J. Justice ©2007
The android landed in a forest of odd-shaped trees. The trees had no branches that its optic sensors could detect. It raised its head - or what served it for a head - and glanced skyward. Beyond the top of the odd trees it could see blue sky and puffy white clouds, but could detect no branches anywhere, nor were there any leaves to be seen.
It had never before seen trees that lacked both branches and leaves, but it had been to many strange worlds and had seen many strange things, so while the branchless, leafless trees were odd, but they were not outside the realm of possibility, as its logic circuits defined the term.The robot studied its landing zone. The ground was bare around the trees, but that was hardly surprising given the lack of foliage. Its impact point had slightly discolored the ground, but had not caused any major disruption. This was excellent, as it meant that its retro-thrusters had fired correctly and therefore the percentage probability that it had landed undetected was still very high. Its internal processors calculated it at 95 percent, plus or minus two percent, based on the factor of unknown territory.
A preliminary scan of its immediate surroundings detected no signs of movement. Its auditory sensors detected ambient bird sounds, but nothing distinct. A visual scan could detect nothing through the trees.
The recon unit felt it was safe enough to do a quick internal diagnostic and weapons check. However, it was necessary to evaluate the strategic situation before initiating any checks, as it would limit the robot’s sensory input and temporarily take its weapons systems offline. A relatively safe situation is required for approximately one minute, and the unit's internal computations indicated that the situation was secure enough to perform the tests.
The android went still, the greenish glow of its optic sensors dimming as its computers drew heavily on the internal power supply. It stayed in that state for exactly 57.3 seconds, then its eyes brightened and it began to move again.
The diagnostic had reported no internal computer malfunctions, full charge on the plasma cell battery pack and only one minor physical defect in the form of a slightly misaligned servo socket on its right lower limb. The weapons systems were all charged and operational, with targeting and threat assessment systems calibrated correctly and on standby.
The diagnostic reported that the loose joint on the leg was most likely the result of the landing, despite the stealth set down which had deposited it relatively gently on the ground. It was more likely the result of an imperfection in the ground destabilizing the internal support structure than the physical impact, but the results were inconclusive.
In any respect, the damage did not appear to be limiting in any way, so the unit decided to proceed with its mission and to keep it under observation for any signs of deterioration.
The robot moved out from its landing zone, moving smoothly around the strange trees, pausing frequently to look and listen. Aside from the continued bird chirpings, it registered no other sounds.
A full two minutes from its start point, the reconnaissance robot detected some faint vibrations in the ground. It could not properly be called an earthquake, but it was a seismic tremor of some kind.
The robot froze in place beside one of the trees, pressed up to its rough but surprisingly pliant bark. The trees in the immediate visible area swayed slightly with the tremor, then became still again. The unit probed the tip of one digit against the bark of the tree it was beside, its tactical computer taking in the observations and processing them for possible combat scenarios. It could not risk further experimentation lest it cause some kind of reaction that would reveal its presence, but once the area was secure and its mission completed, military scientist units would be dispatched to the area to follow up on its initial findings and do a much more thorough evaluation. The information would then become part of this area's tactical database.
In the meantime, it would have to find out the hard way if the trees would provide protection from narrow-beam lasers, particle beams and other weapons.
The seismic tremor had not re-occurred and the android determined that it was safe to proceed again. Once or twice it detected sounds that froze it in place, but the sounds were not identifiable and nothing was visible. Nevertheless, the detection of these sounds prompted the robot to slow its pace slightly. The mathematical probability that the forest contained unidentified inhabitants had increased dramatically with the sounds and was close to becoming a certainty. It was therefore prudent to be slightly more cautious in its movements to lessen the chance of accidental discovery.
Just before the mission timer reached the five minute mark the reconnaissance droid discovered its first tangible signs that it was not alone in the forest. On the ground at the base of one of the trees it found a dark stain that its rudimentary sensor analysis showed to be blood. This proved without a doubt that it was not the first creature to come this way and that the creature or creatures were organic in nature. Sensor analysis showed that the blood was only a few days old, which told the unit that the organic creature had been this way recently, but did not conclusively prove that the creature was still in the area. It could simply have been passing this way. Neither could it draw any conclusions about the cause of the injury (for an injury it had to be. There was no body) because aside from the blood, there were no other observable clues.
The droid decided to proceed with its mission, but to proceed with caution. It slowed its pace and often stopped to focus its sensors to the left, right and behind. It did not want to be caught unawares. As far as it could tell, it was not being stalked or followed.
It was during one of these pauses that the robot became aware of a slight change in its environment. The pigment of the tree bark was a different color than that of the trees just behind it. The difference was subtle, but very noticeable when looking for it as the color change was almost a straight line. Its logic and strategic cross-analysis of the change concluded no malevolent purpose and concluded that it was a naturally occurring phenomenon.
A short time later it came across a tree that was very different. It was almost completely white. It stood out brilliantly from the dark brown of the other trees like a star in the night sky. Other than the color, it was identical to the dark brown trees. It had the same texture, shape and (as far as the robot could tell) height. It was also branchless and leafless. The droid again concluded that it was a natural occurrence, mostly for lack of evidence to the contrary.
Despite the conclusions, the discovery of two anomalies in the natural landscape in such close proximity caused the robot to stop and do another sensor scan, this time widening the focus of the scans as far as it could. It was rewarded with a faint echo of movement 14 degrees to the right of its current position.
The recon unit checked the charge on its weapons systems and re-set its course to intercept the sensor echo.
It was a full six minutes before it registered sensor contacts ahead. There were faint sound echoes and minor movements. They were definitely not naturally occurring.
The robot approached stealthily. Its tactical programming dictated that it approach an unknown situation unobserved, gather tactical data and re-evaluate. As it moved closer to the target the robot saw another of the strange white trees. And then another. And another. Soon the dark brown trees were the exception rather than the rule of the forest. After a few more moments, they were gone altogether. It was like moving through a winter landscape, though the temperature was very warm.
Within a few moments the target was in visual sensor range. What the robot saw was a single massive creature. It appeared to be insect; having a carapace, multiple legs and a small head (what the unit's computer analysis concluded was its head). It was about twice the height of the reconnaissance droid, even in what appeared to be a prone position. Its lower half and the front of its head (face?) were resting on the ground and it was unmoving. The robot had started to wonder if it was dead until one of its legs twitched slightly before becoming still again.
The creature gave no sign that it had detected the robots presence. In fact, aside from the leg twitch, it gave no sign that it was alive at all. The robot observed no sign of injury to the creature, but wondered if it was the source of the blood it had found earlier.
The recon unit started to circle the creature, collecting data as it went for both the current tactical situation and for future missions. It observed no damage to the body of the creature as it circled. The creature continued to remain immobile and was either unaware or uncaring of the robot's presence.
The robot was just completing its circle of the target when a proximity alarm sensor went off in its tactical computer. It turned to face the source of the alarm, but was not quick enough. Something large and many legged bowled the recon unit over before it could bring its laser to bear on the target. It was another of the insect-like creatures, but this one was active and very aggressive.
Its momentum took it past the robot, but it turned quickly and charged again. This time the robot was able to roll out of the way and the creature barreled into one of the white trees. The tree shuddered and bent, the recon unit's attacker rolling off of it without apparent damage. The unit used the extra time to roll up into firing position, leveling its primary laser at the center of the monstrosity's head. The thing opened its mouth to reveal sharp teeth as if to eat the robot, and then the robot fired. The bright red light lanced out in a pencil thin line from the muzzle of the weapon and into the yawning maw of the creature. The creature screamed and thrashed as its legs came up to its head. It thrashed wildly for a few moments and then dropped to the ground and moved no more.
The unit took a moment to make sure that this was not some kind of deception and then swung the laser around to the other creature. The other creature had not moved as far as the robot could tell. The robot did not wait to see if the other creature would respond to the death of its companion. It started moving swiftly between the trees at a vector that would take it away from the creatures.
As it moved it swung the laser back and forth, stretching out with its sensors, looking for other threats. Movement off it the robots left caused it to veer sharply right and pick up the pace slightly. The droid knew it could kill these creatures if forced to, but they were large and dangerous. It did not know if it could handle more than one at a time and did not plan to find out. Its primary objective, given the gravity of its discovery, was to make its way to the rendezvous spot and download its information to the main computer.
As the robot moved forward it noted that the trees transitioned from the white back to the deep brown again. It did not know if that signaled that it was out of the creature's territory or not, but was not about to take that chance.
Sudden movement off to the right and closer than it would have liked, forced the robot to move faster. It spotted two of the creatures off to the right and the motion sensors were picking up movement to the left too. The droid needed to download the information of these creatures' existence to the main tactical computer before others landed here and were assaulted by these huge monstrosities.
The robot was moving at full speed, weaving deftly in and out of the trees, randomly altering its vector to help shake off any pursuit.
It did not see the cluster of creatures until it was too late. It was focusing on a new contact behind and the left and came around a tree and almost ran headlong into one of the beasts.
The beast was like the first one the recon unit had seen. It was on the ground and unmoving. It was able to move sideways at the last second and avoid the creature, but the sudden awkward movement strained the robot's already weakened kneed joint and the recon unit fell to the ground.
The looked up immediately and realized that it was in the middle of a large cluster of the creatures. They were interspersed among the trees, most laying prone and immobile. There were, however, others that were moving around, and those started coming towards it.
The robot fired its laser at the closest, burning it high on the back. It reared up swinging its legs wildly.
The robot got unsteadily to its feet, the injured joint holding, but unstable. It tried to move away from the creatures advancing on it, but with the left leg compensating for the injured right, the android could not move very fast.
The leg buckled as it moved around a tree and the droid hit the ground again. It looked up and noticed several of the huge creatures advancing on it. The tactical analysis told the robot that the probably of survival was 10 percent. The robot lifted its laser to make whatever stand it could when the lead creature suddenly collapsed in its tracks, sliding to a stop almost at the droid's feet.
The robot caught sight of another reconnaissance unit coming out from between two trees and firing its laser at another of the creatures. The blast took its head off and the creature thrashed about violently, still alive despite being effectively decapitated. It slammed into trees and into another of its fellow attackers, before veering off and slamming with its full force into one of its immobile brethren.
There was a wet sucking sound as the head of the immobile creature was torn violently away from its resting place on the ground. The robot saw blood where its head had been resting and blood all over its fanged mouth.
There was an immediate earthquake, much more violent than the first one the robot had experienced. The whole ground moved underneath them, tumbling the other android violently to the ground.
The robot clung to the tree beside it, trying to keep upright and process all of the information it was receiving from its sensors. The weird trees… the strange creatures… the earthquakes... the blood…
Before it could extract any hypotheses something massive crashed into the ground a short distance away. This was not the same shaking motion as the earthquake, though that was still happening. This was a distinct impact that made both robots and any of the creatures that were not prone against the ground jump into the air. For an instant they seemed to hover in midair and then they all came crashing back down. This time the reconnaissance unit fell to the ground with the others. An alarm started to sound in its structural matrix, but before it could figure out where the damage was a second impact hit. This one was much closer than the first, and more violent.
This time the robot did not need internal diagnostics to see the damage in its left arm. There was an obvious bend between the second and third joint just above the wrist. There was only limited motion that appendage could manage without a squawking sound from the internal servos.
The robot wasn’t able to regain its feet before the third strike hit.
This time the robot could see what it was that was causing the impacts. Unbelievably huge, it swung down from the sky with terrible speed. It came down through the trees and swept along the ground in a terrible stroke, smashing the other reconnaissance unit, ripping the prone insects from their spots and sweeping them all away in one fell swoop.
It was over so fast that the droid, with all its co-processors and tactical analysis equipment, could barely gather any information. The thing that had swept the others away looked like a huge chunk of the forest with rocky outcroppings on the far end. The impact had barely missed the robot, and all that was left of the others in the area were a few metal parts and several circles of blood where the creatures had been.
And what was it, exactly, that they had been doing? Where did the blood come from? What was the massive thing that had swept down on them? Was it a weapon? Or was it a naturally occurring phenomenon?
There were too many unanswered questions, but the tactical analysis came to the conclusion that in spit of (or because of) the uncertainty of the situation and the presence of hostile insect life, the area was very dangerous and was unsafe for landing pending extensive analysis of the area.
The android regained its feet and started in the direction of the extraction zone. It made no pretense at stealth, moving as quickly as possible.
It saw no other creatures - robot or insect – as it wove in and out of the trees. There was, however, new sounds and a distinct rising and falling motion of the ground. This was not the violent impact or the shaking like the earthquake. This was a gentler up and down motion.
The robot added the observation to the database and concluded that although this motion lacked the violence of the other two events, the ground in this area was definitely unstable.
It was very difficult for the android to maintain a heading with the motion of the ground. It was running wildly off-course as the motion increased. It would take two steps uphill, then two steps downhill, its gyros and drive compensators desperately trying to keep it upright.
Finally the motion seemed to reach its peak and slowly grow less. This enabled the droid to put on a new burst of speed. It weaved in and out of the trees, noticing that it passed through several more color changes as it went.
Suddenly it stopped in its tracks. In front of it, arching up out of the trees was the first artificial structure it had seen since it had landed.
It was a large arch beginning far off in the distance, stretching high above the robot’s head and disappearing back into the forest. The robot could not determine the construction material from this distance, but it could tell the material was rough and had a distinct blue color. It was definitely artificial, though. The sweep of the arch was too perfect to be naturally occurring.
The reconnaissance droid moved quickly towards the arch, looking for signs of other structures and other life. It saw neither, but slowed to a cautious walk as it moved into the shadow of the thing. After another moment the robot stopped, reaching out in all directions with its sensors as the mysterious structure loomed overhead.
Looking up, the robot could see that the arch ran along the treetops where it stood at the apex, then dipped further down into the forest in each direction. The robot decided to follow the arch in one direction, hoping that it had something significant at its origin.
As it followed the path of the arch, the ground started to curve down, as if following the curve above it. The ground was rising and falling again, but now it was accompanied by a low, rhythmic rumbling sound. Soon the ground was sloping so much that it was difficult for the robot to keep its balance. By now the arch was very close. The robot could see that it was not rock or metal, but instead seemed to be made out of thick vines woven tightly together. Rock or metal would have been an indication of an advanced civilization. While the arch was a remarkable piece of architecture, the fact that it was made out woven vines did not speak of a very technologically advanced civilization.
By now the ground was so steep that the reconnaissance droid was having serious difficulty walking, but the arch was now very close, having grown steadily closer to the ground. Making a decision, the robot climbed one of the trees, reaching up and grabbing hold of one of the vines at the edge of the structure and using it to pull itself up to the top.
The robot was immediately bathed in sunshine. The trees grew thinner the higher up they went, so while the android still could not see the surrounding country side, it could see the graceful arc of the blue vine structure seeming to stretch up into the distant blue sky in one direction, and down into the dark forest in the other direction.
For a moment the reconnaissance unit considered backtracking the way it had come. Now that it was on top of the arch, it would get above the trees and be afforded a good view of the surrounding landscape.
It quickly dismissed this idea. It wanted to find any additional structures, however primitive, and knew there were none in the general area all the way back to the apex. Instead, it decided to continue on until the arch ended. If there was nothing of note there, it would backtrack along the arch and take its survey. Information on technology and civilization was more important than geography, at this point.
The forward progress was slow, but steady. The weave of the vines was tight, but provided plenty of hand- and foot-holds for the robot, even with its arm and leg injuries.
Down the robot climbed, its internal gyros telling it that the angle of decent was approaching a 90 degree vertical angle. That was when the robot spotted something ahead twinkling off a stray shaft of sunlight. It was definitely metallic and not a reflection off a still body of water or anything like that. Could the arch builders be advanced after all?
The robot approached the source of the metallic flash, partly out of caution, partly out of necessity. The robot was effectively climbing now, going from hand-hold to foot-hold to hand-hold on the vine arch.
At last the source of the object was completely visible. It was a huge metal ring that looped around the arch, laying flat on a bed of trees. Attached to the metal ring was a massive flat metal shape. It was polished smooth and had deep grooves in it. The grooves seemed to progress in a geometric pattern across the width of the metal shape.
The robot’s computer could not determine the purpose for such a structure. The grooves suggested some kind of aqueduct system, but there was no visible plumbing or machinery. The only conclusion that the computer could come to was that no matter the ultimate purpose of this metal surface, the creation of such a thing was a clear indication of intelligent and significantly advanced life.
The robot moved very cautiously down the arch and underneath the metal ring, stepping out onto the metal surface. It approached the closest of the grooves and bent to examine it. It appeared to be cut into the surface of the smooth metal with a sharp tool. The lines were fairly straight, though not perfectly. They were definitely not laser cut.
The robot was just getting up to examine a second groove for any further information when the metal disk suddenly shuddered and heaved. The robot slid across the metal surface of the object as the object first tilted, and then lifted into the air. The robot managed to grab a particularly rough cut groove in the metal, but its grip was tenuous.
The metal was lifted so far in the air it dangled from the metal ring, which was, in turn, dangling from the vine-woven arch.
A deafeningly loud noise that sounded like two planet-size pieces of wood being banged together temporarily overloaded the reconnaissance unit’s audio inputs. The robot hardly noticed. All of its effort was being put into holding on to the groove in the huge, dangling piece of metal. It didn’t dare to look down for fear of losing its grip and plunging into the abyss that must have opened below it.
Suddenly the trees, arch, ring and metal plate all shook violently back and forth. The motion was a hundred times more violently than the earthquakes and the robot became dislodged at once.
It fell end over end, falling a great distance before crashing hard into a broad, flat surface. The droid’s legs snapped off at the knee joint with a quick snapping sound. The shoulder-mounted particle beam targeting system hit next, sending out a shower of sparks as its outer casing crumpled with the impact. The robot’s body flipped over once as it ricocheted off the hard, lumpy surface and flew briefly back into the air. It fell back to the ground with a metallic clang and laid still, small puffs of disturbed dust clouded up around it.
The robot tried to move and found it could not. There was too much damage between its central computer and motor control systems. It could detect a faint click-whir sound from somewhere in its chassis, but was unable to bring the diagnostics programs online to assess the damage.
It decided that it would be unable to repair itself sufficiently to complete its mission, and therefore decided to gather whatever remaining data it could and send a broadband signal back to Central Command with whatever data it could salvage from its damaged banks.
The reconnaissance droid prepared and compressed the database it had acquired and took one last look around to see if it could see anything that it could add to the report before broadcasting.
It was on a hard, lumpy surface. It looked like large chunks of soil, but without its sensor pack, it could not tell for sure.
Growing out of fissures in the ground were huge green plants. They were mostly flat and tapered to a point above the robot’s head. They reminded the robot of the strange brown and white trees.
The robot managed to move its head slightly to look back up to where it had dropped from. To see what had become of the forest and its strange creatures and civilization.
What the android saw defied analysis. It was a giant creature. So huge that it took up almost the entire scope of the robot’s vision.
It had a long nose and massive, flopping ears and stood on legs that were like towers. Its back was so far away that it looked like a distant horizon.
And then the robot saw it. Around the creature’s neck was a wide band of blue. The android looked at the creature’s body. It was brown with white patches. The same color brown as the trees. The trees that weren’t trees at all. The creature’s head turned and the robot could see bright metal dangling from the blue collar around the creature’s neck, and the droid surmised that they must be identification tags. This was a domesticated creature. But if a creature of this size could be domesticated, how massive would its masters be?
As if in response the ground started shaking and a bipedal creature came into view, shaking the ground with each step of its massive legs. It was so tall its head was almost beyond the robot’s range of vision. In one of its gigantic hands it held a red sphere. The domesticated creature turned and fixed its attention on the sphere, a gigantic tongue slipping from its cavernous mouth.
Then, with a mighty heave, the biped threw the red sphere beyond the robot’s ability to track it. The domesticated creature immediately followed after, letting out a thunderous “Woof!” sound.
It was the last thing the reconnaissance unit heard before one of the creature’s gigantic paws crushed it on its way to fetch the ball.