Chen Zhan woke this morning like she had for over twenty years, quietly, slowly and with great care. Her back muscles were stiff from sleeping on the smooth and cold marble floor of the office building. She was feeling every bit of forty this morning and was beginning to feel despair forming deep in her bones.
She grabbed her things, a serviceable backpack, an improvised flamethrower and began to move out before the sun rose. This was not her favorite hiding spot but she was forced to take cover when a swarm appeared without warning. After waiting, it was too late in the evening to go out, so she lit a fire burning unused office supplies and likely never to be used again office chairs. The fire was not for her, however. She hardly felt heat or cold any longer.
The fire she had lit across the room was surrounded by several of the white leapers common to this area. Nasty creatures, they lay in ambush for stray body heat if they caught you walking outside. They paid her no attention as the fire and warmth was the only thing they could sense. The fire made her invisible to their limited awareness.
The leapers had taken to foraging for people in office buildings now but were easily tricked by making a long burning fire during the night. In the early days, they would stalk the fire and leap into it thinking it was prey. It took a number of months before they learned a fire was not something to eat.
Fortunately, they did not seem to possess the reasoning to ignore a fire for another source of heat nearby. Chen theorized if she could make a fire burn long enough they might starve to death. They had a powerful metabolism and there would be at least one or two of them that might die during any given night. She knew they were related to the wandering trees but could not tell how they were related.
Chen made her way into the stairwell and lit her flamethrower. She didn’t expect any trouble this early, since most of the plants and animals in this part of the city were quite sedentary early in the day. She expected to be finished foraging and in her safehouse before they became more active.
She hadn’t seen another person for almost six months now. She knew people were still out there because it wasn’t possible to leave Běijīng anymore. She could see their tiny fires and wind-up flashlights after dark. If they weren’t careful or stayed in one place too long, she would eventually see leapers or flyers surround their hiding space and then she wouldn’t see those lights anymore.
It was hard in the beginning. She had been with a small group of students that had learned the secrets of living on the land, finding a way to live with the wàiguó rén shù or alien trees. The group was composed of young people who had come to the city to work from the farming communities outside of Běijīng. Back then, factory work, while hard offered some relief from the absolutely grueling labor of living on State-subsidized farm. Farming communities were not well paid and graft ate into every penny they earned even as they provided the bulk of food used in major cities. That changed when the hēi shù, the black trees came. That was much later, one of the worst times in her life. Almost as bad as the first day they arrived.
It was overcast and smoggy just like any other day in the city. Back then, factories worked twenty hours a day, darkening the sky with their output. The State called it the price of progress and we accepted it. On the way to her university, Chen heard a strange sound. She first thought it was military planes, they had become more numerous in the last few months as part of a defensive posture to the West’s actions in India. She would have paid it no further mind except it grew louder and appeared to be coming from everywhere in the sky at the same time.
Buildings suddenly exploded all around her. First one building, then another, then another, they were all around her. She was not sure which direction to run in. At the center of the explosions were strange strobe-like lights, each flickering with a blinding intensity. Chen fell down in the street and lost consciousness. When she woke, people stood transfixed in the street. She thought she was experiencing a dream because she saw trees uprooting themselves and attacking people who were standing still.
The nightmare continued as even the grass came to life, strangling people out running or exercising in the park. Chen staggered through the city, each new thing more terrible than the one before it. What made it even more surreal was the lack of protest. Few people screamed even as they were being eaten before her very eyes. Chen ran into a building that had not be damaged by the bombardment. The flashing lights continued through the night. By dawn, they stopped. Then the real horror began.
* * *
Chen walked past a tank covered with blossoms coming out of the barrel, decorating it, reducing it to an ornament. The tank was covered in a fine red and white moss and from a distance appeared to be nothing more than a flower-covered mound. She knew this particular tank well.
She spent the first night trapped in a building and refused to leave until she saw tanks coming into town. Leaving the office building she had taken shelter in during the first night of the Trees, she had run toward the tank, thinking it would offer her protection. An amplified voice told her to stop and return to her shelter.
She froze and in that moment, a half dozen of the fastest moving trees came between her and the office building door. The tank turned its turret toward her and fired. The sound deafened her and her hearing would never return completely in her left ear.
The round exploded behind her as one of the trees lobbed pumpkin-like gourds thorough the air. The tank was struck and spidery threads flew out and covered it. A few seconds later, the door on the top opened two National soldiers climbed out. They were covered with white filaments that slowly consumed them and then they stopped moving seconds later. Chen got up and ran for her life into a nearby skyscraper.
The alien landscape had all but erased a good portion of everything in the main city of Beijing. But strangely it avoided the freeways or heavy concentrations of concrete or other dense building materials. Chen had been a college student and she was studying architecture before the rén shù arrived. Now she could not see anything recognizable as a real building except for the very tallest of structures and the Great Tree.
The Great Tree could not be a real tree as she understood them. It violated several rules of natural design. It was taller than any tree could ever be. In her schoolwork, she learned a tree could never grow taller than 130 meters. It was physically impossible due to constraints in water movement, need for water and root and leaf density. Even the tallest trees in the world, the Redwoods were know to not grow past the 130 meter limit.
The Great Tree grew right in the middle of the business district and with her binoculars she could see it had grown right up out of the ground. It had giant branches that stretched into nearby buildings and it stood next to the tallest building in Beijing, The Fortune Plaza which was known to be 260 meters tall. She estimated this rén shù to be over three hundred meters tall.
She didn’t know what the Great Tree was, but she was certain it was no mere plant. It seemed to have its own weather, the top of the tree was always enshrouded in a cloud and its dark leaves, almost black in the brightest part of the day made her think of mirrors. The trunk of the tree was had regular patches along it surface that seemed to have radial lines throughout the truck.
These seemed to act as a form of reinforcing structure. Chen suspected these structures were made from nearby buildings. Many of the smaller ones near the great root complex had collapsed and from a few trips she had made to the root complex, those buildings were completely drained of any metal. Chen would not be going toward downtown today as activity in the root complex grew more active as the weather heated up.
Her goal today was to head to another camp she had set up across the city. The leaper population had begun to grow too large and soon a campfire would not be enough to keep them from finding her in the dark. All of her equipment was relatively new from foraging at any of the stores in the area. The plants made an effort to stay in the light and their creatures, a relatively new development would rarely venture out of line of sight from any open, outdoor space. If you could create or make a space indoors away from any doors or windows, it was relatively safe. They lost a lot of people in the early days learning that simple rule.
There weren’t that many people when Chen finally came out of the building a week later. The streets were deserted. Chen was dirty and had been using the sink in the closet for a bathroom. It was the smell that eventually drove her from the room and into the hall. It had been days since she had heard anyone screaming. She had locked the door and stuffed towels into the space beneath the door. She heard a woman dying on the other side of the door, begging for Chen to open the door. She couldn’t do it. She wanted to live. She promised her mother that she would do whatever it took to make it in the city. Chen Zhan slid into the corner of the service closet and closed her ears and her heart to the screams. She hoped they would stop.
Soon enough, they did.
The Arrivals: Tales of a New Earth © Thaddeus Howze 2011. All Rights Reserved [@ebonstorm]
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