the ground where she had been. The tip coiled on the forest floor and then struck toward Danny’s retreating leg like a cobra. It snaked around her ankle and squeezed sharply. Her body seized mid-air, spun, and hit the ground.

Her world became a topsy-turvy chaos of dirt and light and movement. For a moment, directions lost meaning. Then, gravity settled in. The ground zipped past underneath her body. Her vision was a blur of earth, green vegetation, and light.

Danny found the broken earth beneath her with her hands. She pressed into it and managed to flip onto her back. The world suddenly made sense again as she found herself looking up at the treetops rushing by and at her raised ankle that was being dragged by the thick root.

Her gaze traveled the length of the root, and she found that she was being reeled in to a very large, very old tree. The tree’s branches — thick with age and full with leaves — began to sway angrily in anticipation.

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Christie “Iamba” Bailey