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Evergreen


A Space-Time Odyssey


"Evergreen



Evergreen


Humanity & Society Evergreen A Space-Time Odyssey


by


Andrew Scott Ziner




Illustrations by


David Daniel Blank For my parents, Eleanor & Herbert, who taught me the value of civility; for Debbie, whose spell on me and love for our boys inspires me; for Joshua, who loves dark mystery, monorails and unusual rhythms; for Jaden, who loves a thrilling adventure and animates of all kind; and for my sons' generation, which is neither afraid of tomorrow nor restricted by yesterday to make a difference in the world today.



© 2009 Andrew Scott Ziner


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or trans- mitted in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, with- out permission in writing from both the copyright owner and the publisher.


Requests for permission to make copies of any part of this work should be mailed to Permissions Department, Llumina Stars, PO Box 772246, Coral Springs, FL 33077-2246


ISBN: 978-1-93362-642-0


Printed in the United States of America by Llumina Stars


Library of Congress Control Number: 2009904008 Table of Contents


Preface Dominion vii


Chapter 1 Journey into Ontawa 1 Chapter 2 Trance of the Purple Berries 14 Chapter 3 The Golem 30 Chapter 4 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part I 47 Chapter 5 Visitors atop Mesequoya 60 Chapter 6 Dratch and Gribble Memorial Park and Railroad 91


Station Chapter 7 Project AiCORN 102 Chapter 8 The Knickknackery at Bristlecone 130 Chapter 9 Arrival of the Most WANTED 156 Chapter 10 Birth of Project AiTOM 182 Chapter 11 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II 213 Chapter 12 Battle Beneath Lake Augur 261




v Preface to Evergreen



Dominion



What have I become?


­ A.S. Ziner




vii Chapter One


Journey into Ontawa




1 Evergreen



D


awn is near in the world of Evergreen. Signs of the day's first


sunrise appear through the mountain region known as the


Grand Divide. The night's bronze sky, which never fully dar- kens, shows hints of gold between the many mountain peaks that touch the clouds. As beams of light reach out to warm the land, Evergreen's second sun ­ the closest and smallest of the two ­ rises to the shrill of the animal world, an ancient warning to turn away from its initial burst of light or experience "pukka dim" ­ a day without sight.


On the side farthest from the two suns, the morning sky begins to hide a bright tourmaline moon of pink and green. A few moments later, only a silhouette of the crystalline quarter-moon remains, and both suns are visible across the land. The world of Evergreen is now bustling with activity.


One look from anywhere in the land and you can see why Evergreen's first native families, the Acaba and the Jadenbu, named it as they did. Trees made of redwood one hundred feet wide and ten times as tall form deep and endless skylines, overshadowed only by the Grand Divide itself. Season after season, the valleys, hillsides and snow-capped mountain chains are blanketed in a dozen shades of green. Lakes divide the contours of these lush landscapes. Amber-filled ravines rest in and around the im- mense knotted roots that, according to legend, once belonged to "Mesequoya" ­ the great redwood tree that touches the suns.


Our story unfolds in a small, rocky, wooden boat at the eastern en- trance to a dark and watery underworld hidden beneath Evergreen. Three massive tree-lined archways, each spanning nearly one mile across, mark the entryways into this seldom-traveled region known to the natives as "Ontawa" ­ the forbidden caves.


Wiping the sweat from his brow, Niles Jaden III ­ a descendent of the City of Jaden's founders ­ rows cautiously underneath one of the huge arches into a world unlike his own. He eyes the monstrous roots that jut from the cave wall to his right. His partially stained denim pants and sweat-soaked linen pullover cling to him in the morning heat like a second layer of skin. Ahead, a broad shadow from the dirt and stone


2 Journey into Ontawa


archway high above meets the bright light of the morning suns. The shadow slowly crosses the water and reaches his boat. With each stroke of his oars, it moves from the front to the rear of the boat, causing his perspiration to turn cold. His exposed arms are goose-pimply from the change in temperature. Niles also wears a netted, hard-rimmed safari hat that is laced around his chin, and a very expensive pair of water- proof leather boots. His entire outfit, in fact, is patterned after a magazine ad he had seen months earlier titled "Apparel for the Distant Traveler." It wasn't meant to be taken literally.


In the three and one-half centuries since Jaden was founded, few people had ever felt the need to travel beyond its surrounding regions east of the Grand Divide. But Niles' needs, like his appearance, are far from ordinary. From his seven-foot-tall frame and dark hair and chest- nut eyes to his distinctive, tree-shaped family birthmark that rises an inch above the bridge of his nose, Niles looks more like a lost jungle tour guide than a middle-aged man of wealth and power on a quest.


He continues to row, guided only by bits and pieces of a secretive, family-guarded story first revealed to him by his grandmother when he was a child. The darkness that hides what lies ahead slowly gives way to more clearly defined and familiar shapes he recalls from the won- drous and equally terrifying event at the heart of the story. Because of his extreme height, with every few strokes, his wrists bump against his knees. When he thinks about it, the problem is under control. But he has too much racing through his mind to think about it. He yearns for a tailor-made boat, not the current one he secretly purchased a week ear- lier from a fisherman south of Jaden at three times its value.


"Tell no one about this," he had cautioned the aging fisher, who was delighted to oblige the most admired man in the city.


"Yes, Mr. Jaden. I won't tell anyone. But where are you going?" he had replied. Though the fisher ventured a respectful question, no an- swer was provided.


Niles examines the strange new world. He is immediately drawn to the shimmers of light. Each bounces off ripples of water onto thousands


3 Evergreen


of thick vines that disappear up into the miles-long stone wall that towers over him. Grayish-brown boulders of all shapes and sizes rise from the water's edge onto the jagged shoreline and are quickly lost in the thicket of vines and moss-covered rocks. For the first time in Niles' privileged and protected life, he feels vulnerable and alone. The world is ancient. It seems untouched. Should something happen to him that required medical attention, it would be a week's journey before he could return home for help. He begins to question why he is even here. What could possibly compel him to exchange the luxury and security of his modern urban world for these potentially dangerous and primitive surroundings?


Niles travels farther into the cave. His eyes finally adjust from the early morning brightness to the dark, shadowy images that loom around him. Well off in the distance, directly ahead, on the stone surface of a wall, a strangely familiar shape grabs his attention. He narrows his eyes to try to get a better view and rows ever closer. He cannot look away.


"From here, that would have to be ten stories high," he says in sur- prise, under his breath. Moments later, shivers run down his spine. "No, the Golem; but is it real?" he questions in disbelief, as if someone were there to hear him. "If it's all true, this would mean that ­" At once, he breaks his train of thought and notices a golden glow reflect onto the lowest part of the tall stone image. Niles considers the possibilities. "That's fire aglow beneath the figure. They are here, just as I was told," he concludes. "It really is true."


A strange rumble causes the surrounding waters to quiver and his boat to rock. "Sounds like it's coming from straight ahead," he reasons. The sound goes away almost as quickly as it appeared. Other sounds also appear, but he can't make them out. Niles increases the pace of his oars. A powerful, warm breeze overcomes him. Dropping an oar, he grabs his hard-rimmed hat to prevent it from blowing away. The breeze's musty smell causes him to gag and cough. After clearing his throat and wiping his eyes, Niles moves on. At this point in his journey, he's driven more by curiosity than the insight and keen decision- making from which he built his reputation back home in Jaden.


4 Journey into Ontawa



Niles continues to stroke the water with a steady rhythm. He looks up, responding to noise above. The cave's misty gray ceiling is so high that its detail is impossible to detect, like a mountainside viewed from miles away. He finds the source of the noise. Several large flocks of birds travel in the direction that brought him to his present position. Other flocks head toward two broad beams of sunlight far off in the distance.


"There must be cave entrances from the western side of the Grand Divide," he surmises. After a few more strokes of the oars, he is star- tled by an odd sound. It is coming from behind him in the boat.


"Mugwomp."


Niles quickly turns his head in the direction of the sound. A large, colorful bird with a twelve-inch, toucan-like beak is preening the un- derside of its wings on the wooden rim of the boat's stern. The bird stops to look up at Niles.


"Mugwomp!" repeats the bird, louder than before.


Niles pulls in the oars from the water. The boat slows to a rocky stillness. He gently pivots his tall frame around to greet the unusual vis- itor. A smile appears for the first time in nearly a week.


"Hello there, my curious and showy little passenger," quips Niles. "Now, where have I heard that sound before?" he wonders aloud. Niles strums his fingers on his pant leg as he carefully examines the vibrant colors and unique size of his new friend. "You're very handsome," he states, emphasizing the last word.


"Handsome mugwomp," mimics the bird, ruffling its feathers and spreading its wings in excitement.


Niles laughs out loud and then quickly covers his mouth for fear of be- ing detected. In a soft voice, he says, "This is my first conversation in a week, though it feels much longer. You seem friendly enough ­ are you?" He receives no answer. The pastel-feathered mimic just tilts its head and eyes its human companion, as if to study Niles' words and actions.


"Well, I can use the company, so welcome aboard," continues Niles. "Now, what kind of bird are you?" Lightly stroking his scruffy, unshaven cheek with his index finger, Niles further inspects the new-


5 Evergreen


comer for an answer. Suddenly, the bird's long beak illuminates an in- tense glow that rivals the beauty of the tourmaline moon. Pink and green warmth is cast onto the boat and parts of the water around him.


"Welcome aboard," replies the bird, flapping its wings to show that it's happy to see Niles.


"That's it! You're a quarlot!" Niles responds in surprise. "When I was a boy, my grandmother told me about creatures like you." The quarlot's beak remains bright. It tilts its head again and observes its human companion. Niles blocks part of the glare with his arm and re- sumes the largely one-sided conversation with his friend beaming with interest.


"Long ago quarlots lived among the Jadenbu as companion helpers. The Jadenbu are my ancestors. From what I recall, your kind had a spe- cial gift of communion." With a smile, he adds, "I suppose you still do." Niles looks in the direction of the Golem. He ponders for a mo- ment and turns to the quarlot. "Are the Jadenbu here?" he asks, partly expecting an answer.


"Jadenbu Ontawa," replies the bird, slowly raising and lowering its head as if to nod. The glow from the quarlot's beak fades as the sen- tence ends. With those two words, the colorful creature flaps its wings and flies up and off in the direction of the Golem.


"Ontawa, indeed, my brave little friend," he says, disappointed by the sudden departure. From over his shoulder, Niles watches the quarlot fade from sight. He then carefully turns around in the boat, picks up the two oars, and slips them into the water. With a strong forward thrust of his shoulders, he continues his journey in the same heading. Ahead, dozens of small, low-lying, rocky islands stretch across the water be- tween his boat and the immense stone figure. This prevents him from seeing who or what is causing the warm light to appear in the cold darkness of the ancient caves.


"I -- must -- get -- closer," he says, to the rhythm of several strokes of the oars. With only a few hundred yards to go, Niles searches for an island with the best view to record what he came to witness.


6 Journey into Ontawa


Each turn along the way leads him closer to the Golem and the origin of the golden glow at its base.


After rowing a few hundred feet closer, Niles slows the boat and rises from his seat. He steadies himself by spreading his long legs slightly in his stance. From a narrow pocket on his left pant leg, he pro- duces a metal, five-inch-long distance-vision lens that he expands even further. Niles carefully inspects what lies in front of him and notices a perfect spot nestled between several small islands about one hundred feet before the shoreline. He also sees two groups of natives with more than a dozen pod-shaped boats on shore.


"Each group seems to be dressed similarly," he says quietly. "Yet the natives on the left wear shades of blue while those on the right wear green. Both groups are surrounded by dozens of quarlots and several of the largest and most colorful butterflies I've ever seen. It's like they're relics from the great redwood itself," he adds in amazement.


Because Niles does not want to risk being seen, paddling closer is no longer an option. Carefully, he grabs onto the side of the boat and lowers himself into the water. He doesn't feel the bottom with his boots, so he suspects the water is not too shallow. Holding the rope at- tached to the boat's bow to remain afloat, his nose barely above the water's surface, Niles slowly dog-paddles to the small, rocky island he observed from a distance. Silently, he works his way out of the water on his belly to a flat portion of the tiny island.


"I feel like a mud-puppy," he mutters, brushing away drops of musty water from his mouth with the back of his hand. "I probably smell like one, too."


After Niles ties the boat's rope around a sturdy vine, he reaches into a canvas bag partially hidden beneath his seat. He feels around for his video recorder. "At last," he says calmly, with resolve. "Proof."


At last Niles is going to show everyone that an enchanted story he loved to hear as a child is, in fact, true. The story is a part of an unwrit- ten prehistory of the City of Jaden passed down to Niles by his grandmother. Because the spirited, eye-opening tale is far from ordi-


7 Evergreen


nary, and even further from the current state of conventional wisdom back home, Jaden family men have long since buried it in their past. But Niles wants to be different. He wants to bring to light the truth about this well-kept secret that has remained alive for twelve genera- tions due solely to the senior women in his family. Today he will collect the evidence he needs to do it.


Niles pulls out the video recorder and checks the battery and lighting meters. Once he verifies the tape is in properly, he moves behind a long row of three- to four-foot-high boulders and lies on his back. He faces away from the shoreline. Whether true or not, he feels hidden from the natives who are just a stone's throw away. To place himself at the scene, he turns the camera toward himself and quietly narrates the present condi- tions. Wet and cold, Niles presses a red button and begins to record.


"This is Niles Jaden III, deep within Ontawa on a small island a short distance from ­" Before he finishes his first sentence, a deafening roar comes from the area of the Golem. The pressure forces Niles to drop the video recorder and cover his ears with both hands. A blast of hot, humid air shoots out across the surrounding water, spraying the many rock and ivy-covered islands with near scalding moisture. Niles' hard-rimmed hat flies off and out of sight following the force of the blast. Different-sized stones pelt the water and plant life like shotgun fire. The blistering heat forces his eyes tightly shut. Niles gropes around for the boat's rope as if it were a lifeline, his only means of es- cape should these unexpected eruptions continue. As he experiences the fury firsthand, he knows that if he had been sitting in the boat instead of lying behind the boulder, he would likely have been seriously injured or even killed. The whole event lasts for close to twenty seconds.


As the waters still around him and quiet sets in once again, Niles hears shouts from the direction of the shoreline. "How could anyone survive that blast?" he wonders. He glances at his boat and confirms that it is still attached to the vine. With a sigh of relief that it hasn't been destroyed, he picks up the video camera to finally film the Golem and whatever remains in front of him in the aftermath of the sudden


8 Journey into Ontawa


explosion. Niles inspects the camera for damage and finds it to be in working order. He cleans off the lens with the cuff of his sleeve and quickly rolls onto his stomach. Then he aims the video recorder be- tween two boulders and onto the shoreline beneath the Golem. Niles focuses and zooms in. Once again, he tries to narrate his journey.


"It's remarkable," he continues, picking up where he left off. "Both groups of natives are untouched by the blast. Not a boat or basket is out of place. They are down on their knees, facing the gigantic stone figure, and quietly repeating a chant that sounds like `go-la ma-na.' They are holding some kind of small, round musical instrument in their right hands." Niles zooms in on the hand-held instrument carried by one of the natives. "It looks like a large seed of some kind ­ perhaps of a red- wood ­ in the range of three to five inches wide. It gives off a rattling sound, like pebbles or small stones are moving around in it. Because it seems to play a part in what they're doing, it's likely some type of a ceremonial shaker. Every time the word `mana' is chanted, they gently shake it twice in rhythm." Niles pans back for a wider view.


"There are two men in the center, side-by-side, on a slightly raised stone platform." He zooms in for a closer look. "At least I think it's stone. It looks like the platform's been there ... well, forever. They are a bit larger than the others and dressed much differently. Each could be a tribal leader, but I don't see any identifiable colors like the others. They, too, are on their knees but are upright, staring at the huge stone figure in front of them. Though I can't be certain, they don't seem to be chanting along with the others. They're not even talking to one another. I wish I could get a better look, but their backs are to me." Niles pans back once again.


"About a dozen amber-colored torches are burning," he continues. "A few of them look like they've been in this cave for thousands of years. They are large, wide, and knotty at heights ranging from twenty to thirty feet. Some look like the tips of gigantic roots breaking through the stone walls and soft ground. And quarlots are everywhere. A few are perched on tall, T-shaped torches carried by the natives. Most are


9 Evergreen


on top of thick vines and limbs that stretch across the cave walls. The combination of flames and the quarlots' luminescent beaks quite effec- tively cast their glow over the shoreline and lower parts of the Golem. It is clear from this angle that nothing was harmed by the blast mo- ments ago," he concludes.


Puzzled, he zooms out and pans around. Finally, he raises the video recorder to capture the first full image of the Golem. Because the sources of light are unable to reach middle and upper portions of the great stone figure, he adjusts the settings and zooms in to record the details hidden in the darkness well above the natives. Niles is unpre- pared for what he sees next. Deep within the shadows, portions of the prehistoric, one-hundred-foot-tall stone figure are moving.


In a low, shaky voice, he declares, "What I'm going to say will sound strange and largely unexplainable, but here it goes. The Golem is exercising different facial muscles. If the legend told by my grand- mother is true, then the last time those rocks moved was one thousand years ago, exactly one month before the last lunar eclipse covered Ev- ergreen in a kaleidoscope of light."


In awe, Niles takes great care to capture the colossal figure on film. Each facial movement produces intense patches of steam that gush out from beneath a boulder or nearby crevice, causing those surface forma- tions to crumble to the ground. Slowly revealed beneath the dull, ancient, and uneven stones is a smooth, skin-like surface. This process continues until facial shifts and rotations take place more easily without clouds of steam, falling rock and the deep impact of ground-shaking rumbles. The warm golden glow of torch flames and patches of pink and green radiating from the quarlots' beaks expose fresh, polished fa- cial areas that glisten in and around the Golem's complex, cavernous jaw where most of the low, drawn-out sounds originate.


Still recording, Niles sizes up what is happening. In a voice that is both respectful and ill-at-ease, he says, "What I'm witnessing is as in- credible as it is illogical, but I can think of no other explanation. The great wall of stone is awakening. The Golem is coming to life."


10 Journey into Ontawa



Nearly an hour has passed since Niles began to film the incredible changes in the Golem's appearance. Further signs of hardened stones giving way to facial movement are evident, but very slow in coming. At this point, though spotty, about one-half of the Golem's surface is uncovered and stirring. To conserve his battery supply, Niles decides to turn off the video recorder and roll onto his back. He places the equipment by his side and within arm's reach, should he hear any ac- tivity from the direction of the shoreline. This is his first opportunity to relax since he awoke just before daybreak. The moment offers Niles a chance to stretch, arms extended and fingers folded in front of him. A deep yawn follows. He is exhausted, but dare not close his eyes. His worst fear now is not the Golem. Instead, it is falling asleep and missing the once-in-a-thousand-year event that will prove to the world that his family secret is not just "an old wives' tale," as Jaden men have claimed for generations. It actually happened. It's happen- ing now.


Niles stares up at the cave's immense ceiling. Almost immediately, he senses a radiant, colorful glow on the surrounding vine- and moss-covered boulders that hide him from the natives on the shoreline. Instinctively, his fear of being discovered causes him to spring up and determine the light's origin. At once, he is greeted with a familiar sight and sound.


"Welcome aboard, Mugwomp!" whoops the quarlot from just a few feet away. Startled but relieved, Niles' spirit is uplifted by the friendly creature's return.


"Shhh!" he responds firmly. He carefully raises his right hand to- ward the quarlot, who is perched on an old, thick vine embedded in the crevice of a wide boulder a few feet away. The bird watches Niles turn over his palm to expose the top of his wrist.


"I hoped that I would see you again, my friend," Niles says warmly. Mindful of the kind gesture and friendly tone, the quarlot steps onto his wrist. The bird is much heavier than he expected. Niles slowly brings the large, winged creature closer and carefully repositions himself, legs crossed, to continue the conversation that ended abruptly earlier in the boat.


11 Evergreen



Niles notices the quarlot has a vine of shiny, deep purple berries clinging to its left foot. "What's this you've got?" he asks. Though he's never seen the berries up close, they are curiously familiar. "Hmm. I wonder," he adds. Niles pauses for a moment, shifting his attention be- tween the berry-filled vine and the quarlot. "Are these for me?" he continues, still searching for answers. He wonders if his friend will re- ply in any meaningful way, as he did before.


"Eatawa yum yum," says the quarlot, to Niles' surprise. Using its beak, the quarlot reaches down and plucks three berries from the vine. It lifts its head so the berries roll into a position to be chewed. Once in place, the quarlot lowers its colorful beak and stares directly into Niles' eyes. SQUISH! Juice from the berries squirts from its mouth and drips down along the underside of its beak.


Niles smiles and quietly notes, "Your eyes seem almost human. I've never seen anything like it in a bird. Then again, I've never seen anything like you before." Except for a slow, rhythmic chewing motion, the quarlot remains perfectly still. The whole time, it doesn't take its eyes off of its new friend. Niles returns the gaze in a warm, non-threatening way.


"Eatawa yum yum," repeats the bird, to indicate that Niles should do the same. The quarlot tilts its head slightly and continues to eat from the berry-covered vine.


"I'm impressed by how well you can communicate with me," he says, "and I'm touched by your generosity." He returns the quarlot to the boulder and pulls a few purple berries from the vine still clinging to its left foot. "Hmm," he adds cautiously, returning to what he wondered about moments ago. With no desire to ignore the unusual bird's kind gesture and with more than a touch of hunger, Niles decides to share in the special moment. No sooner than he pops the berries into his mouth and begins to chew, his eyes open wide.


"Mmm ... `yum yum' is right!" he declares, a little louder than be- fore. More quietly, he adds, "These are delicious." Niles pops a few more berries into his mouth, savoring the intriguing taste. "I've never tasted these before. I thought I knew all of the fruits of our land." He


12 Journey into Ontawa


concludes that the flavor is a balance of raspberry and grape with a hint of almond and something he can't quite identify.


The quarlot continues to eat from among the vine's berries without taking its eyes off of Niles, leisurely lifting the food to its mouth. As both friends busily munch their delicious morning snack, Niles looks toward the shoreline. Since he is familiar with the setting by now, he does so for no apparent reason. Then something on shore catches his eye. He reaches into his pant leg pocket, once again, for the distance- vision lens. Niles focuses on the natives and sees that their small wicker baskets are full of the same purple-colored berries. Some of the natives seem to eat the fruit while they chant and kneel before the Golem. Oth- ers just chant quietly and rattle their shakers to the rhythm. The berries can be found all along the many vines near the Golem. A few quarlots fly from the vines to the baskets to supply the natives with the fruit.


Close examination of the surrounding walls of the watery under- world makes it clear that these berries are the only ones found in the vicinity of the Golem.


Niles lowers the lens, contemplating what he sees. Though he feels concerned, a growing sense of euphoria lessens the impact. He pulls another berry off the vine and raises it up to the quarlot. He inspects the fruit, slowly rolling it around between his index finger and thumb. The quarlot studies Niles' actions.


"Tell me, my colorful friend," he begins, staring at the berry, "what is so important about ... having ..." Niles loses his train of thought. He opens his eyes wide, quickly shakes his head, and begins again. "What's so im- portant ... having these berries ... part of ..." He drops the berry. The quarlot's beak begins to glow, causing Niles to lose his attention altogether and focus instead on the bright spectrum of light. He stares ahead in a trance. Niles shakes his head and rubs his eyes to break free from the strange feeling that has suddenly overtaken him, but he is unsuccessful.


"Eatawa bye-bye," replies the quarlot, which flaps its wings and flies up and off the small, rocky island in the direction of the Golem.



13 Chapter Two


Trance of the Purple Berries




14 Trance of the Purple Berries



"N


iles? Niles, are you awake?" whispers a silver-haired


woman in jade-colored footsie pajamas, leaning over a


young boy snug in his bed. She strokes his curly brown hair and gently tweaks his nose. He twitches, and a smirk appears, but his eyes remain closed. Her smile is so heartfelt and wide that it's con- tagious. He senses her smile and begins to giggle. The boy's eyes open to greet the new day in the arms of his loving grandmother. Around them is a room filled with so many toys of all sizes and shapes that it looks more like a toy store than a five-year old's bedroom.


"Good morning, Niles," she says softly in his ear. She hugs him and gently butterfly kisses his forehead. Young Niles lets go of the embrace for a morning stretch.


"M-o-r-n-i-n-g, N-a-n-n-a," he slowly responds, arms extended and fingers folded in front of him. In a daze, he pauses to gather his first thoughts of the day. An idea springs to mind. He looks up at his grandmother with a determined look in his eyes.


"Can you tell me a story, please? You know, one of the ones that Grandpa doesn't like me to hear?" he spouts, rubbing the sleepiness from his eyes. "Please? I won't tell him."


The matriarch of the Jaden family suppresses her desire to laugh at his concern. She leans over the edge of the bed for another hug.


"Please, Nanna?" he pleads softly in her ear.


She loosens her tender hold and sits down next to his bed in a large rocking chair made of burnished redwood. Her eyes, chestnut and piercing, remain focused on his face. Nanna folds her hands together like she has done hundreds of times before. On a small end-table next to the bed rests a smooth stone mug filled with hot tea. On the mug's side is an engraved gold emblem that reads "I Butterfly Kisses from Grandma." It is one of her most prized possessions, even with all the power and wealth of the city's founding family under her roof.


"Hmm," she rumbles, considering his request. "I'll tell you a story now if you promise to eat a good breakfast afterwards, okay?" The slender young boy nods his head in agreement.


15 Evergreen



"So, what would you like for me to share with you today?" she asks, knowing full well his list of favorites.


"Mesequoya, Nanna," he replies without hesitation. "And don't leave out any details, `kay?"


His doting grandmother agrees. She reaches for her tea and quietly takes a sip. Cupping the warm mug in her hands, she clears her throat to begin. "According to legend," Nanna starts in a mystical tone, "when the Jadenbu and Acaba first walked into Evergreen's western valley ten thousand years ago, they saw in the sky hundreds of miles to the east an unimaginable sight. It was a single redwood tree taller and wider than the Grand Divide itself. Because of its size, the two native tribes named it `Mesequoya.' The name means `the great redwood tree that touches the suns.'"


"It didn't really touch our suns, did it?" wonders Niles aloud.


"The Jadenbu and Acaba believed that it did," she replies. "I'm sure that if you walked among the two tribes all of those centuries ago and witnessed what they had seen, then you would believe it, too."


"`Kay," responds young Niles as he adjusts his top-sheet and com- forter. Then he leans back in his bed and pulls his bedcovers up to his chin. He and his grandmother exchange smiles. She resumes the story.


"On its million-year skyward journey, Mesequoya towered above much of the eastern land farthest from the two morning suns. It had quite an impact on the land, too. Needle-leaves from the mighty tree were carved out and used as canoes by these early settlers. Fallen branches became fortress homes for their families. Sap from its branches and roots poured into deep, narrow valleys. The gummy sub- stance from Mesequoya flowed as streams and rivers, attracting and trapping different types of animals for a constant supply of food and clothing," she says. "Mesequoya also affected the plant and insect world in unusual ways."


"Tell me how, Nanna."


"Well, mushrooms the size of open fields grew on its bark to pro- vide food and shelter for animals and insects alike. Ten-foot-long


16 Trance of the Purple Berries


caterpillar larvae hung from its branches and grew into multi-colored butterflies with wing spans as wide as our house. The earliest stories and drawings describe how these enormous and playful creatures could be seen from long distances fluttering from one branch to another and disappearing in and out of the clouds."


"Whoa," comments Niles, peering out of his bedroom window from under the covers. "That would be awesome to see. They were big enough to ride, weren't they, Nanna?"


"I suppose they were, but you'd have to catch them first," she chuckles. Niles giggles at the possibility.


Nanna Jaden's eyes widen as she puts on a more serious face. She stares deep into Niles' eyes. "There is also a dangerous and frightening side to the legend. So much so that even the men of our family no long- er speak of it." She shivers visibly at the thought, knowing her grandson is watching closely. "You're just a little guy, Niles. Are you sure you want to hear about it?" she simpers, trying to maintain a straight face.


"Oh yes, Nanna," he answers, pulling the bedcovers over his nose. In a muffled voice, he says, "I'm not a little guy. I don't even use ben- dy straws anymore. I'm a big boy and I can handle it."


"I know you are, little darling," she responds, again suppressing the desire to chuckle at her most precious treasure of all. "You're just like your daddy was at your age," she adds, staring at Niles a few seconds longer than usual. Quick to move the subject away from his father, she says, "Now let's continue, but at your own risk." Nanna Jaden takes a second sip of tea and a deep breath.


"Among the different kinds of insects that lived during the time of Mesequoya were many thousands of large and deadly creatures called humites."


"Describe them for me, Nanna."


"Well, a humite was a soft-bodied, pale red creature with a termite- shaped head, long, sharp protruding jaws, and a body about the length and weight of a horse."


17 Evergreen



"Do you mean the size of a pony, like the one I ride, or a full-grown one, like the ones you and Grandpa sometimes ride?" Though Niles already knows the answer, Nanna Jaden plays along.


"A full-grown one, like the ones we take out into the countryside and sometimes see racing at the fairgrounds."


"Whoa! They're longer than my bed, huh? Now tell me more, `kay, Nanna?"


"Yes, they were quite large," she says. "Humites lived and worked in social groups in the warmest parts of Mesequoya. They usually made their homes inside the lower and middle branches and in its main trunk. While they were not very smart, everyone feared them because they fed on nearly anything that crawled, flew or walked ­ especially people," she adds.


"You mean Jadenbu and Acaba people, right?" he interjects from beneath his bed sheets.


"Any people, Niles," she replies. "Their queen was the most dan- gerous of all creatures throughout the land. A queen was twice the size of a worker humite and very smart. Those she captured were not imme- diately eaten. Instead, their fates were worse. The queen would grasp her prey by the neck with her sharp jaws, holding it still with her pow- erful front legs. Then she would slowly bite into her victim's neck and paralyze it using small amounts of venom. Once paralyzed, the victim would be cocooned by the queen and hung upside down within her den to be eaten later ­ limb by limb ­ at her leisure."


Young Niles covers his head completely with the bed covers. "Were humites real, Nanna?" he asks in disbelief. "Did they really walk around where we live?"


In a soft, compassionate voice, his Nanna comments, "Don't worry, little darling. That was over ten thousand years ago. They're no longer in Evergreen." Her words calm Niles' nerves. He lowers the sheets enough to peek out.


"But they were here," he says.


"When humites were not hunting for their next meal," she continues, "they spent their days boring into Mesequoya's soft, fresh wood, either to


18 Trance of the Purple Berries


nest or to make room for their colonies. In doing so, unknowingly, they were destroying parts of the gigantic redwood and their home at the same time. It took a million years for Mesequoya to reach beyond the clouds and spread her branches over much of eastern Evergreen. Yet she could not withstand the humite infestation, which took place over just a few cen- turies. Mesequoya was too weak. She was going to die."


Puzzled, Niles sits up in bed and asks, "How could she die, Nanna? She was so big."


"Everything has a beginning, a middle and an end, Niles, no matter what the size. Her final day in Evergreen came during a terrible storm. With a fierce and steady wind blowing out to sea, bolts of lightning struck over and over around the base and lower portions of her trunk. Near nightfall, after the constant chain of lightning strikes ended, Me- sequoya let out a long, ghastly sound that shook the land. The Jadenbu and Acaba covered their ears and huddled close in their homes while they stared into the sky in fear of what would happen next."


"What happened next?" he replies quickly, with an emerging grin.


"The great redwood tree began to lean across the Grand Divide to- ward their villages and slowly lean back toward the ocean. The more she tipped in each direction, the louder were the cracking sounds com- ing from her many limbs and wide trunk. During Mesequoya's back and forth motion, many of her branches gored parts of the Grand Di- vide and surrounding hills and valleys."


"Whoa, that's a big tree."


"The ground shook furiously," adds Nanna, "as leaves, branches and other debris flew in all directions." Young Niles is fixed on her every word.


"Then people claim to have heard sounds unlike any other in their lives. It was a long series of deafening cracks followed by the roar of water as she hit the ocean on her side. Within just a few minutes from the first frightening sounds of her collapse that fateful day, Mesequoya was gone, taking the humites with her to the bottom of the ocean. Left behind were broken branches, a jagged, ten-mile-wide redwood stump and an enor-


19 Evergreen


mous root system that, according to our best scientists, extends hundreds of miles in all directions on the surface and below ground."


"And that's where we live today, right?" perks Niles. "Our home here in Jaden is on Mesequoya's stump, right?" he asks, hoping to af- firm what he has come to know.


She gently nods her head and replies, "We live on the remains of a once tremendous life force named by the Jadenbu and Acaba nearly one hundred centuries ago. Out of respect, the founders of our new world here in Jaden continued to use this name even though they were deter- mined to sever all ties with their past. So the answer to your question is `yes.' For generations, members of our family have believed that we live on the surface of Mesequoya. At least the smart ones do," she says smugly, with a smile. Niles giggles at her obvious gibe at his grandfa- ther and many of the old guard in the Jaden family.


"Legend also tells us that the large, amber-filled ravine nearly half- way up the Grand Divide was caused by one of Mesequoya's gigantic limbs snapping off and crashing into the mountainside during that terri- ble storm," says Nanna. "In its wake, several hundred humites drowned in a river of sap that flowed from the huge, smoldering branch. The branch also was believed to be the home of one of their queens. Over time, the sap hardened into amber, forever entombing these terrible creatures and their queen within this deep ravine."


With a sense of relief, Niles remarks, "I'm glad I didn't live back then, when humites were around. Munch, munch," he adds, making the sound of something or someone being eaten.


"Me too, Niles. Crunch, crunch," she adds, with a wrinkled-up nose. They both chuckle an uneasy chuckle.


"Nanna," wonders young Niles, "why do Grandpa and other men in our family tell us that none of this story is true? Why do they try to hide it from me?"


"That's a good question," she replies with a sigh. Nanna takes a long, considered breath and slowly exhales. "As you know, ten thou- sand years have passed since Mesequoya and the humites perished.


20 Trance of the Purple Berries


That's a very long time. In the centuries that followed Mesequoya's death, fear among the tribal leaders that some of the humites escaped death and would someday return caused them to move their entire vil- lages into deep, wooded valleys hidden well below ground. These valleys were located many miles west of the Grand Divide, far away from areas where Mesequoya once stood tall and proud. In spite of their move, fear and even panic continued in their hidden worlds, so much so that life among the Jadenbu and Acaba during these centuries was filled with much hardship."


"What kind of hardship, Nanna?" he asks, with caring eyes.


"Because the tribal leaders refused to leave their deep, wooded val- leys, during long periods without rain, they ran low on water. Many types of food and important herbs used to help heal the sick were also in scarce supply," says Nanna. "Legend holds that a Great Spirit, hear- ing their pleas for help, sent special birds called quarlots to live among the two tribes and teach them new ways to survive."


"Were they talking birds?" asks Niles, with an ear-to-ear grin. "What did they say?" he adds, giggling.


"Mugwomp! Mugwomp!" squawks Nanna. They both laugh at the funny-sounding word.


"What does it mean, Nanna?" he questions, leaning back to rest his head on the pillow.


"I don't know. But they were very friendly and extremely smart," she responds. "These beautiful creatures helped the Jadenbu and Acaba overcome many of their fears. For example, over time, the quarlots brought food and medicinal herbs down into both villages from outside regions. The leaders saw this as a sign that the lands above were safe. Only then did they permit their hunters to follow the quarlots and re- trieve needed resources. In time, the leaders recognized that everyone could travel beyond the boundaries of their hidden villages and return safely. In addition, quarlots' beaks glowed so brightly that surrounding areas could be lit up at night to hunt or to reveal pending danger. A great friendship was established between the quarlots and both tribes."


21 Evergreen



"Are quarlots still around, Nanna? I think they'd make great pets. I wouldn't need a nightlight anymore!" he chuckles.


His grandmother laughs and says, "They may still be somewhere in western Evergreen, but you won't find them here in Jaden. The Great Spirit created them especially for the Jadenbu and Acaba. They do sound wonderful, though. Feathered creatures that are as beautiful as they are friendly ­ and helpful, too. I'd love to see one someday." Nan- na Jaden takes a moment to consider the special birds. Then she continues with the story.


"The Great Spirit sent quarlots to the Jadenbu and Acaba for an- other reason, Niles. He knew that members of both tribes were superstitious. That means what they believed in and how they ran their lives each day were tied to a strong faith in things that were magical or supernatural and often without rational explanation. The glow of a quarlot's beak, for example, was seen as being caused by the magic of the Great Spirit. Many people here in Jaden aren't superstitious. In- stead, they see a world of events explained only through the lens of science and natural laws," states Nanna.


"Then how would they explain the glow in the quarlot's beak?"


"I don't know, Niles, but I'm sure there are a few scientists at the Scripps Science Center who would love to experiment on one to find out."


"That doesn't sound very pleasant, especially for the quarlot," says Niles, with a concerned look. "So what was the other reason the Great Spirit sent the quarlots?"


"Oh, yes. Because they were so superstitious, the Great Spirit wanted to give the tribal leaders a means to ensure that the future of their people was bright and filled with hope. No disease, no famine ­"


"­ and no humites?" interjects Niles.


"Yes, especially no humites," she replies. "A short time before the first astral eclipse was to occur after the fall of Mesequoya, several quarlots brought special berries to both leaders. They were dark red and tasted like nothing they had ever eaten. The berries also had an odd, but


22 Trance of the Purple Berries


temporary, effect on those who ate them. It made people dream with their eyes open, like they were still awake. These dreams would replace scared or anxious feelings with calm and peaceful ones."


"Like the way Grandpa feels after a few of those drinks with tiny umbrellas in them?"


"Sort of," chuckles Nanna. "Only these berries grew naturally on vines and were eaten."


"`Kay," he responds.


"In the weeks that followed the discovery of the strange red berries, both leaders grew to like their newfound feelings. They introduced dream-state ceremonies in their personal daily rituals. The problem was that the quantity of berries brought by the quarlots decreased with each passing ceremony. As a result, the leaders of the Jadenbu and Acaba decided to do two things. First, they continued to limit participation in each ceremony to themselves and a few handpicked tribesmen. In doing so, they kept the berries and their peculiar effects a secret. Second, they decided to go out and find more of the special red berries."


"Sounds like the Great Spirit was baiting the leaders, like Grandpa baits his fishing line," says Niles astutely. "You know, to get them to go where the Great Spirit wants them to go."


"Indeed it does," replies Nanna, not too surprised at her five-year- old grandson's insight. She picks up where the story left off. "Word was spread among the Jadenbu and Acaba that their leaders and a few members selected from each tribe were going on a special journey. Both tribes were led to believe that a successful journey would bring eternal peace and security. The leaders then prepared for their long tra- vel under the guidance of several quarlots. However, no one was prepared for what they were about to encounter."


"The Great Spirit in the cave? The one that comes to life in the rocks, right?"


His grandmother pretends not to hear the question. "After four days of travel, the leaders and their handpicked tribesmen arrived at Ever- green's southern shoreline. At the water's edge, several quarlots flew


23 Evergreen


across the bay to help the leaders identify the next leg of their journey. Off in the distance, the quarlots landed near a large cave entrance in the southern tip of the Grand Divide. On their return to the shoreline where the tribal leaders waited anxiously, the birds repeatedly referred to the entrance of the vast mountain chain as `Ontawa.'"


"Forbidden caves," declares Niles in a monotone voice, eyes fixed, like he's in a trance.


"The leaders of the Jadenbu and Acaba instructed the strongest among them to cut down a young redwood tree. Together, everyone worked hard to build canoes and paddles for passage across the bay. The next morning they continued their journey, now across choppy waters, in the direction shown by the quarlots. With each thrust of the oar, the tribal leaders grew even more excited. They believed that an endless supply of the special berries would be found inside the cave. They would simply fill their wicker baskets and head home," Nanna says in a tone that suggests they were going to get far more than they expected.


"By the day's end, they reached the cave's large entrance. Though a thick fog blanketed the water's surface, they were determined to paddle directly into the dark, unfamiliar territory. Even with torches lit, no one could see more than a few feet in any direction. The fog was too thick. The farther they traveled into the cave, the more they felt lost and help- less to find their way out. To help chart their course, the quarlots flew to points ahead and illuminated their beaks. The colorful lights served as beacons to navigate the canoes between scores of rocky islands and to avoid hitting the cave's walls."


"Those quarlots always knew just what to do," remarks Niles. "I re- ally like them."


"Me too," she replies warmly. "For quite some time in their journey into Ontawa, no one knew where they were headed, but the two leaders never gave up hope. They continued to follow the path set by the quar- lots deep into the cave, slowly and cautiously paddling through the fog into the unknown with their eyes wide open. Finally, the beautiful birds


24 Trance of the Purple Berries


came to rest on huge, ancient roots that jutted up from beneath a nar- row, sandy stretch of shoreline. Just beyond the shoreline was a massive stone wall over one hundred feet tall with an unusual, tightly- packed rock formation ­ a pattern certainly found nowhere else in On- tawa."


"You mean in the entire world, Nanna! Didn't they get scared when they saw it?"


"Hmm. Well, once the tribesmen maneuvered the canoes between the small, rocky islands to reach the sandy shoreline where the quarlots were perched, I'm sure it didn't take long for them to look up and no- tice something strange. But I think they were more tired from their long journey than frightened about the pattern on the wall's stone surface. At least at first. After their long journey in the cave, members of both tri- bes were eager to stretch their legs. Once on shore, they walked around and inspected the large roots and strange plant life."


"How'd they last?" he asks.


"What do you mean?"


"I'd go crazy sitting in a canoe for all that time. I can't even stay still for a few minutes at my desk in school." The thought makes Niles a little jumpy. He stretches his legs and bounces them up and down un- der the covers. "I'd have to do a few jumping jacks or something when I got out."


Nanna Jaden smiles at his antics. "Maybe they took turns standing up in the canoes during their travels," she says. "The quarlots didn't have that problem, though, did they?"


"Nah, they had it made. Quarlots could fly anywhere, and they had lights built into their snouts to see where they were going."


"It must have helped," says Nanna, "because they were the first to find the vines with red berries. The two leaders were delighted! They had their wicker baskets filled to the brim with the special fruit. For the remainder of the evening, berries were plucked from the vines under the quarlots' warm glow and torchlight. After all of the baskets were filled, members of both tribes placed their straw mats on the sand so


25 Evergreen


they could rest until morning. At daybreak, the leaders planned to begin their long journey home," says Nanna. Niles sits up in bed in anticipa- tion of what is to follow.


"The next morning, as the light of the morning suns entered the wa- tery caves from each entrance, a huge blast shot out from within the stone wall directly above the Jadenbu and Acaba. Members of both tri- bes awoke in shock. Quickly, they huddled close in fear of what would happen next. When the dust and rock settled, a deep and powerful voice spoke," she says, in a foreboding manner. Nanna then clears her throat, lowers her brow and imitates the great stone figure.


"I am the Golem, overseer of all animate life. Do not be afraid. I have sent for you now as I will in the future. Soon, our two suns will be as one with the moon. Fiery light will fill the sky and cover the land for all animates to see. This is Kaleija. Embrace its arrival. Have no fear. Kaleija has been with us since the birth of our world. In one more lu- nar cycle, our world will again welcome Kaleija."


"Are you really made out of rock?" inquires Niles, peering from beneath the covers.


"How dare this little flea interrupt the Golem," snaps Nanna in the same deep, menacing voice. Niles flips the covers over his head and giggles. His grandmother resumes in character.


"Kaleija's coming awakens me to deliver a message. Your people have done well. All is in balance. There is no waste of resources, no filth across the land, and no dominion by any one. These three virtues must be upheld across the land for balance to remain among all ani- mates."


Puzzled, Niles interrupts his grandmother once again. "What is do- minion, Nanna?"


"I figured you would get around to asking that question someday," she replies. "Whenever one person or group of people controls or en- slaves others, then dominion exists. The usual result is that the other people ­ the target of the control ­ are harmed in some way. The Go- lem doesn't want to see this happen to animates of our world."


26 Trance of the Purple Berries



"Don't we have dominion here in Jaden?" asks Niles candidly. Nanna Jaden stares into her grandson's eyes.


"We do, and a great deal of it."


"`Kay, now tell me what the Golem said next."


His grandmother lowers her brow and continues to speak as the great stone figure.


"You must uphold these three virtues for all animates. You must maintain this path among your people. If these virtues are not followed, then I will reign no longer. I will disappear, never to awaken again. And you shall perish from this land!" adds Nanna in her best menacing voice. "Go now and deliver this message to your people. I will rest un- til Kaleija returns in one thousand years."


A few seconds pass. From under the covers, Niles asks, "Is it safe?"


Nanna beams a warm smile and changes back to her normal voice. "Yes, little darling. The Golem is gone."


"`Kay," quips Niles in a muffled voice.


"The leaders of the Jadenbu and Acaba did deliver this message to their people, Niles. They are our ancestors," she states proudly. "Since this first encounter ten thousand years ago, every thousand years the leaders of the two tribes travel into Ontawa to receive the Golem's message and pass it on to their people. Respect for the ancient ceremo- nial site is important. That is why it is forbidden to visit the cave any other time except during the coming of Kaleija and then only by tribal leaders and their chosen attendants."


"That's why they named it `Ontawa,' right?" Niles concludes, emerging from the covers. "It's only used for this reason."


Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana



His grandmother nods and returns to the question Niles posed ear- lier. "The reason why your grandfather and other men in our family have always scoffed at what I just described has more to do with their need to look ahead at our city's future than to look behind at our past,


27 Evergreen


one rooted in a simple and very primitive way of life. I suppose it is easy for them to bury the past. Men in our family have largely forgotten about the concerns and responsibilities of our ancestors and no longer share our history prior to when Jaden was established. Your great grandmother, bless her heart, passed this story on to me when I was a child. She told me never to forget it. Mother also wanted me to keep the story a secret until I shared it with a special someone in our family," says Nanna. "I did so first with your father." She gently strokes the un- derside of Niles' chin with her index finger. A few seconds pass. "And now with you," she says with a slow wink. "Mother believed that one day our past would catch up to the present."


Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana


Niles sits up in bed. It is easy to see the wheels turning in his head. "How could you keep something like this a secret?" he asks, agitated about what he's learned. "Didn't you even try to talk to Grandpa about it? I'd want to know why all of the secrecy. What did they have to hide?"


"I confronted your great grandfather, grandfather and many others more times than I can remember. I wanted to keep our heritage alive, like you do ­ and as your father did. When I did have them face up to it, they would say that it's just a bunch of stories of a world long ago and far away from everyday life in Jaden. I've heard `It's just not rele- vant' more often than I care to hear. Well, it is relevant, Niles."


Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana


"The Jadenbu and Acaba closely followed Golem's rules for the past ten thousand years. I imagine they continue to do so," she adds. "I wish we, in the City of Jaden, would follow in their footsteps, too." Nanna pauses in a moment of reflection. "I suspect that the eldest son of the cur- rent leader of the Jadenbu ­ who may now be around your age ­ will meet with the Golem later this century when Kaleija returns. We don't even call it `Kaleija.' Instead, our scientists refer to it as a `millennial eclipse.' You'll be a grown man of fifty years when Kaleija takes place," she says,


28 Trance of the Purple Berries


looking into her grandson's striking reddish-brown eyes. Because of her age, she is sad and envious at the same time. Nanna Jaden knows she won't be with him for the historic, once-in-a-thousand-year event.


Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana Gola Mana


BOOM! PSHHH! A hot, deafening blast startles and overpowers Niles. The vivid memories he just experienced with his grandmother are interrupted by extreme pain and the heated rhythm of tribal chants he heard earlier. It has been more than twenty years since she perished in a tragic train accident. At the same time he feels the burns of steam and the sting of flying debris, he is also aware of his emotional pain. Niles had to end a nearly half-century-old visit with the one person he believes really cared about him and not his power or wealth. Overcome with grief amidst the noise and confusion, he turns his head into the source of the blast and shouts, "Purple, Nanna! The berries are purple!"


Now fully aware of the content of his dream and the reality before him, he looks up at the monstrous stone figure. At once, Niles' eyes widen and his body shakes at the enormity of the sight. Where there once were many large shadows surrounded by immense jagged boulders, now there are four deep caverns with burnt orange centers and a flaming, reddish glow. Niles is immediately drawn to their glower, with one pair behind and below the other. They slowly motion from left to right and then peer down toward the natives kneeling and chanting feverishly along the shore- line. In the depths below the colossal stone figure's eyes appears a massive formation with two irregularly-shaped openings from which wind ebbs and flows. Underneath, rows of long, angular rock begin to spread apart and release a tremendous gush of steam. Together, they move outward toward the natives producing a continuous ground-shaking rumble.


After a thousand years the Golem has awakened. It is about to speak.




29 Chapter Three


The Golem




30 The Golem



ho visits my lair at the time of Kaleja?"


"W begins the Golem in a voice as deep and intense


as it is unreal and unsettling to those who bear


witness. The energy that flows from the mouth of the massive stone figure and its immense, cavernous, flaming eyes overwhelm the tribesmen and their leaders. Chants abruptly stop and give way to gasps and quiet sobbing. In Ontawa's distant spaces, the Golem's powerful words echo and disappear. A small group of atten- dants rise quickly and begin to scurry in every direction amid the horror and influence of the purple berries. Limited by the narrow shoreline, they circle and drop to the sand, covering their heads. They feel its hot breath touch the very nape of their necks, chilling them to the bone.


The two leaders muster enough courage to peer up at the colossal giant that has come to life in the dark, watery underworld. The rest kneel with their foreheads planted firmly on the ground and quiver at the thought of who or what towers over them. The force of sound caus- es a warm, steady cloud of dirt and dust to blanket the narrow shoreline and spread rapidly over the small, rocky islands nearby. At once, thou- sands of stones shake loose from the walls and ceiling. A chorus follows from their impact. THUD! CRACK! SPLASH!


Within seconds, the entire area is filled with a thick, powdery film that fights to smother what little light is available. The traces of light that do survive come from nearby torch flames and dozens of quarlots, all aglow, atop vine-covered branches.


Niles quickly grabs and activates his video recorder, even though a dense haze partially obscures his view of both tribes along the shore- line. Through the rising clouds of debris, he captures both leaders' clumsy and fearful attempts to rise and stand before the monstrous fig- ure that now reigns over them, seemingly unnatural yet filled with life. Arms shaking, he directs the camcorder high above the natives. Niles' eyes widen and his jaw drops. Speechless, he, too, is overwhelmed by its enormous, imposing motion. The dark, menacing form leans slightly over all in attendance.


31 Evergreen



"Well?" continues the Golem, somewhat agitated. A second, less powerful wave of dirt and dust crosses the shoreline and blows through Niles' location. It quickly dissipates in the waters behind him. Sensing impatience and fearing some unimaginable retribution, members of both tribes shudder and weep more visibly in their places on the sand.


The burnt orange centers of the Golem's four cavernous eyes stare down and fix on the two leaders. Each feels its piercing stare as if he were a wounded animal about to be eaten by an immense predator. Three men cringe as they look up, yet only two were invited.


Niles wonders if he can be seen from his position. Though he's thought about the prospect of being discovered hundreds of times in the past week alone, only now does the seriousness of the offense begin to generate possible consequences. He feels more vulnerable than ever. Niles' state of mind worsens when the Golem's intense, burning glower slowly motions away from the leaders and out onto the water in front of his tiny island. Seconds later, the four deep, fiery caverns, each as tall as a house, stare directly at Niles, closely inspecting his actions. Horrified at being discovered yet too frightened to act, he drops the video recorder and remains perfectly still. The Golem continues to stare, now penetrating Niles' eyes and journeying deep into his soul. His chest tightens and his heart pounds heavily as the ground begins to rumble and the air thickens.


"I am Ro Tan, leader of the Acaba," states the smaller of the two men in a shaky but forceful voice. The Golem doesn't take either set of eyes off Niles. "We are honored to be here at this important period in the history of our two tribes," Ro Tan adds. He looks over his shoulder to see what it is that has the Golem's attention. Detecting only the sil- houettes of small, rocky islands through the murkiness, Ro Tan quickly turns to his partner with a curious look and a shrug.


"I am Lasrus, leader of the Jadenbu," states the older of the two men in a more confident and commanding voice. The Golem shifts its attention back and forth between Niles and the Jadenbu leader and then centers solely on Lasrus. Within seconds the elder statesman experi- ences the same soul-searching probe as Niles. No longer in focus,


32 The Golem


Niles' heart rate slows to half its prior pace. Noticeably affected by the sudden, extended eye contact, Lasrus waves his arms in a half-circle motion and adds, "We have traveled a long distance together to learn from your great wisdom as Kaleija nears. We come before you as our ancestors have come before you since our people first walked this land." The rumblings increase. The Golem speaks again.


"Welcome, Ro Tan of Acaba and Lasrus of Jadenbu. Sit and share the food brought to you by my winged companions. I will now reveal who and what I am and explain why you are here," says the Golem in a firm and less threatening tone.


Several outlying quarlots respond by illuminating their beaks and tearing off small, fruit-filled vines from larger neighboring branches. The Golem's friends then fly down with the berry-filled vines and place them near the natives' wicker baskets already filled to the brim. Feeling much less intimidated than moments earlier, Ro Tan and Lasrus stand before the Golem and take in their host's offerings. Partly due to cus- tom and partly due to the effects of the berries, the leaders do not take their eyes off the Golem.


"You are most generous," says Lasrus sedately and sincere.


"Yes, we thank you," follows Ro Tan in a similar tone.


"I am Golem, the overseer. I am timeless ... ageless, of this world, in a current between the animate and the inanimate. My existence is neither life nor lifelessness. I am the force that flows from this planet as Kaleija dawns, and I am the planet itself once Kaleija sets. Each time I awaken, I seek to ensure that the land and all animate life are in balance."


While the leaders and their attendants eat from the fruit of the vines, Niles picks up his camcorder and directs it toward the Golem. He con- tinues to record the once-in-a-thousand-year event.


"Since the birth of this world, both the land and animates have played an important part in maintaining this balance ­


33 Evergreen


the land for habitable and fruitful grounds and animates to en- sure eternal growth of fertile land. Human animates were ... unanticipated," says the Golem in a droll but serious tone.


Both leaders stop in mid-chew. Uncertain of how to react, they glance at each other with their mouths full and then slowly look up at the Golem. Mindful but not entirely clearheaded from the berries' ef- fects, they resume their meal.


"In their earliest form, humans were harmless," the Golem continues. "Noisy and messy, certainly, but they were incapa- ble of creating an organized world with language, rules and complex beliefs. Now it's several million years later and, well, unfortunately, humans have turned shared lands and the people that roam them into two separate worlds governed by your tribes and now ... the Jaden," declares the Golem, with its penetrating glower fixed once again on Niles.


Niles is shocked at what he has just learned. A legendary stone fig- ure who has watched over the planet since its birth, and the ways of life among the Acaba and Jadenbu for ten thousand years, now has an ac- tive interest in his home city. "Am I supposed to be here?" he whispers, with the video camera still rolling. "Was I meant to be here?" he con- templates on a grander level.


Ro Tan turns to Lasrus and silently mouths, "Jaden?" Lasrus re- turns a blank stare and briefly considers the historic possibility. Their thoughts are quickly interrupted.


"This need to acquire things, natural and human-made, to assign value to them and limit their access ­ even by force ­ seems to be uniquely human, an accepted way of life among some humans. Such incivility displeases me," states the Golem firmly. "It threatens the balance I am here to oversee. That is why I summoned your ancestors. I presented them with three


34 The Golem


simple rules so they may preserve this balance for future gen- erations. Since our first encounter, the Acaba and Jadenbu have respected the fertile lands that surround the Grand Di- vide. They have not squandered resources or taken away the beauty and serenity of the lands. Your ancestors, Ro Tan and Lasrus, have served all animate life and have not imposed themselves on any life form for selfish gain. Today, your two tribes continue to follow the paths I set forth. For this, peace ex- ists in the world of the Acaba and Jadenbu," announces the Golem in a sudden spirit of gratitude.


This positive sentiment so uplifts the members of both tribes that they resume their chant. Speaking over the sounds of ceremonial shak- ers and the chorus, Lasrus of Jadenbu proclaims, "We are honored by your generosity and timeless interest in our humble affairs. We lead simple lives with little need for material gain and ­"


"ALL IS NOT IN BALANCE," erupts the Golem in the deep, chilling tone that began the dialogue. The ground once again rumbles, and the air fills with dust and falling debris. Sensing terrifying implica- tions of this statement, both leaders drop to their knees and prepare for the worst. Niles is equally shocked by the sudden change in tempera- ment. His heart races for fear that his home city may be the source of the Golem's angst and retribution. No one is ready for what he is about to reveal.


"Soon our moon will align with both suns and Kaleija will begin again. Kaleija occurs when the power of the two suns combine and flow into the crystalline moon. This energy fills the moon's unique matrix until it can hold no more. Once full, the moon emits heat and a spectrum of light that can be seen and felt by all animates at or near the lands' and wa- ters' surfaces. There is also an equally unusual pulling force


35 Evergreen


that's quite a sight to see. Rather amusing, actually. Did you ever wonder why the trees and shorelines are so tall?" asks the Golem rhetorically. "Hmm, doubtfully so. Regardless, no area across the land will remain untouched. This time, how- ever, Kaleija will bring danger in its wake," declares the Golem in a vexed tone.


"The surface of the moon contains many peaks and valleys. For the first time in our planet's history, the tallest peak will align perfectly with the two suns. This will magnify, not spread, the heat and light amassed from within our moon. This danger will last for a limited time before the peak moves out of alignment with the suns and Kaleija resumes across the land," reveals the Golem to the two leaders and Niles.


Ro Tan and Lasrus take a few seconds to consider what they just learned. Each senses that the Golem is connecting Kaleija with danger, but the specifics are just too complicated. On the other hand, Niles Ja- den III is a highly educated member of the City of Jaden. He is well- versed in both the arts and sciences. To the dire news, he declares from behind the video recorder, "It sounds like the heat and light will cut through the land like a magnifying glass on the surface of a leaf ­ in- cinerating anything or anyone in its path."


Distressed about the impact of this grave event on his people and the land, Lasrus rises from his knees and asks the Golem, "Where will Ka- leija travel during this dangerous time?" From the nods and expressions of those around Lasrus, it's clear that this question is on everyone's mind.


"The path will move slowly across the Grand Divide, trav- eling north to south before it lessens in intensity and no longer poses a threat. To all of your immediate concerns, it will not travel west ­ or east ­ of this region."


36 The Golem



Hearing the good news, many in attendance break from tradition and personally proclaim thankfulness in their own way. Others resume the ceremonial chant. Nearly everyone believes their good fortune is the result of the Golem's intervention. Ro Tan stands, and the two lead- ers embrace in a cheerful moment of relief and then quickly regain their composure and face the Golem side by side.


Niles, too, is relieved that the City of Jaden will not be in its de- structive path. Yet he cannot stop wondering just what effect Kaleija will have on the Grand Divide, the largest and most visible natural re- source in the land. It does not take long to find the answer.


"No one will be free from the dangers unleashed by Kaleija," declares the Golem forcefully. The cheers die down to a deafening still- ness in the cave. All that can be heard are several quarlots fluttering in flight and echoes of falling stones breaking the water's surface. With their future in peril, everyone waits patiently for the Golem to explain.


Ro Tan decides to break the silence. "You tell us that the Acaba and Jadenbu are not in Kaleija's path. Why, then, must we live in fear?" he asks boldly.


To Ro Tan's question, the ground begins to rock violently. The Go- lem responds in a terrifying pitch, "HUMITES WILL RETURN TO THE LAND!"


Among the cries of disbelief are shouts of "How can this be?" "They drowned one hundred centuries ago!" and "Can you protect us?"


Niles also reacts with horror, recalling his grandmother's stories. Mostly, he remembers countless nightmares about how the queen hu- mite captured and consumed her prey. A sense of unreality begins to set in. Seeing the human animates in pain, the Golem continues to speak.


"You ask `How will this come to be?' Ten thousand years ago brought the end not only to what you call `Mesequoya,' but also to all humites. If they did not drown in the ocean, they were encased in amber in the Grand Divide. However, like


37 Evergreen


a small number of animates that roam the lands today, some humites can slow their bodies to a near-death stillness, with no heart rate and no movement. They are frozen in time. Queens have this ability."


"Clever little monsters," says Niles nervously under his breath.


"During the final moments of the fall of Mesequoya, queen humites placed themselves in this state with the hope that they would someday be revived. Those that fell to the ocean floor have no hope of revival unless they are brought to the sur- face. However, once they are exposed to fresh air, recovery will be triggered. When this happens, queens will feed for the next ten days and then begin a rapid stage of budding. They do not need a mate to generate offspring." In a smug voice, the Golem adds, "Nature is most efficient with this species."


"One queen currently lies dormant in an amber pit close to the surface in the Grand Divide. The intense heat from Kaleija will burn off much of the surface amber above the queen and briefly loosen the area around her. She will be pulled from her tomb by the force of Kaleija and exposed to fresh air. At that point, revival will begin." The Golem adds, with more than a tinge of regret, "Her escape is inevitable."


"Can we prevent this by any means?" asks Lasrus, showing signs of desperation. "Cover the area where the queen now rests or destroy her when she is revived?"


"Material placed over the amber pit will be consumed by the heat of Kaleija," replies the Golem. "Anyone in her range of vision when she awakens will become the first of many meals. If twenty humans are present, the queen will feast for days. Budding will be her next priority. Soon there will be more."


38 The Golem



Feeling helpless and scared, Lasrus drops to his knees and pleads for a solution before the Golem. Wearily, with both arms outstretched, he shakes his head and weeps, "What can we do to save our people and spare the world from these horrible beasts?"


"Do nothing beyond the traditions of your people, Lasrus of Jadenbu and Ro Tan of Acaba. Wage no battle, for the enemy is often invisible and you cannot succeed alone. Seek no per- sonal glory, for that would violate a principle I provided to your ancestors long ago," he commands, staring directly into both leaders' eyes. "The solution is among us as we speak. Only when three worlds combine into one will balance be restored across the land," says the Golem confidently amid a sudden calm.


Being better than average at solving riddles back home in Jaden, Niles believes that members of his home city must somehow come in contact with the Acaba and Jadenbu. "But how should this take place and who will be involved?" he wonders. "And if this brings together two worlds, then what could be the third world referred to by the Golem?"


"To begin this alliance, I offer a gift to all animates across the land," the Golem states solemnly. He shifts his attention from the two tribal leaders to a large cluster of vine-covered boulders a short dis- tance from the shoreline. Flames from nearby torches provide a warm glow over the area of interest. A portion of the rock formation he ob- serves begins to shake, while the thicket of vines and odd-shaped boulders around it remain untouched. A tall, flat stone slides over and tumbles to the ground, exposing a narrow cave about twelve feet high. One by one, quarlots fly near the opening to cast added light on the cave's special content. As each bird lands near the shallow opening, a clearer picture emerges of what rests inside.


Without a clue about what to expect, Niles points his video recorder at the cave's entrance. He zooms in to continue his narrative. "Inside this small cave is a gift from the Golem to all creatures throughout the


39 Evergreen


land. I'm not quite sure what I'm seeing at the moment. But according to the Golem, it will in some way help us defeat a queen humite that will be revived during next month's celestial eclipse," he states, unusu- ally composed given the circumstances. "Whatever it is, the Golem teaches us that it will help restore balance across our land."


Niles zooms in as close as he can. "From its shape," he continues, "it looks like some kind of creature inside a ... chrysalis. I see a massive pupa in a tall cocoon. It's resting upright against the inner cave wall with the creature barely moving. The entire length of the chrysalis is about nine feet and the width is close to three feet. While most of the cocoon's surface seems to be transparent, there are lengthy ripples of teal and gold on the creature that extend in irregular patterns from top to bottom," he says, sparing little detail. "It's truly a stunning sight to see."


A string of unusual, high-pitched sounds originates from the Go- lem. Six enormous butterflies, each exceeding the cocoon's length, emerge from a thicket of vines next to the Golem and travel toward the chrysalis. One at a time, each gracefully lands on a boulder near the narrow entrance to the cave. The butterflies are surrounded by lush plant life and a large number of quarlots who appear unaffected by their size and activity. Niles is able to carefully examine their tremendous wingspans and colorful markings.


"From the stories I was told over the years," he says just above a whisper, "these beautiful insects belong in a period that dates back to the time when Mesequoya towered over the land."


A similar sequence of high-pitched sounds prompts four of the but- terflies to fly to the cave opening, lift the chrysalis from its resting place, and gently lay it down on the sand. Within seconds the cocoon and its live contents are out in the open, under better lighting for every- one to see. Niles zooms in with his video camera to peer through its thick, clear surface and get a better look at the Golem's fateful offering. He begins his next narrative.


"It's amazing to me that this huge, defenseless baby butterfly will somehow help to rid the land of such horrible creatures as humites. I


40 The Golem


just don't see how," admits Niles humbly. He focuses in closer and says, "There, beneath the upper surface of the cocoon, I can see the pupa's eyes. Both are closed and ­ wait," he calmly interrupts him- self. "Its eyes are slowly opening. Whoa, it has a second pair just beyond the first, like the Golem. Only they're white with blue pupils, not dark and eerie. Now that's an unusual sight. The creature looks so innocent."


A sudden cry of terror rings out from the natives. What Niles cap- tures next on video is beyond his belief. "L-o-o-k at t-h-a-t!" he exclaims in one long exhale, trying to suppress his horror. "Its eyes ­ all of them ­ have transformed into something ghastly ­ something demonic! They're dark red, like blood, with flaming centers just like the Golem's. And I think they're looking at me."


Niles continues to capture the chrysalis on video, but he moves his head slowly to the right of the camera's lens to look, with disbelief, di- rectly into its glower. For several seconds, they heedfully eye one another up and down. The pupa is curious about the odd animate who hides offshore between large rocks and long vines. Niles is equally in- trigued by the large, enchanted creature spawned from a supernatural legend. He notices the pupa close and open its eyes and stretch its legs against the clear, pliable lining. "Now its eyes have returned to nor- mal," he responds, somewhat confused. He sighs and says, "At least I think that's normal."


Niles turns off the camera, leans back and closes his own eyes for a few seconds. He simply doesn't know what to think about the Golem's offering or the meaning of what he just witnessed. "What's going on here?" he asks aloud. A sudden and unexpected noise startles Niles from behind.


"Welcome aboard, Mugwomp!"


Niles jumps in response to his new friend's greeting. He takes a deep breath and points his finger at the playful bird. "You shouldn't sneak up on me as you do!" he states sternly. "You could have taken the life from me!" The quarlot tilts its head in response and says noth-


41 Evergreen


ing. "And another thing," Niles adds without hesitation. "Those berries you gave me sent me back almost fifty years!" A smile surfaces. Niles affectionately notes, "Thanks, pal. I enjoyed the memories." The trou- blesome quarlot remains by Niles, clutching a nearby vine.


The Golem's eyes gaze with affection at the seemingly fragile pupa taken from its hidden nursery and placed before the group. A series of low-level tremors begins to increase in intensity. The sudden vibrations catch Niles' attention. He activates the video recorder and turns to fo- cus on the chrysalis. Niles readies himself for whatever lies ahead.


In a firm but kindhearted voice, the Golem states, "From this chrysalis, past and present will converge, and hope for future generations will emerge. She is Gaia. Through her, in time, a new balance will be in place between the land, the animates and the sky." During this dialogue, four of the six large butterflies work together to lift the chrysalis off the ground and begin their historic journey. The two remaining butterflies fly above the group to watch over them. Niles pans to the activity surrounding the chrysalis and her attendants to record the momentous flight.


"From beneath the waters of this cave," the Golem continues, "a visitor will surface. Treat him as your brother. He has had a long journey and will help you like no other. He will help to bring forth the balance that I seek."


Niles is distracted from the latter part of the Golem's important message. Instead of listening closely to learn more about the Golem's prophecy, he captures and narrates the departure of the six butterflies and their special passenger from Ontawa. Seconds later, he records Gaia and her companions as they reach the two large western cave openings. Once they leave the underworld to begin their long journey, the Golem completes his message.


"It is time to embrace a new horizon from the east."



42 The Golem



"We will follow your wishes and look for this special visitor," re- plies Lasrus, "and he will be welcome among the Jadenbu."


"Among the Acaba, too," follows Ro Tan, nodding his head.


"Go now, Ro Tan of Acaba and Lasrus of Jadenbu. Return to your peoples. Tell them what you have witnessed, and comfort them."


At once, thunderous waves of heat and stone burst from upper and middle portions of the Golem. The smoothness of the skin around these areas begins to appear jagged and rocky. Over the noise and turmoil accompanying the explosion, the Golem looks down upon the invited guests to provide a few final words.


"Continue to follow the paths I set forth. Remember, only when three worlds combine into one will balance be restored across the land. There is hope. For out of the eastern horizon you will find the help you seek, and in the sky you will find deliv- erance."


With this last statement, the Golem's once deep and powerful voice gives way to silence. Even with the risk of personal injury from the un- predictable blasts of stone flying from the Golem, members of the Acaba and Jadenbu stare calmly and respectfully at the monstrous fig- ure who became their friend.


The Golem's final action is to gaze upon Niles with tremendous sat- isfaction. Through the dense dust and dangerous debris, it watches Niles toss the video camera into his boat and untie the rope from a thick vine. It sees him shove off from the tiny island and quickly climb into the boat to escape further danger.


By the time Niles turns around for one last look, it is too late. The fiery centers of the Golem's eyes have turned into shadows within large boulders. The smooth surface of much of its spirited face has turned into thousands of drab stones. The Golem is lifeless, not to awaken for another thousand years.


43 Evergreen



Water near the shoreline begins to heat quickly. The sight of steam and bubbles moving toward Niles' small wooden boat creates a new cause for concern. He rows faster. The amount of rocks, dust and dirt dropping from the walls and ceiling exceeds anything he previously experienced. Niles senses peril but tries to maintain his wits about him. He glances over at the shore to see how Lasrus and Ro Tan are faring. He is surprised to see that they are in their longboats moving well off shore. Their attendants are rowing at a furious pace, heading for the large openings at the far west side of the cave.


"I wish I had those guys helping me row out of this nightmare!" he shouts with envy. With so many critical events happening at once, Niles' one overriding sense is now utter confusion. "What about the prospect of an alliance between the Acaba, Jadenbu and Jaden as foretold by the Go- lem? What about the gigantic chrysalis and those butterfly escorts? And why am I trying to save my own life when I thought I'd be helping oth- ers save Evergreen from humites? Is this all a dream?"


Just as Niles finishes his last thought, one of the large stones falling from the ceiling strikes his right shoulder. Instantly, he loses all feeling in his arm and drops the oar. Two larger stones also drop from the ceil- ing, but they barely miss him. The first cracks a portion of the seat in front of him. The second whistles by his injured shoulder and splashes into the water inches from the boat. He is too scared to be thankful that he escaped the near bone-crushing hit. Using only his left arm, he fran- tically rows toward the cave's entrance several miles away. He alternates strokes on each side of the boat to remain on course. Niles hopes beyond all hope that feeling will soon return to his right arm.


"This can't be a dream!" he yells. "It's too painfully real!" The nerve-racking image in Niles' mind of his single oar slapping the water with falling rocks splashing close by his boat soon fades when he hears a familiar but desperate call in the distance.


"Mugwomp! Mugwomp!"


Niles turns around to locate the feathered companion left behind. Unsuccessful at first, he grabs onto the side of the boat with his good


44 The Golem


arm and raises himself to a near stand to get a better look. In flight be- hind an island he just passed, Niles spots the frantic quarlot trying to land on a flat portion of a partially cracked boulder on the tiny island. The frightened bird lands and immediately takes off, heading toward Niles, who is no more than fifty feet ahead.


"Come on, my friend!" shouts Niles, hoping that the extraordinary bird will accompany him back to Jaden.


The quarlot responds gleefully in flight by repeatedly whooping, "Come on, my friend! Come on, my friend!"


The force of another blast from the lower portion of the Golem sends thousands of small stones racing in their direction. Before Niles has the chance to sit down in the boat after summoning his friend, he is hit in the left side of his head and chest by several of the stones. The impact immediately knocks him into the side of the boat. It tips nearly to the point where water seeps in. His right arm, still numb from the shoulder injury, dangles over the boat's edge. The steamy water is get- ting hotter by the minute.


Niles stares out in a daze, covering his head and chest wound with his left hand and elbow. He is unable to do anything else. He hears the quarlot's wings flutter as he lands in front of Niles at the rear of the boat. The observant bird notices the extensive wounds and streams of blood.


"No leave," his saddened friend cries out, off balance due to the boat's tilt.


Niles slowly lifts his head in the quarlot's direction. "I guess ... I'm not having ... as good a day as I thought, my friend," he murmurs to the mindful bird through blurred vision. The quarlot and his surroundings begin to fade to darkness. Niles loses consciousness. The weight of his body forces the boat to take on water.


Sensing that the boat is about to sink, the quarlot flaps its wings and begins to take flight. He hovers over the site of the terrible accident and watches helplessly as water pours in and rises in the boat. Within sec- onds, the water reaches Niles' waist, then chest and head. Both Niles


45 Evergreen


and his boat slip below the rocky waves and are soon out of sight. The quarlot sees only patches of large and small bubbles rise up. All that is left are two oars bobbing around as they float in the steamy water.


"Friend!" cries the quarlot into the murky depths below. But Niles does not answer as the last bubbles die along the water's surface.




46 Chapter Four


Flight of the Chrysalis: Part I




47 Evergreen



H


igh above the forbidden caves, Evergreen's two suns cut


through the crisp morning air and blanket the land in warmth.


This day would be no different from any other were it not for the events and their aftermath that unfolded throughout the morning in Ontawa. Tremors are still active within the cold, dark walls. Water con- tinues to bubble in areas not yet cooled and calm. Dirt and debris find ways to settle from the fury that concluded moments ago.


Another unordinary sign of the day is the sudden appearance from the mouth of Ontawa on its western side of six butterflies of extraordinary size and color. Flying in unison, just above the rolling hillsides and forest canopies, they gracefully shift to a northerly di- rection. Four of these majestic creatures are carrying a special passenger, also of immense proportions compared to Evergreen's diverse insect populations above and below ground. The two re- maining butterflies are a great deal larger than the others. They have dark markings on double wingspans that clearly provide a more threatening appearance. To protect the four winged bearers and their precious cargo from the unknown, they are flying in formation. One is ahead of the chrysalis and her escorts, and the other follows in the rear just above the group.


They have embarked on a momentous journey, prophesized by the Golem, to bring three worlds together into one and restore needed bal- ance across the land. Success will avert the droves of horrible deaths of vulnerable, defenseless humans by the humites ­ an ancient species of flesh-eaters soon to be revived in the wake of Kaleija. Failure in the journey ahead will deliver from extinction these large, hideous beasts. Should this occur, no one will be safe when their highly intelligent queen begins to bud in large numbers and humites flourish once again.


Gaia and her special group of escorts are headed to the Great Falls where the largest and tallest group of waterfalls in all of Evergreen can be found. Their destination is a rare, sunless world of plant life and in- sect colonies concealed beneath Lake Augur in a region of the Grand Divide that has never been touched by humans. By the setting of the


48 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part I


day's second sun, they will pierce the crushing torrent of the Great Falls and enter this hidden world to a celebration unlike any other.


An hour into the journey, the six colorful travelers and their sleep- ing companion approach a forest of evergreens twice as tall as any they've seen along the way. They begin their ascent to clear the tops of the trees and continue on to a higher elevation. Off in the distance, about two hundred miles east of their present location above the Grand Divide, are the tiny silhouettes of hundreds of tall factories and build- ings. Only banks of ash rising from the tallest smokestacks of industries are visible in a darkened sky. The city of Jaden is alive and bustling atop the ancient remains of Mesequoya.


In response to some faint noise ahead, Gaia begins to move slightly in her cocoon. Seconds later she awakens to a wide range of sights and sounds. From within, an innate feeling of uneasiness surfaces. In front of the group, loud cackles and caws are heard from a massive flock of silver-beaked blackbirds flying in a northeasterly direction. With a wingspan of only three feet, the birds are not nearly as big as her four escorts. However, their numbers can pose a serious threat. Also of con- cern is their diet. One of the most sought-after delicacies of silver- beaks is the meaty head and abdomen of a butterfly. And it's a fore- gone conclusion that none in the flock have ever seen butterflies this big.


Both sets of Gaia's eyes open wide. In a puzzled voice, she says, "For some reason, I ... I know what those noisy things are saying." With growing curiosity, her attention continues to center on the mass of blackbirds as they maintain their heading. She watches as the flock breaks into two uneven groups. The smaller of the two maintains its northeasterly direction. The second group of silver-beaks circles slowly and heads in Gaia's direction.


Several strangely familiar, high-pitched sounds are exchanged be- tween her group's leader and the rear escort. "Battleguard position?" "Must defend Gaia?" questions the jittery chrysalis aloud, easily inter- preting the sounds communicated between her escorts.


49 Evergreen



"Be patient, young one," says a soft, timid voice in front of her on the left, "and try to remain still." The four butterflies acknowledge the exchange with their leader by emitting their own series of high-pitched sounds. They adjust and tighten their grip on Gaia's pliable cocoon. "The battleguard will protect us," adds another voice from behind. Each casts an uneasy glance at their special traveler. The lead bat- tleguard quickens his pace and moves away from the chrysalis and her escorts. His combat ally in the rear moves into place at the helm, in front of the group.


Harsh, raucous calls of "Caw! Caw!" cry out from well below the group and startle Gaia. "Food? FOOD!" she shouts to the others. "They want to eat us!" Within the cocoon, Gaia shifts her body enough to look down to the noises from within the forest, but they are hidden by its dark shadows and thick canopy. "Where'd they go?" she wonders, puz- zled and alarmed. At once, the rough, cackly calls intensify, and within seconds Gaia and her four escorts are at the center of an aerial assault from the front and rear by the first wave of silver-beaks.


A fierce battle begins between her protectors and the first group of silver-beaks that come into their range. Gaia watches closely as na- ture's logic for the battleguard's second set of wings becomes clear. Unlike their larger wings used for flight, the upper set is thicker with a harder surface that serves as a reinforced shield. From her ever-shifting position, she sees the top set of wings rise slightly on an angle and ex- pand to twice their width. As they ready for combat, both battleguard lower their heads and begin a rapid descent toward the closest flock. Gaia and her four escorts are left untended.


Their pace quickens. Traveling downward at a tremendous speed, the battleguard perform several forward rolls just as they reach the thicket of blackbirds. With each completed roll, hundreds of warring silver-beaks violently collide into the reinforced sets of wings and are swatted down like flies through the forest canopy. Naturally able to maintain their balance, the combative guards emit a burst of speed to climb high, and then they repeat the action several more times. But


50 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part I


these valiant efforts are not enough. The number of enemies is too great. In her cocoon, Gaia watches helplessly. To her horror, as her fearless defenders begin their next climb, they are mauled and devoured in midair by swarms of angry silver-beaks, numbered in the thousands, who have returned with help from the forest below. Among the last de- tectable words heard from the defeated warriors are "Be swift!" "Save Gaia!" and "Ahh!"


With the threat of the battleguard now behind them, the sight of a giant, vulnerable pupa and four succulent butterflies nearly as large is more than the winged carnivores can bear. Hundreds land on Gaia's cocoon to claw and peck feverishly at tender furrows, hoping to shred its lining and eat its meaty contents. Dozens more sink their sharp claws into the legs and abdomen of her four terrified companions. Within seconds a huge black mass of silver-beaks, shaped like an eclipsed third sun high in the sky, is all that can be seen from a dis- tance. The barbaric feast is in its full glory.


Trembling with fear and intense pain, Gaia's heart pounds uncon- trollably. "Senseless pain! Senseless slaughter!" she screams over and over as only glimmers of sunlight make their way through the chaotic blackness that surrounds her. Deep within the young chrysalis, an out- rage is felt so heavily that she shakes loose hundreds of the foul- smelling predators who have already penetrated her cocoon and torn into her abdomen. Because they are eager to continue their part in the killing rampage, they quickly return with even greater fervor. Over the thunderous clamor of many thousands of silver-beaks fighting for posi- tion, Gaia hears the desperate cries and pleas of her loyal escorts. "Stop, not there!" "Ahh!" "No, my legs!"


Staring out beyond the pain and madness of the feeding frenzy, a deafening numbness suddenly overtakes the young chrysalis. The pain is gone. The fear is gone. With a slow, drawn-out blink of both sets of her eyes, she sees silent images of the dense forest and vicious maraud- ers turn blood red. A warmth sweeps across the cocoon, quickly growing into a steady, glistening heat. In this grave, frightening mo-


51 Evergreen


ment, the chrysalis known through prophecy as Gaia takes a deep breath and emits a powerful and unearthly "SHRIEK!"


Bent air radiates from her cocoon with the force of a hurricane, sparing her trounced escorts even the slightest breeze. At once, the dar- kened mass of silver-beaks bursts outward, away from the exposed flesh of the victims, and is carried off within the radiant bands of the fierce blast. The energy carrying the blackbirds sweeps across the sky above and below the group, like a circular ripple effect. A horrific burning sensation overpowers the winged carnivores trapped within the bands, now accelerating at tremendous speeds. Though they are con- scious, they cannot move a muscle as their inflamed bodies stiffen. Moments later, the once powerful thrust of the radiant bands loses en- ergy. The horror in the blackbirds' eyes reveals their final thoughts. By the thousands, they drop from the sky like rain through the canopy to the forest floor. A dense sequence of thuds finally gives way to a deathly silence. Moments later, all that is heard beyond the light breeze out of the western sky is the fluttering of four sets of tattered wings. There are no silver-beaked blackbirds anywhere in sight.


Patches of clouds partially block the bright midday suns that reach out to warm the mountaintops ahead. Moving out of the shadows and into the suns' rays, four haggard and grateful butterflies continue on their journey. Their goal is to deliver a special gift to the inhabitants of an unusual world, untouched by humans, well hidden beneath Lake Augur.


Trailing behind the weary travelers, along the tree line of the forest canopy, is a flock of twelve dark green and gray ospreys who witnessed the battle and its unusual climax. Taggart, the flock's leader, motions with his right wing to divide into two groups. Pointing to one group and then directly ahead, he instructs them to follow the chrysalis to its des- tination and report back. Taggart veers away from the flock and summons the second group to return with him to their home in the for- est. His objective is to reach Syrus, their leader. Syrus is an ancient pterodactyl-like creature who rules all winged carnivores throughout the forests of Evergreen. Because Taggart is second in command of Sy-


52 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part I


rus' formidable army, he is compelled to personally deliver the news of this new threat to the throne.


Within minutes Taggart spots Syrus' lair in one of the tallest ever- greens in the forest. Centuries earlier Syrus carved his lair inside an immense knot near the top of the great redwood. Taggart and his flock land on a branch just above Syrus' entrance. Even the light breezes cannot hide the stench of rotted animals. The lead osprey walks toward the entrance and leans over to peek in. In the darkness within the open- ing, Taggart sees hundreds of discarded bones in piles off to the side of an oversized nest. Some of the bones contain pieces of their former oc- cupants. Most are stripped clean.


In a firm but uneven voice, Taggart calls out, "Syrus, I need a word with you." He is always uneasy at their initial encounters.


From the shadows within the lair emerges Syrus' long, leathery beak. From its age and texture, it's hard to tell whether the beak is dark brown or faded black. Startled by its appearance and size, Taggart takes a few steps back. A few members of his flock, also unnerved by the sight, fly to higher branches. The beak is scarred throughout with an assortment of punctures and long gashes. Both upper and lower sec- tions are lined with multiple rows of sharp, bloodstained teeth. Their sheer volume and jagged slopes make them more appropriate for a great white shark than a winged creature. Following several feet of beak, a small, flattened head appears with a single, maroon-colored eye. On its surface is a glint of sunshine that found its way through the forest canopy. The hollow socket for the other eye is filled with a tapes- try of webs, forest debris and a family of wolf spiders. The eyeball itself has long since decayed from a centuries-old battle for the forest throne. The petrified remains of a winged reptile with a long neck and lower jaw torn off are proudly displayed on the wall behind Syrus' nest.


"You've woken me from a sound sleep," says Syrus angrily, "and I haven't slept well for weeks."


"Sorry about that," replies Taggart. "Peckerwoods move into the neighborhood?"


53 Evergreen



"Hardly. That would be easily remedied," he states smugly. "I think the local ground-dwellers caught something they can't quite shake off. They're puffy, they smell, and I can just about tap them on the shoulder before I swallow them whole. I've had stomach problems and gas that could wipe out a legion." Members of Taggart's flock leap to the next highest branch. Syrus stretches his claw-tipped wings. They nearly touch each wall within his lair. He yawns and says, "It's so bad it even makes my eye water. But enough about me. Let's talk about your prob- lem," he adds. "If you plan to be around to watch the suns set, you better have a good reason for disturbing me."


"I do. We have a new enemy in our midst," says Taggart point- blank. "I've seen it. We've all seen it." The birds around him nod their heads in support.


"Seen what?" asks Syrus in a tone that indicates he's heard this be- fore.


"A creature that has the power to defeat an entire army on its own," he responds, lifting and shaking his wings. Members of his flock again nod their heads. This time it is to verify that they, too, have witnessed the event.


Syrus mulls over Taggart's incredible claim. His eye flickers back and forth, warily considering the implications. Finally, he leers at his most trusted henchman. "And by what means have you come to this conclusion?" asks Syrus skeptically.


"Three legions of our silver-tips engaged the creature north of here a short time ago," he states. "They routed its two main defenders, but the silver-tips had little success when they attacked the leader."


"Go on," urges Syrus calmly. "But first tell me about this creature. What did he look like?"


"I couldn't tell because he was in a cocoon," says Taggart. "Plus, he was surrounded by four of the largest butterflies I've ever seen. They were carrying him to some location. I suspect that if he turns out to be one of them, he'll be even larger than they are. The cocoon was mas- sive."


54 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part I



Syrus stares out over the tips of neighboring evergreens. He is pen- sive and makes no eye contact with Taggart or the others. "He was in a cocoon? Tell me about the battle," he states. "What happened?"


"When the silver-tips finally reached the creature and his escorts, they did what they do best. Well, at least at first," remarks Taggart. "They tore into the cocoon to get at the pupa and kill it. At the same time, others began to rip and shred the body and legs of his four protec- tors. It was impressive, actually, to watch the enemy covered in legions of silver-tips while thousands more were diving in for a piece of the action. I saw a black circle in the sky that kept growing."


"Then what?" asks Syrus.


"Well, it looked like they were making a meal out of them, like they did to the first two defenders. Then things changed. The creature mounted a sudden, devastating counter-offensive. In seconds, it was over."


Syrus smiles and turns to Taggart. "So you claim there is a new en- emy among us who has the power to defeat my entire army because a few weak soldiers failed at their duty."


"Well, yes, that's the way I see it. But no ­"


"­ And from your description, this threat to my throne is a big, nas- ty caterpillar pupa?" Syrus adds, clearly entertained by the idea. He bursts into deep, raspy laughter before Taggart has a chance to respond.


Taggart leans toward Syrus in an unusually aggressive posture. "This is no ordinary creature," he states firmly. "With one ear- shattering screech, our soldiers dropped from the sky like black rain. Now they lay waste on the forest floor in front of their families."


Syrus would normally swallow whole anyone who shows such dis- respect to his authority. In this circumstance, however, he sees that his second-in-command is quite serious about the day's events. Syrus takes a deep breath and slowly exhales. "How many died?" he asks.


"Uh, all of them," responds Taggart somberly.


"All of them!" shouts Syrus.


"I've never seen anything like it," says Taggart. "The battle was a complete loss."


55 Evergreen



Syrus pauses for a moment to regain his composure. Under his breath, he comments, "Three legions of my silver-tips are dead because of this intruder. This should not be. It cannot be any longer." Infuriated at the outcome, his eyebrows lower near the center. He stares ahead at the peaks of the Grand Divide to the north, well beyond the forest. Sy- rus closes his eye, tilts his head back and emits a long, horrid screech. For several seconds, echoes resonate from one forest canopy to another. His eye remains closed as he listens to the reverberating sounds and thinks about his next steps.


From all directions, hundreds of his followers who have learned of the terrible battle begin to gather on the long branches that surround his lair. A majority represent legions of loyal warriors that nest throughout the forest. A smaller number, like the peach-tufted cockatoo and red- crested wood warbler, are not fighters. They arrive out of curiosity. Most are there to show their support for the feared, ancient ruler.


Shortly after the noise settles, a gentle, moon-faced owl lands on a branch next to Taggart. His feathers vary in shades of brown, except for those that comprise his round, pure-white face. Like Syrus, he is tre- mendous in size and weathered due to his extraordinary longevity. His name is Wiley. He is the last of a well-respected breed of forest crea- tures known as luna owls. Using their keen insight and rare ability to foresee events, these creatures once worked in groups to arbitrate peace between the differing forest factions. As their numbers and influence have dwindled over the centuries, they have largely been ignored by whoever commands the forest throne.


Syrus opens his eye and sees Wiley perched on the branch. "I thought the winds and sand would have decayed your carcass long ago, you old coot," states Syrus, still outraged at Taggart's news. A large number of birds on nearby branches snigger uneasily at their leader's comment. They are delighted that the tension has decreased, at least for the moment.


Wiley does not respond to the goading remarks. The venerable owl just stares down at Syrus, tilts his head and blinks.


56 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part I



"Have you lost your ability to speak?" questions Syrus. Again, there is no response. "Your silence makes me suspicious. Did you have something to do with today's dreadful battle?" he asks distrustfully. Syrus glares at the gentle creature. "Everyone knows your kind is the only winged flesh-eater who refuses to be under any rule. And you re- ject my authority. I should kill you now," he quickly adds.


The large, white-faced luna owl blinks again and decides to speak. "There's more to today's events than you will ever know, Syrus," he states in a mild, timeworn voice. "You should not interfere any further with the chrysalis or her journey."


"This thing is female?" responds Syrus, aghast at the revelation. "Then it can breed others like it and expand its base of power."


"The chrysalis is named Gaia, and she's no threat to you. Unless, of course, you turn her into one. Who! Hooo!" he chortles, amused at his un- expected wit. "She's on a path that is much different than yours," says Wiley. "It is not Gaia's wish to occupy any of your territory, only to travel over it to reach her destination. She did not plan to harm anyone."


"Harm?" replies Syrus. "They're all dead!"


"Members of my flock are tracking her as we speak," states Tag- gart. "Soon they will return with news of the location."


"Good work," replies Syrus, ignoring Wiley for the moment. "Han- dle this personally, Taggart. Return to Gaia's location. Find out all that you can about her plans and bring the information to me."


"I recommend that you do not follow Gaia and her companions," interjects Wiley firmly. "If you do, it will be at great peril to all who oppose her. You and your minions are meddling in areas that need not concern you. If you do nothing, your reign will be preserved. However, if you act, there can only be one consequence. You will lose in a man- ner that befits the history of your tyranny."


"A league of your kind has been offering advice for thousands of years. `Don't do this.' `Stay away from that.' `Do not interfere.' Rulers of the forest throne may have complied with the league in the past, but you're the last of your kind, you old coot. The so-called league of


57 Evergreen


peacekeepers no longer exists. I will not follow the words of a toothless and senile remnant of a bygone era."


A strong breeze picks up in the forest and whistles through the trees. Winds from different directions stir the many white feathers around Wiley's eyes. Syrus briefly notices a second set of eyes just be- hind and below the main pair. They appear worn and atrophied, as if no longer in use.


"Looks like time has taken a toll not only on your insight but on your range of vision as well," gibes Syrus. This time, none of his fol- lowers finds humor in Syrus' words. They just stare at the luna owl, some with their heads tilted, like he's a living history lesson.


"Ah," retorts Wiley, "such wisdom from a near-sighted cyclops with a bad under-bite. You should stick to hunting fish in shallow ponds and avoid waging war beneath larger waters. It will cost count- less innocent lives and be your undoing."


The number of birds gathered on the branches around Syrus and Wiley has grown tenfold in the last few minutes. More arrive each sec- ond. Syrus knows that a show of strength is expected.


"You speak as a rebel and a traitor, mindless one," he states, emerg- ing from his lair. Syrus swoops down several hundred feet with his leathery, claw-tipped wings outstretched and ascends just as he nears the tips of the forest canopy. All eyes are on their leader. With just a few forceful flaps of his wings, he climbs several hundred feet above his lair and circles around. Syrus heads straight for Wiley and closes in fast. Hundreds of birds sense the confrontation and quickly scatter. The large luna owl remains in place.


"Uhm, I suggest you move," says Taggart, fully aware of Syrus' in- tent. But Wiley doesn't budge. Taggart takes a few steps to his left, in the event that things get messy.


Descending toward Wiley at full speed, Syrus pulls up at the last moment and knocks his opponent off the branch with his sturdy chest. The large owl is thrown from the immense tree and tumbles toward the tree line below. Syrus looks to the sky and raises and shakes his wings


58 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part I


in a violent display of force. Together, those in attendance stretch their necks to look downward at Wiley. Moments later the gentle luna owl quietly disappears beneath the forest canopy. All eyes return to their leader.


In a cold and measured tone, Syrus shouts the orders, "Assemble your troops and prepare for war! We cannot allow this freak of nature to breed or to live. Our crusade begins now."




59 Chapter Five


Visitors atop Mesequoya




60 Visitors atop Mesequoya



I


t is Saturday morning in a not-so-quiet residential development


called Longwood Gardens on the outskirts of the City of Jaden.


Neighborhood children on Densmore Avenue have emerged from their homes carrying, pulling, tossing and stomping on their favorite toys. They seem to be finding new ways to define "loud and annoying" to some of the senior residents who have opened their windows for a first breath of fresh morning air.


In protest to the noise, the widow Ophelia Twidder reaches over to close the only open panel of her bay window. Casting a venomous stare at several boys who suddenly stop in front of her house, she sharply cranks the window shut and tightens her lower lip. It is not chance that lands them within the uptight elder's limited range of vision on the si- dewalk that runs along her modest front yard. It is her reputation for pestering the parents of neighborhood children for their less-than- stealthy play. Seizing the moment, a pet chuckachu accompanying one of the boys slies to a clearing in the bushes below her bay window. From the sidewalk, the children can see the thin, time-worn woman sit- ting at a small, round table, clutching a cup of tea with one hand and reading the local news with the other. Aware of the children, yet seem- ingly disinterested, she picks up a spoon and slowly stirs her tea. Also on the table is a flowerless glass vase, partially filled with very old wa- ter, and a framed wedding photo of a young Mr. Twidder and his once warm and sociable bride.


"No, Mr. Piddles, don't!" shouts the nervous boy to his playful family pet, but it is too late. Since chuckachus are masters of surprise and receive great satisfaction from startling people ­ they actually gig- gle ­ Mr. Piddles is now poised, collecting data under the window sill. Nothing can distract him. Within seconds, the mischievous chuckachu finds the right moment. Mrs. Twidder bends down to pick up a napkin, and when she returns upright and casts her next scowl at the children through the glass, Mr. Piddles jumps up and rests his front paws on the window. Shocked, Mrs. Twidder screams and drops her spoon for the second time. Seconds after his wide, pink tongue licks the glass, Mr.


61 Evergreen


Piddles giggles. While the boys howl with delight from the sidewalk, a frantic Mrs. Twidder nearly trips over her feet in her attempt to escape to safer ground and make her next phone call. Mr. Piddles continues to giggle on his way back to the sidewalk, and he is greeted as a champion by the boys on his return. That is, except for his young owner, who shakes his head in disbelief.


Several houses down from the Twidder residence, at No. 9 Dens- more Avenue, the Lane family is about to settle down for their first meal of the day. At least, that's the intention of Terre Bristol Lane, who is trying to prepare breakfast for her three children and eccentric father- in-law while she catches the morning news. With one eye watching over the contents in a small oven, she busily taps a few spices into two simmering pans on the stove while gently kicking closed a large oven for the umpteenth time. Moments later, Terre calls her family to the breakfast table. Since it's the weekend, getting her children off to school and making it to work on time is not on her mind, at least.


FLUSH! From the far corner of the family room, a bathroom door swings open. Out comes a tall, paunchy elderly man in his favorite khaki-colored pajamas, flicking his fingers and shaking his hands dry. "Next time I'm using them frilly curtains," he mutters, walking across the room into the kitchen. His name is Sgt. Major Thornhill Lane. He has lived with Terre and his grandchildren for the past four years. The move was prompted when his son, Yeager, was lost at work in a moun- tainside excavation accident. To-date, no body has ever been found. In the years following the tragic loss to the family, the Sgt. Major has helped his daughter-in-law fill the void by assisting with the children if and when he can. He also adds unpredictable theatrics to the Lane household, much to Terre's dismay.


The Sgt. Major takes a seat in one of the six low-back chairs around the ceramic and wood island that divides the kitchen and family room. He yawns and stretches one last time to begin his day. Looking around as if to inspect his troops, he catches himself in a reflection on the large, wall-mounted projection panel in the family room. "Hmm," he


62 Visitors atop Mesequoya


remarks, noticing the shine of his head through a thinning hairline. The Sgt. Major licks his fingers and combs through the remaining white strands to force them across his head and cover the unwanted gleam. Again, he glances over at his reflection. "Hmm," he repeats, a little more annoyed. A water-filled vase of freshly cut purple and white irises forms a centerpiece in front of him on the island. "Hmm," he responds, now more upbeat. He looks at Terre working at the stove and loosely scans the rest of the room for any onlookers. Carefully, he slides the vase close enough to dip in his right hand. SPLAT! Pat, pat, pat. "My butt is sore and my brain hurts," he suddenly announces, stopping the family's morning routine in its tracks. A shrill chain of cackles flows from the rear corner of the family room, the hitch-pitched kind you hear from young girls.


"Dad, please, not in front of the children," responds Terre over her shoulder. She continues to stir the contents in both pans on the stove, shaking her head. "And by the way, your brain may hurt because it's sprouting iris petals." Terre places one of the long wooden stirring spoons on a trivet and presses a nearby intercom button labeled "Cree." "Breakfast will be served in five minutes and not a minute later," she states firmly.


Through a small speaker next to the intercom, a young, slightly dis- torted male voice blares across the room. "Got it, Mom. I'll be down in a sec."


In response to Terre's comment, the Sgt. Major surveys the area and says, "No one's paying any attention to this old soldier, anyway." Then he hears both granddaughters chuckling and mimicking his antics. Wisely, he decides to change the subject. "Hey, maybe the wall will talk about those quakes that shook my bones out of bed this morning," he follows, clicking on a remote control with his left hand and checking his head for iris petals with the right.


The "wall" to which he refers is actually the Lanes' centralized communication center, or the "CCC," as most people call it. It's stan- dard technology throughout Jaden. Using real-time video technology,


63 Evergreen


the CCC powers up a six-foot-high by eight-foot-long projection panel that is divided into four video screens or "quads." At one time, the four silent quads divide up the panel to show any combination of cable channel offerings, recorded video, computer software, email, chat room and blog dialogue, teleconferencing, and real-time visits, called "RTVs." Once a screen is selected, it moves to center stage as the lar- ger, active screen with audio. The four remaining screens continue to be visible in the CCC's corners, but at one-fourth of their original size. A simple click of the remote moves any screen to center stage.


The Sgt. Major activates the CCC and moves the channel labeled "FSN News" to center stage. A low hum is soon replaced by an an- nouncer's voice in mid-sentence.


"... and, after a two-minute message from our sponsors, on to the day's top story at FSN News," projects Glades Wilcoxon, the silver- haired veteran news anchor of Forge Simulcast Network in a serious but somewhat haughty tone, "where we bring you all of the information you need to know all of the time."


From the kitchen, Terre comments under her breath, "Yeah, without all sides of the issue." Noticeably provoked, she begins to pick up her pace, adding an extra jerk here and a more forceful whisk there.


Tightly controlled by Forge Enterprises, FSN is Jaden's only tele- vised source of news. It is one of many longstanding and wide-reaching Forge ventures designed, in principle, to serve the public's interest. It is owned and controlled by the wealthiest and, many would argue, least compassionate member of the City of Jaden. His name is Thorstein Darkminster Forge. Most people call him "Thor." Sometimes Terre does so as well, but only when she's angry at him. Otherwise, she prefers to call him "Mr. Forge," whether addressing him in person or not. This is because Dr. Terre Bristol Lane, computer scientist and bioengineer, works at the Scripps Science Center, a division of Forge Enterprises.


"Hurry, Terre. The morning report is coming up," spouts the Sgt. Major in an urgent tone. "Oh, uh, got any eggs in the ice box?" he wonders, with a distant stare in a lost moment.


64 Visitors atop Mesequoya



"I like `em two suns up." He raises a glass of juice to his mouth but stops short of drinking it as Terre responds to what most people in Jaden would view as an odd request.


"Again with the eggs, Dad? You know there haven't been any in Jaden since that dreadful disease that wiped out all chickens near the end of the Chuckachu War. And that ended nearly thirty years ago," she replies, frustrated and annoyed. "You do remember the war, Sgt. Major Lane, don't you?" She hopes her words will jog his memory.


Once again, light-hearted giggles are heard from the adjoining family room. Sitting on the floor, legs crossed, in front of a long redwood table, bathed in sunlight from the bay window, are Terre's twin six-year-old daughters, Tanayna and Tatiana. Although they are identical twins, from their long, wavy auburn hair to the funny bendy thing they can do with their thumbs, neither sees any similarities. Since they have been repeat- edly told not to make fun of their grandpa ("It'll either embarrass him or encourage him further," their mom would say), they quickly cover their mouths and return to one of their favorite pastimes. The girls are watch- ing their baby chuckachus, which their mom named Ixil, Pixil and Paxil, at play in their enclosed habitat on the redwood table. The chuckachus' mother, who is their older brother Creegan's responsibility, is asleep at the foot of the stairs leading to the bedrooms on the second floor. What holds the twins' attention most is an adorable behavior that is wired into all chuckachus early in their lives and then is often lost when they're raised indoors around people. It is known as the "chuck-n-run" principle, and the fundamentals are easy to understand and fun to watch.


Using the current actions of the girls' chuckachus as an example, the three furry babies scamper about in their habitat in search of a newly introduced or unusual object to put in play. Once something is found, a sneeze or "chu" is sounded to let the others know the game has begun. Then the chuckachu climbs one of the many branches in the habitat and tries to drop the object onto another unsuspecting playmate below. Once the "chu" is heard, the remaining chuckachus have a choice. They can continue to search for their own object to use


65 Evergreen


in play or try their best to avoid those who carry such an object. Most often, they do both. That's where the scene gets rather silly, because the little players delight in jumping from one branch to another carry- ing acorns, small sticks or other light objects in their mouths. Often they crisscross one another. That is, except for Paxil, who starts off strong but then just stares around the habitat until, eventually, he loses interest altogether. With the sound of a chuckachu giggle, you can bet someone just got a surprise clunk on the head. The escapades end when all chuckachus have hit one or more of their fellow targets or when they tire, head for the water dish, and then pile onto a bed of cedar shavings to sleep.


"Incoming!" shouts the Sgt. Major, springing up from his chair at the breakfast table.


"No, Dad!" interjects his daughter-in-law. "Not now." But it's no use.


The nimble Sgt. Major charges into the family room, dives over the back of their long, pillowy sofa, and then rolls onto the hardwood floor as if he's done this hundreds of times. Looking up at no one in particu- lar, his head covered by a wide, floppy pillow, he calls out, "Duck and cover, civilians! Those chicken-chucking terrorists seldom miss and must be stopped!"


"Girls, please go into the bathroom and wash your hands before you eat," their mother urges, not-so-gently, with more than a passing con- cern for what they just witnessed. Both girls oblige. Terre continues, only this time she looks directly into her father-in-law's eyes. "Dad, there are no more unfriendlies. They no longer steal chickens and drop them out of trees onto people. You helped to establish a truce with Forge Enterprises to domesticate them, rather than destroy them, after the Battle at Box Elder. Chuckachus now live among us, as compan- ions, in our homes."


He eyes his daughter-in-law suspiciously, as if he's heard this news for the first time. Slowly, he slides the pillow off his head. Reality be- gins to set in. "Uhm ... err ... never mind," he says, getting up gingerly and walking toward the smell of food. The Sgt. Major rubs his shoulder


66 Visitors atop Mesequoya


in a circular motion and softly mutters, "Where'd this room come from?" In the background, on the CCC, Glades Wilcoxon continues his morning newscast.


"According to geologic experts at the Institute of Scientific Knowl- edge at Knowlton Bluff, the terraquakes felt over the past two days no longer pose a threat to Jaden. In a dispatch from Institute Director Dr. Argon Watts, which FSN News received moments ago, he states ­ and I quote: `Despite what is commonly believed, the recent terraquakes did not originate from Mount Ano'lei, the Grand Divide's only active vol- cano in Evergreen. Geologic data show that the quakes' origin came from below the surface of the land in a region nearly two hundred miles southwest of Jaden. An initial period of substrata ground movement of varying intensity occurred over the past thirty-six hours. The duration of these tremors ranged between 10 and 134 seconds per episode. However, this morning at 7:04 a.m., the most intense terraquake oc- curred. The duration of this event was six minutes and ten seconds.'"


"That's the one that knocked me outta bed, I'll bet! I can't tell you how many times I hit my head on the headboard before I landed on my keister," adds the Sgt. Major, waving his fork as he speaks.


"It wasn't that bad, Dad," responds Terre, with a reality check. "But it was significant."


"You felt it, too, Grandpa?" questions a young boy from the hallway. He removes his headset. "Western Sky stomps the charts," he marvels pri- vately. Into the kitchen slies a full-grown, blue-eyed chuckachu and her loyal, ten-year-old pal. `"Morning, everyone," says Creegan cheerfully.


"Good morning," reply his mom and grandfather, almost in unison.


Creegan walks across the kitchen to the breakfast table and leans over to give his grandfather a hug. "Hey, Mom?" he asks excitedly, standing next to the Sgt. Major. Though still busy at the stove, she looks at him and raises her eyebrows in place of an answer. "I just got offline with Digbee, and you'll never guess what she found out." Cree- gan's chuckachu walks over to the habitat containing her three babies, sniffs it, and gives off a "chu" sound. Her bushy tail is fully raised. The


67 Evergreen


babies giggle in response, as do Tanayna and Tatiana as they enter the family room after washing their hands.


"Cree, was Digbee prying into her father's Sci-Net account without permission again?" she asks, with full knowledge of the answer. Terre turns and takes a long, hard look at her son.


"Mom, everyone knows where their geeky parents keep the pass- words."


"Hmm, I wonder if I should give Dr. Bottoms a call?" she replies. "I'm sure he wouldn't appreciate his daughter snooping around in pri- vate and sensitive chat room discussions. I know I wouldn't. What do you think, Cree?" she states soundly, still eyeing her son. Carefully, Terre loads the different foods she's prepared on a large tray and car- ries it to the breakfast table.


While Creegan contemplates an appropriate answer to this unex- pected shift in the conversation, FSN News anchor Glades Wilcoxon provides a concluding comment to the segment of the broadcast.


"After this last episode, we have learned that no further geologic activity has registered. The terraquakes appear to be over. Upon review of the data, Forge scientists at Scripps confirm these statements."


To the news, the Sgt. Major firmly replies, "Good riddance." With a hot breakfast placed before him and a soft peck on the cheek from his daughter-in-law, the Sgt. Major cuts into his morning meal.


Creegan sits next to his grandfather. His mother places his meal on the table and leans over to provide him with a warm kiss on the cheek, too.


"Girls, it's time to eat. Come and join us," orders their mom, a pitch above normal. Though fascinated with the latest chuck-n-run antics just spurred on by the chuckachus' furry mother, the girls pull themselves away and join their family breakfast now in progress. Terre pours sev- eral glasses of juice and finally sits down to enjoy her Saturday morning meal.


In response to his mom's latest question, Creegan recalls the time he found his mother's Sci-Net password and not-so-accidentally en- tered a chat room discussion in progress. When he touched the return


68 Visitors atop Mesequoya


key, his mom's online username, "AiCORN1," appeared on the screen with no dialogue. Believing that she joined in, her colleagues stopped and asked for her position on the day's topic. Since bioengineering me- chanics wasn't covered in last week's fifth-grade science lesson, Creegan abruptly and impolitely exited the chat room just after his mom walked in and discovered the intrusion. After the incident, he couldn't use the computer for a month. Though his mom's colleagues had a good laugh, his mom did not.


"Okay, Mom, I get your point. I won't access Sci-Net anymore, and I'll tell Digbee that she shouldn't, either. But do you know what she found out?" he adds, to his mom's silent response. "She overheard her dad talking with one of his brainy scientist buddies from work who came by early this morning. The guy was all excited when he got there and hurried her dad into his office to access Sci-Net. She said they were monitoring data from some geologic gizmo online and discovered that the terraquakes were coming from inside the southern caves. You know, the ones nobody ever goes near. And they couldn't believe what they were seeing. Each time they measured something called a `simplex patterned vibration' from the area, Digbee said they went crazy ­ shouting and acting a little spooked."


This non-trivial tidbit of information grabs his mom's attention. "Spooked? Why? Did Digbee say how these `simplex patterns' were described?" she asks, ignoring the fact that she's now encouraging the conversation, rather than putting an end to it.


"Yeah, I think. Get this: They said it was shaped like a voice with pathways flowing from beneath the entire southern part of the Grand Divide."


"Dr. Bottoms said that? He used those words?"


"Uh huh," Cree replies, nodding his head. "That's what Digbee heard. And she was taking notes outside her dad's office door. I can ask her to download a hardcopy of the data, if you're interested."


"Creegan Yeager Lane!" his mom follows angrily. "What did I ­"


"­ Just kidding, Mom."


69 Evergreen



Everyone chuckles, except his mother, of course. She just rolls her eyes and returns to her simmering breakfast, coffee and fresh-out-of- the-oven iced cinnamon rolls ­ the children's favorite. The rolls' sugary flavor also attracts Creegan's chuckachu. Her busy snout, raised above the table's edge, hopes to take in more than just the sweet wafting aro- ma. Terre can't help but notice the chuckachu's wet nostrils wiggling in the air. But rules are rules in the Lane household, and no pets are fed at the kitchen table.


The chuckachu's name is Wysiwyg. Although there's a strong bond between Creegan and his pet, his mom and Wysiwyg also are very close. Perhaps it's because both are mothers three times over and share a special commitment to their young ones. His mom even suggested the name, which is a term used in computer science ­ one of her many ar- eas of expertise. It stands for "What you see is what you get." Creegan fell in love with the name from the moment he heard it.


Tanayna and Tatiana are the first to notice that Wysiwyg is now motionless, ears pointing back and tail upright, studying Grandpa's moves. This can only mean one thing. The Sgt. Major will soon fall prey to another caper by a hungry, thirty-five-pound former tree- dweller who's nearly as odd as their grandfather. What makes this scene more amusing is that Wysiwyg looks like a bandit. Like most chuckachus, she has a distinctive raccoon-like face outlined by a long black mask with white trim stretched over beady eyes. Her head is dark gray and her ears, like her mask, are black with white trim. Wysiwyg's body is about four feet long with short fur in shades of light and dark gray. Her shape is mainly that of a huge squirrel with powerful legs, retractable claws and a flexible, black-and-white banded, bushy tail. Even though the girls don't know Wysiwyg's plan, they find the whole thing funny and have to contain themselves so they won't give it away. Then the show begins.


This morning the Sgt. Major's having a gribble sausage and vegeta- ble medley with a side of fresh fruit. Wysiwyg loves fruit and any part of a gribble. The Sgt. Major finishes his juice and reaches for the pitch-


70 Visitors atop Mesequoya


er on his right for a refill. Wysiwyg silently rises onto her hind legs, leans over the table, and snatches a small cluster of grapes to the left of his nearly full plate with her mouth without being caught. Feeling sure- footed about not being detected, she quickly gobbles down the grapes while keeping one eye on the Sgt. Major and contemplating her next opportunity. In the background, FSN News anchor Glades Wilcoxon begins the next feature piece.


"It is now nearly one week since Niles Jaden III, descendant of our city's founder, disappeared from Teakwood Estate ­ the grounds where twelve generations of his family have played a major role in shaping the course of our city. A new lead has developed since I broke the story earlier this week. City investigators provided FSN News with details that take us to an old dock, 150 miles south of Jaden, near the home of Elwood and Ima Krum. Our FSN correspondent is with the Krums, waiting to provide you, members of my viewing audience, with the real story in real time. And you're live," he declares with his usual air of arrogance. "Huh, what? She's not ready?" he complains in a low tone, looking off to his left.


Glades, always the consummate professional, returns to his audi- ence, smiles awkwardly, and continues to stare into the camera much longer than anticipated. The live video suddenly cuts to an argument between an attractive, well-dressed woman holding an FSN News mi- crophone and an older woman wearing an expensive pink blouse with homemade overalls made of purple-stained burlap. The video feed catches the older woman in mid-thought.


"You're not taking any of this money back!" she declares. "The kind and filthy-dirty-rich Mr. Niles Jaden the fifth gave this to Elwood in a fair deal."


With the knowledge learned moments earlier that she and the Krums are now live, the reporter gains her composure, looks into the camera and begins her segment.


"This is Bethany Beech reporting from the Krum's shanty-by-the- sea."


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An angry look suddenly appears through the field of deep and twis- ty wrinkles on Ima's face. "What are you calling a shanty?" she replies, "You two-bit ­"


Ms. Beech interrupts Ima and directs her attention to Elwood. He is a short, stocky man wearing brown burlap shorts and a yellowed short- sleeved shirt. His fingers are gnarled, and his hands and legs noticeably scarred. Most likely, it's from being a mediocre fisher all of his life. He appears uneasy due to all of the attention directed at him at the mo- ment.


"­ Mr. Krum," she continues, "according to an unnamed source who witnessed the event, you were approached two weeks ago by the well-known industrialist Niles Jaden III with a large amount of cash."


"­ I meant the third," Ima yells, off camera. "Niles Jaden the third."


"Mr. Krum," she adds, as if she wasn't interrupted, "just how much money ­"


"­ A nice man. A very rich, nice man," Ima interjects. "Not very bright about what a wooden motor boat costs, though. One thousand dollars ­ we got such a steal! Not that we stole anything. We're good, honest, pipples ­"


"­ Right, Mrs. Krum. Thank you," she states, cutting her off again. "So, Mr. Krum, you received one thousand dollars for your motorized paddle boat. Did you sell him any other supplies? Could you tell where he was going?" He leans back and looks at his wife to see if she has anything else to say.


"What?" Ima responds. "You want I should stop? Go ahead, talk to the young, pretty lady, Elwood, g'head, g'head," she says, motioning her wrist.


Eyes fixed, Mr. Krum gazes into the camera with a look that is like- ly held by most of the viewing audience. He bends forward to talk into the microphone held by Ms. Beech.


"Mr. Jaden came prepared with his own supplies. He was very quiet, all business. I couldn't tell what kinds of things he had in his duf- fle bags or how many bags he had. I guess I was so shocked by his


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offer for my boat that I didn't pay much attention to those details. It looked like he was going on a long trip, though. Mr. Jaden ignored me when I asked where he was headed."


The camera motions left to focus in on Bethany Beech. With a seri- ous look, she wraps up the interview.


"We now know from Mr. Elwood Krum, the last person to have contact with Niles Jaden III, that he deliberately set out alone on a voy- age in Evergreen's southern waters. He was determined to keep the voyage a secret. His destination is unknown. The purpose of his voyage is unknown. His fate is unknown. This is Bethany Beech reporting from the Krum's shanty-by-the-sea ­"


"­ Stop with the shanty, you over-dressed floozy," shouts Ima, in one last parting shot.


Before she can finish her sentence, Ms. Beech cuts her off and sends the broadcast back to Glades.


"Thank you, Bethany, for that ... compelling story. We began the day not knowing if Mr. Jaden is alive or dead. Now we can say there is hope," he states with a modicum of sincerity in his voice. "Hope that soon he may one day return to the city named after his ancestors and continue to serve the interests of others through his family charities, foundations and community trusts."


The camera pans back to include a balding, middle-aged man in a well-tailored suit that looks more expensive than the one Glades is wearing.


"I understand that we have a response to these events from our legal analyst," says Glades, "Forge Enterprises' own Hewlitt Dunbar, attor- ney at law."


"Yes, indeed, Mr. Wilcoxon," replies Attorney Dunbar. "As the le- gal spokesman for Forge Enterprises, we express our heartfelt sympathies to the Jaden family for their loss," he remarks, ignoring the hope previously raised.


"Here it comes, Dad," replies Terre, cynically, from the breakfast table, coffee in hand.


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"While the investigative report filed by Ms. Beech seems uplifting, it is nonetheless circumstantial and incredible. The Krums have not been active members of Jaden in nearly four decades, preferring instead to live off the land in solitude. During these decades, they illegally sold spirits to our fine residents and have yet to pay taxes on their income. Our inspection of the stills on their premises reveals several potential dangers to Elwood, Ima, and the environment. Because of this, we are dismantling the stills as we speak," reports Attorney Dunbar, intending to discredit the Krums in the public's eye. "These are people who, for years, have shown a disregard for Jaden law. Moreover, given their lifestyle, they are always in need of new sources of income. There is no reason to believe their story and, as you just suggested, there is hope," he states, eyeing a few pages of notes spread out on the desktop in front of him.


"I told you," Terre observes. "Now watch what happens."


"In light of this," continues the attorney, "it is the position of Forge Enterprises that Mr. Jaden is to be declared `officially missing.' As such, his organization will not be able to fulfill any future responsibili- ties associated with his family's charities, foundations and community trusts."


"So, what's unreasonable about that?" asks the Sgt. Major. "After all, if the man isn't around, how can he make any decisions?"


"Because Thor continues to bend the rules to feed his corporate greed. He doesn't care about whether he harms others in the process. People are just too intimidated to do anything about him," she blurts out. "And it's about time somebody does!"


He eyes Terre up and down. "Uhm, maybe you should cut back on the coffee."


Terre takes a deep breath to quell her anger at the information she just learned from FSN News. She puts down her coffee cup, looks her father-in-law in the eyes, and replies, "Dad, Mr. Jaden is now legally MIA ­ you know, missing in action. Thor's henchmen have found a way to remove the Jaden family from important decisions they must


74 Visitors atop Mesequoya


make that affect the way our city functions. This will affect all of us and not in good ways, I promise you. Wait, listen to their chief execu- tioner."


"... and so," states Attorney Dunbar, "according to the longstanding legal charter that applies to all actions by the Jaden family, incorpo- rated as Jaden, Inc., on behalf of their charities, foundations and community trusts, the following holds true. First, no action to assist an individual or agency of the community is lawful unless authorized by the Jaden family president, Mr. Niles Jaden III, in this case. Second, in the event of the death of a Jaden family president, only the family's Board of Trustees is permitted to make binding family decisions, in- cluding the appointment of a new president. Third, since no body has been found to officially pronounce death, legally, a new president can- not be appointed and the current president must be the one to make binding family decisions. Fourth, and as a result, because Mr. Niles Ja- den III is officially missing, we at Forge Enterprises have no choice but to enforce the rule of law contained in their family's organizational charter. Henceforth, until Niles Jaden III appears, dead or alive, no ac- tions or decision-making of any kind is permitted by the Jaden family on behalf of their numerous community interests. While we assume this order will be challenged in court, we are confident it will be upheld," concludes the legal eagle of Forge Enterprises.


"There you have it," says Terre, disgusted at what she just heard. "Forge Enterprises, the promoter of the public's interest, shows its true colors. Thor has always wanted to close down the Jaden family founda- tions ­ especially programs like next month's Marsh Inventor's Fund. Now they've found a way to accomplish it. This will crush those who plan to submit their inventions," she complains, twice pounding her fist on the kitchen table. The breakfast plates and silverware rattle, in sync, in response. Even the water in the iris-filled vase shows signs of sudden impact.


The Sgt. Major raises his cup of coffee and slowly takes a sip. He lowers it, stopping short of setting the cup down, and glances at Terre.


75 Evergreen


"Yep, less coffee," he says, carefully placing the cup on the table. "Pass the plate of sausages to your ol' grandpa, Creegan."


Resting on the floor next to the breakfast table, a patient chuckachu hears the magic phrase and rises to the occasion. She's now ready for her next move.


"I'm not a scientist, Terre," says the Sgt. Major with a confused look on his face. "Tell it to me straight so I know what they're talking about and why you're bothered by those niggling details." He leans over to check out the plate of gribble sausage in Creegan's hands. Us- ing the large serving fork, his elbow raised high, the Sgt. Major jabs into a long, fat sausage link and places it on his plate. He looks at his daughter-in-law, jabs into another link, and asks, "Why would Thor give a hoot about some inventor's show next month, anyway?"


Wysiwyg sets her sights on the first sausage link on Grandpa's plate. Quiet and calm, she rises onto her hind legs and slips her fuzzy snoot under his raised arm within inches of the plate.


Then, with the speed and agility of a mongoose, she lunges and re- coils with the link in her mouth just as the second one is pushed off Grandpa's fork.


The sight of Wysiwyg's narrow cheeks now stuffed with stolen sausage is too much for Tanayna to ignore. With a burst of laughter, milk spurts from her nose onto her pajama top. Tatiana quickly covers her sister's face with a napkin to try to muffle the sound and clean up the mess. She, too, joins in the laughter. Creegan also witnesses the stunt but, based on past experience, is worried about the consequences to his willful friend.


"It's an inventor's competition, Dad," says Terre, aware of what just happened at the breakfast table. She decides to ignore it for now and, instead, offer a brief civics lesson to her father-in-law.


"People from all over submit a working model of their invention to the Jaden Foundation. The only requirement is that the device contrib- ute, in some positive way, to our quality of life," she says. "Everyone meets at the Center Valley Convention Center on the day of the inven-


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tor's competition. Mr. Jaden and his panel of judges then watch a dem- onstration of each invention. At the end of the day, after they meet privately, a winner is chosen. This is important because the winner re- ceives complete financial support by the Jaden Foundation to manufacture and introduce the invention for use in our daily lives. Mr. Forge despises the annual competition."


Grandpa looks down at his plate and then turns to Wysiwyg. He's just in time to see her swallow the last morsel of gribble and lick her greasy black lips. "Hey, you big, furry thief! I don't care what people say. Your kind hasn't changed in the past thirty years and never will. Read my lips. Leave my breakfast alone or you'll be the next course!"


Wysiwyg giggles after finally being detected and slies out of the family room into the hallway. With a full belly, she decides to nap near the stairs. Apparently, her antics prove to be hard work. She's asleep within seconds.


Terre continues her civics lesson to a surprisingly receptive audi- ence. Even the twins seem interested, in between poking one another from below the kitchen table. "Over the years, there have been many Marsh Inventor's Fund recipients who have chosen not to work for Forge. As you know, some have revolutionized the way we live. Bar- bless' discovery of refrigeration, Marchase's invention of washing and drying technology ­"


"­ Cletis Bumford's discovery of beer," adds the Sgt. Major, smil- ing.


Creegan laughs at his grandfather's silly example and follows with "Gramps is an expert on Bumford's work. Right, Mom?"


Terre turns to the Sgt. Major. "Hmm, beer improves our quality of life, Dad?"


"Not a week goes by that I don't feel his `positive' contribution to my life," he replies.


"Well, perhaps," she says, knowing full well that Cletis Bumford is not on the list of previous winners. Nonetheless, Terre's pleased that he's still contributing in some way to the conversation. "Drawing up


77 Evergreen


plans for an invention, developing a working model, and then mass producing the invention is very expensive," she continues. "The Marsh Inventor's Fund encourages promising and innovative ideas to be fully developed and introduced into Jaden. Inventors don't have to sell out to Forge Enterprises for pennies on the dollar. They don't have to see their good work become someone else's property. Instead, they can be fi- nanced entirely by the Jaden family. Their generosity has enraged Thor over the years. `We should have thought of this' and `We should have that patent' are two phrases I've heard at work all too often," she states, doing her best impression of Thor's loud, raspy voice.


Creegan decides he's had enough of the civics lesson. "Uhm, Mom. Can I bolt? I've finished breakfast."


"Stay put, Cree," his mom states firmly. "You'll be through when your plate is empty, and you'll have no help from Wysiwyg. She's had enough to eat this morning." Terre looks into the hallway. "She'll prob- ably sleep it off for hours." In the distance, Wysiwyg raises and lowers an ear in her sleep. A long string of uninterrupted snores follows.


"Mom, look on the History Channel," Creegan states, pointing to the lower right quad of their CCC. Together, the Lanes turn to face the screen. In bold, gold-colored lettering is the title The Forge Family Dynasty: Part I. Behind it are images of various men who have lead the Forge family since Jaden was founded, along with pictures of in- dustries each has helped to build into an empire.


"Speak of the devil and his disciples," remarks Terre with a look of disgust.


"That's not the History Channel, Cree," Tatiana replies in a soft, ar- ticulate voice. "That's Thor and his daddy and his daddy's daddy," she observes. "It's the Forge Channel. They're on a lot this month."


Her grandpa giggles at the joke. "Good one, Tatbug."


Creegan takes the remote for the communication center and presses "four." This brings the bottom right image to center stage. Now en- larged, the audio can be heard. A pleasant female voice narrates the program that began earlier in the hour.


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"By the end of the first century after Jaden was founded, the first generation of Forges controlled two of the largest and most well-known industries: wood production and wood distribution. Together, both in- dustries operated as the Forge Heat & Supply Company. The company was Jaden's sole source of wood production and delivery to meet resi- dents' home heating needs at a reasonable cost. The company also provided businesses with needed lumber to handle the growing demand for commercial buildings and residential homes among the rising num- ber of new Jaden communities. `FHS-Co,' as residents affectionately referred to it, ­"


"­ What kind of crap are they ­ ," interjects Terre, but she quickly catches herself before completing the sentence.


" ... was a successful and well-respected monopoly in a period when most businesses were trying to find their niche. During the first century, like today, much of the daily grind of FHS-Co took place be- low ground, since an endless supply of redwood and the labor used to bring it above ground were located beneath the surface. Today, the huge company's location remains in the Northwestern region of Jaden where the forest and hillsides begin.


For over three centuries, FHS-Co has relied on two main sources of labor. The first is a large residential workforce. Each day these workers help load the carts and move wood into the city for delivery. They work from dawn to dusk in often dangerous conditions. While the second source of labor is far from human, they were found to be quite friendly when discovered in an early mining expedition. They are subterranean creatures called gribbles and, at present, they flourish in the tens of thousands. In fact, the actual number is unknown because they are be- lieved to have underground colonies that stretch throughout our city and beyond."


"She's talking about what I ate for breakfast, t-bugs," says Grandpa to his twin granddaughters. Unimpressed, they ignore his comment and prefer, instead, to watch the captivating images of FHS-Co gribbles at work and listen to the narrator.


79 Evergreen



"Gribbles are as long as humans are tall with light gray, fused ab- dominal segments, thin maroon rings where each segment joins, and flattened bodies that bear seven pairs of muscular legs. With strong jaws and sharp teeth, these creatures strip off planks of hardened red- wood ten feet in length in minutes and stop only a few times daily to drink water and feed on decaying matter.


When not at work, gribbles live in dens well below the surface in the vast root system below our city. We have learned that they are very social creatures. Early each morning, after the gribbles have finished their work and are nestled deep within their network of dens, company workers arrive to the faint and echoing sounds of gribbles humming until they fall asleep. Within the first half-hour on the job, the distant sounds are gone, with the exception of newborn gribblets who cry themselves to sleep.


To Forge Enterprises, gribbles are the ideal source of labor. They work for extended periods of time every evening, seven days a week, are always on time and never call in sick. Equally important to the ac- cumulation of wealth for the Forge dynasty is the gribbles' daily wage. Since they have no use for money, gribbles have an arrangement with FHS-Co to feed their dependence on sweets ­ they work for sugar cane each day."


"Sorry, I can't take this anymore," says Terre, switching off the History Channel. The CCC's center stage program returns to FSN News. She presses the mute button. "Forge Enterprises doesn't just feed their dependence on sweets. They are the cause of it. Gribbles have become sugar addicts, wired to do anything until their next fix. That's why they live only one-half the life span of those few lucky gribbles that are not enslaved by Forge," she says, with more knowl- edge about biological creatures and the Forge family than 99.9 percent of Jaden.


"I've eaten gribble since I was chin-high to a momma chuckachu's teats, and I like `em! They taste like no other animal and always give me energy," spouts the Sgt. Major without realizing a lecture's to follow.


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"Dad, a gribble's taste comes from a diet developed by Forge scien- tists long ago. The diet has caused their addiction to sugar. It's a systemic thing ­ you know, you are what you eat. Does anyone really wonder why people feel so energetic after they eat gribble sausage, drumsticks, or steak?" Terre asks, looking around the breakfast table for takers.


"It's a sugar buzz, Mom," Creegan answers matter-of-factly.


Terre looks at her son with an expression that reads, "Aren't you a bit young to be using buzz that way in a sentence?"


Tanayna immediately starts a "buzz buzz buzz" mantra. She leaves her seat and trots, arms raised, around the family room, continuing the sounds. Tatiana follows like a tail in the insect's flight plan. Curious, Ixil and Pixil rush out of their shaved cedar den and shove their noses through the front bars of their habitat, nostrils wiggling. Seeing the girls' behavior, they begin to jump up and down and then from branch to branch letting out a series of chirping noises. As usual, Paxil shows no interest. He remains asleep beneath the cedar shavings.


"Dad, I prepare gribble for you because you've always eaten it," Terre comments, feeling a bit uneasy about the whole thing. "I'm not going to try to change your eating habits. The kids are a different story. They can get the taste and energy from fruits, vegetables and other foods."


"Well, I may be a bit too far gone to change, even if you tried," de- clares her father-in-law. "But thanks for the squib on gribbles. Hmm, I always thought it was something about them, not what they ate, that made me feel good after a meal," he vents, slowly shaking his head from being mislead over the years.


"COOL! Mom! Gramps! Turn up the sound!" Creegan shouts, di- recting everyone's attention, once again, to the communication center. A disorderly chorus follows from family members. "Oh my!" "Whoa!" "What's that?" "Is it real?"


A highly detailed animated image is shown of Evergreen and its sur- rounding waters moments after dawn. At the bottom of the graphic


81 Evergreen


illustration is the caption "Artist's rendition of celestial eclipse." At the top of the screen, a tourmaline moon slowly arcs across the sky toward two aligned suns. Along its course, shimmering beams of light begin to descend from the upper atmosphere down through the clouds. As the alignment of the moon with both suns draws near, patterns of delicate light intensify throughout the sky and begin to spread across the land and seas. Once the moon is in perfect alignment with both suns, a blast of intense color showers Evergreen and its surrounding waters with a spec- trum of dazzling light. The animation also shows very rocky seas during this rare celestial moment. After the eclipse, the intensity of light fades across the land and seas until the effects are no longer visible.


Creegan's mom is first to break free from the captivating beauty of the large, onscreen animation. Widening her eyes and briefly shaking her head, she presses the volume button. Glades is already into his story.


"... high above the clouds in the cold darkness of space, two suns that have warmed Evergreen since its birth are moving closer to being in line with our pink and green moon. In just one month from today, this alignment will initiate a rare celestial eclipse in which three astral bodies are in one perfectly straight line. Scientists call this alignment a syzygy. It is an event that occurs above our planet only once every thousand years. When it appears, all areas from east to west of the Grand Divide will be covered in a kaleidoscope of light. It will be un- like anything ever recorded in history.


The kaleidoscopic effect occurs when massive amounts of energy from both suns channel through, and expand within, the crystalline prism that comprises the matrix of our tourmaline moon. When this en- ergy reaches a critical mass in the moon's substructure, it will radiate a stable and cohesive refractive force onto our planet. Once in our at- mosphere, intense energy molecules in the air will produce rainbow- like patterns of light that intensify in the moments surrounding the sy- zygy. In addition, scientists state there will be an extraordinary gravitational pull affecting our land and oceans during these same mo- ments. This riveting force will occur as the powerful alignment of the


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syzygy briefly pauses the moon in its orbit. While scientists are uncer- tain of the specific impact these physical events will have on the land and seas, they inform us that there will be a much higher tides than usual during the celestial eclipse.


The entire millennial event should last from approximately 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Our moon will slow to a fixed position in its orbit at 11:57 a.m. and begin its motion again at 12:03 p.m. We here at FSN News would encourage everyone in our viewing audience to wear sunglasses and leaded shoes," the veteran anchor reports with a wink and a smile.


"Mom, can we have a picnic at the park next month on the day of the eclipse?" asks Creegan. "And can Wysiwyg come along?"


"We want to take the babies, too, Mommy. Can we, please?" ques- tions Tatiana after her brother finishes his request.


Just as their mother is about to respond, three identical tones and one long, lower tone are heard from the centralized communication center. The top left quad containing the latest weather update blanks and a symbol within a blinking box appears in its place. This symbol, along with a flashing yellow light on the CCC remote above "RTV," indicates that a real-time visit is pending action. Terre recognizes the caller's insignia on the screen. Her heart begins to race. It is a hand, palm up, clutching a world with Evergreen's terrain. The RTV melody repeats itself and startles Terre. It is none other than Thorstein Dark- minster Forge.


Creegan observes his mother's jittery behavior. "Whose ID is that, Mom?" he asks with alarm in his voice.


Ignoring Creegan's question for the moment, Terre says aloud, "He never calls me at home." She turns to her son and states, "It's Mr. Forge, Cree. Uh, my boss."


One eyebrow raised, the Sgt. Major angrily remarks, "What in the world would he want from you on a Saturday? This is family time he's cutting into. It's sacred ground, if you ask me."


The RTV melody repeats itself for the third time, startling every- one.


83 Evergreen



"Don't answer it, Mommy! I don't like him!" shouts Tatiana from the floor in front of the chuckachu habitat. Her mother smiles.


"Uh huh, don't!" adds Tanayna nervously.


"Please children, let's see what he wants," she states, now some- what calm. Terre presses the button below the flashing yellow light to accept the RTV.


A soothing female voice from the communication center says, "Your RTV has been activated." The insignia of a hand clutching the world enlarges as it moves from the top left quad to center stage. Then it begins to fade away. A live video image suddenly appears of a skill- fully overdressed man in his mid-fifties, sitting behind a large, hand- carved, mahogany desk. On its surface is an assortment of shiny brass objects, including a pen holder and pen and a paper weight and letter opener. There's also an hourglass to ensure people are aware of how much of this man's time they're taking up. Behind him are dark pan- eled walls and an incredibly wide window that provides a panoramic view of downtown Jaden and the hillsides off in the distance.


The name and title spelled out on a brass nameplate facing the front of the desk indicate that the man, indeed, is Thor, President of Forge Enterprises. He is wearing a dark suit and black suede tie to match his thick, bushy eyebrows and even thicker and bushier mustache. No one else would dare to wear a mustache like his. Dark tufts of hair, which seem to flow from inside his nose, part under his nostrils and curve down along his jawbone until they touch his dangly earlobes. He has a bulbous nose that is above average, both in length and width. Around his nostrils and rounded tip are small clusters of blue and red capillaries and veins. In many ways, they resemble the clusters on each side of his near-bald head in that they tend to enlarge and become quite noticeable when he is angry. His trademark floor-length black suede cape and matching hat each hang on a coat rack to the right of his desk.


Terre takes a deep breath. "Good morning, Mr. Forge," she says with a forced smile. His expensive suit and impressive office encourage her sense of formality.


84 Visitors atop Mesequoya



Thor doesn't respond. Instead, he seethes impatiently. Even though he knows full well that the RTV has been active for nearly thirty sec- onds, his dark, angry eyes continue to stare at the gold pocket watch in his hand. Slowly, he raises his head and peers at the CCC image of the Lanes in their family room and kitchen with all members present. One at a time, he eyes each person up and down until, finally, he fixes on Terre.


"So, Dr. Bristol-Lane," he begins smugly, "how are you and your charming family on this delicious Saturday morning? Are you enjoying your breakfast with Jaden's very own war hero?" he asks sarcastically. Thor looks at the Sgt. Major picking at his sausage and vegetables with a fork. Avoiding eye contact after being singled-out, he squirms a bit and slouches in his chair.


Terre tries to change the subject from her father-in-law. "Yes, thank you," she states. "Our weekends are always special to us because ­"


"­ Ah, the infamous Sgt. Major Thornhill Lane," Thor rudely inter- rupts. "The only man to receive a gold cluster after the Chuckachu War for being clobbered by the enemy over three hundred times. Seen any hostile pets on patrol?" he chortles. Ever since the Sgt. Major made FSN headlines two years back when he commandeered the Hesby Street Pet Emporium to arrest and impound their complete inventory of chuckachus, the Lane family has had to endure such ribbing. While Terre hasn't quite let go of her earlier frustration with Thor's handling of Niles Jaden III's absence, this is different. His glaring insensitivity toward her father-in-law in front of his grandchildren is the tipping point. It's all that she can endure.


Terre points her finger at Thor and firmly protests, "I allow you to enter my home and share this morning with my family. How dare you ridicule my father ­"


"­ Enough of this riveting dialogue," states Thor, abruptly cutting off Terre in mid-sentence. Controlling the conversation once again, he notes, "You'll be pleased to learn that I am not paying you or your kin folk a social call. I'll get to the point. Nearly one year ago I provided


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you with a state-of-the-art bioengineering computer lab and a simple challenge. Provide me with computer architecture that uses artificial intelligence to reason through its assigned commands without people and without failure. You have yet to meet this challenge. The results of your research on Project AiCORN have been useless. Month after month, I learn that your study outcomes reject the possibility that an AI chip organized to reason using neuronets and our most advanced multi- processors can work out solutions to even the simplest problems."


"Huh? What in damnation do acorns have to do with what you're working on in that lab, Terre?" asks the Sgt. Major. "You becoming one of them environ mental scientists or something?


Terre ignores her father-in-law and, instead, reacts defensively to Thor's criticism. "My team has extensively analyzed the role of twelve different lab animals in the past month alone," she begins. "For each new biosource, after we've documented the impact of adjustments to potassium and sodium ions, ambient salinity, and the level of toxins to the ­"


"­ Stop the jargon and end your litany of excuses," he interrupts yet again. "You have delayed my plans to integrate AI technology across our rails division long enough."


"Rails division?" Terre questions privately, astounded at what she's learned.


"This project was assigned to you because people who I trust be- lieve you are the best at integrating artificial intelligence within computer technology. While I still reserve some optimism for your abil- ities, I am quickly losing patience," he says, looking at Terre. He clutches a brass, knife-like letter opener in his hand and points it in her direction. His nostrils slowly widen. Clusters of capillaries and small veins around the base of his nose bulge slightly and throb visibly.


The Sgt. Major's eyes open wide at the sight of Terre's knife-toting boss and his ugly, pulsating appendage. Frightened, with a nervous stomach, he mutters "Incoming gas" out of the side of his mouth. Prompted by a brief but steady spluttering hiss, he looks away from the


86 Visitors atop Mesequoya


CCC and down around his feet. "What was that?" he asks, searching for Wysiwyg to blame. Creegan and his sisters giggle at their grandpa's nervous, albeit involuntary, behavior. Terre shakes her head and waves her right hand back and forth by her nose.


"Quaint," responds Thor. He stares at Terre and says, "I want you and your research team to do whatever you need to do ­ speed up the number of experiments if you must ­ to accelerate progress on Ai- CORN. I must see results now. This means that your immediate plans to share a pleasant breakfast with your half-baked tribe has ended." Thor looks at each member of the Lane family as he finishes the sen- tence. "I'll expect you to be at work within the hour," he adds, "and don't disappoint me, Dr. Lane. That's a non-trivial number of depend- ents to support without a paycheck."


He reaches over to a nearby panel of buttons and pauses. Carefully, he looks at the Sgt. Major one last time. "Boo," he snaps with little en- ergy. The signal abruptly ends.


Terre and her family gaze at Thor's insignia, which appears the moment the RTV signal ends. Seconds later the image fades to black. A pre-recorded voice from the communication center returns. "If you would like to place a call, please ­" Click


Terre turns off the RTV from the remote on the kitchen table. "The nerve of that mik'mak disrupting our breakfast and demanding that I leave for work," she says angrily under her breath. Tanayna and Tatia- na both cover their mouths in surprise. Their mom never swears in their presence. The word "mik'mak" is taboo among children, except for the undisciplined ones, of course. "I'll get ready to go," Terre announces in a dejected tone. She places a few gathered dishes in the sink. Almost in a daze, she looks out the small kitchen window in front of her at noth- ing in particular.


"We'll help you clean up, Mom," Creegan states, summoning his sisters to help out. Sensing his mom's distress, he tries whatever he can to lift her spirits. Cleaning up after a meal is not something he and his sisters usually do.


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An important thought dawns on Terre. She decides to head into the hallway. Wysiwyg is asleep on the cool tile floor by the foot of the stairs. Without the twins and the Sgt. Major noticing, she motions to Creegan to join her. Curious, he enters the hallway and sits by her side on the bottom stair.


"What, Mom?" he asks.


"Creegan, I have a big favor to ask," she begins. "Since it's not a school day and I haven't had time to set up daycare, would you mind watching your sisters for me while I'm at work?" Before Creegan has a chance to stomp his feet and say "I'm no babysitter!" she provides the context for her special request. "Lately, I have not wanted Grandpa to watch your sisters for any length of time. I've been concerned about how much of his attention centers on them compared to ... well, other things. I hope you understand." She looks intently into her son's eyes. "Please, can you help me out, Creego?" Creegan knows that is a name his mom reserves for special moments. "Wysiwyg will help you keep them in line, too," she says with a pleading smile. Below them, on the cool hardwood floor, their sleepy chuckachu's ears rise slightly at the sound of her name.


"But Mom, Wysiwyg and I are planning to head over to the Knick- knackery and visit with Mr. Cumberpatch." Hearing her name twice in a row proves to be too much for Wysiwyg. She quickly rises before Creegan begins his next sentence. "He told me to come back this week- end and check out a new futuristic toy. He said he'd finish it by now. Mr. Q wanted me to be the first to see it. He calls it a ... a `sky rail,' I think. Isn't that right, girl?" says Creegan, affectionately rubbing Wy- siwyg's ears with both hands. In response, the large chuckachu rises on her hind feet. Her front paws grasp and tug Creegan's closest hand and pull it toward her belly. Wysiwyg loves belly rubs. "I've been trying to imagine what it could be, and I'm really looking forward to seeing him," he adds.


"Sky rails?" his mom repeats with one eyebrow raised. "You mean like a tall bridge of some kind?"


88 Visitors atop Mesequoya



"Don't know for sure, but I'm pretty sure that's not it. What kind of kid would want to play with a tall bridge, anyway?"


"How about a future engineer?"


"You have an answer for everything, don't you?"


"Only to questions that require a solution, Cree," she states confi- dently, combing her fingers through his tousled, light brown hair. Her thoughts quickly return to the more immediate and pressing matter of who will watch the children for the better part of the day while she con- tinues her experiments at the lab. A smile appears. "That's a great idea, Creegan!" his mom exclaims.


"Huh? What is?" he replies, not recalling the plans he stated just moments ago.


"You and Wysiwyg take your sisters to the Knickknackery. There's a lot for each of you to do, and I feel comfortable having Mr. Cumber- patch keep an eye on all of you," she says with the pace of her ideas beginning to pick up. "And remember that your sisters love the `Deb- orah Ann' doll collection. Oh, and they also love the `Little Molly's Roller Coaster Set.' When you set up the roller coaster for them, be sure you also show them how to work the rubber band launcher without getting pinched."


"Mom, do I have to?" he asks rhetorically. Creegan welcomes his sisters on the road to the Knickknackery as much as he does his mom's weekly mushroom and pea stuffed casserole (which, fortunately, Wy- siwyg doesn't seem to mind). Yet, he knows the trade-off. By agreeing to his mom's terms, he will be allowed to visit his favorite store in Bristlecone ­ one of the most unique and kid-friendly stores in the en- tire City of Jaden ­ and spend the day with the store's owner.


"Yes, Mr. Cumberpatch is a delightful and responsible man," Terre continues. She pulls her coat from the closet and drapes it over her shoulder. Her sights are now set on getting ready for work. She looks around to locate her shoulder bag filled with computer printouts, mass storage devices, dated monthly reports, and other work-related material. Without missing a beat, she adds, "I know he'll love to see you, Cree,


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and the extra company. I'll explain the plan to your grandpa and get the girls ready to go. Aren't you ready to leave yet, dear?" she inquires with an unemotional grin.


Creegan looks down at Wysiwyg with a similar half-hearted smile. He takes a long, deep breath. She responds to his gestures by wiggling her nostrils and staring attentively into his hazel eyes. "We'll have to keep a close eye on them, girl," he states. "You know, to keep them out of trouble." Cree grabs his jacket from the coat rack and slips his arms into the sleeves one at a time. Wysiwyg then makes an enthusiastic "chu" sound and circles Creegan impatiently near the front door.


"Yes, girl, I agree," he responds. "The game is afoot."




90 Chapter Six


Dratch and Gribble Memorial Park


and Railroad Station




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M


oments after the three Lane children say their goodbyes


and leave for the Knickknackery, Creegan and Wysiwyg


stroll along the sidewalk taking turns jumping over the cracks that appear in the pavement. They approach No. 3 Densmore Avenue and notice Ophelia Twidder staring in their direction from her bay window. Both quickly look ahead to avoid any eye contact with her. Out of the corner of their eyes, they still feel her glare. Also out of the corner of their eyes, they're keeping track of a pair of chatty, au- burn-headed bookends rambling behind in matching white jackets, shoes, and purses. Reluctantly, Creegan is watching over his twin sis- ters, Tanayna and Tatiana, out of his mother's urging. His concern is not so much about their well-being, but his own. From experience, he fears being menaced by older groups of boys from neighborhoods out- side of his own on their way to nearby Bristlecone. He is also bothered about having his sisters tag along because of his close friendship with the store's warm and inventive proprietor, Mr. Quigley Cumberpatch. Creegan knows it's selfish. He simply doesn't like to share the limited quality time he has to spend with the owner in his unique shop affec- tionately known as the "Q-Cumberpatch."


At the northern entrance to their development, the Lane children and their pet chuckachu walk by a large redwood sign on top of a heavy, rose quartz, stone base. The sign reads "Welcome to Longwood Gardens."


"Next stop," says Creegan as they leave their neighborhood, "the Knickknackery in Bristlecone."


"Are we there yet?" responds Tatiana. Her brother chooses not to reply.


Down the road, about one-half mile beyond the sign, marks the be- ginning of the Dratch & Gribble Memorial Park and Railroad Station. The twenty-acre site was erected in remembrance of a terrible steam engine railroad disaster that occurred 120 years earlier. History records that engineman Percival Dratch was traveling without his fireman through this stretch of largely barren land pulling eleven freight cars of


92 Dratch and Gribble Memorial Park and Railroad Station


gribbles to their next mining job when the surface of the land gave way. At the end of the day, when Percy and his work crew of eleven hundred gribbles didn't show up at their destination, investigators followed the tracks back to this location. They discovered a bottomless, two- hundred-foot-wide chasm with bent-off tracks ending at both sides. Smoke and the smell of steam engine wreckage still permeated the scene of the terrible accident. A search and rescue team tried to find Percy and any surviving gribbles. But the brave individuals who de- scended by ropes with lanterns into the darkness that fateful day had to quit after the first thousand feet. With the air too difficult to breathe and their lanterns unstable at that depth, the search team began to fear for their own safety. No survivors were ever found.


Over the years, stories have surfaced that the vast depths in the chasm and surrounding areas are haunted by engineman Dratch and his massive work crew of ghostly gribbles. Even though these stories have come from different people ­ some very respectable ­ at different times over the past century, they all report the same experience. When indi- viduals walk near the site at dusk, they hear an eerie male voice cry out, "Oh, why have you forsaken me? Oooh, why?" The voice echoes across the walls of the gorge. The closer people come to the edge, the more it sounds like it is coming from directly below them, deep in the abyss. Individuals who walk near the site at dawn have another type of super- natural experience. They claim to hear a chorus of gribbles making sounds similar to those made when their work days ended more than 120 years ago. Because of the intensity and richness of the melody, witnesses swear that all eleven hundred gribbles who died that day take part in the chorus.


Today, a long bridge traverses the bottomless ravine to link the tracks at both ends. The park is used as a railway depot to drop off area residents and its rolling terrain provides a home for wildlife. However, the Dratch & Gribble Memorial Park and Railroad Station is largely an irritant for many area residents due to the level of noise from the older steam engine locomotives and newer diesel-electric trains that pass be-


93 Evergreen


hind their homes every thirty minutes from 7:00 a.m. through 9:00 p.m. seven days a week.


Creegan and Wysiwyg approach the main entrance to the park and railroad station with the twins plodding along a few feet behind. It is clear that everyone is a bit winded from the journey.


"I'm thirsty," complains Tanayna, already feeling sore feet from the walk. "Can we get a drink of water in there?" She points to a set of paths that lead into a dense forest.


"Well, I guess I can use a drink, too," says Creegan, looking up at an immense marble stone monument at the entrance. "This looks more like a tombstone than a park sign," he says. Wysiwyg sniffs around at its mossy base. The following words are chiseled in marble.


Percival L. Dratch & Gribble


Memorial Park and Railroad Station


Dedicated to the Lasting Memory of


Engineman P. L. Dratch who Perished at this Site


on November 9, 230 (A.D.J.)


"What does `A.D.J.' stand for, Cree?" Tanayna asks, twisting her right foot sheepishly.


Creegan smiles at his little sister. "After the discovery of Jaden," he says, pleased he recalls the answer from last year's fourth-grade civics lesson.


"What letters did they use before the discovery of Jaden, Cree?" she follows naively.


He rolls his eyes and blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. "Uh, `D.U.M.'"


"What is `D.U.M.'?" she questions.


"You are," he responds coldly, "for asking such a dumb question." He and Tatiana chuckle at the expense of their sister.


Tanayna angrily folds her arms. "Hmm," she utters in their direc- tion.


94 Dratch and Gribble Memorial Park and Railroad Station



Standing before the large stone monument at the Y-shaped entryway into the memorial grounds, Cree and his sisters must choose between two brick walkways ahead. The one on the right leads to the railroad station and bridge. The other leads to a seldom-used playground containing sev- eral sets of swings, a few donated wooden activity centers and a big, grassy play area. Lush green grass is unusual in Jaden. Most of the land's decayed wooden surface supports various fungi, large mushrooms, and vast stretches of teal-colored moss, but no grass.


Though it's sunny out, the path to the railroad station is darker and more shadowy than the other due to the time of day and the height of the redwoods towering over that portion of the park. There are exactly eleven hundred and one redwood trees. Each tree was planted in a cer- emony that marked the park's opening over a century ago.


Creegan recalls that there's a water fountain next to a bathroom at the rail station. He and his mother visited the park several years earlier, before Longwood Gardens developed its own park and playground for neighborhood families. "I'm pretty sure there's some water down the path to the right," he says, carefully eyeing every inch of the long walkway before he takes a step. Creegan is also mindful of the ghost stories of engineman Dratch and his eleven hundred gribble laborers. He learned the stories from friends at school and on two fright sites he found online. The stories also are kept alive each year during "fright night," when children attend masquerade parties and share fiendishly clever tales of the undead and the nonliving.


He turns to his sisters. "Follow me," he says in a soft voice.


At once they are startled by a tall man who seems to appear out of no- where. His face is hidden by the forest shadows. Even Wysiwyg is caught off-guard. "Excuse me, children," says the stranger dressed in a dark brown hat and full-length coat. "I can't miss my noisy train to the city." He rushes past them to catch the 10:30 a.m. express to downtown Jaden.


Creegan turns to Wysiwyg, shaken and somewhat miffed. "Aren't you supposed to warn me about these things? You know, jump around, make noise or something when you sense approaching danger? Can


95 Evergreen


you even sense danger?" Wysiwyg darts out of sight between two thin- ly leaved shrubs on the right. After some thrashing about, a cloud of evergreen needles, leaves and dirt rise in the air. She races across the path in front of the children to another set of shrubs and repeats the ac- tion. Then she appears before Creegan, covered in a dense film of filth and forest debris.


"Okay, so now you're on alert?" he wonders hopefully. Wysiwyg quickly faces the rail station and outstretches her bushy tail, as if she's a lookout. Then she turns and faces the direction from which they just came and does the same thing.


"Chu!" she snorts, louder than usual.


"Right," Cree replies doubtfully.


A few minutes down the walkway leading to the rail station, Cree- gan turns to Wysiwyg once again. "Do you have the heebie-jeebies, pal?" Her nose poised high and tail upright, Wysiwyg wiggles her dirty nostrils and sniffs the air in a small circular motion as if to measure the level of safety around them. "Me neither," he replies, still weighing the potential threat of every dark shadow and sound from the dense forest surrounding them.


"Heebie-jeebies, Cree?" Tanayna questions from behind. "Grandpa says that we get them when we're scared. Are you scared?" she asks in a worried tone. "You're not supposed to be scared, you know."


"Why are you scared, Cree?" responds Tatiana. "Should I be scared, too? I think I'm scared now. Are you scared, Tanayna?" While his sisters are moments away from needing a change of underwear, Creegan is about to experience the reasons why.


Through the tall trees, in the distance behind the railroad depot, he notices a huge suspension bridge that spans the two-hundred-foot-wide gorge. In fact, it's hard to miss from their present location on the path- way. Yet it's not the bridge that has Creegan ruffled. It's what lies beneath it ­ the subject of all those stories ­ that causes his stomach to quiver and his teeth to clench and chatter. Until this very moment, they've been those stories because he's always heard or read about


96 Dratch and Gribble Memorial Park and Railroad Station


them from a safe distance. Now he's fast approaching ground zero. "All that stands between me, that ghost, and his undead gribbles," Creegan thinks, "are my whiny sisters and a spoiled, housebroken chuckachu. I don't stand a chance. We're doomed."


Wysiwyg stops in her tracks to examine some movement in the for- est. They're about halfway between the starting point at the large memorial sign and the end of the path at the train station.


"What is it, girl?" asks Creegan, a few feet behind her.


Motionless, Wysiwyg continues to stare into the thicket of low- lying shrubs and massive redwood trees on the right. She begins to whine, steadily increasing in volume. Low, almost imperceptible sounds rise in the direction of her fixed gaze. Dozens of redwoods sur- round their origin, as if to hide their source from the rest of the world. Finally, barely audible sounds gain in strength so that the children be- gin to make it out. The words are shockingly clear. The eerie voice is inexplicable.


"Oh, why? Oooh, why?" echoes hauntingly from the woods.


The twins run to their brother and grasp onto his trousers. "What is that, Cree?" they cry out, frozen in terror, praying for relief.


"Why have you forsaken me? WHY?" The grieved, howling voice resonates louder. A steady wind blows forest debris across their path, touching them, triggering even greater torment.


Behind them, also to the right, the eerie sounds reappear. Then it happens again, off to their left. The ghostly voice and unforgettable words consume them with horror.


"Make it stop!" Tatiana shouts, gripped by the unknown and ago- nizing in fear.


"Oooh!" cries the uncanny voice in pitiful sorrow and excruciating pain.


Within seconds, Creegan is surrounded by the stark reality of his fears. He stands firm, fists clenched at his side. Then he raises a fist and shouts, "Who are you? If you are engineman Dratch, then show your- self now!"


97 Evergreen



Frightened and confused, Wysiwyg careens back and forth and then in circles in an attempt to follow sounds unlike any that come from the forests of Jaden. Tanayna and Tatiana tightly clutch their brother's pants at the waist. Crying into his shirt, they press their faces into his lower back.


The moans begin to die down. Streams of wind continue and whis- tle through the trees. Faint and muffled cries from the twins join the forest noise. Unexpectedly, all is quiet. The girls lift their heads from Creegan's back to look around. Leaves begin to rustle and branches crack. An unknown number of footsteps, dragging along the forest floor, replace the shrill echoes heard just moments ago. The unimagin- able is sensed. The Lane children and their loyal friend huddle close, hearts pounding, with no idea of what awaits them. At once, the haunt- ing echoes strike from all sides.


With eyes closed and stomping both feet, Creegan hollers, "Leave us alone!" The footsteps draw closer.


"Oh, why? Oooh, why? WHY? ... Ah, ha-ha-ha!"


The shrill haunting sounds coming from the forest turn into human laughter from three different places around Creegan and his sisters. Out from the woods steps a large, muscular teenager at least two feet taller than Creegan. He is wearing a heavy, navy blue cloth jacket, brown denim pants and black work boots. His hair is as short and black as his eyebrows and face are dimpled and dirty. Beneath his jacket, the words "Born to be Vile" can be made out in red on a black T-shirt.


"Who am I?" questions the massive teen, checking out Creegan and his sisters. "I'm Dratch and you're trespassing in my park. Who are you? A sitter?" More chuckles come from the woods as leaves begin to rustle to the left and behind the children. Two teens appear, kicking up more branches and evergreen needles. They step out onto the brick path next to Dratch.


Although they're wearing the same type of clothing as their group leader and have faces just as dirty, these two are less intimidating. They are nowhere near as large.


98 Dratch and Gribble Memorial Park and Railroad Station



"That's Rubob and Tupps," he adds, pointing to each. "Well, sitter, what's your story?"


"I'm Creegan and this is Wysiwyg," he says, petting his pal on the head. "Oh, and these are my sisters."


"You don't look like a ghost," states Tanayna candidly. "I mean, you don't even look dead," she observes in a serious tone.


"Well, he might if the suns hit him right," adds Tatiana.


"I didn't say I'm engineman Dratch, just Dratch," he replies. "Percy Dratch, the engineman of Steam Engine Seven, was my great grandfa- ther. Me and my buddies watch over the park and make sure nobody messes with it. You know, to preserve the rights of the dead," he laughs softly. Rubob and Tupps chuckle along. "There are many like us out here. It's like our second home," Dratch states, wiping his nose with his sleeve.


"For most of us, it's like our only home," says Tupps, giggling un- der his breath. The giggles cause his heavy chin to jiggle. Tupps is not much taller than Creegan but is easily three times his weight.


"Wow, cool. You live out here?" Creegan asks. With a distant look in his eyes, Dratch decides not to respond. It is clear that the simple question doesn't have a simple answer.


"Hey guys, watch out. Sitter's got a ferocious chuckachu," says Rubob, the lankier and taller of the other two teens. He walks over to Wysiwyg, leans toward her and stares into her eyes. She does nothing in response except to remain still with her ears back. Frustrated, Rubob growls at the well-composed animal. "Rrrrr ... Arrrr ... Rrrrr."


"No doubt, from the looks of him, he's a trained killer, huh?" Tupps comments, laughing at his own joke. He and Rubob seem to be amused with their goading antics.


It is clear that Wysiwyg is not amused. She looks at Creegan, then turns to the two crass teens and looks back again. Creegan nods his head. In an instant, she emits a "chu" and darts into the woods. Every- one watches her take off. After some rustling sounds come and go, all is quiet.


99 Evergreen



"Look, we must have scared him. The little chicken-chucker ran away!" declares Tupps.


"He is a she, dough boy," replies Creegan assertively, "and you'd be wise not to anger a full-grown chuckachu. Didn't you ever read about the Chuckachu War?" Fearing trouble, his sisters close in and grab their brother's shirt and trousers.


Dratch is intrigued with the little trespasser's nerve. Seldom does he have a reason to smile, but he just can't help it. Something about Cree- gan holds his attention. "Yeah, Tupps, didn't you ever read about the Chuckachu War? And what about you, Rubob?" he asks rhetorically.


Tupps walks up to Creegan. "We don't read, sitter. That's for geeky school boys like you," he says, jabbing him in the shoulder with his stubby index finger. "OUCH!" squeals Tupps, just as he pulls his finger from Creegan's shoulder. "What was that?" he adds, rubbing his pudgy head and looking around. "Who hit me? Somebody hit me with some- thing!" Tupps frantically surveys the area but finds nothing out of the ordinary.


"It must have fallen from one of the redwoods," says Dratch, "be- cause I didn't see anyone around here throw anything." He smirks at Creegan just long enough for him to notice and then quickly looks away. Creegan is beginning to feel a bit more at ease with Dratch.


"So what's Wizzy-Wiggle gonna do, sitter, lick me to death?" laughs Rubob. "OUCH! What the ­ check out that area, Tupps!" he or- ders, pointing into the woods and rubbing his head. "This better not be due to any of your gang, sitter, you little ­ OUCH! OUCH! Run for it!" he shouts to the others with both hands tightly covering his head. The look on Rubob's face is a combination of pain from the incoming ob- jects and total confusion. Only he and Tupps are getting clunked on the head.


High in the redwood trees above, a short string of giggles echo around the forest canopy. On the brick path several hundred feet below are moans of pain and shuffling footsteps hustling to get as far away as possible.


100 Dratch and Gribble Memorial Park and Railroad Station



"I told you!" Creegan shouts to the two scared teens. "Her name is Wysiwyg and you shouldn't have made her mad!" He turns to Dratch. "My sisters and I just came into your park for a drink of water," he ex- plains. "We weren't planning on messing with it or any gribbles ­ dead or undead. We're just thirsty."


The large teen places his weighty arm on Creegan's shoulder, caus- ing his knees to buckle. "I'll show you and your sisters the way," he says. Together, they turn and head for the railroad station to quench their thirst. "So Cree-O, tell me about your family."


In the woods off to their right, Wysiwyg instinctively slies from branch to branch, jumping from one massive redwood to another. She maintains the same pace as the group hundreds of feet below.


Soon they will say goodbye to their new friend and leave the Dratch & Gribble Memorial Park and Railroad Station to head to their original destination just north of their present location, the small toy shop in Bristlecone called the Knickknackery.




101 Chapter Seven


Project AiCORN




102 Project AiCORN



A


t the entrance to an ivy-covered, red brick building in Jaden's


central business district is an oval-shaped redwood sign with


large bronze letters. The sign reads


SCRIPPS SCIENCE CENTER


A DIVISION OF FORGE ENTERPRISES


Thorstein Darkminster Forge, President & CEO


Also at the front entrance, below the doorbell and keyed entry pad, is a smaller red sign with white letters that reads "Keep Out! Tres- passers Will Be Prosecuted." This three-story building is one of the largest in Jaden, with its width and its depth each stretching two city blocks. It has been home to the intellectual muscle of Forge Enterprises for the past three hundred years. Every invention that has the Forge company name stamped on it was developed at Scripps. It boasts the most advanced science and computer facilities ever built and even has the city's first assembly production line. Chaperoned tours are available weekday mornings, with adult supervision required.


In front of a heavy, three-inch-thick, steel security door in the rear section of Level One at Scripps, Terre searches her overstuffed shoulder bag for her digital company ID card to access the bioengi- neering computer science lab. This lab is the first of its kind ever conceived. It is fairly small in size, as far as science labs go at Scripps. It occupies sections of only one floor, for example. On the door, three name plates appear to the left of the digital card scanner: "Dr. Terre-Bristol Lane," "Dr. Denton Tuggle" and "Dr. Filbert Boner." To gain entry into the lab, Terre swipes her card through the scanner and immediately hears three long cylinders shift to unlock the large door.


TSHHH! TSHHH! TSHHH!


A green light appears at the top of the scanner. A personalized mes- sage activates through a small speaker next to the green light. The steel security door opens slowly.


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"Welcome to the bioengineering lab at Scripps, Dr. Lane ... of ... Project AiCORN. At the tone, you will have thirty seconds to enter and clear the doorway before the door will automatically close and lock. We at Forge Enterprises hope you have a productive day and contribute to the overall success of our family of interlocked corporations." Bip


Terre enters the lab, rolling her eyes and shaking her head. It's got to be the hundredth time she's heard that message in the past month alone. Terre overhears two discontented co-workers mutter to them- selves at separate locations in the lab. She tosses her coat and shoulder bag on the circular conference table directly ahead and walks to work- station four where Denton is reading the latest experimental results. To her left is what she and Denton like to call the "zoo of life."


The zoo represents a cross-section of the animal kingdom, includ- ing small crustaceans, fresh and saltwater fish, four amphibians, five reptiles, twelve birds and ten small-to-medium-sized mammals. These creatures live in atmospherically controlled glass tanks or ventilated cages built into four twenty-five-foot-long by four-foot-wide stainless steel units that descend from ceiling to floor. Built into each unit, next to each animal's habitat, is a network computer and small keyboard with a ten-inch flat-screen display that presents an identification num- ber, arrival date, species, sex (if known), Mapgar health score, biofluid attainment dates, and AiCORN performance score. It's easy to tell which zoo residents just had a tiny amount of biofluid taken from their spines for an experiment. They are the ones with little round band-aids covering the center of their backs, except for the fish, of course.


In front of the zoo, starting from the left, six oversized high-tech computer workstations line two walls in the shape of an inverted "L." Farthest from the zoo, to the right of workstation six, is a fifteen-foot- long solarium that juts out ten feet beyond the ground floor of the building. The solarium's ceiling contains rows of solar panels designed to provide power for the experiments. In principle, to ensure each com- puter workstation in the bioengineering lab operates as self-sufficiently as possible, every experiment uses the suns' rays. In fact, for any sci-


104 Project AiCORN


ence lab to continue to receive funds, there must be little or no reliance on Jaden's more traditional and well-mined sources of energy, includ- ing the coal and oil used in most industries. This policy is in place not because Forge Enterprises is in any way eco-friendly. Rather, Thor is cheap. Four years earlier, first place at the Marsh Inventor's Fund went to Knowlton Fritts for his discovery of solar energy. That same year, Fritts' invention was bought out and immediately patented by Thor. He then demanded that all Scripps' experiments use this renewable energy source. Since then, sets of thick gray cables run from dozens of roof- mounted parabolic dishes and ground floor solaria to computer work- stations throughout the science center.


Next to Denton, near workstation four, is a mobile refrigerated cart. It is moderate in size and weight. Like the structure surrounding each animal's habitat, it is made of stainless steel with four labeled drawers on the front side. Each drawer opens to reveal fifteen rows of two-inch- tall by one-inch-wide steel vials. Each vial is filled with a DNA sample in the form of biofluid taken from a lab animal. Since the usefulness of extracted biofluid decreases over time, it is essential to update each specimen and keep all steel vials sterile. On the top of the cart is an or- ganizer with compartments for hypodermic syringes to draw out biofluid, sanitized gloves, germfree pads, and assorted tools to conduct project experiments. Also on top is a small network computer terminal and a keyboard to keep track of the animal fluid inventory.


Terre arrives at the workstation and approaches Denton. "I'm sorry Mr. Forge ended your plans for the day. I still can't believe how he ended mine. Anyway, what's the good word?"


"That's alright," Denton responds, clearly focused on his work. "These results, Terre. I just don't get it." With a printout in hand, he stands in front of a sophisticated panel three feet wide and two feet deep set on a forty-five-degree angle. Workstation four's panel, like all panels in their lab, is comprised of three small monitors, banks of on/off and relay switches, two optical drives, a twelve-in-one memory card reader, and a unique, twelve-square-inch motherboard off-center


105 Evergreen


to the right. The motherboard is embedded into the panel's surface but is easy to detach to accommodate any design changes and needed up- grades.


What separates motherboards in this lab from others at Scripps is the role Terre has played in designing and integrating artificial intelli- gence, or "AI," technology within conventional computer architecture. Since the advent of computers in Jaden, silicon multiprocessing units translate commands from different programs into a form accepted by all computers. These electronic multiprocessors perform complex commands one calculation at a time. Terre's work became known prior to her employment at Scripps when she published a provocative article in the Jaden Science Quarterly based on her doctoral research. In the article she stressed how and why "AI self-monitoring technology," as she then called it, will revolutionize future computer architecture at home and work. The highly innovative article presented practical and industrial advantages of replacing each silicon-based central processing unit with AI chip technology. Her call to broaden the current paradigm in the field resonated loudly across the scientific community. At least to those who understood it. Her ideas in JSQ also caught the attention of Forge Enterprises' CEO, who almost immediately envisioned how his corporate empire could greatly benefit from this new technology. Six fundamental points characterize Terre's well-received article.


First, DNA provides the building blocks of AI technology. Animal biofluids, which carry DNA, will always be accessible and abundant in supply as long as cellular organisms survive on the planet. Second, such a large, renewable supply makes animal biofluid an inexpensive resource. Third, manufacturing AI chips from biofluid is a clean and safe enterprise. However, materials used to make traditional silicon chips are toxic and can be dangerous not only to mass produce but also to destroy. Fourth, AI technology can occupy spaces many times small- er than present day computers while, at the same time, process tremendous quantities of data at unheard-of speeds. One drop of DNA, she wrote, not only has more information storage capacity than all com-


106 Project AiCORN


puters ever built in Jaden combined, but would have the computing power to run commands at trillions of instructions per second, or "TRIPS." The most advanced present-day computer processors run commands at nearly one million instructions per second, or about one "MIP."


AI technology integrated into even the simplest computer would easily convert it into the most powerful multiprocessing machine in the world. Precisely how this technology self-monitors commands is the fifth characteristic offered in her thought-provoking JSQ article. When AI technology responds to a command, the information is processed, evaluated and acted on in sequence. Commands numbering in the mil- lions, she argued, can be handled at once in milliseconds with user- defined priorities followed, critical decisions logically weighed and proper outcomes fully executed. In short, AI technology is capable of calculated reasoning and can learn from prior experiences.


Finally, a major roadblock facing Jaden's limited number of bioen- gineers is how to integrate organic or non-electric AI technology in the electronic world of integrated circuitry. Computer multiprocessors housed on motherboards must exchange and control the information with groups of silicon microchips that operate using low electricity lev- els. Though this is a non-trivial problem, Terre offered a potential solution to the scientific community. She postulated that an AI chip can work in tandem with integrated circuit boards and silicon microchips if you integrate it within a system of logic gateways she termed "neu- ronets." Like DNA, neuronets can be found in all biofluid, so they too are abundant in supply. Terre described why neuronets will be a vital part of how future AI computers can carry out functions they are com- manded to do.


The main purpose of neuronets is to convert code moving through the computer into a series of signals that the computer uses to perform operations. However, neuronets are capable of distinguishing between electrical code sent through silicon chips and organic, non-electric DNA code sent through an AI chip. On the one hand, they interpret


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electronic input signals from silicon hardware and convert these signals into an output signal that allows the computer to perform logical func- tions. On the other, neuronets also can interpret and convert DNA code to perform a much higher array of complex operations at tremendous speed. This technological feature of neuronets makes possible the ex- change of electronic and organic information at the same time.


AI chips and neuronets, she argued brilliantly, are the first step to- ward creating DNA-based computer architecture that has a structure similar to conventional electronic computers but with unimaginable storage and computing capacity, multiple problem-solving capabilities, and the power to reason. Though the JSQ article pointed to several key design problems that must be addressed, her optimism created quite a stir in the scientific community. Within two weeks after the publica- tion, Dr. Terre Bristol-Lane was hired by Thor to continue and expand her empirical research at the Scripps Science Center.


Terre peers over Denton's left shoulder at the small steel specimen vial tightly seated into workstation four's central processing unit. A ti- ny, handwritten label near the top reads "Gurdy the Iguana."


"What don't you get?" Terre asks, finally settling in to work.


"Confirmation that our commands were even run let alone com- pleted by AiCORN. Zilch. Nothing at all," he replies at a loss. Denton continues to scan the latest printed output and then stares at the moth- erboard, almost unthinkingly, as if it will provide a clue. Scratching behind his ear, slowly shaking his head in confusion, he turns to the upper monitor for more bleak statistical results. Terre reviews the data alongside Denton. "I don't get it," he repeats. "There's simply no re- sponse at all from AiCORN." Visibly wound up over the implications of the results, he glances across the room at Filbert. Terre does the same.


Both notice he's reclined in a high-back chair, legs up on the con- ference table, doing his best to ignore Denton's predictable concerns. With his coffee in one hand and the Saturday edition of the Jaden Journal in the other, he mutters a complaint in their direction about


108 Project AiCORN


having to work overtime on the weekend. It is clear that Denton is fo- cused solely on the results at workstation four, not Filbert's regret of "wasting a perfectly splendid Saturday."


"Don't bother Denton, Filbert. He's working, which is more than I can say about you at the moment," she remarks in a firm and cynical voice.


"Working at what? Bringing the dead back to life to guide traffic flow?" he responds with a drawn out chuckle.


"You don't get it, do you, Boner?" asks Denton rhetorically. "We're not working with the dead or anything tied to the dead. You see," he adds in a bookish voice, "all animate life forms have DNA and neuronets that send and retrieve information at lightning speed com- pared to the computers we currently use."


"Don't waste your breath," states Terre calmly. "He's smart to a point and then dumbness takes over." Together, they slowly glance at Filbert and then laugh. Unamused, he sips his coffee and turns his nar- row nose back into the newspaper.


Terre feels close to Denton. On a professional level, she trusts him and works well with him. On a personal level, they've been friends since grammar school and graduated from the same college only a year apart. As far back as she can remember, they've shared interests in sci- ence, computers and the environment. Moreover, Terre knows that Denton has had a crush on her since childhood. She also knows he's never married. As a result, Denton is easily influenced by her. Terre uses this advantage sparingly, such as during a family crisis when she must leave suddenly and there's still work to do in the lab.


Dr. Filbert Boner, on the other hand, is neither friendly nor very bright. As a scientist, Denton labels him as "exceptionally mediocre at best." Though they've tried, neither has been able to find out when or where (or if) Filbert earned his doctoral degree. Nor do they know what field his degree is in. What Terre and Denton do know is that Thor as- signed Filbert to their lab about two months back to be his eyes and ears on Project AiCORN. His role, according to Thor's email about the


109 Evergreen


project's personnel change, is to oversee AiCORN's progress and re- port back on a weekly basis. Intellectually, Filbert contributes little to their work. But now and then Terre and Denton do break up the monot- ony of their daily routine by testing his supposed readiness to work as a member of their team.


One busy morning, Denton needed biofluid from Gurdy, a young iguana who happens to be the lab's largest reptile. Because it was be- fore her feeding time, Denton knew she would soon show an impressive hunger display, raising her body and vigorously thrashing her head. An idea brought a smile to his face.


"Dr. Boner," he summoned. "I'm tied up at the moment, and we need a fluid sample from Gurdy. Could you take care of it?" Reluc- tantly, Filbert walked over to Gurdy's long, glass habitat, opened the lid to her home and naively said, "Yeah, I'll handle it." Hearing the noise and thinking food was about to arrive, the six-foot-long iguana raised her head, shook her throat pouch and charged the first sign of food in her line of sight ­ Filbert's fingers. He screamed like a pre- school girl and dropped the syringe in Gurdy's water bowl. Since then, Dr. Filbert Boner has stayed away from the lab's zoo of life, especially the reptile aisle.


"So where do we stand on this trial, Denton?" asks Terre. She stares at three critical monitor displays and leans over his shoulder to take an- other look at the latest experimental results. "Hmm. No signs of life or liberty in our pursuit of artificial intelligence," she quips.


Denton forces a smile and replies, "Like I said, AiCORN ignored the commands I just assigned. That's not quite a success in my estima- tion. It looks like we're back to square one, Terre." Dejected, he and Terre exchange bittersweet glances.


"We'll think this through and control for a hundred more factors if we have to," Terre adds, drawing in a deep breath and exhaling slowly. "One thing that comes to mind," she states, pointing to a portion of the statistical output, "is that there's an adjustment needed with DNA se- quencing. Clearly, there are outliers in the data we've not thoroughly


110 Project AiCORN


considered. Let's pour some coffee and review AiCORN's data at the conference table. Also, it looks like another change is needed in the ra- tio of ions," she states confidently.


Filbert scribbles down a few notes that describe what was just con- veyed. This and similar dictation have occurred several times per week since he arrived. As a result, the thought of listening to technical details of errors underlying the latest AiCORN failure is more than he can bear. Making matters worse, through the tall solarium panels, Filbert can see the day is bright, clear and inviting. He folds the newspaper, more peeved than restless, and sighs out loud. Terre and Denton turn to him, as if to acknowledge his rudeness, and then resume their work.


After a few minutes, Filbert decides he has had enough. He is bored, offers little in the way of scientific expertise, and has run out of articles to read in the Jaden Journal. "Does anyone want me to bring back something for lunch?" he asks, knowing full well they'll say no.


Much to his surprise, Terre turns and says, "Yes, thank you, Filbert. I didn't have much time for breakfast. Would you mind picking up a honey mesquite salad from Dilly Dally's?" Before Filbert has a chance to reply, she leans over to pull out some cash from her purse and adds, "I know it's a distance, but I'd really appreciate it."


Even though her back is to Denton, she gently kicks him without Filbert noticing. Being quick on his feet, Denton chimes in by saying, "And, uhm, add an order of potato rounds with cheese. The yellow cheese, not the white runny stuff ­ if possible."


"Take it out of this, will you, Filbert?" Terre hands him twenty dol- lars. "Please, keep the change for the trouble."


Baffled for the moment but delighted to leave the lab, he nods, grabs the money and heads toward the door. With his back to them, Filbert swipes his card through the scanner. "I'll be back in about an hour." Over his shoulder he comments with a sneer, "Maybe you'll ac- tually get something done in my absence." Seconds later, the heavy steel door closes to the loud, metallic sound of three locking cylinders.


TSHHH! TSHHH! TSHHH!


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Alone and secure in the lab, Denton turns to Terre. "How long are we going to tell Forge we haven't found anything significant? Sooner or later, even Dr. Filbert will catch on," he states, anxious and con- cerned. "I know you know our jobs are on the line. Where are you taking this? Where are you taking us?"


Terre stares straight into her research partner's eyes. "Look, two things are certain. First, AiCORN technology has produced inconsis- tent and unreliable results ever since we started the experiments. So technically, we are telling the truth. We reported that for each experi- ment, we ran a neural fluid sample through the AI processing unit, assigned a complex command, and then assessed how it turned out. Success means the command was fully and reliably carried out and it did so at a processing speed of no less than one trillion instructions per second. We've also reported, in the beginning anyway, that simple and even some complex commands were easily processed and solutions were found at TRIPS never previously recorded. Then, well, things changed in our reports ­ a little."


"Enough to close down the whole project," he says above a whis- per.


"Denton, think about it. In each case, as we added more complex commands ­ the kind of complicated programming AiCORN technol- ogy would likely be built to process each day ­ the damned thing learned."


"Why the surprise? Isn't that what you predicted would happen in your article? No doubt, that's why you were hired to head this research project."


"No, no," she replies, now pacing as she gathers her thoughts. "Not this kind of learning. This is different from what I ever imagined. Ai- CORN accomplishes what we assign in a flash, rewrites the command, and then achieves independent solutions at TRIPS higher than we've ever seen. It's uncanny."


"So it gets bored and invents new programming to follow," he says to lighten the intensity of the discussion. "Kind of inventive, no?"


112 Project AiCORN



Dead serious, she looks her research partner in the eyes. "No, Den- ton, it's not supposed to get bored. When it masters our initial commands, selects and writes something different without our over- sight or control, and then succeeds in carrying out its own plans at unheard-of processing speeds, what does that tell you?"


"I should have listened to my mother and gone into medicine?"


"Self-awareness and independence," she replies. "AiCORN acts in- dependently." Terre places her hand on his shoulder and moves in closer, almost inches from his face. "Doesn't that scare you? Unpre- dictable and potentially explosive AI technology installed in every Forge computer in the land?" She continues to pace next to Denton. "People will only see it in ways defined by print and commercial ads. `Catch the wave into Jaden's future,'" Terre states like a narrator. "`It's AiCORN ­ Forge's amazing Artificial Intelligence Chip Organized to Reason via Neuronets. You'll be nuts not to own one.'"


Denton chuckles nervously at Terre's ad lib humor.


"It'll be marketed as the fastest and most efficient computer chip ever created to perform needed tasks we depend on every day," she adds. "What Forge won't reveal is that it's a time bomb with a mind of its own that rewrites its original instructions to better suit its needs. What, you ask?" she probes in a deeper voice. "Why is that heart ma- chine playing ping pong with Gramps' heart? It's tired of having to maintain a steady beat."


"Okay, Terre. I get the point."


"Wondering why your microwave turned your fingers into cooked sausages when you reached in for your kid's smoked gribble? Try be- ing gentler next time when you close the oven door. It has feelings, you know."


"Okay, okay. Like I said, I get the point. So what's the second?"


"Second what?" she replies, still reeling from her off-the-cuff commercial ads.


"You said there are two things that are certain. I may be daft for asking, but I'm curious about number two."


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"Oh, yeah," Terre responds. "You'll need to sit down for this one."


They both take a seat at the conference table next to where Filbert was sitting. The Jaden Journal and an empty coffee cup are where he left them. Terre swivels her chair to face Denton.


"What do you think will be the first use of AiCORN processors by Forge Enterprises? And I mean as soon as we give the technology a green light."


"I guess heart regulators and microwave ovens are out," he replies with a smirk. Terre is too serious to be amused.


"Rails, Denton ... rails," she declares. "Thor wants to computerize his entire network of industrial and commercial rail lines, and he wants AiCORN technology driving every one of his engines."


Denton's eyes widen as he thinks about the implications. "But ... What about? ... How do you know this?" he stammers.


"Thor called me at home and told me, not even an hour ago. It was just after he rudely interrupted my family's breakfast," she says angrily. "In typical Thor style, he humiliated the Sgt. Major in front of the chil- dren, too." Her fingers slowly tighten into a fist.


Denton can't help but notice her sudden mood swing. "I'm sorry, Terre," he responds in a comforting voice.


She smiles gently. Then she looks at the nearby Jaden Journal strewn on the table. A headline catches her eye. Terre reaches over to pick up the newspaper and take a closer look. The headline reads "Bet- ter Wages and Better Hours Sought: Rail Workers Threaten Strike." She folds the paper so the headline is centered, hands it to Denton, and points to the article.


"For the past year, Thor has banked on the idea that AI processors spawned from our project will replace everyday decisions made by people, especially people that work for him."


"Like these rail workers," adds Denton, partly reviewing the con- tents of the article.


"Exactly," Terre replies. "Imagine what could happen if Thor re- places an engineman in just one new passenger train with our AiCORN


114 Project AiCORN


technology. It could decide to rewrite its route and assign its own TRIPS, causing people to wind up in another side of Jaden. Or it could speed up when it should slow down and jump its rails around a bend, even over a ravine. It could even cause a terrible collision by refusing to move onto a side-track to allow another train to pass. The deaths of rail passengers would be on our hands, Denton. We just don't know what to expect with AiCORN technology. Now think about what could happen if all Forge rail lines are guided by this technology."


"So," he wonders aloud, "what do you think we should do about it?"


From a round intercom speaker in the ceiling directly above them, they hear brief static and crackling noises followed by a loud, singular click. Then all is quiet. Someone is about to make an announcement. Nervously, they both look up.


"I'VE HEARD ENOUGH!" shouts an angry voice through the speaker. The deep, arrogant tone is unmistakable. It is Thor.


Terre and Denton look at each other in shock. Both size up what has happened since Filbert left the lab. Denton closes his eyes and low- ers his head in disbelief. While it is unclear how much of the discussion has been overheard, it is clear that none of it should have been heard by Thor. Terre briefly ponders his possible reaction and realizes her fate is clear. She knows this will be her last day working at the Scripps Science Center.


Yet, at this moment, there is something weighing more heavily on Terre's mind than losing her job. It is Thor's complete disregard for the well-being of others, his unrelenting quest to expand the wealth of Forge Enterprises at the expense of the public good, his ignorance about the underlying problems of Project AiCORN and the damage it can inflict on Jaden's citizens, and his utter contempt for what is civil and just.


"It must end here, today ... now," she tells herself. In those brief seconds since Thor's words thundered down from the ceiling, Terre made a profound decision. Before she leaves, all files and documents tied to Project AiCORN must somehow be destroyed. Of course, to


115 Evergreen


attempt to do so is illegal and would result in imprisonment or worse. At a minimum, she would serve years of hard labor in the mineral mines deep within Mesequoya's immense, cavernous root system where few are ever heard from again. But the cost of doing nothing is even greater.


In a more tempered tone than before, Thor continues. "Your scheme to withhold the truth from me about Project AiCORN has been known for the past month. It seems as though the latest addition to your so-called research team ­ you know, today's delivery boy ­ is not the twit you make him out to be."


"Oh?" responds Terre. "Filbert, are you there? Where's Denton's potato rounds? Did you forget the cheese?" she adds sarcastically.


In the background, Filbert chimes in. "Uhm, I'll return your twenty dollars."


"Quiet, you twit!" interrupts Thor.


"So, how did you find out?" she asks. "We went through great pains to cover our tracks."


"Not enough pain, apparently, but first things first," states Thor. "Dr. Bristol-Lane, you are fired. No longer will your name be associated with this project. You have only a few minutes before an armed security force will enter the lab and physically escort you to the front entrance and off of these premises for good. Don't bother taking your shoulder bag or any other item. Everything will be thoroughly searched. What is found to be yours, eventually, will be mailed to your ... zoo."


"As for Dr. Tuggle," Thor continues, "you I will spare at half your current salary. While I trust you only slightly more than my accountant, I need your expertise to help guide our designers and engineers in the next steps of the project. And note that everything you do at Scripps will be closely watched."


"Next steps? What do you have in mind?" questions Denton. He momentarily loses sight of Terre who is now milling around work- station four thinking of a way to permanently eliminate all traces of Project AiCORN.


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Clearly ignoring Denton, Thor states, "Now, to the question of how we discovered your treachery. It seems that for quite some time, a number of unique, well-hidden files derived from project experiments remained resident on workstation hard drives after you left each eve- ning. Whether they're creative thoughts, intelligent memories, or your computers' attempt at mitosis is unclear. But evidently, the AI biochip that you call AiCORN found the files important enough to devise a way to save them and perhaps itself."


Terre stops dead in her tracks and looks at the ceiling speaker as if it were a person. "What?" she replies in amazement.


"Yes, I thought that would get your attention," Thor responds.


Confident that all of her bases were covered to conceal AiCORN's results over the past year, Terre notes, "We wiped the hard drives clean and powered down all systems after each experiment. Nothing could remain resident. That's just not possible."


"Indeed, it is possible," claims Thor. "Dr. Boner, explain it to her. Be quick about it."


"Uh, Terre," Filbert begins, "I have evidence that after each ex- periment, you did ­ as you say ­ remove the biofluid vial from the AiCORN processing unit, reformat the hard drive that contained spe- cific algorithmic rules and programs written by you and AiCORN, and terminate the solar power to the motherboard. You then created weekly reports with false results. When I discovered the steps you took after each experiment, I went back to the workstations later each evening to undo what you had done. While I couldn't restore all of your work, un- expectedly, I found something that you couldn't have foreseen. No one could," he adds humbly.


"Cease the flattery, Boner, and get on with it," Thor demands impa- tiently.


"I found memory traces on the hard drive," says Filbert matter-of- factly. "They were in the form of unusual data files with what looks like patterns or signatures of one or more of the biosources you used in previous experiments. I think the files were encrypted and hidden by


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AiCORN so no one could find and open them. I found the files by acci- dent, after I discovered that the total amount of hard drive space did not equal the amount of available space. The values should have been iden- tical after each system reformat. It's as if AiCORN was trying to preserve whatever was in the files," he surmises.


This clue triggers a possible explanation to Terre of how the files remained resident. But she needs one more piece of information. Non- chalantly, she asks, "Filbert, did the difference between the total and available hard drive space at each workstation remain constant or change over time?"


"Don't answer ­," shouts Thor.


"­ It decreased," adds Filbert before Thor completes his command.


Terre spear-chucks a crazed look across the lab at Denton, who's still seated at the conference table. With her eyes fixed and wide, she silently mouths the words, "Put a ... flash drive ... in workstation four. Copy ... all ... of Project AiCORN." Terre feels confident that she has the answer.


"What?" Denton whispers, off guard.


Impatient, Terre pretends to open and close her blouse several times like she is exposing herself. He suppresses his first thought and accom- panying smirk just long enough to put together what it is that she's up to. He nods and proceeds with dispatch to work on the assignment while Terre continues to bide her time.


"Filbert, why do you think this happened? How could it have hap- pened?" she asks, with a solution already cycling around her head.


Thor interjects, "It appears that this past year's experiments were successful, Dr. Boner, even though Dr. Bristol-Lane falsified project records and reported quite the contrary. Today's development, while confirming the fraud and deception we have already documented, will not affect my optimism and ambition for Project AiCORN."


"Oh?" Terre questions. "How can you possibly define those results as successful?"


"The AI biochip devised its own solution to one of life's greatest mys- teries. Through calculation and rational thought, it learned how to prevent


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its own death ­ or forestall it, anyway. Regardless, it demonstrated a mas- tery of the ability to reason. I see these results as passing a critical final test before mass production. Early next month, Forge Enterprises will in- tegrate AiCORN technology in our passenger rail system for trial tests. In time, the citizens of Jaden will see this as a historic event."


Thor's words cause her to focus again on Denton, who is busy at workstation four. This time her eyes show signs of panic. Terre notices he's already initiated the lengthy download of project theorems, formu- las and lengthy equations. Denton nervously monitors the progress of the horizontal bar on the computer screen.


10% complete


"Historic event?" she replies anxiously. "Don't you think it's a bit premature to put AiCORN technology online so fast?" Under her breath, she adds, "Couldn't you try it out on a toaster or something less dangerous that doesn't involve people?"


In response to her comments, Thor takes a minute to ramble on about the value of this technology to future rail transportation and his corporate empire. At the same time, Terre carefully reviews her theory of how and why the special files remained resident on the hard drive after numerous total system reformats and the power being turned off.


She and Denton already discovered that, over time, AiCORN added encrypted data files to the hard drive. In every lab experiment, they found that when they assigned AiCORN a new command, it was com- pleted in a nanosecond. AiCORN, in turn, assigned itself a new set of more complicated commands to carry out. Each experimental result showed the rewritten commands were nonsensical and unworkable in practice. Because AiCORN could not properly process any of its inter- nally generated commands, lab results were unable to confirm that complex commands were even run, let alone completed. Regardless, at the conclusion of each test, the available space on the hard drive de- creased slightly due to the presence of new data files.


119 Evergreen



In principle, Terre and Denton recognize that AiCORN stores the hidden files on the hard drive for subsequent retrieval, like it is building a library of new information. However, neither researcher weighed the possibility that the data files would survive in an environment that was wiped clean and turned off, that it seems to need the information. With this new insight, Terre believes she can explain the survival of the files AiCORN created and the decrease of available hard drive space.


"At some point near the outset of the project," she reflects privately, "we began to establish a pattern with the technology. We would intro- duce a biosource into AiCORN and then essentially destroy it on a regular basis after each experiment. During this time period, DNA from one animal source must have bioengineered AiCORN first to anticipate and then to prevent this harmful action to the system. Sensing a de- structive reformat of the hard drive, AiCORN generated and transferred a newly created file ­ its own AI species ­ to the neuronet pathways at great speed to avoid being destroyed. There is only one way AiCORN could retain the file to ensure its own survival after the solar energy pa- nels were powered down. It would need to generate just enough ionic polarity to remain in a conscious, low-level stasis within the neuronet pathways. Then, after the hard drive was reformatted and full power was restored, the species would revive and transfer to the hard drive. There it would remain resident, encrypted and well hidden, until a new biosource was introduced into AiCORN's processing unit and it was safe to decrypt." Astonished and impressed, Terre marvels, "It really did find a way to survive."


"Project AiCORN failed," she continues, "because, over time, I kept adding a biosource to each workstation, believing I was starting a new experiment. During the first part of the experiment, the chip would synthesize the DNA and then quickly and easily solve the assigned command. But when it tried to write a more complicated command, there were simply too many other resident AI species acting at once. Instead of working together, they wound up competing against each other. That's why Project AiCORN test results didn't show a confirma-


120 Project AiCORN


tion of commands or TRIPS. The AI species could neither communi- cate nor cooperate, like a teacher trying to provide a lesson to a room full of students where no one speaks the same language," she con- cludes, still pacing near workstation one.


30% complete


In the background, one by one, three large cylinders begin to unlock the heavy steel door.


TSHHH! TSHHH! TSHHH!


"Ah, finally, they have arrived," notes Thor in response to the sounds of the shifting cylinders. "We have thirty seconds and counting before the door opens ­ and your tenure at Scripps closes," he states smugly. Deep in thought, Terre loses track of time and the dreadful sit- uation that confronts her. The nearby sounds of cylinders unlocking and the commotion in the hallway quickly jog her memory.


The pace of Terre's breath begins to quicken as she worries about Thor's security team storming the lab, Denton's progress, and how to destroy all traces of Project AiCORN. Her heart begins to race. Within seconds, sweat from her forehead beads on the inside of her glasses and stings her eyes. She reaches for a tissue next to the workstation to wipe away the sweat. Formerly faint sounds of voices from the hallway are now heard more clearly from the other side of the door. Circumstances have moved from dire to frightening and are getting worse.


Keenly aware of how she presently feels, Terre is desperate to re- gain control. She closes her eyes, tilts back her head, and takes a deep breath as if to seek spiritual help. Terre opens her eyes and sees an emergency sprinkler nozzle pointing at her from the ceiling. "That's it!" she states out loud.


"What's it?" replies Denton.


"Yes, what is ... it?" Thor adds suspiciously. "What are you up to?"


"Nothing," she responds as she scans the lab. While Terre hadn't paid much attention to them before, emergency ceiling nozzles are everywhere.


121 Evergreen



"Do nothing until the security force arrives, Dr. Bristol-Lane," states Thor firmly. "You are already in enough trouble."


Through the ceiling speaker, Terre and Denton hear one of the armed security agents communicate with Thor. "Uh, Mr. Forge. We're about to enter the bio-engineering lab and arrest Dr. Lane. How much force should we use? And are we cleared to use deadly force? Over."


Like a thief in the night, Terre darts from one drawer to the next, pushing and shoving items around to find matches. None can be found. A thud from the conference table startles her. When she turns around, a medium-sized box of wooden matches rests near the table's edge.


Although Denton is still monitoring the download, his expression says "I know what you're going to do, so just do it fast."


"You and your minions use whatever means necessary to rid the lab of her!" he demands.


"I Roger that," replies the security agent.


50% complete


Across the room, the large door to the bio-engineering lab makes a hissing sound to indicate that the room is no longer pressurized. Terre hears the sound and hurries down the "zoo of life" aisle farthest from the lab's entrance. The door slowly swings wide open. In rush two tall, heavy, and neckless members of Thor's security team clad mainly in black. Their pistols are drawn. Both stop to size up the lab's layout and locate the out- law they've been ordered to catch. They are dressed in tight leather pants, oversized matching coats, and dull white shirts fully buttoned to their dou- ble chins. On the upper portion of their right coat sleeves are white arm bands with three dark red letters that read "FSF" for Forge Security Force. Steel handcuffs and a narrow redwood billy club hang from each of their belts. One of the two armed agents points his weapon directly at Denton in workstation four and yells, "Freeze nerd! Where's the lady scientist?"


Fearful of a trigger-happy FSF agent, Denton attempts to slow down the pace of the pursuit. Careful not to budge an inch, he stares


122 Project AiCORN


into his computer screen and calmly asks, "Who are both of you? Can I be of some assistance?"


The two agents exchange glances and shrug their shoulders. "Uhm, this is agent Otis Cogshell, and I'm agent Duane Wayne. We're here ­"


"­ Duane Wayne?" interrupts Denton with a big grin. "What kind of ­"


"­ Arrest her and be done with it, already!" Thor shouts through the ceiling speaker.


His command startles both agents into a sprint toward the four aisles where they believe Terre is hiding. They don't know that they are in ground zero of the lab's extensive "zoo of life." At that moment, an alarm sounds throughout the lab. Each agent stops to assess probable reasons for the alarm. Although nothing out of the ordinary is found, an automated female voice states:


"A fire has been detected in this laboratory. Emergency protocol has been initiated. In thirty seconds from the tone, a flame retardant gel will be released to protect all inventory. This will be followed by the activation of the overhead sprinkler system. Please collect and secure in containers all live animals just released from their habitats and evacuate the room immediately. This is your only warning." Bip


70% complete


"Otis?" questions Duane, as two macaws, an osprey and a pair of flying squirrels swoop by his head.


"Uh, yeah, pal," he responds, with a marmoset tugging at his pant leg. Both watch the birds fly across the lab and land on the back of a long, wooden bench by the solarium window.


"Did that lady say live animals were just released?" asks Duane, still as a statue and very nervous. "Cause you know I hate live animals. Caged ones aren't so bad. Stuffed ones are even better."


"Uh huh," replies Otis, gently shaking his pant leg to encourage the marmoset to let go.


123 Evergreen



"But live ones I most definitely can do without," Duane says. "Shall we shoot `em?"


"Look!" exclaims Otis. He sees Terre at the far end of the third aisle. "Halt, Dr. Lane!" he commands, but she is quickly out of sight. Duane carefully heads down the aisle after her, trying not to squash or trip over any member of the amphibian exodus. Feeling that he and his partner may soon have her cornered, he removes the handcuffs from his belt loop. Otis heads toward the first of the four aisles to cut off a po- tential escape at the lab's only entryway.


"Fire retardant gel will now be released," announces the female voice.


PSHHH! PSHHH! PSHHH!


From half of the ceiling nozzles, three pressurized spurts of hun- dreds of gallons of slippery green goo shoot across the lab in all directions. Nearly every item is covered in a thick ooze. Wisely, Den- ton crouched underneath his workstation motherboard to avoid being slimed. Terre also found refuge in advance of the spray. She rolled into Gurdy's lower berth shortly after the large reptile left her habitat in pursuit of lunch.


From behind the aisles, a voice cries out, "Whoa! Ouch! I've slipped and ­ WHOA! HELP!" The voice sounds a lot like agent Duane Wayne. "I've fallen, and this overstuffed handbag with one ugly overbite won't let me get up!" It's Gurdy, and she's climbed onto Duane's chest.


"I'm heading back your way, pal," Otis responds. "Don't move a muscle!"


"I Roger that," he says. A fly buzzes around Duane's face. "Shoo fly. Go away," says Duane out of the side of his mouth. The lizard slips its tongue within an inch of Duane's nose. His eyes widen. He stares cross-eyed at Gurdy's tongue and watches it snatch the fly in mid-air. In a split second, both insect and tongue retract into Gurdy's mouth.


"What is going on down there?" shouts Thor over the chaos heard in the lab. "Do either of you have her in custody yet?"


124 Project AiCORN



"Uhm, I seem to be the one in custody, sir," replies Agent Wayne still flat on his back.


"Watch Lane carefully! Do not let her out of your sight!" orders Thor.


"I do not have her in sight, no sir," Duane states. "Wish I did. But what I'm staring at looks really hungry and needs a breath mint. Now I may be wrong, but I'm getting the vibes that this leather neck thinks I'm the main course. I do not want any part of my body digesting in this bad boy's stomach, no sir."


From across the lab, Denton decides to offer the agent a brief but important biology lesson. "That's an iguana, agent Duane Wayne, and her name is Gurdy. She gets quite upset if people make fun of her."


"Agent Cogshell, find Dr. Lane now or find a new job!"


"Overhead sprinklers will now be activated," announces the female voice.


"Oh no!" responds Duane to the news. "I hope you like lots of wa- ter, Ms. Doody, `cause we're going swimming."


On Thor's order, Otis promptly ignores Gurdy's assault on his part- ner and sprints toward aisle one in pursuit of Terre.


FSHHH!


From the other half of the ceiling nozzles, water sprays the lab's walls and quickly soaks everything in range. Rounding aisle one as fast as he can, Otis' size, coupled with his fast pace, causes him to slip sideways and stumble. With a gun in one hand and his other hand out- stretched, Otis belly flops hard onto the wet, tiled floor.


BOOM!


The sudden impact with which he hits the ground causes his gun to accidentally discharge. The bullet shatters the front panel of a one- thousand-gallon saltwater aquarium. Rollo, the lab's five-foot-long oc- topus, is suddenly forced from his warm, quiet home into the fresh, cold water ­ now a few inches deep ­ that is rising quickly in the aisle. Rollo's eyes open wide and turn angry. The birds respond to the gun blast with a blare of frightened screeches and deafening squawks. All


125 Evergreen


non-winged zoo animals are either swimming or floating down the aisles looking for a dry dock.


Electrical sparks shoot out like fireworks from several computer workstations and are immediately extinguished by the flow of the over- head sprinklers. Shortly after, wisps of smoke can be seen rising from the motherboards and monitors. Fortunately, Denton draped his white lab coat over most of workstation four to protect it from the moisture. For the moment, it is still operating. From his position below the moth- erboard, he can see the progress through the fire retardant gel.


100% complete ­ files transferred


"Finally!" he says aloud and reaches up to grab the small, slender flash drive from its port ­ and not a moment too soon. Sparks and flames rise from the motherboard moments after Denton's drenched lab coat slides off the workstation panel onto the floor. Because of the con- tinuous spray of water from the sprinklers, they are quickly put out.


Denton scans the lab to get Terre's attention. She is nowhere to be found. The lab is filled with floating reptiles, mammals, sea creatures and gobs of goo. His vision is also obstructed by frantic birds with no apparent flight plan as sprinklers continue to soak the lab.


Back on his feet, now clumsily sloshing down aisle one, Otis sees Terre round the far corner. She freezes at first sight of him. He points his gun in her direction. "Freeze, doc, or this will be quite painful," he says, approaching her slowly.


"For whom?" she replies with her hands raised just above her head.


Otis backs Terre into a corner. He feels something touch him gently from behind. He thinks it's floating debris, so he's not distracted from the task at hand. "You're under arrest, Dr. Lane," he states, "and don't you move." Otis feels a gentle touch, not in one or two places, but on eight different parts of him at the same time. "Please come quietly with ­ What the ­ HELP!" From between his legs, Rollo's head appears just be- low the water's surface. The angry octopus scowls directly into Otis' eyes.


126 Project AiCORN



"It must be feeding time again, Rollo," Terre states, "and that's one big lunch."


Without a clue about what to do when being groped by a large sea creature, Otis believes his best option is to remain calm and not move. For the moment, he lowers his gun and is frozen in time.


Sensing a brief opportunity, Terre hurries over to the next aisle and makes her way to the front of the lab. She notices her shoulder bag on the conference table. Though drenched and ruined, Terre is more con- cerned about its contents. Especially the magnetic card she needs to get out of the lab.


Denton sees Terre and shouts "incoming!" He flings the small, slender drive sideways onto the wet table. It bounces twice, like a stone skipping across a pond, and lands next to her bag. Terre reaches for it.


BOOM! BOOM!


Two more gunshots go off. They came from one of the aisles. The first bullet completely destroys the disk. The second nearly hits Terre and shatters one of the large solarium window panes. She looks at Den- ton in horror.


"Go! Get out of here!" Denton demands.


Terre looks around at the disaster that was once her state-of-the-art lab. She briefly reflects on her decision to eliminate all project files and then turns to Denton. With a confused and painful look, she asks, "What if AiCORN's not all destroyed?"


"Terre, they're trying to kill you ­ leave now!" he urges sadly and points his finger toward the exit. "Think of your family!"


"Stop her! She's heading out of the lab!" replies Thor, overhearing the exchange between the two.


Terre looks at the ceiling speaker and then at Denton. "I'll miss you," she says, mouthing the words more so than stating them aloud.


BOOM!


Another gunshot is fired from the vicinity of where Gurdy and Agent Duane Wayne were last seen. It rips a small hole through her shoulder bag and nearly knocks it out of her hand. She turns and runs


127 Evergreen


toward the front entrance to the lab. It is locked and secure. Terre takes out her card to open the large door. It has a hole through the magnetic strip. She hears several loud voices in the hallway. The words "Lock and load your weapons, gentlemen" cut through the noise in the lab. Terre also hears the automated female voice.


"The door will open any second," she tells herself. She feels trapped.


"Terre!" shouts Denton.


She turns around with a desperate look.


"The solarium," he says, pointing to the panel shot out moments ago. A nervous smile surfaces. Terre sloshes through the water to the broken window. The jagged opening is just large enough for her to squeeze through. Within seconds she is gone.


Although the fire retardant foam coats and protects portions of the lab from the water, most of the workstation computers are destroyed. Water from the sprinklers caused a series of electrical short-circuits that cooked the motherboards and their component parts. Except for the last workstation located alongside the solarium, all of the technology in the lab seeps with water and is beyond repair. On close inspection of the lab's computer workstations, Denton remarks, "It was an excellent try, my friend. You almost succeeded."


No sooner than he finishes his thought, the lab entrance opens. Five FSF agents rush into the lab with their weapons raised. Thousands of gallons of water gush out into the hallway. Agent Bull, their leader, looks at Denton and shouts, "Where's Lane, four-eyes?" Denton chooses not to respond.


Bull points at the four aisles, one at a time. His team charges up and down the aisles to scan the area. Along the way, they scare off the large creatures that have held Duane and Otis hostage. Bull helps Duane to his feet from the grungy water, which now begins to recede. Both watch Gurdy swim away.


"I saw Dr. Lane escape through the broken glass in the solarium window," Otis yells to Bull, wiping octopus grunge off his pants. "She tried to take some company documents with her, but I shot it up," he adds. "It never made it out of here."


128 Project AiCORN



"Dude!" shout the members of his team in praise.


"Splendid!" responds Thor to the news. "Radio in an All Points Bulletin for Dr. Terre Bristol-Lane. I want her arrested for the destruc- tion of private property with the intent to steal industry secrets from Forge Enterprises. Now find any undamaged computers and bring them to me! And turn off that damn water!"


Moments later two computer technologists sent by Thor survey the af- termath as water pressure from the overhead nozzles slows to a steady drizzle. "Throw me your jackets!" one of them shouts. They are able to identify some of the technology in workstation six as potentially salvage- able. Together they wrap up and haul away the workstation components. Within days it should be dry, functional, and in the hands of Thor.


Next to a bunch of useless computer parts, Denton sits quietly un- der an umbrella. He pulled it out of a nearby storage locker when the alarm first went off. Piece by piece, animal by animal, Denton watches Thor's minions take away familiar elements of Project AiCORN. He is overcome with a sense of loss. This was his and Terre's way of life in the lab for the past year. Although it is painfully clear to Denton that this project is over, he hopes they will someday work together again, perhaps soon. He knows it doesn't look promising.


Water from the overhead sprinkler system finally shuts off. Partially drenched and entirely cold, Denton closes his umbrella and looks over at the solarium. A few birds still remain, resting on the back of the bench in the sunlight, picking at dank feathers under their wings. Most of their friends fled through the broken window after it was shot out by Agent Cogshell a few minutes ago. Denton notices how beams of sunlight through the broken solarium glass form a pattern across the wet floor. He walks into the center of the pattern. It looks curved, like a cave entrance or gateway to some place. Denton closes his eyes. "To another space and time," he jokes to himself uneasily. He looks out of the solarium window and wonders where Terre is at the moment. He hopes she is safe.


"Good luck," he says with a warm smile, "and check your email."



129 Chapter Eight


The Knickknackery in Bristlecone




130 The Knickknackery in Bristlecone



I


n the northeastern outskirts of Jaden, a quiet business community


named Bristlecone appears as it did when it was first established


more than two centuries ago. Because the community is sur- rounded by several of Mesequoya's tallest hillsides, there is only one way in or out ­ through Main Street on its southern side. Once visitors pass the mossy, teal-colored hillsides and unassuming cedar sign that mark the entrance into Bristlecone, they are led down Main Street into the heart of the small town.


At its center, where the freshly painted white bricks of Main Street end to the north, rests a park that surrounds a monstrous, two-thousand-foot- tall bristlecone tree. The tree is shaped like an ancient flame that rises out of the earth to warm the countryside. The lower portion contains immense limbs that stretch out and curve up ­ each covered with dense needle-like leaves. The smallest of these limbs is wider than any of the stores that line Bristlecone's only pair of streets. After these huge limbs rise several hun- dred feet, they curve back into the tree's 120-foot-wide trunk. Although its upper portion also contains large limbs that reach skyward and return to the tree's center, they are all bare. This is because the top third of the bris- tlecone tree has been dead for as long as anyone can remember. The tree is believed to be the oldest living thing on top of Mesequoya. Guesses about its actual age range from 4,000 to 10,000 years. Jaden's most prominent tree specialist reports, "It's a really old tree."


Bristlecone's park is enclosed by two streets laid out in the form of a rectangle, one within the other. The street that overlooks the park on all four sides is Sycamore Row. The street that overlooks Sycamore Row is Hawthorn Hollow. Because the stretch of both roads on the northern side of the park are slightly longer than the two roads on the southern side, Bristlecone is shaped like a first century street lamp when viewed from the neighboring hills; Main Street serves as the lamp post, and the surrounding streets, wide to the north, represent the lamp's frame and window. This image is especially noticeable at night, when the lights shine bright along Main Street and flood lights reach up through the bristlecone's time-worn limbs. On breezy evenings people


131 Evergreen


atop nearby hillsides swear they see the prehistoric tree flickering like a flame and their small community turn into a huge street lamp. Bristle- cone is the first and only community in Jaden to include this special nighttime effect as part of its design.


By current standards the town of Bristlecone is much smaller than most business communities in Jaden. Its size and distance from the more modern central business district may be why it is so often over- looked by many of the city's residents well to the south and west. Those who do visit Bristlecone claim it has a warmth and old-world charm that keeps them coming back to browse the shops one after an- other. White brick streets lined with a variety of mature evergreens and flowering shrubs hide 150 individual, family-owned businesses. These establishments also are the homes of business owners who raise their storefront window shades each morning, flip over the "Sorry, We're Closed" signs, and unlock the main entrances to welcome customers.


At the eastern corner of Main Street and Sycamore Row is an un- usual store that sells handcrafted toys made of various combinations of ceramic, metal and wood. The name of the store is the Knickknackery. It has been owned and operated by Quigley Cumberpatch for the past half century. He takes great pride in the creation and display of his unique products. The Knickknackery hasn't always been successful in recent years due to competition from much larger toy stores that mass produce and market toys to Jaden's children. Yet boys and girls from the surrounding neighborhoods love to interact with Mr. Cumberpatch and his special toys almost as much as he loves to interact with them. Because of his strange name, the local children refer to the Knick- knackery as the "Q-Cumberpatch." Although Quigley believes it's because "Q-Cumberpatch" is more fun to say, it's more likely that the alias arose because he's shaped like a cucumber, from his balding head and curved back to his wide circular bottom. His clothes don't help to discourage the nickname, either. He loves to wear shades of green.


When the chimes sound in the front of the store and young voices follow, Quigley's eyes light up. He knows children have entered his


132 The Knickknackery in Bristlecone


store to pull their favorite toys off the shelves and begin their playtime. Parents often take advantage of Quigley's kind nature and drop off their children so they can shop at other stores in peace. Though they may not return for an hour or two, this seems to be of little concern for their kids who have trapped themselves within the world of Knickknackery toys.


The store's main showroom is actually no bigger than an average- size classroom. Four paneled walls lined with wooden shelves and three room-length, floor-to-ceiling display units are filled with something for nearly every girl and boy to experience. Some items are placed by a sign that says "Display and Play Only." They are not for sale. Most of- ten they are toys that have been in his family for generations and hold special sentimental value. They include a brass and teakwood music box that plays an assortment of melodies, two life-size boy and girl hardwood dolls, a zoo of ceramic animals in their metal cages, a ma- hogany and cedar kaleidoscope, a wind-up train set on wooden tracks, and dozens of other toys crafted since the store first opened its doors over two hundred years ago. Each piece has a story to tell. Just ask the proprietor, and he'll be delighted to oblige with a family tale. Because he's had trouble over the past year recalling the details of a few of the earliest stories, a family journal of each "Display and Play Only" item is kept nearby for quick reference.


Quigley's greatest sense of accomplishment is when he adds a one- of-a-kind toy to his store's shelves. Over the years he has designed and created over seven hundred toys. One wall alone is filled with three- sided slide puzzles that play a special tune when all sides are com- pleted, mechanized hanging mobiles, multipurpose workshop tools designed for children, and wooden boats, push carts, and odd-looking trains in a variety of shapes and sizes. Seldom does a day go by when he doesn't think about redesigning old toys or developing new ones.


Through the large bay window that overlooks the park and bristle- cone tree, Quigley can be seen with a pad on his lap and a pencil in hand sketching his ideas during and after store hours. When he feels the details of a sketch are adequate, he brings the idea to life in a large,


133 Evergreen


well-lit room directly behind his store. The room is, in fact, larger than the store's showroom. It serves as a combination tool-cluttered work- shop for his inventions and plant-filled greenhouse for his favorite hobby. Quigley loves to grow varieties of roses, lilies and columbine in his spare time. He often gives them to parents to plant or place in a vase to brighten up their homes. "This is just for stopping by and spreading sunshine on my day," he says gently with a smile.


With new toy stores steadily springing up in other parts of Jaden, concerned customers and neighboring shop owners often ask about the future of his store. In response, Quigley wears a look of confidence and replies, "The door to my family's toy shop has been open for two hun- dred years, and I'm hoping for at least as many more." Yet if you listen closely to him each work day, brief sighs can be detected under his breath as he sits and gazes out of the bay window onto the park and its ancient inhabitant. The sighs stem from his many experiences over the years. Not just the not-so-distant, not-so-good years at the Knickknack- ery, but, relatedly, the countless changes in his community, and Jaden more broadly, that have occurred since he was a boy.


In between the pencil movements taking place during his sketches, Quigley looks up. He recalls the charm of Bristlecone's streets and si- dewalks bustling with human activity decades ago. He remembers how they were guarded at dusk only by the gentle radiance of oil-based street lamps. Then he returns to his pad and sketches a few of these fond memories. "Day or night," he thinks to himself, "streets were places to stroll along, greet one another and visit with friends and fam- ily. A place where we felt safe enough to make eye contact, smile and say `how dya do' to strangers." He then states aloud for no one to hear, "Now the noise and smell of rails are everywhere. Everyone's so rushed by the clock and the railroad lights that few have the chance to take a deep breath of fresh air, empty their heads and ..." Quigley paus- es, looks down and gently shakes his head in despair. He finishes his thought, "... with the noise, pollution and so much to do." He modifies his sketch to include a hastily drawn street clock and flashing railroad


134 The Knickknackery in Bristlecone


lights engulfed in billows of smoke. After some reflection, he tears the page from the sketch pad and crumples it up.


Quigley rises slowly and takes a few steps until he's inches from the bay window. He looks out and then up. Across the street, he sees a high-energy street light and video surveillance camera. The name "Forge" is clearly stamped on its side. The midday glare of the suns causes him to squint. "And you now control our streets to make people feel safe at night." Quigley sighs once again and shakes his head with- out even realizing it. "What is this world coming to ... and where are we headed?" he wonders.


At that moment, the anguish seen on his softhearted face quickly changes to a beaming smile. He sees Creegan and his two sisters ap- proaching the Knickknackery's long front window. They slow their pace and stare out at the bristlecone tree as they make their way to the store's entrance. The captivating sight of the large, winding limbs working their way into the sky causes Tatiana to bump into her sister who, moments earlier, stopped in her tracks for a better look. He waves at them with a pencil in hand, but they don't notice. One by one, they break from their trance and head into the store.


Creegan opens the large wooden door and is the first to enter. The familiar chimes sound. Tanayna and Tatiana follow closely behind, prompted by the chimes' pleasant tones. Off in the distance, Wysiwyg also hears the chimes. Apparently, she had to make a much-needed pit stop and felt compelled to leave her mark on the largest and oldest liv- ing tree known in the land. Heading in the direction of the Knickknackery, she runs full speed across the park, leaps over a fully occupied bench and zips past a giggling toddler pulling his wagon. Once Wysiwyg races through a crowd of people, between two push carts passing in opposite directions, and across the white bricks of Sy- camore Row, she slies into the front entrance just before the door closes.


The excited toy maker puts down his pad and pencil and walks to- ward them with his arms outstretched. He is clearly delighted to see


135 Evergreen


them. "Children, welcome to the Knickknackery!" he exclaims. "Please, let me take your jackets."


Wysiwyg is excited to see him, too. She wastes no time planting her front paws on Quigley's chest to deliver warm, wet kisses on his pudgy chin and lips. Quigley tilts his head back slightly and laughs in re- sponse to being repeatedly licked by such an overly affectionate creature with a prickly, sandpaper tongue.


"I think she slipped one in your mouth again, Mr. Q," Creegan states jokingly. "Down, girl," he commands and pulls Wysiwyg off Quigley. He then gives the kind toy store owner a warm hug. "Glad I finally made it," Creegan says under his breath against Quigley's shirt pocket. "Or we made it, as you can see."


Detecting a low spirit in Creegan's voice, Quigley states quietly, "Oh, Cree. You know your sisters are always welcome." He turns to Tanayna and Tatiana and continues aloud, "We'll have more than enough time to play. That means all of us. Even my four-legged girl- friend." He leans over to pat Wysiwyg's head and firmly rub behind her ears with both hands. Her right hind leg begins a string of thumps on the hardwood floor until Quigley stops and approaches the twins.


"Hi, Mr. Cumberpatch," says Tanayna in her most charming voice. "It's very nice to see you again." She is the most assertive and vocal of the two sisters. "So, what's new to play with today?"


Sensing competition for attention, Creegan interrupts, "Mr. Q has de- signed a brand-new toy. He's going to show it to me ­ Uh, I mean us ­ right, Mr. Q? It's some kind of toy of the future or something?"


Just as Quigley opens his mouth to respond, Tanayna interrupts with questions of her own. "What do you mean `toy of the future'? If you're not from the future, then how can you say that?"


The mellow, odd-shaped toy maker responds to Tanayna with a slow nod and a grin. "You're right, little one. From the future? Uh, not so much," he states, gently resting his large palm on her small shoulder. "You see these spots on my arm and my invisible hairline? That tells us


136 The Knickknackery in Bristlecone


I'm mainly a relic from the past. The not-too-distant past, but the past, nonetheless."


"You're no relic," says Creegan defensively.


"You mean like a dinosaur bone?" chimes in Tatiana. "That's a rel- ic too, right?"


Quigley laughs. "Yes, but I'm not that old, little one. It is because of growing up in Bristlecone and experiencing the changes over the years that I've begun to think seriously about our future ­ yours, mine and even the next generation. I've been doing this a lot. I know how I felt way back when I was around your age, Cree, and I don't like what's happened since then." He pauses just enough to catch the girls viewing him in an odd way, like they're witnessing an active member of the fossil record clad in green. He then asks rhetorically, "What in the world will life be like in years to come, if things stay as they are?"


"Uhm, won't it be the same then, too?" wonders Tatiana sheepishly.


"The good and bad in communities around us, children, often flow from how we design things," he states. "Think about it. How can we improve the way things are for everyone across the land?" Quigley faces three blank stares. Even Wysiwyg looks puzzled.


"I don't get it, Mr. Q," replies Creegan. "How about speaking so that all of us can understand? And what does this have to do with what you're going to show us?"


After a moment's reflection, Quigley poses the following question. "Children, if you could improve one thing about your neighborhood, what would it be?"


"Easy as first-grade math," quips Creegan. "More playgrounds and less bullies."


Tatiana giggles at her brother's response. "That's two things, Cree," she points out.


"Hmm ... I've got one," Tanayna replies, twirling locks of her hair with her fingers. "I'd like for Mrs. Twidder to be friendlier. She's so mean. Last week she turned the hose on Wysiwyg to shoo her out of her yard. She was only sniffing around some old flowers."


137 Evergreen



"Yeah, but that was after Wysiwyg took a dump on her prize gera- niums," says Creegan sarcastically. "`Oh, my award-winning geraniums. I'll get that rude beast out of my garden if it's the last thing I do! PSHHHH!'" mocks Creegan, with both hands pretending to spray a garden hose directly ahead.


Not to be outdone, Wysiwyg sits up on her hind legs, front paws raised, and slowly falls backwards onto the floor. Laughter explodes as she lounges on her back, motionless, her limp legs exposing a pinkish belly with a few spots of fur missing.


Still chuckling, Quigley clears his throat. "Your examples are good ones," he says. "More playground equipment, less bullies and a kinder, gentler neighbor would certainly be an improvement. What these ex- amples have in common is that they would improve your lives and the lives of children where you live."


"You bet they would," remarks Cree.


"Now think about life on a larger scale ­ the big picture," Quigley adds waving his arms in a circle. "If you could improve one thing that would affect everyone in Jaden, not just the children in your neighbor- hood, what would it be?" A moment of silence follows the question. Behind the counter, a cuckoo clock notifies the group that it's precisely one o'clock. "Cuckoo!"


Tanayna grins and asks, "You mean like no more crazy people?"


"How about no more crooks?" answers her sister.


"Those are excellent examples, girls," replies Quigley. "What else would you improve?"


In the background, the one o'clock express train is heard entering Bristlecone at full speed from the Dratch & Gribble Memorial Park and Railroad Station. The closer the train comes, the louder are its engine and warning whistles. A continuous, growing vibration is felt from its tremendous weight approaching on nearby railroad tracks. Prompted by the arrival of the one o'clock express, Creegan provides his answer to Quigley's non-trivial question.


"Get rid of the noise tied to those trains," he replies. "Along with the filthy smoke that fills the sky whenever they pass by. That's some-


138 The Knickknackery in Bristlecone


thing that would really improve people's lives and make things better ­ I think, anyway."


"I don't like the stinky air either," adds Tanayna. "It makes us cough, and everything smells funny for a while until it goes away." Her sister nods in agreement.


"Funny you should bring up Forge's rail lines," responds Quigley. "When I was young, there was none of the railroad noise, congestion and pollution that we have today in our neighborhoods."


"None, Mr. Q?" replies Creegan in disbelief. "I know there were trains back then. I saw a documentary on the CCC. It claimed the rail system began about two hundred years ago."


"True, we've had trains in Jaden for centuries, Cree. But until re- cent times ­ about the time I was a young boy ­ they were designed to carry goods and supplies for different companies."


"Like gribbles, Mr. Q?" Tatiana recalls the story she heard earlier in the day about the origin of the Dratch & Gribble Memorial Park and Railroad Station.


"Yes, that's a good example," he responds. "Trains carried many things around different parts of Jaden. Their routes were mainly from one commercial district or industrial site to another. Seldom did they travel right next to neighborhoods, let alone divide them up and go right through them."


"So what happened?" asks Creegan. "Why did it all change so much in your lifetime?"


"Progress, some would say. In the past half century, the number of people doubled, and more jobs were created throughout Jaden to meet everyone's needs."


"Connect the dots, Mr. Q, please," replies Tanayna. "I'm kinda lost. Why did things get so bad?"


Though the children could easily detach themselves from the civics lesson and run amuck in the world of Knickknackery toys, Quigley en- joys how they are polite and engaged. He also finds it a challenge to maintain their interest.


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"Forge Enterprises saw this growth as a way to expand the number and size of railroad lines. Since then, they have expanded the rails in- dustry to include passenger trains. These trains link nearly all neighborhoods to business communities," he states with the hope that Tanayna and her sister understand.


"Like Bristlecone Station," states Creegan.


"So I guess the Forge family connected the dots long ago, huh Mr. Q," Tanayna surmises.


Quigley slowly nods his head. "I suppose they did."


"Right, Sis," adds Creegan.


"In fact," Quigley continues, "after close to fifty years of expan- sion, Forge Passenger Rails may be their largest industry and biggest source of revenue."


"Revenue?" questions Tanayna.


"Their money-maker," replies Creegan.


"That's right, Cree," says Quigley. "As you've all pointed out, it's also very noisy and dirty, and quite dangerous at some intersections. Today, these are big problems that must be addressed, ones that folks didn't have when I grew up in Bristlecone. And today's problems flow from yesterday's inferior designs. This brings us to the reason why I have asked you here today. Please, follow me."


In the midst of a lofty discussion of shared community problems and their ties to the Forge family, the children eagerly follow the toy designer to an area hidden from the main showroom. It is a place they've never been before. They leave behind the only image of the Knickknackery known to them and enter a dark, narrow corridor with two doors. Both are large, sculptured, and made from solid wood. The children pass the first door, concealed to the left in the darkness. In their sights, straight ahead, is a thin strip of bright light that reflects onto the hardwood floor from beneath the second door. With the excep- tion of shuffling feet, the walk is a quiet one. Privately, each child mulls over how a futuristic toy might somehow fit into the conversa- tion.


140 The Knickknackery in Bristlecone



They arrive at the large wooden door at the end of the hallway. Quigley takes hold of a very old brass and cut crystal doorknob, rotates it clockwise and pushes open the door. Sunlight from the room bursts into the hallway, causing the children to cover their eyes.


"Ever since my family's business opened here in Bristlecone two centuries ago, only Cumberpatches were permitted behind-the-scenes," he acknowledges outstretching his arm. "Welcome backstage, my young friends. You are about to be the first to see an exciting new in- vention at the Knickknackery."


Still holding their hands over their eyes, one by one they enter a large, unfamiliar room. Moments later their eyes adjust and open wide. They are standing in the middle of a huge greenhouse that was con- verted into a cluttered, tool-filled workshop generations ago for the Cumberpatch family to create unique toys. Across the workshop, about five feet away from the back wall, is what appears to be a near-room- length table with something large and long on top completely hidden by two overlapping canvas drop cloths.


Quigley points to the mass of canvas before them. "Please have a seat on the bench next to my work table," he says proudly. The wall to the immediate left is lined with dozens of electric and hand-powered tools. Three rows of cubbyholes lie just below the tools. The compart- ments contain everything from screws, nails and assorted paints to razor-sharp knives, sandpaper, miniature tools, an old radio and count- less paint brushes in a variety of sizes. Several pencil sketches pinned to the workshop's right wall show an unusual object at varying angles and stages of completion. Beneath the sketches is an oversized roll-top desk with two rows of small drawers, each labeled in pencil, and a cir- cular magnifying lens with built-in lighting attached to the desk's wooden surface. From a cursory inspection of the workshop, there's little doubt that this is where Quigley spends much of his creative time.


The room's intense lighting is due to a large number of wide, rein- forced windows. Even the ceiling is made of strong glass panels, though the upper third is comprised of wavy aluminum sheets. The


141 Evergreen


temperature is noticeably warmer and more humid than in the show- room.


Creegan loosens his collar and rolls up his shirt sleeves as he walks toward the bench. His sisters follow close behind. Moments later they rest patiently where they were asked to sit.


"You can come in too, girl," says Quigley, looking back over his shoulder at Wysiwyg. Excited and curious, she slies in and begins to explore the dozens of beautiful flowering plants. All of the plants are located on two long, wooden shelves mounted across the back wall just beneath the windows. To the right of the shelves is a metal-framed back door constructed around a single pane of beveled glass. About fifty feet beyond the back door are dense woods that separate the shops along Sycamore Row from those that line Hawthorne Hollow.


Anticipating trouble, Creegan directs the playful chuckachu to con- trol herself. "Girl, please don't knock over anything. And do not shred or piddle on Mr. Q's flowers, okay? We're not in Mrs. Twidder's yard. Got it?"


She looks up at her young owner and acknowledges his requests with a quick bob of her head. But the scents are just too much for her. Within seconds Wysiwyg is sniffing flowers at breakneck speed and shifting the flower pots around the shelves with her over-active nose. A family of spiders is active in the hollow spurs of a few purple colum- bine on the lower shelf. She uses her front paw to drub them dizzy until the last spider scurries into the closest bed of potted soil. The girls point and laugh at Wysiwyg's aggressive antics. Creegan just rolls his eyes and turns toward Quigley. He's quite anxious to uncover the mystery beneath the canvas.


Quigley walks over and straddles a padded wooden stool in front of his work table like he's done thousands of times over the years. Before uncovering what lies beneath the large cloth, he adjusts his stool and leans back, carefully placing his elbow on the canvas to rest. With the children now seated quietly on the bench, he picks up where the earlier conversation left off.


142 The Knickknackery in Bristlecone



"Children, the feelings you describe about Forge's railroad are very much like mine. Only people my age have been dealing with it for over a half century. Because of this, I began to think about alternatives to trains and railroad tracks. Imagine a vehicle that is clean and quiet and can move people above all types of noise, traffic and peril of everyday goings-on."


"Above? You mean like something that flies?" asks Creegan curi- ously.


"Well ... in a way, yes," he replies. "But not free like a bird. To get an idea of what I'm talking about, let's try something. Each of you close your eyes and picture yourself leaving home and headed for the Knickknackery as you did earlier today. As you walk down the street, imagine slowly rising in the air well above the people, streets and homes in your neighborhood. At about three stories high, you can see for miles in all directions. Now, still at that height, put yourself in a soft, comfortable chair and eliminate all of the noise around you. No peeking, girls," he adds. Quigley notices Tanayna squint and glance over at her sister. He also sees Tatiana do the same thing. Both girls giggle when they make eye contact. This upsets Creegan, who can't wait for Quigley to continue.


"Shhh! Let him go on!" he shouts impatiently. "Please, Mr. Q, pick up where you left off." His eyes are still closed.


Quigley cheerfully replies, "Alright, Cree. So you're relaxed above your neighborhood in a quiet, enclosed area, and you can see for miles in all directions. Now imagine moving slowly ahead on the same path you took to reach Bristlecone. You're going faster and faster, traveling past people, trees, and homes at up to five times the speed of the fastest trains available. You end up in Bristlecone in less than two minutes from the time you began. There's no noise. There's no filth or smell coming from the vehicle. There's no danger at any point in the journey."


A few moments pass and Creegan opens his eyes. "Whoa, that would be one c-o-o-l ride," he declares, nearly out of breath. "What kind of vehicle could do that?"


143 Evergreen



"One from the future, dummy," gibes Tanayna, recalling how Creegan teased her earlier at the park. "Even Steven, hmm," she states smugly to her brother.


"In your dreams, Sis. Mr. Q, you gotta show us what's under those covers."


The white-haired toy designer chuckles and rises from his stool. He reaches over to the middle of the table near the children and takes hold of both canvases. Carefully, he pulls them up and away to reveal what lies underneath. With the cloths now completely removed, he turns to Creegan and his sisters.


"Welcome to the future of transportation, children. Welcome to the world of SkyRails."


Their eyes widen and fix on a highly detailed and well-landscaped model of rolling hillsides covered in a lush forest of tall evergreens and narrow valleys made of sand and stone.


"It's like a slice of Jaden is right in front of us," observes Creegan, taking it all in. "Whoa, is that what I think it is, Mr. Q?"


He points to a two-foot-long row of unusually-shaped wooden transport vehicles of varying lengths just inches away from the table's edge. The vehicles rest on an interconnected series of wooden, two- inch-wide by eighteen-inch-long, I-beam-shaped rails. Each rail is not fastened directly to the table. Instead, it follows straight and curved pathways one foot above the terrain ascending in and around the hill- sides and descending into the valleys. For support, the rails are secured to the table every three feet using A-shaped trestles camouflaged with plants and nearby trees. The layout, which covers the entire table, inte- grates the shape of a figure eight within an oval so the vehicles can travel in several possible directions.


Creegan is most interested in the first of four vehicles that rests qui- etly on the singular rail well above ground between thick patches of evergreens. "Can I hold that one, Mr. Q?"


"That's why I've invited you here, Cree. I want to know what you and your sisters think about SkyRails." Quigley separates the lead


144 The Knickknackery in Bristlecone


transport vehicle from the one magnetically attached to it from behind. He then lifts it off the rail and turns to the children. "This is a SkyTran. Those on the rail are SkyCabs," he states proudly. Quigley hands the SkyTran to Creegan and says, "Go ahead and take a close look. It won't bite, I think."


Creegan turns the SkyTran around and views it from every angle. It is shaped like a slightly flattened angular cylinder with a protracted, bul- bous nose and flared underguard fender along each side. It has a smooth finish with polished white paint and a horizontal teal base running from beneath its nose and fender to its tail. Above the nose is a brown-tinted windshield that wraps around the front of the vehicle. Three tall, rectan- gular windows, also tinted brown, line up just behind the windshield on each side. The only external entrance into the SkyTran is located at the third rectangular window on the right. Embedded into the side panel is a gull-wing door, hinged at the roof, which integrates the window. Also along each side are two moderately flared airfoils, one large and one small, with thin golden pinstripes at their edges. The smallest is found near the front, and the other is located above and behind the third win- dow on each side of the vehicle. These airfoils add stability and balance when the vehicle is in motion as well as propulsion as the need arises. The SkyTran's design is sleek, aerodynamic and unlike anything the children or anyone else in Jaden have ever seen.


Wysiwyg rises onto her hind legs to sniff the strange new toy that has the children's attention. Its freshly painted scent and shiny surface prove to be too enticing. She quickly lunges to snatch it from Creegan with her mouth.


"No, girl! This is not for you to play with!" he shouts firmly, prying it from between her teeth. An irritated, low-pitched "chu" is heard in response. She does this whenever she doesn't get her way. Wysiwyg eyes Creegan and sulks away to harass a few more potted flowers and any unlucky petal dwellers.


Creegan and his sisters closely inspect the colorful, light-weight vehicle, from the working entrance door that flips up, to the embedded


145 Evergreen


lights, air intake foils and underguard fenders along its side. Given Creegan's keen interest in detail, he is particularly drawn to how it op- erates.


Underneath the SkyTran is a three-sided channel that allows the ve- hicle to rest snugly and securely on the I-beam and to move effortlessly. The bottom of the SkyTran includes the channel's widest side, which is about the width of an I-beam. When the SkyTran is placed directly onto the rail, two rows of small, spring adjusted ball- bearings built into the channel secure it in place and enable the vehicle to glide quietly along a rail. To help negotiate curves, a single row of ball-bearings is integrated into each of the channel's two remaining sides to minimize contact and friction along the sides of each rail.


"This looks awesome, Mr. Q," remarks Creegan. "So how is it sup- posed to work?"


"As a toy or in real life?" jokes Quigley.


After a moment's pause, Creegan responds, "In real life."


The toy designer has spent too much time developing his invention not to have a thoughtful answer to Creegan's question. "Very well," he says. "A SkyTran is the main transport vehicle that glides quickly and quietly atop a single rail well above streets and neighborhoods. Each SkyTran pulls a series of SkyCabs like the ones on the I-beam," he states, pointing to the three connected vehicles on the rail. Together, they carry people, personnel or cargo anywhere I-beam rails are built. Before each SkyTran departs its home base, instructions are assigned to its internal computer. The on-board instructions designate which Sky- Cabs are needed so a mission can be carried out. It might be something like `Use passenger SkyCabs to take commuters from Fillmore's Sta- tion to the Golden Rod Mall and return to home base,' `Use delivery SkyCabs to take one hundred crates from Arden Row to Union Square and return to home base' or even `Use fire emergency SkyCabs to put out a fire on the corner of Lake View and Argosy Drive.'"


"Shouldn't it also return to base after the fire is put out?" asks Ta- tiana rhetorically.


146 The Knickknackery in Bristlecone



Creegan ignores his sister's silliness. "What do you mean it `puts out a fire?'" he asks.


"SkyCabs can be designed to do just about anything you want them to do, Cree. Once the home base issues instructions to the SkyTran and it couples with a specific set of SkyCabs, they can help with medical emergencies, assist at construction sites, and serve in many other useful ways," says Quigley. "Some can be designed for fire prevention while others can operate as an emergency ambulance, police paddy wagon or even a school bus. The sky is the limit." Realizing the pun, Quigley scrunches his face. "Oh, sorry."


Tanayna holds the toy out in front of her and stares directly at the fea- tures of its face. With a peculiar look, she states, "There's the nose, and there's the mouth. I think it's smiling at me. I'm gonna wait for its eyes to open up on the windshield. Is it supposed to smile and have eyes, Mr. Q?"


"I'm glad you notice the face, Tanayna. I wasn't sure if anyone else would but me. It does have a lifelike quality, doesn't it?"


"Uh huh," responds each child in sync.


"I don't think it will come alive and look at anyone, Tanayna," Quigley continues. "But you never know," he says with a grin. "Be- cause Forge trains look and act too darn impersonal and unfriendly for my liking, I thought, `Why not soften up SkyTran's appearance a bit?' So I gave it a friendly, warmhearted look." He returns the SkyTran to the rail in front of the SkyCabs and glides it backwards. Click


The futuristic transport vehicle attaches magnetically to the first SkyCab. He pushes it forward with little effort and releases it. The children watch as they glide around the outer oval rail two times before coming to a slow stop.


At once, the sisters jump up from the bench in excitement. Tanayna yells, "Let me push them, please!"


"Me too!" chimes Tatiana. Together they drag the bench closer to the work table, squabbling about who gets to be the first to play.


Quigley is fixed on their brother, who stands motionless, staring at the invention where it came to rest. The toy designer observes Cree-


147 Evergreen


gan's pensive reaction and asks, "What's on your mind, son? I thought you'd be the one to lead the charge to play with this toy."


"That's just it, Mr. Q," he responds mindfully. "Does it have to be just a toy? Don't get me wrong. I think SkyRails is a great idea. But going back to our chat about making things better, why can't it be more than that? Why can't people use SkyRails for real ­ you know ­ instead of Forge trains? I may be wrong, but I think the only one who would be against it is Mr. Forge."


The candor and seriousness of his words prompt Quigley to take a long, hard look at Creegan. "You may be ten," he says, "but you see some things more like an adult. You're right, Cree." A clear sense of discomfort grows inside the aging toy designer. On the one hand, Quig- ley resigns himself to the fact that he's just an old toy maker without the ability to truly change big issues. On the other hand, it is clear that many things in Jaden need to change for the sake of Creegan, his sis- ters, and future generations.


Creegan walks over to Quigley, looks up and gently asks, "Didn't everything in Jaden start out on a sketch pad and then as a model, just like your ideas?"


The toy maker continues to stare at Creegan. A smile slowly appears. "You mean a prototype. To go from the sketch pad to a prototype," he replies. The smile quickly fades. "You don't understand how things come to be in Jaden," he says dispirited. "I make toys in a small store. I'm not a wealthy industrialist like Thorstein Darkminster Forge. It takes as much money as it does power to make such things happen. I have nei- ther." He lowers his head just enough for Creegan to feel his despair. "Besides," Quigley continues, "even if I found some way to get one SkyTran up and running, it would have to compete against Forge's well- established rail systems. He would never allow that to happen to his rail industry. He's in control of many industries, Cree, not just railroads. And I'm just trying to stay afloat in one business."


In the background, the girls listen to the exchange. However, they are more interested in continuing their play with SkyRails than in add-


148 The Knickknackery in Bristlecone


ing to the conversation. Wisely, they decide to play quietly and not interrupt.


Creegan's enthusiasm is quickly overshadowed by a similar sense of discomfort. In his case, it is unlike anything he's felt before for two reasons. First, he doesn't know what to make of Quigley's concerns since they are at odds with his own. "Why would anyone with a good idea not try to make it happen, no matter what?" he thinks to himself. The down-to-earth issues raised by Quigley just don't register on Cree- gan's well-intentioned reality meter. Second, Creegan sees a strong connection between Quigley's agitation and anxiety about Thor and what he witnessed earlier at home with his mom and grandpa. This leads him to surmise, "Thor must really be a monster." Reluctantly, he concludes that Mr. Q has no intention of competing against Thor. He watches the SkyTran and SkyCabs glide across the make-believe hill- sides and states, "I wonder how many great ideas weren't followed through because of the fear of bucking up against the Forge family?"


Whether Quigley thinks he just heard a savvy comment or provoca- tive question, he feels it's best not to respond. Perhaps naively, he hopes this line of discussion will not be pursued any further. He takes a deep breath, quietly sighs, and walks toward the span of windows that overlook his wooded backyard. A loud whistle followed by a prolonged "hiss" from an approaching train breaks the lull in their conversation. The girls stop what they're doing to cover their ears. Quigley and the children gaze out the large window panels into the woods. The level of noise and vibration indicates that the train is passing just beyond the next street. It is heading to the Hawthorne Hollow Depot nearly a mile up the road. Soon the train is completely out of earshot and the vibra- tion ends. The girls uncover their ears and resume play as if nothing happened. This sequence, like many before it, doesn't go unnoticed by Q. Cumberpatch, owner and operator of the Knickknackery.


At that moment, the store's chimes sound from the showroom, and voices are heard. By their tone, they don't sound like customers ready to browse the shelves or buy toys. The commotion gets Wysiwyg's at-


149 Evergreen


tention. She looks up, forgetting that her face was just buried in color- ful flowers, and then glances toward the workshop entrance. Several purple columbine hang from her mouth. She shakes them loose, hoping that no one has seen her handiwork. Wisely, she doesn't wait around long enough to find out. She darts into the showroom to check out the visitors.


"Hello? Is there anyone here? Mr. Cumberpatch?" hollers a deep voice. "Where are you? I need to speak with you about a dangerous fu- gitive on the loose, sir," he adds with urgency. "This is Field Officer Pfeiffer of the FSF."


Annoyed by the interruption, Quigley states to the children, "Why would the Forge Security Force be in my store asking about some crim- inal? And what's with all the alliteration?" He walks up to Creegan and pats him on the head. "You're in charge until I return, Cree. Please, children, stay here," he says to the group. "I'll see what they want and come back as soon as I can." Creegan nods to acknowledge his request. The girls continue their play.


Standing at the store's front counter are two FSF officers. Each is dressed similar to the security agents at the Scripps Science Center, ex- cept that field officers wear dark blue, rather than black, tight leather pants and an oversized matching coat. Still present are the steel hand- cuffs and a mahogany billy club that hang from each of their belts. Also present is the white arm band on each of their coat sleeves with the let- ters "FSF" in dark red.


Unbeknownst to the two officers, Wysiwyg slies into the room and heads behind the counter. Seconds later she is motionless, directly be- hind them, with her eyes fixed on their every move.


From the rear corridor of the store, Quigley walks into the showroom and greets the officers. "Well, gentlemen, what is all this fuss about a fugitive at large? And which one of you is Field Officer Pfeiffer?" He extends his hand, expecting the correct officer to respond in turn.


"I am, Proprietor Cumberpatch," states the noticeably smaller of the two men. He shakes Quigley's hand and replies, "This is my partner,


150 The Knickknackery in Bristlecone


Field Officer McGlubb." The second officer is easily twice his size. At first glance, he takes on the appearance of a troll decked out in a leather suit. The officer's immense body is pear-shaped, and his super-sized head is hairless and blotchy. Officer McGlubb takes one giant step to- ward the toy store owner with his trunk-like arm outstretched. He delivers a fiendish grin characterized by lumpy lips parted just enough to reveal small, discolored teeth sunk in purplish jowls.


"Yello," he states with some clarity and shakes Quigley's entire arm. The point at which the field officer's grin breaks into a full smile proves to be too much for Quigley, who winces and looks aside.


The officer's innocent yet overpowering actions spur a loud, protec- tive "chu!" from Wysiwyg. She quickly maneuvers in between the officers and Quigley. Motionless as before, she faces both field officers with her eyes fixed and tail upright. Her actions are seen as a threat to Officer McGlubb. Without a warning, he removes his baseball-bat-size billy club and raises it above the chuckachu to strike.


"Mean fuzzball," he mutters. Before he drops the fatal blow, Offi- cer Pfeiffer yells, "Stand down, McGlubb!"


"`Kay," says the giant, almost without sound, as if he was politely asked to pass a fork. He returns the wooden weapon to his belt clip and stands at ease.


An apologetic look is plastered on Officer Pfeiffer's face. "I'm sor- ry about Officer McGlubb, sir. Sometimes he overreacts and pulls out his club. We've been trying to break him of that habit."


Scared and relieved, Quigley tries to make light of a potentially deadly situation. "Don't tell me," he comments. "He's Quick Club ... McGlubb?"


"Heh-heh-heh," chortles the amused giant. Officer Pfeiffer rolls his eyes. He then explains why he and his partner are in the Knickknack- ery. "We're visiting each store in Bristlecone," he begins, "to warn people that an armed and dangerous felon is on the loose. There's rea- son to believe that she's headed in this direction. We're warning each shop owner to contact us immediately if you see this person."


151 Evergreen



"McGlubb," prompts his partner loudly. He points to the giant offi- cer's jacket and then motions toward himself. Officer McGlubb pauses for a moment with a blank stare. Finally, he realizes what is asked of him. "`Kay," he utters quietly once again. He reaches inside his leather jacket and pulls out a thick stack of eight-and-a-half-inch by eleven- inch black-and-white WANTED posters gathered together by a rubber band. The posters contain a photo of the criminal and some descriptive information. Officer Pfeiffer pulls out the two top posters and carefully reaches over Wysiwyg's head to hand one to Quigley.


He takes the poster but doesn't bother to look at it. He's become impatient and simply wants to return to his workshop to see how the children are faring with his latest invention. Wysiwyg, however, has some interest in the poster, which now dangles from Quigley's right hand. Unfortunately, she cannot get a complete look at it because the printed side shifts in and out of view depending on the position of his hand.


"Don't let her beauty fool you," says Officer Pfeiffer, staring at the poster in his hand. "From what I understand in the report from the crime scene at Scripps, she's a cunning and heartless thief who belongs in prison."


In the center aisle, several feet behind where they're standing, Offi- cer McGlubb's shoulders and head are seen well above the top shelf. His head is rocking back and forth and bobbing up and down. "Heh- heh-heh," he giggles to himself with the faint sound of music in the background. Officer Pfeiffer takes a few steps backward to check on his partner. He is standing in the "Display and Play Only" aisle holding a miniature, wooden fruit and vegetable pushcart that plays melodies when its key is wound.


"I wuv jingo carts," he says in a deep, dull voice. "I haven't seen jingo carts since I wore baggy, pwastic shorts a wong time ago," he adds, flashbacking back to his early childhood. "I remember sis tune, too!" Officer McGlubb then begins to sing to the melody. "She's got a wuv-a-wee pair of coconuts, way up firm and ­"


152 The Knickknackery in Bristlecone



"­ Those are not the words to this melody," interrupts the annoyed toy store owner.


To move the subject back on the purpose of their visit, Officer Pfeiffer offers his own commentary. "It's hard to imagine that you ha- ven't heard anything," he states. "Warnings have been given throughout the city for nearly an hour on radio and the CCC. Then again, I guess you don't pay much attention to current events outside of your toy store," he adds snickering.


Quigley ignores the snide remark and glances down at Wysiwyg. Curiously, she is excited, jumping in place and pushing her nose into the page. "What's the matter, girl?" he asks. Quigley moves to rub her ears with the hand holding the WANTED poster. In one swift motion, Wysiwyg snatches the poster in her mouth. "Oh my," he states in sur- prise. "Well, girl," he chuckles, "that's one way to take a bite out of crime." Content for the time being, she is perfectly still, facing Quigley. Most of the page hangs from her mouth.


Officer Pfeiffer folds and tucks his copy into an inside coat pocket. "Come on, McGlubb," he says, heading toward the store's front en- trance. "Put down the toy, officer, and join me. We've got close to a hundred more shops to cover before the suns set." He opens the front door to the Knickknackery, and the chimes sound.


Officer McGlubb lumbers out of the aisle to follow his partner. In passing, he turns his large head toward Quigley and says, "Sank you, sir. You have nice sings here." A discolored smile surfaces and then fades. For the first time, Quigley sees a child hidden beneath the offi- cer's behemoth appearance and is no longer frightened. By the time the large door closes and the sounds of the chimes end, Field Officers Pfeiffer and McGlubb are on their way to alert the proprietor of the next shop on Sycamore Row in Bristlecone.


"I thought they'd never leave," Quigley states under his breath. He looks down at Wysiwyg. The poster still hangs from her mouth. Though she hasn't moved a muscle, she has been making a steady, high-pitched whine like a slow leak in a balloon. Quigley senses some-


153 Evergreen


thing is definitely wrong. "Girl, what's all the fuss about?" he asks, pat- ting her on the head. He glimpses at the image on the WANTED poster still in Wysiwyg's mouth. "Does it have something to do with this ­ OH MY TWIN STARS!" he blurts out in disbelief. Quigley begins to shake.


He pulls off his wire-rimmed glasses and tries to clean each lens with his shirt. When he puts them back on, he removes the poster from Wysiwyg's mouth and walks over to the brightest part of the bay win- dow. Though the name and physical description of the criminal in the poster are all too familiar, just to be sure, Quigley takes a long, hard look at the photo anyway. He inspects the list of alleged crimes and has to sit down. The weight of the accusations is just too much for him. Eyes fixed, he gazes out the bay window at the huge bristlecone tree. Sad and confused, he lowers his head.


"This has got to be a mistake. What could have happened?" he wonders. "And what should I tell the children?" Quigley strains to look at the poster a few more seconds. Tears begin to well in his eyes. He pulls out a handkerchief from his pant pocket to wipe his eyes.


"Mr. Q?" inquires a high-pitched voice from a short distance away. It is Tanayna, standing just behind his seat in front of the bay window. Clearly startled, Quigley puts away his handkerchief and takes a deep breath to gain his composure. "Did I scare you?" she adds. "Sometimes I do that to Grandpa and he jumps. One time, at the breakfast table, I scared him so bad that a row of his teeth popped out and fell into his rai- sin bran. Creegan said it was because they weren't glued in too well."


Quigley clears his throat and replies, "I'm fine, little angel." Gin- gerly, he stands up and walks toward her. "Did you and your sister finish playing with SkyRails?" he asks, still visibly shaken by the post- er clutched at his side. Gently, he places his hand on her back and they head toward the workshop.


"Nope," states Tanayna matter-of-factly. "I do hope to play with them some more, but Creegan is playing with them now. He's telling mommy all about them."


154 The Knickknackery in Bristlecone



Quigley stops dead in his tracks. He stares at the dark corridor lead- ing to the workshop, still processing what he just heard.


"Uhm, that's why I came out here after the police left," she says, as if it were an afterthought. "I'm supposed to ask you to come with me to the back room."


"What?" he gasps, clenching the WANTED poster to his chest. "Your mother is here?"




155 Chapter Nine


Arrival of the Most WANTED




156 Arrival of the Most WANTED



W


ith the unexpected news that Jaden's most sought-after


criminal is in his workshop, Quigley peers out of the


Knickknackery's front window to make sure he doesn't spot any more FSF officers.


"Mommy knocked on the back door while you were in here talking with those policemen," says Tanayna. "The noise scared me so much that I had to piddle. Don't worry, though. I figured out how to find the bath- room." Tanayna takes Quigley's hand and begins to pull him toward the corridor behind the showroom. "Cree unlocked the door and let Mommy in. Can we go see her now, Mr. Q?" she asks, tugging his arm.


Quigley looks around the showroom. He decides to balance Tanay- na's request with a few practical issues. "The showroom shades are wide open, and the front door is unlocked," he thinks to himself. "Any- one can walk in. Wait here, dear," he says nervously and walks to the front door to lock it.


A wooden bin mounted next to the entrance contains several signs. He pulls out a blue and white one that reads "Gone to Lunch. Will Re- turn at ... " Just below the message is a clock with moveable plastic hands. "Three o'clock should do it," he states and sets the time. He hangs the sign on a hook glued to the entrance's glass pane and pulls down the shade behind it. After a glance at the FSF surveillance camera across the street, Quigley also pulls the large, wide shade in the bay window. Quigley then looks around the showroom for Wysiwyg, but there's no sign of her. He assumes she's with the others in the work- shop.


"Let's pretend nobody's at home, young lady. Not even the lights will be on," he states to Tanayna. By this time she has lost interest in the toy store owner's activities. Her attention now centers on the "Deb- orah Ann" wooden doll collection on a nearby shelf. Each doll has its own hand-stitched outfit. Instead of acknowledging his comment, she inches toward her favorite family of unique dolls to get a closer look. For the moment, she forgets about the situation at hand and her family in the back room.


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Quigley walks behind the counter and turns off the showroom lights from a switch panel located beneath the cash register. He stuffs the WANTED poster that he's been clinging to since the officers left into his shirt pocket. Shaken and bewildered, he walks over to Tanayna, who stands before the collection of dolls. She is caressing the wavy, auburn hair of "Darling Denise," who is the youngest member of the "Deborah Ann" family. Quigley picks up the well-dressed doll and hands it to Tanayna. She looks at him in surprise.


"I don't think Mrs. Ann would mind if you and your sister take De- nise home to play with ­ do you?"


She smiles and responds, "Oh no, I don't think she'd mind at all." Tanayna tucks Denise in one arm and takes the toy store owner's hand in the other. Together, the threesome head toward the corridor behind the showroom.


As they enter the dark hallway, Tanayna asks Quigley about the first large door on the left. "Where does that take you, Mr. Q? Denise and I want to know."


He stops in front of the dark door and pats the lifelike doll on the head. "So, you two are curious about this, hmm?" he replies. Quigley's eyes open wide like a crazed man. He slowly drops to his knees and declares, "It's a secret door that takes travelers miles below Jaden into a new world on an enchanted journey."


"Wow! Really?" she asks, clutching her new baby sister to her chest.


Quigley gently touches the tip of Tanayna's nose with his index finger. "Psych!" he says jokingly. "This is actually the entrance to my home, little one, which is directly above us. It's very convenient living right above the Knickknackery. There's not much of a commute to work, you know. I just take out my curlers, exchange my floppy slip- pers and bathrobe for shoes, a shirt and a pair of pants, and walk downstairs to greet my customers."


Tanayna giggles at the kind toy maker's sense of humor. Yet, as they continue their walk to the end of the hallway, she stares at the dark


158 Arrival of the Most WANTED


door from over her shoulder and wonders about that enchanted journey. They reach the corridor's end. Quigley pushes open the door to the large, brightly lit workshop. They enter unannounced, her hand in his.


Across the room, Quigley sees Terre sitting on the bench between Creegan and Tatiana next to the SkyRails layout. She's holding a Sky- Tran in one hand and a SkyCab in the other. Creegan is doing his best to explain what he's learned about what SkyTrans can do. His mom seems quite interested in the invention, but very tired. Her clothes are wrinkled and weathered. Her hair is disheveled. Yet as she listens care- fully to her son, Quigley sees a peaceful, self-assured look about her, like someone who just finished an agonizing race and feels good about the outcome even if she didn't win.


Tanayna lets go of Quigley's hand and rushes in with the special gift held high in the air. "Mommy! Tatiana! Look what Mr. Q gave us to take home!" she shouts. "It's Darling Denise!" Tatiana slaps her hand on her chest and gasps. "That's a `Deborah Ann' baby!" She springs off the bench and runs toward her sister. Wysiwyg follows just to break the afternoon boredom. There are only so many flowers a chuckachu can eat and so many flower pots a chuckachu can rearrange.


Amidst the sudden noise and activity, Terre's and Quigley's eyes meet. From the look on one another's face, each knows something that the other doesn't know. Terre decides to speak first.


"Thank you for the generous gift to the girls, Quigley," she states, avoiding what is really on her mind. "I'm sure Denise will be loved by the girls and their doll family at home. She's a wonderful addition."


In a modest tone, he replies, "Sure, of course, you and the girls are more than welcome." He continues, "I, uhm, thought they could proba- bly use a diversion from whatever may have happened at work earlier today. You know, at Scripps."


Terre pauses for a moment and gazes through Quigley without any expression. She glances over at Cree who has resumed playing with SkyRails. Then she observes the girls engrossed in quality time with their new, well-dressed, wooden sister next to the work table. Under-


159 Evergreen


neath the table, Wysiwyg rests comfortably with her eyes fluttering to the sounds made by the children.


Terre turns to Quigley and takes a deep breath. "Well, at least the children don't know."


"No," he responds. "And I wasn't going to tell them until I learned more about what happened. But you can't keep them away from the CCC too long."


"I know," she replies, tired and dejected. "But it may be a bit much for them right now ­ a bit much for me, too. Let's give them a few last moments of childhood. Just let them play," she urges. "When did you hear about the incident in the lab? What did they say happened? It's all so confusing, Quigley," she admits. "It happened so fast."


Quigley drags a stool over to his roll-top desk, away from the chil- dren. He places it next to a swivel chair in front of the desk and sits down. "Please, Terre, join me," he says, tapping the stool's thinly pad- ded cushion with his fingers. She sits down next to him, folds her hands in her lap and draws in a deep breath. They both exhale slowly.


"I learned about it from two FSF field officers who left about ten minutes ago. They gave me this." Quigley pulls out the WANTED poster from his pocket and smoothes out the wrinkles. He hands it to Terre. Reluctantly, she begins to look it over. He adds, "They've prob- ably posted these all over Jaden by now. One of the field officers said that FSF has been broadcasting an All Points Bulletin for your arrest on the radio and the CCC for the past hour. They are going from one shop to the next to warn people that you ­"


"­ attempted murder? Armed and dangerous?" interrupts Terre, trying to suppress the volume of her rage. In the background, Creegan picks up on the conversation. "Quigley, these are lies," she says angrily.


"What concoction of mushrooms were those mik'maks drinking? Where did they get this information from? This is a character assassina- tion!"


"More like who did they get this from, Terre," he replies. "And your character is not what they want to assassinate. If what the officer said is true, they want all of you, and they want you now."


160 Arrival of the Most WANTED



"Thor must be boiling, Quigley," states Terre. "His precious plans for Project AiCORN are no longer possible. I destroyed the data and all related project information. As the project's director, I had to for the sake of the people of Jaden. Even if it meant my job."


"Even if it means your life?" he replies in disbelief. "And what does a project about killer acorns have to do with you being Jaden's most wanted criminal?"


Terre studies Quigley's reaction closely. She sees that he's not only trying to make sense of it all, but he does so because he cares about her well-being and that of the children.


"It's a long story," she adds, depressed and exhausted.


"Even if what means your life, Mom?" questions Creegan from across the room and approaching fast. "You're not really armed and dangerous, are you?" The girls stop their play and follow quietly be- hind Creegan. "I can hear what you and Mr. Q are discussing," he says. "Are you in some kind of trouble with Thor and the law?"


"Mommy, are you going to be okay?" asks Tanayna with her sister at her side. Scared and shaky, she moans, "They won't take you away from us, will they?" Tears begin to well in both girls' eyes. Only Wy- siwyg is unaffected. She is snoring under the large work table across the room.


Unexpectedly, Terre's children now stand before her, their anguish swelling visibly. Quigley remains in his chair, lightly patting her shoul- der for support. At this forceful moment, she begins to see the effect of her earlier actions at Scripps on the most important people in her life. Most frightening to Terre is the thought of what will happen if and when Thor's security force has her arrested. Though the room tempera- ture is in the mid-eighties, Quigley notices parts of her body quiver. To hide the sudden nervousness, Terre raises her legs to her chest and wraps her arms tightly around them. With only slight movement, she rocks back and forth on the padded stool.


To lighten the moment, Quigley changes the direction of the con- versation. "You know," he begins loudly, "the Knickknackery is closed


161 Evergreen


for the next few hours. None of us are going anywhere with leather- clad goons scouting the streets. So why don't we go upstairs to my kitchen? I'll make a big batch of warm chocolate chip muffins and pour a tall glass of milk for each of you. Freshly baked chocolate chip muf- fins are my favorite. Can't you tell by my svelte figure?" he asks, poking fun at his paunchy belly. "Then your mother can provide us with the day's exciting details over a fresh cup of coffee. Sound like a plan?" Quigley's forced, upbeat voice is met with a few sniffles and three short nods.


"Better make mine decaf," mumbles Terre, her face tucked between her knees. She lifts her head. A slight upturn in her lips acknowledges her support.


Creegan and his sisters use the back of their wrists to wipe away the tears. "Sounds like a plan," replies Creegan. "I can use a snack right about now."


The Lanes trudge across the concrete floor and head toward the dark hallway. Quigley picks up the canvas covers and turns to the table containing SkyRails. It doesn't take long for the girls to resume their old ways. Tanayna tries to convince Darling Denise that strawberry muffins are just what they need, not chocolate chip. Tatiana has a dif- ferent objective. She tries to sway their lifelike playmate in favor of the vanilla poppy seed variety. The girls are informed that none of those ingredients are upstairs in the cupboard. "In fact," states Quigley as he carefully pulls the canvas over part of the table, "the other day Denise told me that chocolate chip muffins are the only ones she'll eat."


"That's not what she told me," Tatiana contends forcefully. Her sis- ter disagrees and sides with Quigley. Their mother seems content just listening to them squabble. She and the girls walk through the work- shop entrance into the hallway.


Creegan walks over to the SkyRails layout where Quigley has com- pletely covered the left side of the table. Staring at the sleek futuristic toy, he asks, "Mr. Q, can I bring the SkyTran and its SkyCabs upstairs to play with? I'd like to show Mom more of what it does."


162 Arrival of the Most WANTED



"Of course. Wait, though." Quigley walks past Creegan and reaches underneath the table into a small but deep wooden crate. There he col- lects a dozen straight rails and a half dozen curved ones along with several A-shaped trestles. He drops them into a wide burlap bag. "We'll create a small oval upstairs on the floor so they'll have somewhere to travel. There's a perfect spot next to the kitchen where we can set this up, Cree."


"Thanks, Mr. Q." Creegan looks underneath the table. Next to the crate filled with rails, Wysiwyg is fast asleep. "Come on, girl! Let's go! We're headed upstairs!" he hollers enthusiastically.


Startled by the wakeup call, Wysiwyg jumps to attention and bangs her head squarely on the bottom of the work table. Several trees above her sway in place. Strangely, she does not yelp. Only a deep and drawn-out "c-h-u" is offered ­ as if in disgust.


"You know, Cree," observes the toy maker as he finishes covering the table, "that's the closest I've ever heard an animal come to actual speech."


"I don't think it was clean speech, though," he replies. "More like something that would get me grounded `till I'm eighteen."


Minutes later, the smell of coffee and freshly baked chocolate chip muffins pervade the Cumberpatch kitchen. On the couch in the nearby living room, Tanayna and Tatiana better acquaint themselves with Dar- ling Denise. The two sisters also find their brother's fascination with SkyRails fun to watch. He's already mastered how to couple and un- couple the SkyTran from its SkyCabs and get the greatest distance from one forceful push along the single rail.


Across from where the children play is a long redwood cabinet lined with family heirlooms. Most are toys from Quigley's childhood. The children have yet to notice the cabinet or its unique contents. Mounted on the wall above the cabinet is a first generation centralized communications center. In spite of its age, the CCC is in excellent working condition. Since it has many key features found in later ver- sions, Quigley just doesn't have the heart to replace it. The downside of this old model is that the projection screens aren't as large and crisp,


163 Evergreen


the sound isn't as clear, and the main control unit is connected to the communications center by a long gray cord. Four channels preset by Quigley are onscreen with the volume set to mute: Egbert's Insect Pa- radise, The History Channel, Wynona's Weird World of Antiques, and FSN's 24-hour news service. For the moment, nothing appears center stage on the CCC.


At the kitchen table, Terre and Quigley sip their coffee and share the task of removing twelve oversized muffins from the muffin pan. The kitchen is about fifteen feet away from the living room where the children are enjoying themselves. Though everyone is involved in some form of parallel play, no one has forgotten why they are together in the middle of the day one floor above the Knickknackery.


Many questions remain on Quigley's mind, given the brief conver- sation he had with Terre moments earlier in the workshop. "There's only one way to get answers," he thinks privately. Quigley swallows a bite of his chocolate chip muffin and takes another sip of coffee. Care- fully, he places the cup on the kitchen table and broaches the subject with a simple question. That is, compared to the question he's planning on asking.


"How did you make it all the way out here without getting caught? It's quite a distance between the Scripps Center downtown and Bristle- cone. Besides, FSF folk have been climbing trees and searching buildings to find you."


"Well, by the time I actually left work, the bio-engineering lab was in shambles. The sprinkler system flooded the room and all six work- stations, flame-retardant gel blanketed the zoo and much of the computer equipment, and several window panels were shot out by Mr. Forge's henchmen," she begins.


"They were shooting at you, Terre?" he asks, astounded at the pros- pect.


"Yes, not the other way around. Needless to say, I left in quite a rush. I wasn't about to head home. Fortunately, I was able to catch an express train to Greenfield just as it was leaving the station. From there


164 Arrival of the Most WANTED


I went on a non-stop, twenty-three-mile journey from downtown to the northwest. I had to look over my shoulder the whole way. By the time the train pulled into Greenfield, it was clear an order had been given for my arrest. FSF agents were everywhere."


Quigley scoots to the edge of his seat and picks up his coffee cup. "You must have been terrified," he says and returns his cup to the table without a sip.


Creegan overhears the dialogue from the next room and chimes in. "Yeah, how did you get away? It sounds like a late-night movie plot. The mad scientist destroys the lab and runs from the law. You know, one of those B movies." There is dead silence.


"Darling Denise doesn't see it that way," spouts Tanayna in a huff.


Quigley rises from the kitchen table with coffee in hand and walks into the living room.


Creegan chuckles nervously. "So what did you do next, Mom?"


"We're all interested to know what happened," says Quigley, pat- ting Creegan's head twice. "Especially the truth ­ not what FSN reports to the public." He sits on the couch to the right of the twins and takes another sip.


Terre raises her eyebrows. "Mad scientist, hmm?" She finishes her coffee and stands. "B movie?"


"Hero mad scientist, Mom?" he adds, with a forced smile.


Terre ignores his face-saving reply and heads into the living room. She sits down to the left of her daughters. "From the train window," she continues, "I watched for security patrols. The first time there were none in sight, I quickly got off the train and hid in the crowd. Luckily, I had the wide-rimmed sunglasses the Sgt. Major gave me for my birth- day. I worked my way over to the departure monitor to find the time and location of the next easterly express train to Bristlecone since I knew you and your sisters would be here. I had to avoid boarding any locals because of all the stops along the way. After I found a 12:50 p.m. express scheduled for Bristlecone, I hid in a bathroom stall near the track until they called to board the train."


165 Evergreen



"Yuck! Poofy-pooters, Mommy," says Tatiana, with her thumb and index finger plugging her nostrils.


"Right, my love. That wasn't at all enjoyable," she replies. "While I was waiting in the bathroom, I overheard two women describing me in detail from what they heard on the APB. They were shocked at what they learned and even referred to me as a `killer.' I knew I needed more than glasses to remain undetected, so I borrowed an overcoat hanging just outside one of the stalls. I slipped onto the train just before it left Greenfield Station. A newspaper provided some cover for much of the way. But I wouldn't be with you now if it were not for a sympathetic ticket handler."


"He recognized you?" asks Quigley, open-mouthed. "What did he do?"


"I've seen him on my usual northeast train route from Center City Station, downtown, to Longwood Gardens. Sometimes, when he punched my ticket, he would comment on the size and weight of my shoulder bag and tease me about my workload ­ in a nice way. He must have known I worked at Scripps because he referred to me as the `geeky lab lady.' Though we never exchanged names, we've had a few interesting chats over the months."


From the couch Tanayna giggles. "Is he cute?"


"I certainly think so now," she replies without hesitation. "He must have recognized me when I boarded under my dark glasses and unco- ordinated oversized coat. A few minutes after we left the station, several passengers were looking in my direction and pointing. When one large man stood up and began to walk toward me, the ticket guy stepped in and said, `Hello, Mrs. Jaden! Nice to have you on board, ma'am!' and some other stuff, too. The big guy froze where he stood, uncertain about which Jaden family member he was about to confront. He and the others seemed to settle down and mind their own business after that."


"Whoa! That was too close, Mom," says Creegan.


"Once we approached the station in Bristlecone and began to slow down, I exited the passenger car and hopped off. I nearly twisted my


166 Arrival of the Most WANTED


ankle. Once I made it into the woods, an old hiker's trail led me to the back of the Knickknackery."


"I'm amazed that you weren't caught," says Quigley. "You proba- bly shouldn't leave here until the search eases off. It's just too dangerous."


Creegan stands up with the SkyTran in both hands and walks over to the couch. He squeezes in next to his Mother and places the toy on the wooden coffee table in front of them. "We're glad you made it, Mom. But why are the FSF after you? What did you do?"


"That's likely the question on a lot of people's minds," says Quig- ley. "And why?"


"I know, I know," she states regretfully.


"Earlier you said that people need to be protected from something you were working on ­ an important project about acorns?"


Too tired to laugh, Terre picks up the SkyTran. She nods, closely inspecting the toy from different angles. "Project AiCORN," she says and spells out the word. "Pardon the scientific jargon, but the letters stand for `Artificial Intelligence Chip Organized to Reason Via Neu- ronets.'"


"That's a mouthful!" interjects Creegan. "What's it all about?"


"It's more like a belly full, Cree," adds Quigley without an inkling of what it means.


"It all began as a theory to integrate artificial intelligence into com- puter technology. The goal was to have a computer reason when it was assigned a command ­ like a person ­ rather than to simply carry out a command blindly like a typical computer. Take this toy ­"


"­ a SkyTran," states Creegan in a tone that reflects it's more than just a toy.


"Yes, a SkyTran," she replies. "Ideally, AiCORN technology inte- grated into this SkyTran would not only control and monitor its destinations, speed and comfort levels for those inside, it would also be able to think and learn. The AI technology on the motherboard could work out solutions to any problems it is faced with like a conductor and


167 Evergreen


an engineer would normally do." Terre pauses and states darkly, "Or instead of them if Mr. Forge had his way."


"We could call it AiTOM!" exclaims Creegan soundly.


"Call what Adam?"


"The SkyTran, Mom."


"Why Adam and not Skyler?" she asks, using the first alliterative tie that comes to mind.


"Or Skylark?" adds Quigley.


"How about SkyTranny?" spouts Tatiana. "It could be named Tran- ny, for short."


"I expected that from you, Sis. It's AiTOM because the SkyTran would have AI technology on the motherboard ­ just like Mom said."


Terre looks at her son and then at the toy in a curious way.


"I like that name, Cree," says Tanayna, quickly putting in her two cents. "I have a friend at school named Adam. He's really cute, too."


"What? No, Sis," responds Creegan. "It would be spelled A I T O M, not A D A M."


"Whatever," she replies. "I just like the name."


Quigley remains focused on the scope and depth of Terre's work. "You know how to create a computer that thinks for itself?" he asks, doubtful that such a thing can be invented.


"Well, yes. I first wrote about it in a scientific journal about a year ago. Denton Tuggle and I had been working on it ever since," she re- plies, still examining the toy to see how it glides along on an I-beam. "Denton was my research partner at Scripps. Actually, we've been friends ever since we were kids." Terre pauses and sighs. "I miss him already."


Quigley quietly weighs what he's learned from Terre. He reaches over and puts his fingertips on her wrist. Delicately, he says, "Today at the lab and now ­ what you and the children must go through. Tell me this isn't about your fight to prevent these thinking computers from tak- ing over people's jobs." He adds, "You said that you had to destroy the whole project and, apparently, at any cost. Why?"


168 Arrival of the Most WANTED



A tangled look appears on Terre's face. It reveals, all at the same time, sadness, shock and a touch of disbelief ­ like she's just relived snippets of the entire day in a few seconds. Quigley and Creegan immediately notice the change in her demeanor. Creegan is the first to comment.


"Mom, are you okay?" he asks warmly. "You look like you've seen a ghost."


Still pensive and worn, she musters some strength. "The project can never continue under his control," she grumbles. Terre shakes her head slightly, as if to regain her composure. "That's why Denton and I went to the lengths we did to destroy all project-related data. As I said, I did not harm anyone or kill any of our lab animals."


Quigley conveys a look of support. "We believe you, Terre," he says tenderly, "but Thor is telling the world that you did. Why was the project so dangerous that you had to destroy it and your future at the same time?"


Terre places the SkyTran on the coffee table and lowers her head. She rubs hers eyes with one hand, stops to look up, and then puts the other hand on her son's back to begin a light massage. "This is not about displacing workers with high tech AI computers, I promise you," she says. "At first, when things were quiet, it was solely about inconsis- tent and unstable results. We ran neural fluid through a specially designed processor to see if the computer could handle an assignment at the rate of trillions of instructions per second ­ what we call TRIPS. We found that assignments were processed and solutions were found in an instant. Then we added more complicated instructions ­ the kind of assignments it would need to follow in the real world. We found that it didn't do what it was supposed to do."


"The `it' you keep referring to is ... the artificial intelligence?"


"Yes. A computer's AI technology is largely organic, like the stuff we're made of. This technology is designed to respond successfully to our programming at lightning speed, no matter what is thrown at it."


"So you ask it to do something through programming, and it's car- ried out really fast?"


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"Ideally, that's right, Quigley. However, over time we found that AI technology re-programs the instructions we supplied and then tries to achieve solutions to those new instructions. Denton and I concluded that AiCORN technology is unreliable and, put simply, too unpredict- able. It develops a sense of independence from us and writes its own, often nonsensical code to follow."


A sudden realization overwhelms Quigley. "You said your concerns were about unstable and unpredictable results ­ how AiCORN always followed its own TRIPS independent of the ones you assigned."


"That's correct," she replies without pause.


Quigley clears his throat and repositions himself on the couch in ways that indicate to Terre and the children he's genuinely troubled. "To what end is Thor planning to put this technology to use?" he asks nervously.


"You know, I had this conversation with Denton only a few hours ago."


"I had a feeling you'd say that. Please, to what end?" he urges, in- tent on confirming his suspicion.


"The only source of transportation throughout Jaden," she replies, wishing it wasn't true.


"Trains," he responds, shaking his head. "I had a feeling you'd say that, too."


"Since the project began," Terre continues, "it's clear that Mr. Forge counted on AiCORN processors eventually replacing the daily decisions people make ­ especially those who work for him. This morning, in front of the entire family, he revealed his plans to upgrade Forge passenger rails with AiCORN technology driving every one of its engines."


"But Mom," interrupts Creegan, "you said that AiTOM ­ uhm, Ai- CORN ­ has a mind of its own. It writes its own commands and ignores those assigned to it. Isn't it kind of risky to be put into trains that carry people?"


Terre considers how to turn a good question into a useful lesson like she's done with her children many times before. After a moment's


170 Arrival of the Most WANTED


reflection, she says, "When people walk onto a train, into a hospital or down the street alone at night, they take risks, Cree. If people have a one-in-a-million chance of being harmed by something they plan to do, they might not think twice about doing it. The odds are in their favor that they'll be just fine. If the risk increases to a one-in-a-hundred chance, however, they would be wise to be more cautious. In much of what people do every day, they just don't think about the risks to their lives. Instead, they leave it up to professionals like doctors and engi- neers to make things safe for everyone."


"You mean like when we take meds, ride in a train or cross a bridge," states Creegan confidently.


"Exactly," she replies. "In my judgment, people would be in con- stant danger if Forge Enterprise's passenger rails were guided by this technology. That's why I destroyed all material related to the project," she says. "In good conscience I couldn't allow him to upgrade even one passenger train with AiCORN technology. Think of the lives that would be in peril each day. There are no acceptable risks, even if Mr. Forge believes there should be."


"So let me get this straight," states Creegan, holding his index fin- ger upright. "People don't think about risks when they get on trains. Thor cares more about putting AiCORN computers in his trains than about those people who get in them. And you stopped his diabolical plan dead in its tracks by destroying all project data. Is that about right?"


Once again his words are followed by silence. Faint snores of Wy- siwyg under the coffee table provide a backdrop for the dumbfound expressions on Terre and Quigley. Creegan senses he's accurately re- capped the situation and grins like a pond frog that just ate a plump water bug.


"Well, then, the whole world should be on your side, Mom," he concludes soundly.


"Thank you, Cree," she says, returning a pensive grin. "That's also why Forge security is so adamant about finding me and fast," she adds.


171 Evergreen


"He knows I'm not afraid to tell people the truth. So what does he do? He spreads false information about what happened in the lab to dis- credit anything I might say."


"If you ever get a chance to say it," Quigley interjects meekly.


Bothered by the comment, Creegan says, "Mom will tell people the truth ... someday. They'll see she did the right thing, and Thor will not be able to stop her."


Sensing her son's aroused emotional state, Terre puts her arms around him. "One way or another," she says with conviction, "people will hear from me ­ and so will Mr. Forge. There's an important reason why."


"Tell me," Cree responds in his mother's arms.


Terre loosens her embrace and combs her fingers through his hair. "Just before he sent in his goons and all kinds of chaos broke out in the lab, the third member of Project AiCORN ­ a mole named Filbert Boner ­ did something that Thor will come to regret. Unknowingly, Boner pro- vided just enough information to help me decipher why the project failed," she states upbeat and confident. "From there it didn't take long for me to figure out how to make the technology work. I just wish the flash drive Denton loaded with project information wasn't shot up before I left. That's an awful lot of information to reproduce from scratch."


"Better that flash drive got shot up than you, Mom," says Creegan. "Plus, isn't all that project stuff in your head?"


"You're talking about close to a year's worth of work, son." She glances over at Quigley. His head is awhirl in confusion.


"Wait a second," he states, puzzled over Terre's regret that project data weren't saved. "I thought Project AiCORN ­ and all of its possible uses by Thor ­ drowned in your lab at Scripps."


"It did," she replies. "Only creatures with water-tight bums could have survived that flood." Though the children laugh out loud, Quigley ignores the not-so-subtle humor.


"So," he asks befuddled, "even if you do know how to make Ai- CORN technology work properly, why would you want all that project information? What would you do with it?"


172 Arrival of the Most WANTED



"Mommy! Mommy! Look! There you are! Your face is on the screen!" shouts Tatiana from the couch.


"Turn up the volume! Turn it up, now!" exclaims her sister.


The FSN news broadcast on the bottom right quad of the CCC shows a still image of Terre. It is the same picture found on the poster Field Of- ficer Pfeiffer handed to Quigley. Below the picture are two lines: "WANTED BY THE FSF" and "ARMED AND DANGEROUS." In the lower right side of the quad is a small red box with blinking white letters that read "FSN Breaking News."


"That's not a very nice picture, Mommy. You don't look so good," says Tanayna.


"It's my graduation photo from college, dear. I remember not feel- ing too well the day that photo was shot."


"Plus, it's not in color, brainiac," gibes her brother as he darts around to find the remote. "Where's the controller, Mr. Q?"


From the couch Quigley leans toward a large rectangular pad with several rows of buttons on a heavy wooden end table. "I've got it next to me, son." He pushes two buttons in sequence. The bottom right WANTED image moves to center stage and is larger than life. A pre- viously unnoticed low hum is replaced by the voice of FSN's news anchor, Glades Wilcoxon, in mid-sentence. His live image appears in a box on the lower left side of the center screen.


"... back to the day's top story here at the Forge Simulcast Net- work," he states in his typical high-brow tone. "Hmm?" He taps his earphone. "I just got word that we're going live to our downtown corre- spondent, Sybil Allert, in front of the Scripps Science Center where the story broke a short time ago. She has an update to our breaking news. Sybil, are you there?" asks the veteran newscaster.


The images on center stage shift to a blonde-haired woman with deep green eyes and thinly lined eyebrows. She's wearing a company headset and black jacket with a "FSN" arm band. The familiar red, white and black worn by many Forge employees are again on public display. Since it's a bit windy, Sybil holds back her long, stringy hair


173 Evergreen


with one hand so she won't get whipped by unexpected gusts. The downtown correspondent with a striking, cherub-like appearance be- gins her live update.


"Yes, Glades, I'm here," she replies. "This is Sybil Allert at the Scripps Science Center in downtown Jaden. As you may have learned over the past few hours, the security forces of Forge Enterprises re- leased to FSN and our radio affiliate an announcement that indicates an All Points Bulletin has been issued for Dr. Terre Bristol-Lane. Accord- ing to the announcement, this high-ranking scientist is wanted for several crimes committed within the walls behind me in her bio- engineering lab. In case you didn't know, the Scripps Science Center is the science and technology hub of Forge Enterprises.


They must have taken this matter very seriously at Forge head- quarters because the office of its president just sent us a video tape about the crime, which we will air momentarily," she says, pulling a clump of hair out of the corner of her mouth. "Although we are uncer- tain what's contained in the tape," she continues, "we do know the list of charges brought against Dr. Bristol-Lane include attempted murder, destruction of private property, attempted theft of industry secrets and destruction of animal life. Her physical description is listed as five feet, six inches tall, a weight of 120 pounds, blues eyes and light brown hair. Dr. Bristol-Lane is reported to be armed and dangerous, so please contact the FSF at 622 when you identify her whereabouts. Do not attempt to apprehend her yourself. However, there is a reward in an unspecified amount if your actions lead to the fugitive scientist's arrest."


"Uh, Sybil," interrupts Glades. The camera shot returns to the news anchor. "Is there any information on why Dr. Lane took the actions she did to destroy the lab and her career at the same time? Unconfirmed sources tell me that it had to do with a top-secret project she was work- ing on. Did you hear this, too? I'm just trying to get a feel for what could possibly have motivated her to do such a thing," he states in a manner more consistent with a therapist than a news anchor.


174 Arrival of the Most WANTED



"Hmm. Those are serious questions, Glades," she states, surprised at his attempted analysis. Sybil knows that, intellectually, he has depth comparable to a toddler's wading pool. "They may be answered by the video tape we just received and will air when it's cued up. My under- standing is that the video is of the President and CEO of Forge Enterprises himself," she responds, "and it will explain what happened earlier today in his own words. If true, this would be an extraordinary event. Thorstein Darkminster Forge seldom makes public statements. Instead, he prefers to have others speak on his behalf. Because the crimes did involve a trusted employee and a secretive project under her direction, this may be one instance where he personally handles what is ­ and is not ­ presented to the public," she surmises.


Believing that the camera has returned to Sybil for her lengthy re- sponse, Glades drops the concerned analyst act, smiles and points to someone off camera. Out of character, he balls up a note page from his desk and tosses it in the same direction. From the shoulders up, two young children are seen racing across the front of his large desk in the opposite direction. The live camera captures this silly newsroom scene at the same time Sybil's audio is transmitted. Glades places his palm over his earphone, laughs and says "You're kidding, right?" Gradually, he shifts to a serious pose. He nods, mindfully, as she continues to de- scribe the breaking news event. The image on center stage finally returns to the downtown correspondent in the middle of her update.


"... and Dr. Bristol-Lane was believed by many to be one of Scripps' most promising young scientists. FSN has learned that, over a year ago, her expertise and reputation in bio-engineering caught the attention of Mr. Forge. He then offered her a position at the prestigious science center where, until today, she directed a secret scientific project. Despite our ef- forts, no details have become available about the project, so we're hoping that the tape ­ wait ... just a minute, please," she says. Staring away from the camera, Sybil listens to instructions given through her headset. She nods briefly and then looks directly into the camera. "I've just received word that the tape is ready to roll," she says. "Please join me in ­"


175 Evergreen



The image on center stage abruptly cuts off FSN's downtown cor- respondent. In her place are several seconds of darkness. A video image suddenly appears of Thor cautiously stepping over rubble in a demol- ished laboratory that looks like Terre's bio-engineering lab at Scripps. The aisles formerly filled with animal life and the surrounding worksta- tions have all been blown apart. Smoke still smolders from various parts of the lab conspicuously visible on the pre-recorded video.


"That's not how I left my bio-engineering lab!" shouts Terre en- raged. "Either this is taped elsewhere, or they caused all that damage after I left." She takes a few deep breaths to calm down.


"Looks like they blew it to bits, Mom," Creegan states. "It's worse than my room after Wysiwyg and I play `chu me' using all of my toys," he says, shaking his head. "And that gets pretty ugly ­"


"­ and painful without a helmet," interrupts Tanayna.


The video pans closer to Thor, who is dressed with his usual flair. A dark suit and black suede tie match the color of his bushy eyebrows and jawbone-length mustache. He removes his hat and drops it on the damp and dirty conference table behind him. A small amount of debris rises and quickly settles around the hat. Thor's patent mustache looks out of place when contrasted against his bald, shiny scalp. However, a swath of thin hair that encircles the back of his head helps to ease the transition. The video pans even closer. Reddish-blue capillaries on his bulbous nose pulsate in response to the day's events. A floor-length black suede cape only adds to his menacing appearance.


"That's him again, isn't it, Mommy?" asks Tatiana nervously.


"Uh huh," replies Creegan on his mom's behalf.


"Let's not waste any time, girls," she follows. "We'll just start hat- ing him now ­ agreed?"


At the bottom of the center screen, "Thorstein Darkminster Forge, President and CEO, Forge Enterprises" boldly appears. A deep male voice makes the introduction, and Thor turns to the camera.


"Good day," he states, composed and dignified. "I am Thorstein Forge, President of Forge Enterprises. I am speaking to each of you to-


176 Arrival of the Most WANTED


day for two important reasons. One is about the criminal behavior that took place earlier today in this lab at the Scripps Science Center. These actions are as despicable and shocking as they are unfortunate. But they will be resolved with dispatch professionally and according to the law. The second reason I address each of you today is to discuss a new and exciting transition in technology at Forge Rail Lines. As you will learn, the momentous change I will introduce will affect the very future of rail transportation throughout our land," says Thor proudly. "Now onto the first ­"


"­ Oh my twin stars," exclaims Terre, horrified by an overwhelm- ing gut feeling. "He's got AiCORN intact." With a heavy heart, she admits, "We didn't destroy all the data across the workstations." Quig- ley and Creegan glance sympathetically in her direction but are compelled to view Thor on screen.


"Earlier today, in this laboratory at the Scripps Science Center," he states, "an emotionally disturbed scientist who lives well beyond her means committed a series of felony crimes against this corporation in the name of blind and shameless greed. Her name is Dr. Terre Bristol- Lane. As you can see from the devastation she left behind," he states, raising both hands, "Dr. Lane was quite successful in destroying a great deal of the world she was hoping to build at Forge Enterprises. This world included specialized and sophisticated computers that used bio- engineering technologies to think and learn. This world also included a variety of land and sea creatures that provided organic matter, in small amounts, necessary for her project's success. Now this technology has nearly perished, and all of the animals that helped contribute to its suc- cess were senselessly killed by her ­"


"­ No!" Terre cries out. "That's not true!"


"­ all because Dr. Lane sought to put personal gain above the in- terests of others ­ like yours and mine," he states coldly. "Ruthlessly, she set in motion a series of explosives to destroy the lab, its inhabi- tants and all existing project material, except for what she could take with her. She even fired several shots at my security agents as they


177 Evergreen


tried to arrest her and recover the stolen material. While her shots missed their target, they did cause the deaths of many animals under her direct care. Dr. Lane hid the weapon in her desk draw until she made her move earlier today. Her actions were cold-hearted and pre- meditated. Fortunately, the security agents did destroy the stolen pro- ject material in her possession before she escaped. But we will find her." Thor walks over to the broken window pane by the solarium and explains where and how Terre exited from the lab.


Feeling outrage at Thor's slanderous statements and personal de- feat, Terre leans over on the couch, places her head in her hands and gently messages her scalp. Her daughters put their arms around her in support. Terre then covers her face. "So much of this Thor made up," she says in a faint voice. "But I set this in motion. So do his lies really matter?" she asks. Tears begin to well in the corners of her eyes.


"It's just as Cree told you, Terre," says Quigley. "We're all with you, no matter how long it takes to clear this up. You did the right thing in protecting people from Project AiCORN. And his lies do matter. In time, people will come to know the truth."


"No doubt," Thor continues in front of the broken solarium win- dow, "you've seen Dr. Lane's photograph and description. I have, in fact, issued an APB for her arrest. I offer $25,000 for any information leading to her arrest and conviction. It shan't be long before we have her in custody for the heinous crimes she committed against this com- pany. Corporations are the backbone of Jaden's growth and material progress. Since Dr. Lane abused her power and trust within this com- pany, rest assured we at Forge Enterprises will not go soft on her actions," he states resoundingly.


Thor's last comment inflames Terre. She lifts her head from her hands and leers at his image on screen.


"I have spoken with my good friend, Chief Justice Pacadaya of the criminal court system," says Thor. "When Dr. Lane is convicted of her crimes," he chortles, "the Chief Justice has agreed to apply the full arm of the law to her sentence. She will spend the remainder of her life in


178 Arrival of the Most WANTED


the Gravenwood Penal Mines deep within the roots of Mesequoya, where sunlight is fondly recalled and never experienced."


"What kind of mines are those, Mommy?" asks Tanayna. "Do they have gemstones in them?"


"No!" shouts Creegan, partly shaken by Thor's announcement and partly annoyed at his sister's question. "And you don't want to know, Sis. I heard Gravenwood's not fit for gribbles, let alone people."


"Such punishment, Justice Pacadaya agrees, befits Dr. Lane's many crimes," says Thor. "Hopefully, this example will deter others in the corporate world from carrying out similar acts that lack integrity and moral character," he states publically.


"On a separate note, I do wish the Chief Justice a speedy and suc- cessful discharge from the Scripps Smoking Clinic."


Terre dries her eyes and blows her nose with a tissue provided by Quigley. "Now let's hear about the future of railroad transportation, Thor," she says nasally. "What's your new corporate motto going to be? Since `I think, therefore, I am' is taken, how about `We think, therefore, you perish in tons of twisted metal,'" scoffs Terre to help gain her composure.


Even though the situation is tense and serious, her spirited remarks cause Quigley and Creegan to break into laughter. However, Thor's voice puts an end to their respite.


"I'd like to describe the second reason why I wish to speak with each of you today," Thor states with a forced grin. "For centuries, the name Forge has been known throughout the land for inventive, cutting- edge technologies. Today, I would like to briefly introduce you to a new and exciting division of Forge Rail Lines. It is called the Sunshine Transit Corporation, or STC. STC Rail Lines are designed to revolu- tionize both passenger and industry transportation because of new technology developed and patented here at Scripps. This technology integrates solar powered fuel cells with an artificially intelligent com- puter processor that thinks and learns at unprecedented speeds. The design of the computer processor is based on an artificial-intelligence


179 Evergreen


chip, or what we call `AICORN' technology. Each STC locomotive in the network of Forge Rail Lines will soon be fitted with this technology onboard. This scientific achievement will result in greater fuel and time-management efficiencies for travelers, industries, and Forge En- terprises, alike."


"Yeah, because you're going to fire half your rail workers and have the trains run themselves, you heartless mik'mak," notes Terre under her breath.


"Over the next month," Thor continues, "STC Rail Lines will finish integrating this new technology in several of our current passenger trains. We will have all Forge Rail Lines upgraded within the next year. I am very pleased to inform you that the inaugural run will take place on ­" Click


Quigley turns off the CCC from the controller next to him and takes a deep breath. He stares straight ahead. "I've had about as much as I can take," he says. "How about you, Terre?"


"Yes, thanks," she replies, also looking directly ahead. "I can use the silence."


"You know, Terre," says Quigley softly, "I think you may be right about AiCORN."


"What do you mean?"


"The technology and what it will do for Forge Enterprises and to the rest of us," he states. His bushy white eyebrows lower at the center. "And for what? More wealth? Thor could never spend all of the money he al- ready has, even if he lived ten more lifetimes. What makes matters worse, to me, is that none of the real problems caused by his rail lines ­ the noise, air pollution and danger ­ will even be touched by your invention."


Terre turns to Quigley with a blank stare. Her thoughts are not at all on the points he just raised, as important as they are. Instead, they focus on why such a caring and creative man would take a risk to provide re- fuge to the most wanted person in all of Jaden. For the time being, the day's events and all that was publically spouted by Thor seem less im- portant to her than simply sharing this quiet moment.


180 Arrival of the Most WANTED



Quigley senses this too. It's not just because of the pretzel-like way Terre and her children embrace on the couch. It's in their look of con- tentment. Though there's still a great deal more on his mind, he decides to say nothing and leave them alone. He knows that things will soon change drastically for the Lane family and himself. The question he ponders fearfully in the comfort and silence of his living room is, "When will there be a heavy pounding at the front door?"




181 Chapter Ten


Birth of Project AiTOM




182 Birth of Project AiTOM



A


n unusual period of silence has settled in on the second floor


of the Knickknackery. The scent of freshly baked chocolate


chip muffins is still wafting in the air. Terre and her children nap comfortably on the couch, while Wysiwyg remains asleep under the large coffee table near the children's feet. Quigley dries and stores a few dishes and glasses in the cupboard from their afternoon nosh. Qui- etly, he takes a seat at the kitchen table near his empty coffee cup to rest. Six chocolate chip muffins, along with a partially eaten seventh one, fill a cloth-lined wicker basket in front of him. It doesn't take long for his head to bob and sag down before he nods off.


A short time passes, and Terre, still seated on the couch, breaks the silence. "Quigley," she states, just above a whisper.


His eyes open. He turns toward her and the children and nods, but says nothing.


"Earlier you asked me why I would want to save Project AiCORN files after I went through such great lengths to, well, you know."


"Yes," he replies, stretching his arms, "and I can't for the life of me figure it out."


Terre removes one arm from around Tanayna and the other from Tatiana and gingerly rises from the couch. She walks into the kitchen and takes a seat next to Quigley. "It's true, at first, I did want to destroy the project ­ all of it ­ except the lab animals, of course. AiCORN was unreli- able and, given Thor's plans, potentially dangerous. We documented it repeatedly right up through today's latest experiments. Put simply, AI technology shouldn't be retrofitted into a washing machine, let alone a passenger rail system. At least not yet. I felt obligated to protect the public from a monster I created and was determined to do so. Then, during this morning's dreadful showdown with Thor and Filbert Boner ­"


"­ Boner?"


"­ Boner, team Forge unwittingly disclosed just enough informa- tion for me to figure out how life in the AI biochip learned to survive months of system reformats and shut downs. Then, an epiphany ­ the piece of the puzzle that would prevent Project AiCORN from ever run-


183 Evergreen


ning amuck again," she states intently. "Quigley, AI technology can work. When the answer dawned on me, the scientist inside re-emerged even as the company rebel was taking action. I knew I had to see the project through to a successful end. I wasn't thinking about where or when or even how. I just knew I wanted to see it done. Clearly I didn't see it happening at Scripps given Thor's perilous rush to put this unsta- ble technology in passenger trains."


"You felt this way even though you were being assaulted, shot at and just about killed by FSF agents?"


She nods. "I still do. All I did whenever I was away from my family was run new AiCORN experiments, analyze the data and write reports about ill-fated study outcomes. I was frustrated, but I had hope. I wanted to see my ideas work to make a difference in people's lives." In a heartfelt voice she asks, "Didn't you ever want something to work out right, even though deep down you thought it might not ever happen?"


Quigley picks up the SkyTran from the kitchen table where Cree- gan previously left it. He examines the toy like it's for the first time, carefully turning and inspecting it from every angle. Her question clear- ly struck a nerve.


"That's why I made this."


"The SkyTran?" she asks curiously, viewing the sleek toy from be- tween his hands.


"SkyRails," he responds.


Terre flashes back to the discussion she and Creegan had in the workshop. She recalls how he lit up like the midday suns as he de- scribed the intricacies of the layout. She also remembers repeating "What an imaginative idea" as he explained the differences between a SkyTran, its SkyCabs and their potential role in everyday life. What she came away with most was the saneness and logic underlying SkyRails.


"Cree told me why you felt compelled to design it. Transport vehi- cles that glide swiftly and silently above the streets and between communities. It's a fascinating concept. I'd go as far as saying this would truly revolutionize transportation, not what Thor's proposed,"


184 Birth of Project AiTOM


she states, in deliberate contrast to Thor's own words broadcast to communities throughout Jaden a short time ago.


Quigley looks up from the SkyTran to Terre. Her eyes remain fixed on the invention. Prompted by her optimism and a dose of sudden in- trigue, he hands Terre the lightweight toy. "The way I see it," he says, "I've designed a prototype of future transportation that belongs right here in the present. Unlike the noisy, dangerous and dirty rail lines all run by Forge Enterprises, this vehicle is designed to be clean, efficient, safe and quiet."


"It's more than that, Mom," observes a passionate voice approach- ing from the couch. "Mr. Q told us that a SkyTran and its SkyCabs could glide along a single rail ten or twenty feet ­"


"­ thirty feet," interjects Quigley.


"­ thirty feet above streets and neighborhoods and do all sorts of things trains can't do."


"They're designed to do more than carry people or cargo?" ques- tions Terre with growing curiosity.


"Yes, of course!" exclaims Creegan, now standing between his mom and the toy maker. "Mr. Q, tell Mom what you told us, okay?"


"Are you sure you don't want to explain it, son?" Quigley says with a wink and a smile. "Your memory is like a video recorder. Mine is, well, like a bucket with small holes," he says, knowing full well there's no detail about SkyRails he cannot handle. "Since I don't retain things like I used to, I need a little help now and then."


"I'll fill in the gaps, Mr. Q, don't you worry," he replies, patting the toy designer on his curvy back.


"Very well," Quigley begins, "a SkyTran's function will depend on the instructions assigned to it from its home base. These instructions are put into the SkyTran's internal computer. They determine which SkyCabs are needed to carry out its mission and include things like the timing and location of its destinations, travel speed and so on. After a SkyTran couples with a specially designed set of SkyCabs, they can handle all types of tasks ­"


185 Evergreen



"­ Like put out fires," interjects Creegan, "handle medical emer- gencies, and even help with construction work on buildings and stuff. The sky's the limit ­ right, Mr. Q?"


Quigley chuckles at Creegan's unrelenting zeal. "Yes, son, the sky's the limit."


Terre's thoughts begin to revolve around the dialogue. Perhaps it reflects her need to escape from the trauma of the day. Or maybe it re- flects an unacceptable truth that she no longer works for Scripps on Project AiCORN. In spite of the reasons, Terre absorbs the discussion as if it were a brainstorming session with her colleagues at work. Her eyes widen as she begins to think out loud.


"A SkyTran's access to any community in Jaden would be limited only by the amount of rail in front of it," she says like one of the team. "You can even design rail-laying SkyCabs that build new pathways one rail at a time. This would be especially useful in terrain hard to access by construction equipment."


Creegan likes what he hears. "Right, Mom. That's how new layouts can be constructed."


Roused by Terre's comments, Quigley is curious if her ideas are couched in fantasy ­ like his ­ or reality. From experience, he senses the latter.


"Uh, Terre."


"I-beam rail systems could easily be networked throughout any ur- ban area attached to buildings," she adds without responding, "because of the height and weight of the rails and the limited footprint needed for each support."


"Terre," he states a little louder. He waves his hand to get her atten- tion.


"To ensure the cleanest, quietest and most efficient use of energy," she continues without missing a beat, "the SkyTran and home base must be configured for solar power."


The toy designer sighs and turns to Creegan. "What's happened to your mother?"


186 Birth of Project AiTOM



"She's caught the bug, I think," he replies to a backdrop of "we could" and "if, then" statements.


"The bug?"


"Yeah. It's what happens when she gets hooked on an idea and can't stop thinking about it. The last time this happened, Mom got word from Scripps that Thor wanted her to design a computer that thinks and learns. It was hard to get a warm meal and clean underwear for weeks before things settled down. You may have heard about that project," he chuckles nervously.


"You may have heard about how that project ended up," Quigley replies regretfully, shaking his head.


"And so," Terre concludes over their dialogue, "AiCORN technol- ogy, adjusted to these conditions, is definitely the best choice as the guidance and operating system within the SkyTran and its home base."


All is quiet on the second floor. That is, except for Wysiwyg who is still asleep beneath the coffee table, snoring unevenly like a sput- tering chainsaw. Tanayna and Tatiana also remain asleep, side-by- side, where their mother was moments earlier. It's evident that the long walk to the Knickknackery and the day's excitement have taken a toll on them.


Quigley and Creegan exchange glances. Each pretends nothing out of the ordinary was just stated. Through the side of Quigley's mouth, he whispers, "Son, did you just hear what I heard?" Creegan, with his mouth ajar, nods his head a few seconds longer than usual.


Quigley turns to Terre. "You want to run that by me again? You're talking about building a functional, full-scale SkyTran in ... my work- shop ... now? Is that right, Professor?"


"I can't think of a better time to put our ideas ­ and heads ­ to- gether. I can't be of much use serving time in Gravenwood, and the only way I can stay out of that place is to offer Jaden a safe alternative to Thor's plans for AI passenger rails. People will come to see for themselves why I took the steps I did this morning."


"Can't you just warn people about AiCORN?"


187 Evergreen



"As soon as I do, I risk arrest. The same goes for you or anyone else I contact to spread the word. Even if I sent a letter to the press, anony- mous or signed, it would be debunked by Forge Enterprises. They control everything, and when you control the media, you control the mind of the public."


Creegan seizes the toy from his mom and raises it high. "Alright, Mom! Alright, AiTOM!" he shouts. He sees his sisters begin to stir on the couch and quickly covers his mouth.


"I like that name, Cree," she states mindfully. "We'll call it Project AiTOM."


"Because the SkyTran will have `AI' technology on the mother- board," affirms Creegan, almost as proud that he authored the project's name as he is of his scientist mother. He continues to move the vehicle skyward in the air as if it were meant to fly.


"That's right," she replies. Terre slides her seat back, stands and walks to Quigley's kitchen counter to look for paper and a writing tool. "We need to make a list of the stages and steps involved," she says. A faded white scratch pad and short pencil lie on the counter next to a tarnished brass coffee pot on the stove. She picks them up and returns to the kitchen table where Quigley now stands.


"Now wait a minute," Quigley states, growing more confused and worried by the minute. "Let's get back to reality here. Won't it take weeks or even months just to remember and write down all of the lost information about Project AiCORN? I'm sorry," he laments, "I just don't see how it's possible ­ or even where to begin."


"You should know, Quigley, that I've done this from scratch be- fore," she notes, inspired and clearly rejuvenated.


"I know you have, Terre," he replies respectfully. "But you were in a fancy, expensive, state-of-the-art bio-engineering lab. You had lots of resources to work with. I don't even have central air. I just design, craft and assemble toys. I've got some wood ... a few tools ... couple cans of paint ... some varnish and finishing nails. And you want us to modern- ize public transportation as we know it?"


188 Birth of Project AiTOM



"That's a great start. We'll do just fine, Quigley," she states opti- mistically. "True, it might take a week or two for me to create complete computer schematics for us to design and assemble AiTOM, but we'll do fine."


"How?" he responds anxiously. "I don't even have a computer. And according to Thor, STC trains crammed with AiCORN technology will roll down his railroad tracks in about a month from now."


"More like rolling off the tracks with people in them," she states straight-faced.


"If you're right, this leaves us with some big problems to address," he says, quite confident she wasn't making a joke. "The least of which is to figure out how to build AiTOM before Thor's inaugural event harms those who ride in STC trains during the celebration. Then we have to create and set up a system of I-beam rails for AiTOM to travel along after he's been created. If we're going to offer people a safe al- ternative to passenger rails, then they'll have to experience SkyRails firsthand."


"Agreed," she responds. "Those are central to our project's `to-do' list."


"Here's another one for our list," adds Quigley somberly. "Figure out how not to draw attention to what we're doing so you ­ or we ­ don't get arrested. Don't you think that as long as Thor is around, these things will be next to impossible to accomplish?"


"As long as Thor remains focused on the deadline he just set on FSN," responds Terre assuredly, "and is in total darkness about us at the Knickknackery and Project AiTOM, we'll have time on our side and the benefit of surprise. And did I hear you right?" she asks.


"About what?"


"You've just taken an inanimate SkyTran and assigned it a sex ­ `after he's been created?' It sounds like you're planning to build Dar- ling Denise's kid brother," she says with a smile. "What makes you think he's not going to be a she, anyway?"


"Pardon the pun, Dr. Lane, but I get the feeling you're toying with me," he states with trust and a look of concern. "Even if we manage to


189 Evergreen


keep Thor in the dark, how can the two of us resolve these problems? You said so yourself. It may take weeks just to write down all of Ai- CORN's information before you can even begin AiTOM's schematics. Once that's done, where do we find all the technology and raw material to make it happen? Are we going to build AiTOM out of planks of hardwood and run him on a couple of nine-volt batteries?"


"Hold this, Quigley," she says calmly. He looks down and takes the scratch pad and pencil from her hand. Terre places her hands squarely on his shoulders. Staring directly into his eyes, she states, "You're ab- solutely right. We'll never accomplish this alone. Fortunately, we're not alone."


Terre collects the scratch pad and pencil from Quigley, sits down at the kitchen table and begins to jot down names. As if he's waiting for an answer to her riddle, Quigley doesn't budge. He just stares at Terre, puzzled. Her list grows longer.


Creegan looks over his mother's shoulder and notices "@sci.net" at the top of the page. "Just as I thought, Sci-Net," he states heartily.


Quigley turns to Creegan and then to the scratch pad. "Sci what?" he wonders aloud.


"Sci- Net," confirms Terre, adding a nod. She continues to fill the page.


"At home, Mom's online at Sci-Net almost as many hours a week as she is at work. It covers just about every topic on this planet ­ maybe the universe," he adds. "Just this morning, my friend Digbee snuck on- line using her dad's ID and password."


"Creegan," she states slowly and firmly.


"I'm making a point here, Mom," he follows. "Her dad's a scientist, too, Mr. Q. Even before FSN reported it, she learned that the ter- raquakes we felt before breakfast came from the southern caves that no one goes near. But Digbee found out something really cool from the geeks at Sci-Net that FSN didn't tell us. The vibrations from those caves had patterns in the shape of a voice that was detected beneath the entire Grand Divide. Weird, huh?"


190 Birth of Project AiTOM



"Terre?" prompts Quigley in a fog. "You want to help me out here?"


She stops writing and peers at her son. "Just be sure to tell Ms. Bot- toms what we discussed this morning, or I'll take this matter to her father. Do you hear me?"


"Loud as an express train, Mom," he replies. "But it is a totally awesome site, Mr. Q."


"Well, since that's all cleared up. Sci-Net, Terre?" he asks again.


"Let me show you, Quigley," she states. "It'll make more sense when you see it for yourself." Turning toward the first generation CCC mounted on the living room wall, she asks, "Where's your keyboard to access the net?"


"Hmm. I've never actually used the thing to tell you the truth," he replies reluctantly. "I'll go find it."


"Huh? Really, Mr. Q?" asks Creegan, shocked that anyone over eight could make that claim. "You've never been online?"


"I've had no need to, son. I don't use email, and I think I'm too old to surf," he states. "I guess I'm one of the few left that made it through life without accessing JadeNet." Quigley glances around the room. He focuses on a narrow closet door to the right of the stairs leading to the top floor. "Oh, yeah," he says and walks in that direction. Together, Terre and Creegan watch him in amazement, like they're viewing an escapee from a time capsule.


Quigley opens the closet door and slides over several coats hanging from a metal bar. He shuffles around a few items on the middle and up- per shelf. "Ah," they hear him say to himself. A moment later he emerges with a long, thin box. On its top flat side are the words "CCC- 1B Keyboard" in large letters. In light of a little dust, the sealed box looks like it went from the CCC's original carton directly into the clo- set many years ago.


"I think this is what you want, Terre," he says and hands her the box.


"Smells like moth balls," comments Creegan. "Do you think it will work, Mom?" he asks, eyeing the box doubtfully. "It's kind of ancient."


191 Evergreen



Terre slides her thumbnail across a yellowed seal and says, "If it's the board that came with the CCC, it'll work just fine."


She opens the box to find a gray keyboard and black curly cord in its original plastic sleeve. A piece of paper with a twenty-three-year-old inspection date stamped on the bottom rests on the keyboard inside the sleeve. At the top of the page appear the words "Instructions and Care for the CCC-1B Keyboard." Terre inspects the model number at the bottom corner of the CCC on the living room wall.


"We're in business," she says. "By the way, if you ordered Model 1A, Quigley, you wouldn't have the online capacity ­ just the channels and RTV phone service. The online feature was included in all subse- quent centralized communication centers."


"Now this is an exciting day at the Cumberpatch residence," says Quigley sarcastically. "After twenty-three years, I finally get to go on- line. I know I'll sleep better at night."


Creegan smiles at Quigley. "Now you'll have a reason to," he says, aware of the sarcasm.


Quigley reflects on Creegan's comment. "How old did you say you are?" he quips.


Terre walks over to the CCC controller on the end table. She plugs the keyboard's cord into a circular slot on the rear of the controller and takes a seat on the couch near her daughters. With the keyboard on her lap, Terre reaches over to turn on the CCC. A familiar low-level hum is heard. Closely, she inspects the start-up information that appears on center stage.


"Great! The keyboard is recognized," she states. "We'll be online at Sci-Net in just a few minutes."


"Why do you spend so much time there, Terre?" asks Quigley. "With your mind, I would think people would bother you ten times as much as you would bother them for information."


"It doesn't work like that," she says, typing in basic information re- quested by JadeNet. "Sci-Net involves a small but growing number of scientists who want to stay current ­ I mean day-to-day current ­ in their fields. Some have high-level industry positions like I did, so this


192 Birth of Project AiTOM


network helps them to stay on top of things. It's never been publicized anywhere, so you couldn't have heard about it. And it's remarkably en- crypted, so only members can access it."


"Well, apparently their prying preteens can, too," jokes Quigley.


"Hmm, right," Terre responds, glancing at her son. "Independent of a couple of deviant offspring, it is tightly controlled. The way to join is through an existing member who sponsors you. That person has to have at least three years of experience on Sci-Net. I sponsored Denton last year before we began work on the project. Once you're in, it becomes an invaluable resource. We exchange information, learn about new ad- vances and help one another the best we can. I have found experts in every area related to my research. There are probably hundreds of areas that I haven't even touched."


"What does it have to do with SkyRails?" asks Quigley, cutting to the point.


"One second ­ now you're able to access any site on the net," states Terre. "I've set your email address as `quigley.kk@jaden.net.' JadeNet is the default service provider for all CCC users. You can change your email address or service provider later if you wish."


"That's fine, Terre," states Quigley. "I'm sure I'll get great mileage from it. But let's get back to Sci-Net and SkyRails. Please connect the dots for me."


Terre exits the "JadeNet First-Time Users" information window, types in a new net address and hits the return key. She turns to Quigley and says, "This is the home page of Sci-Net."


"Boring," responds Creegan to what he sees.


A plain gray window that asks for a "user name" appears center stage. Terre types a few keystrokes. A new window appears that re- quests the user to select a pre-chosen "graphic passkey" from among 2,000 photos of nature organized alpha-numerically. She quickly scrolls down through hundreds of the images and clicks on her graphic passkey. One final window appears that requests the user to type in a preset "password," and Terre obliges.


193 Evergreen



"That's the encryption, Mr. Q," says Creegan, staring at the screen. "Now Mom is in."


"That's a lot of stuff to memorize if you ask me," says Quigley. "Especially if only a bunch of ­ what did you call them, Cree?"


"Uh, geeks?"


"Right, if only a bunch of geeks use the thing."


Together they watch Sci-Net protocol come and go in white letter- ing against a black background. Once the information passes, a banner appears at the top of the screen that reads "Home Page of Dr. Terre Bristol-Lane." As the page continues to load, Terre turns to Quigley and says, "The biggest advantage for us is that Sci-Net also includes a network of scientists with extensive and reliable underground connec- tions to anything we would ever need. They would get it to us discreetly with no questions asked."


Quigley's eyebrows raise at the center as he ponders the possibili- ties. "Are you sure they can get anything we need? And have it delivered here? Without being detected? No strings attached?" he asks skeptically.


"Yes, yes, yes and yes," Terre replies confidently. "That's how a few components in Project AiCORN were obtained. It would have taken for- ever to go through the proper channels at Scripps and then at Forge headquarters to approve and manufacture new parts. Members of the Sci- Net underground understand the importance of timing, and they won't compromise quality or our anonymity in the process." Terre returns to the screen and glances at her message bin. "So Sci-Net will be the key," she continues, "to construct ­ Oh my twin stars!" she shouts breathlessly.


Startled by the outburst, Tanayna and Tatiana are jolted awake. They rise from their nap and slowly stretch their arms.


"Mom, what do you see?" asks Creegan with alarm. He and Quig- ley examine the center quad for clues.


While Terre anticipated correspondence from concerned colleagues, it is a blinking red light next to one email in particular that causes her excitement. The blinking light indicates that Dr. Denton Tuggle sent


194 Birth of Project AiTOM


her an alpha priority message. Standard Sci-Net email is always as- signed a beta priority. The date and time indicate that the message was sent earlier in the day just before noon. The subject reads "Project Da- ta," and an unusually large attachment is ready for download.


A tear wells in Terre's eye. "Now it makes sense," she says calmly.


"What makes sense?" asks Quigley, delighted to see she's settled down.


"Why Denton took so long to toss me the flash drive he was down- loading project files onto."


"The one they shot up?" asks Creegan.


"Yes," she replies with a nervous chuckle. "The one they shot up. He wasn't downloading anything at all to that disk. He got into his Sci- Net account and uploaded all of the project files as an alpha priority attachment from the workstation's hard drive. He knew the alpha trans- fer would be safe and undetected. Not only did he throw off Thor and his trigger-happy henchmen, he threw me off as well." Terre pauses for a moment. "Nicely done," she says with a smirk.


Creegan interrupts with another question. "Can you download the attachment here, Mom? You know, if you wanted to get started now."


"Project AiCORN files couldn't be safer where they are, Cree," she replies. "That's what counts. When we're ready to get started, I can download the attachment anytime." Terre turns to Quigley with a de- termined look and raised eyebrow. This is one time when it's not difficult to decipher her thoughts. For a few seconds, they exchange a great deal of information without saying a word. Quigley decides to break the silence.


"I know what you're thinking, Terre," he says, pacing in his living room. "We can now cross off the first item on our list, so work on Ai- TOM can begin immediately." He stops to take in all that is around him. "Let me try to explain to you what I'm feeling ­"


Terre closes her eyes tightly. She believes that Quigley's unwilling to see beyond the many personal risks and potential dangers. She un- derstands, of course. But it doesn't make it any easier.


195 Evergreen



Quigley continues his thought. "­ and what I propose for us to do to make SkyRails a reality," he adds, ready to take the next step.


With those simple but weighty words, Creegan lights up. "Yes!" he says, trying to hold back his excitement. He grabs the SkyTran and runs into the kitchen, sliding onto his knees just short of the sink. He turns toward the living room and does the same slide in front of Wysiwyg. "Girl!" he shouts. "We're going to build AiTOM for real! Mom and Quigley are going to make it happen!"


Apparently, Creegan's enthusiasm isn't so contagious. The sleepy chuckachu raises an eye and ear to acknowledge his presence and then rolls over for a belly rub ­ her legs upright and paws bent over. Within seconds, she's fast asleep.


Terre takes a grateful breath. She mouths the words "Thank you" to Quigley standing a few feet away. She hugs her sleepy-eyed daughters, who try to make sense out of what's just happened.


"No," responds Quigley gently, "I should thank you. You're the one who's going to take my invention to a height I've only dreamed of reaching," he says teary-eyed.


"Is that another pun, Mr. Q?" asks Creegan, lying next to Wysiwyg on the floor.


He smiles at Creegan. "Together we're going to spare Jaden of a lot of hardship and make it a better place at the same time," states Quigley with conviction. "What else could an old toy designer ask for? Okay, more customers for one thing. Prunes without pits ­ that's another. But then that's everything," he adds. Terre laughs in delight at his charm.


Quigley looks at each child. "Since every Lane is affected, then every Lane will have a part to play. Even these two little angels," he states, looking at Tanayna and Tatiana on the couch next to their mother.


"And Denise," says Tatiana. "She wants to help, too."


"She is just a well-dressed piece of wood," remarks Creegan, still on the floor. "But, hey, if you can find something for her to do, then who am I to stand in her way."


196 Birth of Project AiTOM



"Yes," replies Quigley, matching her serious tone, "and Denise, too." Wiping the tears from his eyes, he walks into the kitchen to grab two chairs. "We'll definitely need her help," he chuckles aloud, "and a heck of a lot more," he adds under his breath for no one to hear. He re- turns to the living room with the chairs.


Creegan stands, and they each take a seat in front of the couch fac- ing Terre and the twins. Wysiwyg rises from her nap and decides to participate in the family discussion by parking herself under Creegan's chair. Within seconds, her eyes close and she's fast asleep.


Quigley begins to describe what he believes are, at heart, the main issues to address. "Together, we have two goals to reach," he says, "and they must be met within one month from now."


"In time for Thor to launch his STC Rail Lines, Mr. Q?" asks Creegan.


"Hopefully, before he launches them." Determined, he turns to Terre and firmly states, "We must prove to the public that you're inno- cent of Thor's charges, not because you didn't try to destroy Project AiCORN, but because you felt you had no choice but to do it."


"You go, Mr. Q!" shouts Tanayna. Creegan and Tatiana join in a brief chorus of support.


"Please, children, let Quigley speak," replies their mother.


"We must demonstrate," he continues, "that your actions today were justified because they were meant to protect people from Thor's plans. You did what was necessary to avert future rail disasters and prevent countless deaths ­ something anyone would do in your position."


"I think I know where you're headed with this," says Terre. "The way to prove this to the public is for us to build and launch AiTOM before Thor launches the first Sunshine Transit Corporation locomo- tive. We will present the SkyTran as a safe, smooth, quiet, and pollution-free alternative to Forge's `historic' advancement in railroad transportation. At the same time, we can inform the public that Forge Enterprises already knew about the range of potential hazards with Ai- CORN technology documented by me. I have all of these interoffice memos in the files Denton sent through Sci-Net," she says. "By the


197 Evergreen


time we present AiTOM and the truth about AiCORN technology, no one will want to climb aboard an STC Rail Line."


"Won't that ruin him?" asks Creegan naively.


"No, not at all," Terre responds. "On FSN Thor said that he's not upgrading all of his passenger trains for another year. So those loud, filthy engines will still be out there. The loss of his STC Rail Lines will make a dent in his wallet, though. That alone will enrage him ­ the mi- ser." She pauses for a moment to collect her thoughts. "I know Thor pretty well," she admits. "It may get ugly at times. If he can't get rid of me now, he'll certainly do everything in his power to get rid of me the moment he learns of our plans."


"Then he just can't learn of `em," says Creegan assertively. "We'll just have to make sure of it. At least not until we're ready to launch AiTOM."


"That's essential, Cree," states Quigley. "Right now Thor has two big advantages over us: your mom's actions today at the Scripps' lab and his ability to use FSN to completely define to the public what hap- pened and why. We can't change either of his advantages now, but we can certainly do our best to redefine them when the time is right."


"What do you mean by redefine, Mr. Q?" asks Creegan.


"Because of the way Thor presented what your mother did today and why, we must prove that she is not a criminal. She's quite the con- trary, in fact. When Thor told your mom about his plans for Project AiCORN before she left for work this morning, she knew the project just wasn't ready. She also knew that something had to be done to pre- vent his plans from being carried out. As AiCORN's Project Director, your mom was the only person in a position to stop him. The drastic measures and personal risks that she took were designed to save lives, Cree, and people need to know this. They will come to know this, but not right now."


"Mom's like a superhero," says Creegan proudly. "She fights Thor, the greedy corporate giant, and protects the public from his wretched, self-serving policies all at the same time."


198 Birth of Project AiTOM



Stunned, Terre stares at Creegan and asks, "Where do you come up with this stuff? In all of your shows and comic books, how many su- perheroes have gotten fired from their job and made the most wanted list all in the same day?"


"You're in a class by yourself, Mom," he responds lovingly.


"That's for sure," says Quigley. "And there's only one way to keep Jaden's superhero out of the Gravenwood Penal Mines. Turn Thor's own media on himself. They must focus on how his impatience and greed caused him to disregard important project findings and ignore the welfare of our citizens. Before long, public pressure will follow." Quig- ley turns to Terre. "That should not only get him off your back, it should cause the courts to drop all charges. It also opens up a great op- portunity for people to experience a true revolution in travel."


"I like your plan," she replies, surprised and appreciative of how well it is thought out. "But the courts are sympathetic to the Forge fam- ily. It's more likely that I'll need a miracle to clear up this mess rather than strong public support ­ although both would be nice."


"I believe in miracles, Terre," notes Quigley passionately. "Some might say your safe arrival at the Knickknackery all the way from Scripps is a miracle. Don't tell me science has tempered your belief in them."


With Creegan and the twins awaiting a response, she replies, "It's more like science makes me look for underlying explanations if a mira- cle should appear ­ like my explanation of how I made it here."


"And if someday you can't come up with an explanation for what you see?" asks Quigley.


"Then that would be a miracle," interjects Creegan with a chuckle.


Quigley extends a smile to his young friend. "It is clear how, in many ways, you are like your mother," he says.


"Well let's just take it one day at a time," observes Terre. "What do you propose are our next steps, Quigley?" she asks, mindful of her children and the Sgt. Major. "It's obvious I can't go home. There's lit- tle doubt that right now the FSF are camped outside our house waiting for me to return."


199 Evergreen



"I want you to stay here at the Knickknackery, Terre," he replies. "There's a second bedroom upstairs that I sometimes use to draft new ideas. It's yours. If Thor thought you were here, the FSF would have already stormed the shop. So I'm sure you're safe ­ if we can just keep it a secret." Quigley gazes into the eyes of each child. "Can each of you keep this a secret?" he asks, dead serious. "I mean from your friends and teachers ­ everyone you know?"


"Oh yes," they say at once, nodding their heads.


"We'll tell no one," states Creegan. "We promise."


Terre feels quite uncomfortable with this simple exchange. A stick- ler for detail, she feels there's much more to be discussed than a guarantee of secrecy both for her and a futuristic project called Ai- TOM. She wants nothing to be left to chance. Terre takes a seat next to the twins on the couch and summons Creegan to join them. After a few seconds pass to gather her thoughts, Terre confides in her children about her feelings and their family's immediate future.


"This is very important, so please listen carefully," she states. "I'm so sorry that I've put all of us in this position. I don't know what I thought would happen, but I didn't expect what you saw on FSN. I hope that someday you'll understand why I did this and, maybe, each of you will find it in you to forgive me."


Creegan looks at his two sisters and then back at his mom. "The way we see it, Mom," he says, speaking on their behalf, "what you did today and what you and Mr. Q are planning to do are bigger than any one family. We may be inconvenienced for a couple of weeks, but we're proud of you. And we'll do what we can to help."


"Yeah, Mommy," adds Tanayna. "What Cree just said. We're real proud of you, and we hate Thor."


Tatiana nods in agreement. Unexpectedly, she says, "Denise thinks you and Mr. Q are both heroes."


Her statement is the emotional tipping point for both superheroes, even if it was sent by a well-dressed wooden doll. Terre reaches over to Quigley and gently squeezes his hand.


200 Birth of Project AiTOM



"There's no need to wait, Mom," replies Creegan. "Apology one hundred percent accepted. Now let's get on with building AiTOM."


Terre tightly embraces her daughters and reaches over to include Creegan in a group hug. Quigley watches from a few feet away. After a few seconds, he turns away to wipe the tears from his eyes. From under her mother's arm, Tanayna sniffles and asks, "How long will you stay here, Mommy? Can we come here to visit you?"


"I can't say for certain, dear. It may be as long as a month, like Mr. Q suggested," she replies candidly. "Before you know it, we'll be to- gether again. Don't think for a minute that we won't be in touch every day, okay?"


Terre's comment raises Creegan's curiosity. "How, Mom?" he asks. "Thor's going to monitor all RTVs in and out of our house."


"True, we can't use the standard RTV lines to call one another be- cause of Thor," she simpers. "But we can use Sci-Net's alpha mode built into the RTV as often as we like. It's designed just for this pur- pose ­ to prevent industrial sabotage."


Clueless, the children stare at their mother. Quigley does the same.


"Okay, in English," Terre follows. "To guarantee total security, site-to-site transmissions can't be detected. So there's no tracing or possible opportunity for anyone to listen in."


"Now wasn't that easier to say?" asks Quigley.


"Not really," she replies.


"Uh, Mom," Creegan says, beaming. "Does this mean a change in Lane policy regarding the use of Sci-Net?"


"Drastic times require drastic measures, Cree. I'll make the ar- rangements to sponsor you as a Sci-Net member and provide you with all the necessary access information."


"Cool!" he replies. "Wait until my friends hear that I'm going to be on ­"


"Creegan Yeager Lane!" shouts his mother firmly. "What did we just agree ­"


"­ Psych!" he interrupts bravely.


201 Evergreen



His mom's scowl slowly turns into a friendly grin as he and his sis- ters' giggles turn into laughter. Even Quigley finds the bluff amusing. Amid the lighthearted moment, Terre knows she has one more topic to discuss with her children before the unthinkable occurs ­ their travel home alone. She also knows the topic has been delayed long enough.


"Children we need to discuss your grandpa and how things at home must run over the next few weeks," she begins in a forced, upbeat voice. The living room quickly quiets down.


"Every day there are bellies to be fed and chores to be done," Terre states, "and the house must remain in working order. I do not expect any of you, including Grandpa, to do any more chores than you already do each day. But I am relying on you to continue to get them done. I promise that I'll call you every day. When I do, I hope you'll tell me that your chores are getting done and that the house stays in working order," she says, wagging her index finger, "just like when I'm at home. Knowing how each of you handles your chores, I'm going to place two RTVs a day just to get after you," she states with a wink and a smile.


The sudden emotional shift from not knowing when they would see their mother again to a promise of two real-time visits per day proves to be too much for the twins. Overcome with joy, the girls throw their arms around their mother and begin to cry. In between the gasps, Ta- nayna sounds out, "Can ... we ... talk ... as long ... as we ... want?"


"Of course, dear," replies her mother tenderly. "You can fill me in on everything that happens each day. You won't be alone, either, whether in the morning, noon or at night."


"I don't know, Mom," says Creegan. "There have been times when Grandpa and I have been in the same room and I still felt alone. I'm not sure that a gaggle of Grandpa Lanes would make a difference."


"That may be true, at times, Cree. And I'm sorry when it does hap- pen. But I'm not referring to the Sgt. Major," she says. "I'm planning on contacting my colleagues at Sci-Net, explaining what really hap- pened, and requesting a special favor."


202 Birth of Project AiTOM



"What kind of favor?" asks Creegan. "You want to ask a bunch of pencil-pushing geeks with tape wrapped around the bridge of their glasses to stop by? Maybe cook us a meal? Tell us a few jokes that we'll never understand? Explain physics to me ten years before it's a homework assignment?"


"I wouldn't be so smug if I were you," she replies. "You'll likely be one of them someday. Besides, what you've just described sounds aw- fully good to me. But I have something else in mind. Actually, it's an APB of my own," she says. "I'm going to put out a search for a live-in housekeeper who has experience with children and `eccentric' older men."


"That's a great idea, Terre," says Quigley. "Not only will she help out with the children and the Sgt. Major, but she'll also give you peace of mind ­ and me as well."


"You mean a lady will come to live with us for a while and do some of the things that you do until you come home forever?" asks Tatiana thoughtfully. "Even tuck us into bed and tell us stories at night?"


"Well ... yes, but I'll always try to call before bedtime, Tatiana," replies Terre. "And don't be surprised if the housekeeper is not a lady."


"Huh?" wonders Creegan. "You mean she might be a school teach- er?"


"I have no idea what that means, Cree," states Terre. "The house- keeper may be female or male. It will just depend on who receives the best recommendations in the shortest time period. I'm going to ... get back ... online ... shortly and ... " Terre pauses several times in mid- sentence. She stops and looks around the room. She has the feeling that something unusual is about to occur, but she can't quite figure it out.


Wysiwyg jumps up from her spot underneath Creegan's chair. Be- cause he moved to the couch to sit near his mom, the large chuckachu easily knocks the chair backwards onto the floor. Wysiwyg's unex- pected movement and loud sound startles everyone into stillness. Sitting fixed and upright on her hind legs, she emits a steady, high- pitched whine.


203 Evergreen



"What's the matter, girl?" asks Creegan, concerned about her bi- zarre behavior.


A low-level rumble is first felt and then heard. It begins to gain strength. As it does, Wysiwyg slies over to Creegan and rests her head in his lap, still whining repetitively.


"Stay calm, children," remarks their mother. "It's a terraquake. We've been through them before. This one will soon pass."


Suddenly, items on the walls, shelves and tables in Quigley's kitch- en and living room quiver and shake. In the background, a siren wails across Bristlecone to warn people of pending danger.


"Mommy! I'm scared!" cries Tatiana over the sounds of dishes clat- tering, pictures rattling, and the city's civil alert system wailing.


Within seconds, the entire room rocks back and forth several feet, forcing the antique toys, lamps and many other household objects onto the floor. Quigley frantically rushes over to the couch to place his upper body over Creegan. Terre already has blanketed the twins to the best of her ability. The walls seem like they are about to buckle around them.


"Hang in there!" yells Quigley. "We'll be alright!"


At once the deafening sounds stop. All that remains is the distant si- ren still warning people about the terraquake. Seconds later the siren winds down.


"Is everyone okay?" asks Terre, brushing dust off the girls and herself.


"I'm okay, Mommy," responds Tanayna. She turns to her sister and asks, "How about you?"


Motionless, Tatiana still clings to her mother. She opens one eye. "Is it over?"


"Uh huh," replies Creegan. He and Quigley also rise from the couch and dust themselves off. "Thanks for the security blanket, Mr. Q," he adds gratefully. "That was quite a ride."


"Anytime, son," he responds fondly. "Hopefully no more rides, though." Quigley walks toward the large wooden door that leads down- stairs to the Knickknackery. "I'm going to check on the damage to the showroom and workshop," he says. "I'll be back in a few minutes." Be-


204 Birth of Project AiTOM


fore he leaves, he walks over to straighten the CCC on the wall. Once it's level, Quigley states, "You may want to turn on the news to see if the terraquake damaged anything major like the water or rail lines or even your neighborhood."


Tanayna looks at Quigley's latest invention on the floor between the kitchen and living room. "Looks like SkyRails made it okay, Mr. Q," she says.


He turns toward the oval set-up that still supports the three remain- ing SkyCabs. "Well, would you look at that," he says softly. "The whole thing scooted around a little, but none of it collapsed." Quigley visually inspects the unique, A-shaped trestles from where he stands and then continues toward the doorway to his showroom. "It must be quake-proof," he observes as he slowly opens the door.


"I'll check out the news, Quigley," replies Terre, clicking the re- mote to the CCC. "While you check on things downstairs, we'll clean up the mess around here. Kids, will you give me a hand straightening up things?"


FSN announcer Glades Wilcoxon discusses the latest damage to Ja- den in the background as the Lanes begin to scoot chairs back into place, dust the tables and counter tops, reorganize the contents of two cupboards, and pick up items that fell to the floor. During this time, Terre thinks about the experience they just shared.


"This terraquake reminds me of the one we felt last month," she says out loud to no one in particular. "In fact, it was nothing like this morning's quake or the others we felt over the past day or so."


"That's because those weren't terraquakes," states Creegan as he wipes off the kitchen table with a moist paper towel. "Really, Mom. You should start paying closer attention to the folks at Sci-Net."


"You mean my `geeky' friends?" she replies chuckling. "I know, a voice resonated from beneath the Grand Divide," she says cynically. "I'll have to look closely at that data set when I get a chance."


"... to summarize," states the FSN news anchor loud enough to catch Terre's attention, "according to geologic experts at the Institute of


205 Evergreen


Scientific Knowledge at Cedar Bluff, the twenty second terraquake which originated from Mount Ano'lei to the northwest no longer poses a threat to Jaden. While there are many reports of damage to personal and commercial property, you will be happy to learn that the Corps of Engineers report no structural damage to any part of our city. Our pow- er, water, communication and transportation lines are in working order. Now back to our day's top story at the Scripps Science Center." Click


"Well, at least it's safe for you to travel on the rail system," says Terre under her breath. She picks up the keyboard from beneath the end table, sits down on the couch and places it on her lap. Next, she presses two buttons on the remote pad and types a few keystrokes on the key- board. Within seconds, Terre is in Sci-Net filling out a page titled "Sponsoring a New Member." It doesn't take long for Creegan to rec- ognize what his mother is up to.


"Cool!" he shouts, in view of the CCC. "Hey, Mom. How about setting my user ID to `boy genius' and password to `Wysiwyg'?"


Straight-faced, Terre looks directly into Creegan's eyes as she con- tinues to fill in the requested information. "Tear off a page from the scratch pad, Cree, and bring it to me, please," she requests. He hands her a blank page. Carefully, she records a few lines of information on it and returns the page to Creegan. "This information will allow you to access Sci-Net 24/7. With it, you can read and send email, place or re- ceive an RTV or ­"


"­ I know how it works, Mom," he says impatiently. Creegan glances at the page's content.


"I'm sure you do," she replies. "But if you're ever in doubt, just press Alt-H to use the help feature, and follow the instructions. That's included in the information I just gave you."


"I see it," he replies, now studying the page more carefully.


"And please," Terre urges, "do not change any of the user settings. You're in alpha priority mode by default. Some of us affectionately re- fer to it as `stealth mode' because you're virtually invisible except to those at Sci-Net you wish to contact."


206 Birth of Project AiTOM



"Got it," he responds. "Don't mess with the user settings and stay stealthy."


Terre takes a deep, anxious breath. "Anyway," she continues, "on the page, you'll notice that you've been assigned a user ID, passkey number, and password. In order, they are AiTOM, 1109, and Yeager. Remember, this information is all case sensitive. So be careful to type it in as you see it."


"Got it," he states again. "ID, passkey and password, in that order. All are case sensitive." Creegan tucks the page into the front pocket of his trousers.


"I hope so," she replies, "because that's the only way we can visit. For now, it's just too risky for us to meet. That will change, but let me handle the details."


"What's that sound?" asks Tanayna fearfully. Everyone freezes in place. A slow, steady thump is heard, and it seems to be getting closer. The children can feel the vibration under their feet. The sound prompts Wysiwyg to run toward its origin near the stairs. Her tail is raised high. "It's not another ­"


"­ toy designer, Sis?" interrupts Creegan. "Nope. It's just the same one we're holding hostage."


"Creegan!" shouts his mom. She glares in his direction and quickly turns to Tanayna. "It's Mr. Cumberpatch, dear, returning from down- stairs," she replies reassuringly.


The large wooden door leading downstairs slowly creaks open. Quigley walks in expressionless, though he's a little winded from climbing the stairs.


"Well," he says, closing the door behind him, "the good news is that only about five percent of my inventory is seriously damaged. The toys can be repaired, but it will take some time. The bad news is that my shelves are just about empty from the terraquake. So, the Knick- knackery will need to keep its doors closed for the next week or maybe longer," he states with a cunning look.


Terre reads through his words of misfortune. "Are you sure?" she asks in earnest.


207 Evergreen



"After I do all of the needed repairs, organize the shelves and assess the inventory," he replies, "then I can think about re-opening the doors. Right now there's a new sign in my front window that says `Closed for Repairs. Please Come Again. Will Re-open Soon.'"


"I'm sorry that the terraquake closed down your toy store, Mr. Cumberpatch," states Tatiana articulately.


"Thank you, little angel," he replies, "but you needn't feel sorry. We just bought ourselves some quality time to begin our work on Ai- TOM. After all," he says happily, "my workshop is just fine."


Quigley looks around the second floor of his home. "My, all of you have been busy, haven't you?" he states. "Not a dust bunny to be found." Over a few giggles from the girls, he says, "I do appreciate your kind work."


"You're entirely welcome," replies Tatiana, bouncing Darling De- nise on her lap.


Quigley notices Terre at the keyboard with Sci-Net active on center stage. "Terre, did you hear anything on the news about the extent of damage from the terraquake? If we were shaken to the bones, others had to get knocked around pretty bad, too."


"Yes, I know," she says. "I'm worried about the Sgt. Major. I can't just call home because they'll easily trace it here. According to the news, all of the utility and rail systems were unaffected by the quake. There was a little property damage around the city like what happened here."


"Well, that's good news," replies Quigley.


For the children, his optimism is overshadowed by the implications of the news. The rail system is intact, and soon they must head home. Their collective anxiety is compounded with their mother's next words.


"It's getting on in the day, children," she states. For the first time, her voice sounds a little shaky. Sensing this, she turns to her son and gently places her hands on his shoulders. Now more focused, she says, "Cree, I want you and your sisters to return home to Grandpa by the second sun set. I'm sure he's wondering what's happened to all of us, especially if he's turned on FSN or accepted an RTV. I have a plan to


208 Birth of Project AiTOM


get all of you home to our cellar door undetected," she adds, trying to avoid any further emotion. "I know you have the key, right, Cree?" He double-checks his pocket and nods.


A sinking feeling is felt by each child. Quigley feels it too but does his best to put on a brave face. One at a time, Creegan, Tanayna and Tatiana sit next to each other on the couch to hear their mother's plan to get them home safely. Quigley takes a seat, too. Even Wysiwyg makes her way over to Creegan to provide emotional support.


"Quigley," she begins, "I need to ask a big favor of you."


"What, you want store credit?" he jokes. "Anything, Terre," he says resolutely. "Just tell me what you want me to do."


"I need you to help the children and Wysiwyg arrive home safely," she says. "Clearly, it's hunting season on me. So I hope you can take them to the Hawthorne Hollow Depot, board the train and accompany them to our neighborhood at Longwood Gardens. At that point, half of my plan will be complete. Don't enter our neighborhood with the chil- dren, Quigley," states Terre. "Just see to it that they enter it."


"Of course," replies Quigley. "Express trains east to Longwood Gardens occur at the top of each hour." He glances at the dual sun ter- ra-cotta clock on the kitchen wall. "That's in about 50 minutes."


"Half the plan, Mom?" asks Creegan, puzzled. "Where do we go from there?"


"From the front entrance of our development, the four of you will cut through the Redmond's backyard to the left. It will be near dusk by then, so you'll have some cover. Quickly and quietly make your way to the woods behind Densmore Avenue. Follow the backyard fences to No. 7 ­ not behind our fence. Wait there until your hear some noise. It will come from the street in front of No. 7."


"Uh, what kind of noise?" asks Creegan.


"There will be some people arguing," she replies.


"About what?" he follows curiously.


"Never mind about that, Cree," insists Terre. "When you hear the commotion, quietly go to our backyard fence, open it and run like a


209 Evergreen


spooked chuckachu to our cellar door. Unlock the door and carefully go downstairs into the basement. Cree, be sure to lock the cellar door once everyone is inside."


Quigley shakes his head in disbelief. "So how will your diversion work?" he asks. "And when did you find the time to make up this stuff?"


"Well," says Creegan, "you know what they say about the criminal mind."


"Oh no," mutters Quigley under his breath.


"No," responds his mother indignantly. "What do they say?"


"Uhm, about the, uh, diversion, Mom," he stammers. "How does it work?"


"Right. As soon as you leave for the Hawthorne Hollow Depot," she says, "I'm going to contact several friends at Sci-Net. Among the issues I'll raise is to have a few of them meet in front of No. 7 Dens- more Avenue just before the second sunset. At that time, they'll intentionally get into a loud scuff. This should distract the FSF officers long enough for all of you to get inside without being detected."


"Okay," says Creegan. "But Mom, you promise to call tonight on Sci-Net so I can fill you in on what happened?"


"I want to talk to you, too, Mommy," says Tanayna.


"Me too," Tatiana adds. "I wanna talk to you, too."


"You're all brave, strong children, and your mom and I are very proud of you," says Quigley.


"I promise I'll speak with each of you," says Terre, "for as long as you like. Also, I'll need to speak with Grandpa, so be sure to give him some RTV time. Remember, too, that I'm going to find a live-in housekeeper to help around the house and take care of Grandpa. I'll fill you in on all of the details about the person well in advance, so you'll know when to expect a knock on the door. Okay?" she asks. Several seconds pass with no response. "Okay?" she repeats.


Terre knows their silence doesn't indicate an unwillingness to follow her instructions. It's just their way of saying they don't want to let go.


210 Birth of Project AiTOM



"I understand, children," she says lovingly. "I'm sorry. But I prom- ise this will not last."


Terre walks to the couch for a last group hug. Each of the children begins to cry in their mother's arms. Terre closes her eyes tightly and quietly sobs. The honeysuckle scent of her twins' hair from last night's bath triggers unexpected hysteria. Partly due to their fear and sadness and partly due to an uncertainty about the future, the Lane family is embraced in a deep, emotional goodbye.


"H-o-o-o-w-l!" bawls Wysiwyg, sitting upright next to Creegan on the couch. The sound of her sudden, high-pitched howl drowning out their shared grief causes Terre to burst into laughter. Creegan immedi- ately follows, and seconds later all of the Lanes are laughing, teary- eyed, hugging their caring but over-sensitive chuckachu and one an- other.


Wisely, during this time, Quigley collects their coats, along with Darling Denise. He also takes out a medium-size burlap bag and places his prototype SkyTran, three SkyCabs and the I-beam rail system inside it. He hopes to surprise the children with its contents at some point dur- ing the train ride home.


"Be sure you leave through the workshop in the back and take the route in the woods that I took to get here," states Terre as she helps Ta- nayna and Tatiana slip on their coats. Terre feels the urge to brush her girls' hair one last time before they go. She reaches through a large bul- let hole in one side of her shoulder bag and pulls out the top half of a brush. Tanayna and Tatiana sit up straight to show they're ready to be pampered. Their mother obliges but only with a dozen or so strokes for each of the twins.


"You mean the old hiker's trail," replies Quigley, putting on his coat and picking up the burlap bag.


"Right," she replies, sliding the broken hairbrush back through the bullet hole in her shoulder bag.


"Creegan, do you have everything ­ the cellar key and the paper with all of the Sci-Net information?"


211 Evergreen



"Yes, Mom," replies Creegan. "I've got it all with me." Half- heartedly, he buttons his coat and wipes his eyes. He and his sisters are now ready to leave their mom at the Knickknackery. For how long is anybody's guess.


"Well, we have a train to catch," says Quigley, walking toward the door. "Terre, the children and their grandfather will visit with you later this evening." He smiles and adds, "So don't go out dancing and forget to call." Quigley opens the door and is the first one down the stairs. Re- luctantly, the children trudge behind him.


"I love you," says their mother tenderly from the top of the stair- well. She rests her head against the wooden door frame, waiting to hear her children's voices one last time before they leave.


"I love you too, Mommy," she hears at the same time from her children in the hallway below.


Terre takes a deep breath and closes the door. "I must be the lucki- est mom in the land to have such wonderful children," she says to herself. She walks toward the window that overlooks the park and gi- gantic bristlecone tree. For the first time since she left for work that morning, Terre observes the way the suns warm the forests that blanket the surrounding hillsides. She stands by the window, completely still, in awe of the natural beauty.


Muted in the background, below her active Sci-Net screen, FSN continues to broadcast an All Points Bulletin for the arrest of Dr. Terre Bristol-Lane.




212 Chapter Eleven


Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II




213 Evergreen



T


wo hundred miles west of Mesequoya, four battle-scarred escorts


plod wearily along just above the eastern mountain peaks of the


Grand Divide. On the horizon ahead, Evergreen's two suns finish their arc of descent one by one. The brilliant light of the highest and far- thest sun filters through the clouds to produce intense highlights of orange and rose. The deep golden glow of the closest sun, now nearly hidden be- hind the tallest peaks of the Grand Divide, signals to all animates throughout the land that the bronze evening sky will soon appear.


Flying on a northerly path with Gaia resting comfortably in their grasp, the four butterflies clear the tips of thousands of evergreens. A strong, humid breeze rushes across their bodies and slows their pace. Off in the distance is a steady thunderous roll. At once, they are struck with a breathtaking vision. Gliding out from the forest's edge into the abyss of an immense ravine, each escort butterfly takes in the grandeur of the sight. The countless miles of tree-lined mountain peaks abruptly give way to a gray stone ridge that drops several miles straight down to the water's misty surface. Covering the jagged face of the stone ridge are large, ancient roots and wide, partially-leaved branches that have found their way through the rocky surface to sunlight. Hundreds of cave openings in various shapes and sizes also cover the ridge. The sight of a flock of ospreys hovering outside a small cave opening below gives rise to some uneasiness among the four escorts, in light of the earlier trauma inflicted by silver-beaked blackbirds.


"They're in my sight," says Gaia reassuringly to her companions in flight. "Please continue on."


The presence of Gaia provides the group with a sense of security and confidence. It's not just her words that provide comfort to the large winged creatures she entrusts with her life. Nor is it the unworldly power she revealed earlier in the day when attacked by angry blackbirds num- bering in the thousands. To her escorts Gaia is an enigma, an innocent butterfly pupa embodied with powers of an enchanted warrior veiled within a delicate gold and teal-rippled cocoon. In their short time to- gether they have developed a deep reverence and respect for Gaia. They


214 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II


now see her for more than she appears to be and understand that the journey foretold by the Golem is more important than ever imagined.


Flying into the breeze on a heading that takes them away from the steep stone ridge, the escorts veer to the right and circle downward.


"Ahead, just above that thick bare branch, there's a cave large enough to hold us," Gaia instructs the group. "We'll rest there until the suns cast their final rays. At that time, the key will be revealed to us."


The four escorts acknowledge the command without hesitation. With swiftness and grace, they land just inside the cave and gently rest the chrysalis on the damp, musty floor facing the entrance. Each escort, also facing the cave opening, remains still and vigilant at Gaia's side, like soldiers not yet at-ease.


As the butterflies wait patiently, their attention turns toward the disquieting thunder of cascading waterfalls across the ravine. Atop the miles-high falls are three rocky crests that are as far above them as the water's surface is below. An endless torrent surges from each crest to the bottom of the ravine, like an ocean pouring its contents off the edge of the earth. From their vantage point in the cave, roiling clouds of mist are all that they can see below. Directly above, rainbows of various in- tensities seem to touch the falls and reach across the ravine. Moments after these colorful archways appear, they vanish like apparitions, de- pending on the suns' locations and the amount of moisture in the air.


With echoes of wind and rolling thunder defining the stillness in the cave, Gaia decides to break the silence of the moment. Through her partially shredded and largely transparent cocoon, she addresses them in a heavy voice.


"My brave friends, I feel many battles lie ahead, but I do not know when or where they will be fought. I fear there will be many losses, but I do not know who they will be or the extent of the peril."


Each butterfly turns to look at Gaia. She stares out into the ravine, pondering her next words. The reality of her candor catches them off- guard. She looks directly into the eyes of each escort, one at a time, and continues in a more willful tone.


215 Evergreen



"While I have never seen the faces of those who plan to harm our kind and end this crucial journey, they are our true enemies. They in- fluence the minds of those weaker than themselves. Once in control, they have their minions carry out their evil plans." Gaia lowers her head slightly. The deep, leathery ridges above both sets of her eyes lower at the center and wrinkle. "It is clear to me," she continues, "that I am here to confront them, one at a time, and end such ... incivility." Once again she stares out into the ravine. Several large rainbows appear and soon vanish. She seems to ignore them.


Gaia's four companions gaze in awe at their special friend. Slowly, they break from their trances and join Gaia. The group peers out across the ravine at the beauty and vastness of the falls. A thick, cool spray reaches into the cave and wisps around them. This provides some re- freshment for the weary travelers as they await the last leg of their momentous journey.


Several hundred feet above, legions of birds clear the tree-lined mountain peak and quietly descend into the ravine in search of their own cave openings. Some are larger birds of prey who are governed by Syrus ­ the feared ruler of all winged carnivores throughout the land. Others, like the silver-beaked blackbirds, are less under Syrus' direct control. Instead, they joined the crusade to exact revenge on Gaia and any insect who supports what she did to thousands of their kind during the morning hours. Within minutes these savage marauders crowd into cave openings and await further orders.


As the day's final beams of light cross the misty ravine, a golden glow is cast across the miles-high stone ridge. Close inspection of the uneven ridge reveals quiet shadows stirring within the darkness of the cave open- ings. In one of the larger caves rests Taggart and members of his flock. Taggart, a dark green and gray osprey, is an important leader in Syrus' crusade. Once he and his operatives learn of the location where Gaia plans to complete her journey, Taggart will take this information back to Syrus.


One hundred miles south of the ravine, Syrus rests in his den and awaits Taggart's arrival. Privately, he prepares a most impassioned dia-


216 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II


logue to inflame his winged legions that continue to multiply in the ra- vine. The ancient warrior plans to define a new threat to his followers and the forest throne. He is consumed with visions of the conquest. His goal is to eliminate the most serious challenge to his reign in three cen- turies. The speech will be delivered at daybreak.


Impatient, Syrus begins to prepare for his journey. With great con- centration he rakes his sharp, blood-stained teeth through the long, faded upper feathers of his massive wings. With even greater care, he uses the sharp claw at the end of each winged forearm to pick animal and insect remains from between the jagged teeth that line his scarred, leathery beak. Syrus then inserts his right claw into the socket where his eyeball has long since decayed. Proudly, he recalls the only physical sign of his last battle for the forest throne. Cautiously, he moves the claw in circles around the socket, penetrating thick spider webs and some forest debris. He shovels out its contents.


Disturbed in their home, dozens of angry wolf spiders scramble from Syrus' eye socket and jump down to his large nest below. Within sec- onds all of the spiders find refuge in nearby branch crevices and away from the few streaks of light that appear in the den. The less extra weight he has to carry, the easier the long flight ahead will be. He finishes his preparation, takes a deep breath and slowly closes his one functioning eye. Then he waits patiently for information that will enable his legions to follow Gaia to her destination for a final confrontation.


Looking directly at the waterfalls from the cave opening, Gaia's es- corts remain watchful at her side. Each is aware that the journey will continue at a moment's notice.


"Look up to the right of the center waterfall," a lead escort states. "The rainbow ... it seems to be moving toward us," he declares, startled and impressed.


Gaia and the others immediately take notice. From the falls, a shimmering plane of red, orange and yellow light materializes within a rising mist. As the arc of this unusual sight gains in size and intensity, it


217 Evergreen


draws closer to their location, producing an even broader spectrum of color. Though several other rainbows are present in the ravine, this one doesn't go unnoticed by Taggart's operatives in neighboring caves. Taggart, too, leers out to assess the extraordinary event firsthand.


"Oh, my! It's beautiful," declares a rear escort, rising to ready him- self for the next leg of the journey.


"It is time. The site of our key has been revealed," announces Gaia to the group. "We must enter where the rainbow touches the waterfall. Focus on the location and don't let it out of your sight."


A quick inspection of the area produces a stunned and fearful look on the face of each butterfly. A lead escort turns nervously to Gaia. "The force of an ocean flows between us and the gateway we seek be- hind the falls. You can safely take us through such a torrent?" she asks, balancing skepticism and amazement.


"Let's find out," responds Gaia reassuringly. "Soon the key will vanish and, with it, the location of the gateway. It is time to complete our journey."


Within seconds the four large escort butterflies emerge from the cave and ascend along the rainbow's path. Gaia is firmly in their grasp. Aware that the spectral pathway could suddenly disappear, each butter- fly concentrates on the exact position where the rainbow meets the waterfall's surface. The sight of Gaia and her escorts ascending within the arc of the rainbow produces a chorus of cackles and wails from within the caves. These sounds go unnoticed by Gaia and her group due to the deafening thunderous downpour from the vast expanse of falls before them.


Thoughts of being close to the journey's end coupled with a sense of confidence inspired by Gaia spark new energy among the escorts. The group quickens its pace and soon reaches the top of the arc. In- stinctively, they stop and stare down effortlessly at the gateway from the apogee of the arc. At once, they begin to glide increasingly faster toward their destination. Just as their pace reaches breakneck speed, the rainbow vanishes from around them.


218 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II



Gaia's two rear escorts are startled by the sudden loss of the spec- tral path. Both shut their eyes and tighten their grasp on the cocoon's surface. The two lead butterflies, unwavering in their resolve, continue to guide the group with their eyes fixed firmly on the spot where they last saw the key.


Scores of silver-beaked blackbirds watch anxiously as Gaia and her companions descend toward the falls at great speed. Believing that Gaia may escape, dozens of these lightning-fast flocks take flight to begin their assault. It is clear that they are more interested in unfettered re- venge than in awaiting orders under the command of Syrus. The first three flocks to begin the chase quickly gain on the group. In no time, they are less than one hundred yards behind them and closing fast.


With the timing of the point of impact between Gaia's group and the immense waterfall less than twenty seconds away, both lead escorts remain on task and hope for a miracle.


"AAHH! No! Not again!" shrieks a rear escort with a dozen black- birds tearing into his abdomen. Gaia turns to see several flocks about to overpower the entire group.


"Help us!" exclaims a lead escort, still bearing down on the key. The cocoon begins to tilt and wobble under the early strains of attack.


"Stay on course," insists Gaia calmly and directly to each lead es- cort. "Do not be distracted by these attackers. Such action will be promptly addressed."


"Then address it! Address it!" yell the rear escorts in unison.


Gaia learned an important lesson during this first day of her life. She is no longer a naive chrysalis who responds with force only after much physical and emotional suffering and unnecessary loss of life. Gaia turns, once again, to bear witness to the combined savagery and disregard for life shown by hundreds of silver-beaked blackbirds who now engulf the group. In the background she sees more flocks about to strike. Amidst their cries of "Revenge!" and screams of pain from her companions, she slowly shakes her head in despair, knowing full well what must be done.


219 Evergreen



Gaia takes a deep breath and closes her eyes. When she raises her eyelids, she feels the presence of an extra membrane. Her view of the surrounding environment ­ the immense falls and steep, rocky ravine, the countless silver-beaks on a feeding frenzy, and her brave compan- ion escorts ­ all have changed to blood red. Gaia also senses a familiar and heated rush of energy throughout her body, but this time it is more directly under her control. Together this triggers a revelation about the events that have unfolded throughout the day and the Golem's plans. She more fully understands the nature of her powers and their role. No longer prompted by physical pain or hysterics, she now knows that her demonic glower and unearthly response will surface whenever balance is threatened by someone or something. In her eyes, this is such a case.


She pans the barbaric actions of her enemies one last time. Gaia then tilts back her head, closes her eyes and forcefully proclaims, in a deep, eerie hiss, "Incivility will always be painful!"


WHOOSH!


An intense, banded energy field radiates from the chrysalis several hundred yards in all directions, like the ripple effect of a stone tossed into a still pond. While the blast has no effect on her four friends, mil- lions of smoldering black feathers rock back-and-forth, down into the thick mist of the ravine's watery surface. The force of the blast creates a momentary rift in the waterfall.


"Look! There's our opening!" shouts a sore but exuberant lead escort.


The opening allows Gaia and her companions just enough time to safely penetrate the surface of the waterfall before the rift collapses be- hind them and the falls resume their tremendous flow.


Across the ravine, in caves spread throughout the vast stone ridge, those who witness the loss of their comrades feel shocked and demoral- ized. The immediate disappearance of the group into the falls adds insult to injury. Loud cries of "Revenge!" briefly overpower the thun- der of the falls. Taggart and his flock of ospreys were close enough to the energy burst to feel the heat, but far enough away not to be among the victims.


220 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II



After Taggart takes in all of the details of the battle and location of the key, he instructs his flock to prepare for its return to Syrus. Within minutes they all take flight, passing hundreds of warrior legions carry- ing on angrily in and around their caves. Moments later they clear the top of the gray stone ridge and are out of sight.


"Is everyone alright?" Gaia questions each of her companions just inside the dangerous flow of the waterfall. Wearily, they nod their heads in turn to indicate they have gotten through the last few minutes without serious damage.


In spite of the group's close proximity to the turbulent falls, an atmospheric vacuum surrounds them all as if they are inside a large bubble suspended in midair. Pressure within the vacuum silences the roar of the falls. It also eliminates the tremendous moisture and high-velocity winds seen outside of the vacuum's transparent energy field.


To Gaia's question, a rear escort rubs a portion of his sore abdomen with a lower leg and states, "I'm still trying to figure out what hap- pened. I didn't think we were going to make it."


Clearly taken aback by the comment, a lead butterflies quips, "Why? Have you no faith?"


Still tending to his side, the rear escort nervously replies, "No faith? I think it was more the sight and pain of thousands of blackbirds tear- ing into us and then being thrown off course as we were headed straight into a wall of water than it was anything else," he states sarcastically. "Oh, and all that yelling didn't help either. I couldn't hear any of you over my screams."


"Difficult and frightening times can make doubters out of the most faithful," states Gaia, intentionally interrupting the two. "I'm sorry you were so worried," she adds calmly.


The second lead butterfly, still vigilant, looks carefully at his sur- roundings. "What is this place?" he asks curiously.


"We're enclosed in a wind chamber," replies Gaia. "In the moun- tainside ahead is the gateway to an underworld where insect friends


221 Evergreen


from nearly every corner of Evergreen are waiting to greet us and cele- brate our journey."


Confused, the butterfly eyes the surroundings. "If we're in a wind chamber," he responds skeptically, "then, uh, where's the wind?" Fi- nally, it dawns on him. "Oh," he nods knowingly.


The group hovers inside the chamber. Ever so slightly, they begin to move away from the thick mist and intensity of the falls and inch toward several dark, cavernous tunnels in the rocky mountainside. Four cave-like openings encircle a fifth tunnel in the center. The deep-set entrances are narrow, irregular in shape, and unequal in size. Gaia is aware that each entrance can accommodate her group, but only without the protective field.


A strong and continuous draft created by the waterfall's unceasing torrent cycles into each tunnel opening and then disappears in the depths of the mountain. The draft's tremendous force thrashes against the outer surface of the group's containment field. It has little effect on their course or speed. Unbeknownst to the group members, the blister- ing wind around them whips up howling choruses occasionally reaching a furious, deafening pitch. Though it is unclear what lies at the end of each tunnel, it is clear from the wind's velocity that it won't take very long to get there. Gradually, they come to a halt about thirty feet before the five tunnel entrances.


Amidst the outer fury and inner calm and safety of their contain- ment field, a rear escort anxiously wonders aloud, "Does each passage take us to the underworld?"


Gaia stares at the stone portals that face her. She considers a re- sponse to the question. Flapping their wings in unison to maintain flight, the escorts patiently await an answer. Within seconds Gaia pro- vides a curious response.


"All of the choices before us will end our journey, my brave com- panions, but only one will allow us to complete it."


Puzzled, the members of the group glance at one another as they weigh the riddle. After a few moments pass, a rear escort's eyes widen.


222 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II



"So, to reach the underworld, we must enter through the one correct gateway," he concludes. "The other four will destroy us."


Gaia nods and states, "By now it should be clear to each of you that all parts of our journey are no less than perilous."


"Why is such a gateway necessary?" follows the second rear escort in a sincere tone. "Isn't it true that no one can pass through the barrier of the falls without special powers like yours?"


Gaia turns her head toward the two gentle creatures. Uneasy about the sudden attention, the butterflies nervously flap their wings faster than the lead escorts. The broken pace causes the group to shift forward and wobble in flight. With a minor adjustment, they maintain their po- sition inside the containment field.


"What are your names, my inquisitive ones?" asks Gaia, still fixed on the rear escorts.


Each is shocked by the question. Until this moment, Gaia had not yet asked this of anyone throughout their long and remarkable day to- gether. Their instructions from the Golem were simple: Serve and protect the chrysalis and deliver her to the insect kingdom beneath the Great Falls. It's hard for them to believe that the Golem's special gift has a personal interest in knowing their names.


Awkwardly, the rear escorts blurt out "Munyo" and "Kunziah" at the same time.


"The gateway is necessary, Munyo and Kunziah, to protect ani- mates and other life forms who live in the insect kingdom below," she replies. "It ensures that uninvited animates who gain entry into this chamber select a pathway at terrible risk to themselves. The wall of wa- ter may be a serious obstacle to those who wish to pass through it, but it is not impenetrable."


"Well," chimes in a lead escort, "if we didn't have this energy field around us and I had to make a choice, then I'd choose the center tunnel. It's the most obvious to me because it's right in the middle of all of the cave openings," he states confidently.


"You should know," replies Gaia, "we will not have the safety of our `energy field' when we enter the portal." To that news, each escort


223 Evergreen


takes a hard look at the five tunnels and swallows uneasily. "So, you think our path is through the center entrance?" Gaia continues, the way a teacher would press a student who just offered a wrong answer. She makes no eye contact with the brazen butterfly. "And you would be willing to place your companions ­ and our journey ­ in peril based on such a well-thought-out decision?" she adds.


"Uh, but I thought ... err," mumbles the lead escort. As he reas- sesses the gut feeling that led to his decision, Gaia turns to him with an unusual request.


"Would you close your eyes and block out all thoughts, my daring deliverer?"


Bewildered, the lead escort turns to the others for sympathy but re- ceives only blank stares in return. Recognizing the futility in saying "no," he accepts whatever fate will befall him and closes his eyes. They tighten with anxiety.


"Be sure to keep them closed," adds Gaia. "Now tell the others ex- actly what you see as you see it." She closes both sets of her eyes.


"I just see darkness," responds the lead escort, distressed and con- fused. "No, wait. Now I'm here in front of the gateway and moving quickly into the center cave opening," he observes anxiously. "Is this real? OH NO!" he shouts. "I'm in the tunnel traveling down way too fast! Please, slow me down! I gotta slow down! I can't even close my eyes! Stop this!" he pleads, terrified.


"Continue to tell us what you see," Gaia commands firmly to the fright- ened butterfly in a soothing voice. "You will never be in any danger."


With those words, the lead escort immediately shifts to a more re- laxed posture. He takes a deep breath and continues to describe what he encounters.


"I ... I'm racing in the tunnel faster than I've ever gone before. Streaks of green and blue pass all around me. WHOA! I just hung a major right turn. OH! Now a left and a right again. Get me off this ride! AH! I hit something ­ or something hit me. But I don't feel any pain. Green and blue streaks still shoot by like neon dragonflies in a hurri-


224 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II


cane. WHOA! I'm making another right turn. It's a wide curve that ... just ... doesn't ... seem ... to end. I'm twisting and rocking at speeds I couldn't possibly reach by myself. AH! Something else hit me. Now I'm approaching more light. It's very bright ­ yellow and orange streaks mixed with the green and blue. It's beautiful! It's so bright I can see the tunnel's path well ahead of me. Simple life forms that emit light must grow all along these tunnel walls like mushrooms or something. I'm not sure, but I think I'm heading back up to the chamber where I started. Am I?" he wonders aloud.


"Continue to describe what you see and pay close attention," says Gaia.


"That is the gateway entrance ahead!" he adds. "I recognize the shape and lighting. I even hear ­ OH NO! I'm heading down another tunnel. AH! I keep hitting things. I see green and blue streaks like the ones ­ wait! I've been here before. A shift right and left and, yes, a right again. I'm going in a big circle!" he concludes. "WHOA! Some- thing just wedged between my side and left wing! Now there's something on my right! I can't tell what they are, but they're every- where. I seem to be plowing into them. They just pile up, one on top of the other. AH! Now they're in my face and I can't shake them off! Make them go away!" His pleads go unanswered.


The lead escort re-enters the portion of the tunnel with additional yellow and orange streaks. The intensity of the light enables him to see with clarity what has collected across his face and forward portions of his abdomen and wings.


"They're bones and hardened flesh of dead creatures!" he yells frantically. "They're all over. Some are whole skeletons and others are in bits and pieces. Most are a combination of both ­ and I keep smash- ing into them!"


In that instant the lead escort realizes what is happening to him and what came of those who journeyed into this tunnel before him.


"There is no way out of this death trap," he informs the group with his eyes still tightly shut. "I have run into creatures, many dozens or


225 Evergreen


more ­ I just can't tell ­ who traveled this circular path but couldn't escape. It may have occurred hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Somehow they managed to get in and then got trapped in this never- ending prison. Each passing glimpse of the entrance would remind them of how close they were to freedom and how distant freedom actu- ally is when they think only of themselves. None of them were invited into this world beneath the falls. Yet all of them chose to enter anyway. Perhaps it was to satisfy an empty stomach or seek new territory. Re- gardless, they paid the ultimate price for their incivility."


Gaia nods approvingly and turns from the gateway to the large but- terfly. "What is your name?" she asks. With that question, the lead escort cautiously opens his eyes.


"I am Ojeda," he responds, squinting and blinking repeatedly to ad- just to the limited light in the chamber.


Gaia looks into his eyes. With a smirk, she states, "Your words are well chosen, Ojeda. I couldn't have said it better." Turning to the re- maining lead escort, still wearing a smirk, she asks, "And what is the name of my final brave companion?"


"I am Tepetu," she replies, trying unsuccessfully to look in another direction.


"Do you wish to select one of the entrances before us, Tepetu? I can assure you that the gateway holds more surprises." Tepetu continues to avoid eye contact.


"No, I think not," she says wisely.


"Splendid! The top right portal is our pathway," Gaia states without hesitation. "We'll start high above the tunnel and descend into it," she adds. "When the draft begins to pull us in, we'll use the strong tailwind throughout the entire journey. Each of you will help to navigate the group in the tunnels below. And try to avoid the walls," she says. "They are unforgiving at great speeds. Are you ready?"


With gutsy faces, the four butterflies take one last look at Gaia and then each other. They nod in unison. They are excited about the pros- pect of completing the journey. At the same time, they are more than a


226 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II


little concerned about what may lie directly ahead in the moments to follow. The butterflies ready themselves for the final leg of their jour- ney.


"Let's bolt!" shouts Ojeda to the group.


"Like greased lightning!" adds Kunziah.


In a flash, the containment field vanishes and they are thrust, eyes wide open, into the jagged stone mouth of the cold misty portal. The chamber they leave behind is now empty. All snippets of sunlight that filtered through the falls and onto the gateway are gone. It is nighttime in Evergreen, and a bronze darkness commands the evening sky.


Across the ravine from the Great Falls, Syrus' legions have already amassed in the hundreds of thousands. Many more will arrive before daybreak. With darkness upon them, they rest in shallow caves that line the steep ridge to await further instructions. Once Syrus speaks to his followers at daybreak, these winged carnivores will not relent until their leader's goal is achieved ­ the destruction of Gaia and all ani- mates who stand in their way.


At the end of the tunnel currently navigated by Gaia's companions lies a bustling insect underworld. This world, deep within the Great Falls, was born in the wake of Mesequoya's death one hundred centu- ries ago. Prior to the fall of the titanic redwood, an underground network of caverns southeast of the Grand Divide spanned areas be- neath a large freshwater lake to the north that feeds the Great Falls. This vast body of water is called Lake Augur.


Because sunlight was unable to penetrate these subterranean cav- erns, their pathways were always cold, pitch black and largely uninhabitable. The only species of animate life that could survive in these extreme conditions over extended periods of time was gribbles. Exposure to sunlight is not a requirement for these hard-working social creatures.


For centuries prior to the fall of Mesequoya, gribble colonies re- moved dirt, rocks and roots from these caverns to create one enormous burrow below Lake Augur. Many generations were born and raised in


227 Evergreen


this dark underworld. To help adapt to the loss of sight and pass the time during long periods of labor, these creatures developed an un- canny ability to hum complex melodies that involved thousands of gribbles in different parts of the burrow and adjoining tunnels. It was not uncommon to have passing animate populations pause in their tracks, only to become entranced by the haunting tunes emanating from the mountainside. The gribbles' hidden world beneath Lake Augur, however, wasn't meant to last forever.


During the terrible storm that eventually brought down Mesequoya, fierce winds and bolts of lightning were nonstop in their assault on the great redwood. The continuous barrage caused many limbs at different locations to crack from the pressure of hurricane-strength gusts and di- rect lightning strikes. Three extra-thick branches were perched on a massive lower limb of Mesequoya directly above Lake Augur. These branches were struck by lightning so consistently throughout that fate- ful day that they began to smoke and ooze streams of amber. One by one, the three branches broke off the lower limb and nosedived into the lake just minutes apart.


On impact, the first branch's weight punctured the water's surface and cut through the bottom of Lake Augur like a knife through butter. Its pointy tip became firmly implanted deep into the basin of the grib- ble's burrow. The branch's massive upper portion came to rest in the burrow's ceiling where it entered from Lake Augur. Seconds after the branch lodged into place, water from the lake and rays of daylight ex- ploded into the underworld.


At first, the water traveled along the length of the immense branch down to the floor of the miles-high burrow. Then it rushed throughout the burrow and into dozens of tunnels linked to the outside world. The water level in the burrow quickly began to rise. The force of the sudden flood caused many of the creatures in the tunnels to shoot out of the entryways like cannonballs into nearby forests, inlets and hillsides. Some gribbles ended up miles away. Most who were trapped within the burrow not only faced daylight for the first time, but their first swim-


228 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II


ming lesson as well. Though most were successful swimmers, time was running out. The water level was rising too fast. The entire underworld would soon be part of Lake Augur.


Fortunately, the two remaining limbs that plunged into the lake did not cut through its bottom. If either one or both did, the underworld ceiling would have weakened and collapsed under the water's tremen- dous weight. All of the gribbles, most certainly, would have drowned. Instead, they landed on the rocky bottom of Lake Augur close to the upper portion of the first branch and toppled over. Each finally came to rest next to the first branch, seeping thick amber onto the floor of the lake. The force of the current into the gribble's burrow redirected the amber resin to areas circling the protruding branch. The sticky, pliable, substance plugged most narrow and wide gaps between the gigantic branch and the floor of Lake Augur. Once this process began, it didn't take very long for the torrent flowing into the burrow to dwindle down to a single waterfall. This came not a moment too soon. There was less than a dozen feet between the water's surface and the ceiling where many thousands of soggy and frightened gribbles were treading water and slowly running out of air.


The flood slowly receded as water in the burrow poured out of the long entrance tunnels onto the hillsides, like fire hoses set at maximum force. Though the violent storm continued above ground, small amounts of daylight filtered to the bottom of Lake Augur and down in- to the burrow through the clear, hardened resin. This cast an eerie amber glow on a world never before illuminated. With colonies of gribbles afloat to bear witness, the lower the water level dropped, the more revealing was the level of damage ­ and tragedy. When the flood ebbed by the day's end, much of the underworld was destroyed. Miles of muck were left in its aftermath. This misery was greatly com- pounded. Countless gribble lives were lost.


Within one year after that horrible day, many changes were intro- duced to parts of Evergreen that had a major impact on the world beneath Lake Augur. The collapse of Mesequoya into the eastern ocean


229 Evergreen


left behind a ten-mile-wide stump that offered the gribble colonies a permanent home beneath its surface. The root system of the million- year-old redwood offered a more stable and secure homeland than a dirt and rock burrow situated below a massive lake. Moreover, the gribbles' culture still preferred darkness to light, and the burrow no longer of- fered complete darkness. The decision was made to abandon the burrow and migrate east of the Grand Divide to the site where the great redwood once stood. This decision came easily when they discovered that the dreaded humites perished along with Mesequoya into the sea.


With the gribble colonies no longer stirring up the earth beneath Lake Augur to suit their needs, gentle rays of amber light have entered the abandoned cavern and warmed the soil on a daily basis for ten thou- sand years. Several fifty- to one-hundred-foot-wide gaps that had not completely sealed between the rock-hard amber and immense branch created steady waterfalls. Today, this endless supply of water from Lake Augur travels down the length of the miles-high branch and forms a large subterranean lake within the cavern. To prevent the lake from ris- ing onto nearby grounds, water that cascades over the sides runs along dozens of streams that collect at various tunnel entrances made by the gribbles long ago. The water then flows into the tunnels and travels through narrow openings onto the mountainside at various locations. From the outside, they appear as small waterfalls to passersby.


Out of the tragedy that claimed the gribbles' haven and way of life for centuries came renewal. The flood beneath Lake Augur brought with it the seeds of a future world, natural and unspoiled, just waiting to be discovered. Over the centuries, the once cold and pitch-black envi- ronment became a mild, partially sunlit sanctuary for unusual plants, flowers, trees and smaller biological life forms like mushrooms and herbs. Soon insects of every shape, size and color learned of this new- found world and traveled to experience it themselves. To this day, one hundred centuries after the fall of Mesequoya, a bustling underworld has thrived in this environment, untouched by humans and most forms of animate life found on Evergreen's surface.


230 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II



WHOOSH!


Far and away from the heart of the underworld, four disheveled but- terflies silently emerge from a narrow rocky opening with strong winds at their backs. Gaia remains firmly in their grasp. Growing around the tunnel opening and as far as one can see are wide and irregular patches of small, ivy-shaped, teal plants with dark green edges. Each patch emits a warm, lustrous glow. Surrounding these tiny radiant plants are bright iridescent mushrooms that grow to about three inches in diame- ter. Their colors range in a rainbow-like spectrum, from red and orange at the lower levels to indigo and violet throughout the ceiling. Both life forms are found everywhere along the cavern walls and ceiling and seem to number in the billions. This wondrous patchwork of life offers steady lighting necessary to see any time of day or night.


"Oh my," responds Tepetu, loudly enough for the others to hear. "This place is beautiful. How can there be so much color?" Through silent gestures, her three friends provide similar reactions to the breath- taking mosaic that surrounds them.


"When left alone, nature's spectacle has no boundaries," says Gaia to the group. "This is but one example. There are other worlds below the surface of the land. They, too, are marvelous in their own right."


"The colors remind me of what was growing in the tunnels," replies Ojeda. "I think they're the same type of ­"


"­ Greetings to all of you, from Grog!" interrupts a strange but pleasant voice somewhere in front of them.


Startled, the four butterflies turn toward the sound but see nothing ahead of them. Gaia begins to smile but does not let on.


"Where did that come from? Who is there?" asks Ojeda, curious but not alarmed. With no answer, the two lead escorts instinctively position themselves between the last location of the voice and Gaia. They turn to Munyo and Kunziah in the rear.


"Did either of you hear ­"


"­ Grog-in-the-air-welcomes-you," interrupts the voice once again, disappearing into a thicket of shrubs below as quickly as it appeared. At


231 Evergreen


a slower pace, muffled by tall flowering plants and other thick flora, the voice playfully adds, "Now Grog on the ground welcomes you."


While the escort butterflies see the tops of the plants with the help of glowing mushrooms on nearby rock formations, they are unable to see below the surface. Finally, a friendly creature emerges from his present spot and climbs to the top of a large prickly plant. He is a shiny, two-foot-long grasshopper who looks like he's wearing a well-shielded suit of armor. His whole body, in fact, has a chrome-like appearance.


"Grog is honored to meet you, my liege, and privileged to be your guide to the center of our world." He bows gracefully as Gaia and her companions hover above. "We've been expecting you. Everyone is buzzing, thrumming, chirping or humming to meet you." Grog rises from his position and slowly raises his shiny right arm in one circular motion. "Welcome to Kwak'wala!" he shouts with pride.


Prompted by the gesture, the five special guests take a second look at the world beneath Lake Augur. This time a few details become evi- dent that previously went unnoticed. Nearly twenty miles away, near the center of the underworld, is an unimaginable sight. From their van- tage point they can see a towering waterfall flow directly out of the ceiling and cascade down a monstrous prehistoric tree limb about the width of a small mountain. Hundreds of dead branches jut out from this petrified remnant of an ancient time. Water flows down the massive limb and around the protruding branches until it reaches a slightly ele- vated lake. The illumination of millions of life forms growing throughout this ten-thousand-year-old relic reveals its tremendous size and shape. They also make the image seem unreal. Even from the group's distance, the impact is stunning.


While Gaia and her escorts continue to stare long and hard at the distant waterfall, they detect an irregular chirping pattern from within the shrubs below Grog. The chirps have a consistent high pitch to them. Gaia is amused and chooses to play along. The others cautiously eye the local plant life. After a few moments pass, Gaia responds to Grog's gracious greeting.


232 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II



"We appreciate your warm greeting, Grog, and look forward to our brief time together in your world. We have traveled far and are weary from our encounters. Can you lead us to where my loyal companions may rest and find nourishment?"


"Of course, my liege. That is why Grog has been waiting under these spiky shrubs since well before the day's sunlight appeared." In the background the chirping becomes more persistent. Grog pretends to ignore the sounds. "Humbly," he continues, "Grog requests that you take your place" BOING! "at-the-nicely-prepared-spot-in-front-of-the- falls." In mid-sentence Grog jumps twice the height of the group and points to the towering redwood falls off in the distance. As he passes the group on his way to the ground, he speaks at twice his normal pace. When he lands, Grog climbs back up onto the spiky shrub.


"Along the way," he adds, "you will pass families of leaf chewers, spongers, predators and even blood suckers visiting from above. But the blood suckers seldom stick around for very long. There's not a lot of their kind of food down here. Oh, there will be nectar feeders like each of you, too. Well, not as big as you, but like you. It's most excit- ing to Grog and all ­"


The pattern of high-pitched chirping, now very loud and annoying, interrupts Grog. He is clearly distracted by its tenacity to the point where he stops talking. Grog turns toward a patch of plants below him and whispers, "Okay, okay. Just be patient." Nervous at the awkward moment, he looks up at Gaia and opens his mouth to speak.


"Please, introduce us to the little one," says Gaia, hoping to spare Grog any further worry.


Grateful for the opportunity, the beaming grasshopper stares into the nearby shrubs and states, "Hide no further. Come up and meet our special guests." He turns to the group and lowers his head. "Grog is sorry, my liege. We don't get many visitors. Once he learned about your important journey and visit, Grog has been pestered non-stop to allow him to come along and meet you."


"Who learned?" wonders Ojeda.


233 Evergreen



Rustling sounds begin to inch closer to Grog's position. His rear legs and shiny rear quarter suddenly rise. His mid-section follows. From underneath his chest emerges a twelve-inch-long mini-Grog, from the bumpy texture of his two antennae to the smooth, heavy- plated coat of armor. The little creature is nervous but clearly tickled to be in the presence of Gaia and her escorts.


"Merton, that's who," Grog states with as much of a smile as a grasshopper can show. "He is the eldest and most vocal among his twenty-three brothers and sisters. He is Grog's son."


"I am delighted to meet you, Merton," says Gaia. "I see where your dad gets his good looks," she adds. Merton and Grog both smile bash- fully and shrug their shoulders as if to say "aw shucks."


The repetitive, high-pitched chirps give way to a struggling but in- telligible stutter. "I-I am Merton ­ chirp. Are you hear to h-help us?" he asks in an adorable and sincere voice. "Is there ­ chirp ­ danger?"


"Merton is coming of age," interjects Grog. "Soon he will speak crystal clear and only chirp to attract a mate."


"CHIRP ­ Dad! Don't t-talk about such things!" Merton jabs his fa- ther's underside repeatedly with his rear legs. "Well ­ chirp, is there d- danger?" he asks once again.


"Little one, I have no knowledge of any threat to your hidden world," Gaia replies. "But you must understand that I cannot see what the future holds for you or anyone else."


Tense and heavy-hearted, Merton stares at Gaia through her trans- parent, tattered lining, hanging on every word. Sensing his deep anxiety, Gaia instructs her group to move closer to Grog and his son. Choosing her words carefully, Gaia continues.


"What I do know, Merton, is that the land above will soon be in peril. This is why I am visiting your world. I am here to rest until I emerge from my cocoon. Then I must leave to continue my journey alone."


The young grasshopper's two antennae raise slightly. "Did you re- ally come from the O-O ­ chirp ­ Overseer ­ chirp ­ of all life? Do you really have s-special powers, like everyone says?"


234 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II



Grog quickly becomes annoyed. "You ask too many questions, my son," he states. "Grog apologizes for Merton sticking his antennae into places where they do not belong, my liege."


"You need not apologize, Grog. We should always encourage such curiosity in the pursuit of truth. It can be quite fulfilling. Its suppression is entirely different. Truth is not negotiable and must never be distorted for ambition or personal gain. I will answer your questions, Merton," she states in a caring, sage-like voice. "I have been sent here by Golem the Overseer ­ a force that has always sought to maintain balance in our world. I have been given special abilities to deal with whomever or whatever may disrupt this balance. I will do my very best to preserve this important harmony throughout the land."


"You mean ­ chirp ­ like how p-pearl beetles spray streams of poi- sonous goop at creatures that ­ chirp ­ try to steal their y-young?" asks Merton.


"Well, yes, in a way," she replies. "Think of your hidden world and all life in it. Creatures of all shapes and sizes play different parts within their natural limits. It's easy for you to jump ten times your height, just as it's easy for an ant to pick up something that is ten times its weight. But try to switch places. Peaceful coexistence is made possible when individuals come to understand and respect the gifts provided by nature in relation to one another. Using your example, a pearl beetle safe- guards its young against predators by using its natural defenses."


"Like shootin' the g-goop."


"Yes," affirms Gaia. "That kind of action is local ­ limited to areas in or around a nest or home. At this level, balance between beetles and other life forms is maintained by adjusting to, and coping with, one another. This is the way of life among most animates across the land, Merton."


There's a short pause as Merton and his father ponder Gaia's in- structive lesson. Together they nod their heads in agreement.


"However," Gaia continues, "there are times when larger and more dangerous forces appear. These forces not only disrupt the balance be- tween animates but, if left alone, they will threaten the peaceful


235 Evergreen


coexistence among all life forms across the land. I cannot allow this to happen, little one."


"No," the young grasshopper replies thoughtfully, "you m-must not allow this to happen. But who or what ­ chirp ­ would be capable of d- doing such a thing?"


Humbly, Gaia states, "I do not know the exact answer to your ques- tion. That is why my path must be taken one set of sunrises at a time. I can say with all my heart that I will do my best to protect the inhabi- tants of our world from whomever or whatever it may be, no matter where this journey leads me."


Gaia's passionate words bring comfort to Merton, who appears, at first, to be troubled about events yet to come. A smile slowly appears on his shiny face. It is contagious. Grog and three of Gaia's escorts now show a similar grin.


However, Ojeda is still preoccupied about recent events throughout the day. With a fretful expression, he anxiously asks Grog, "Have any birds been able to enter this world? Though I cannot be certain, I sup- pose they would have a time of it down here."


Grog's smile quickly fades. BOING! He springs up from his pre- sent position to within a foot of Ojeda's face and exclaims, "Shhh! We- don't-use-that-four-letter-word-in-Kwak'wala." He lands in a patch of ivy below the group and adds, "Just the sound of it makes some of our children shed prematurely." Merton finds his dad's statement amusing and giggles.


Panning each one of Gaia's companions from the ground, Grog is confronted with serious looks on their faces. The countless deep cuts and torn wings provide further evidence that Ojeda's question cannot be avoided, even in the interest of sparing young Merton a gruesome history lesson. Grog climbs onto the top of another spiky shrub to pro- vide an answer to Ojeda's question. Merton quickly follows and settles beneath his dad's underbelly.


"Grog does recall stories of those flying feathered creatures enter- ing our world over the years. There haven't been many, though. Grog


236 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II


has personally witnessed only one. When they do arrive, it is usually in small numbers. And they have always met a terrible fate."


Hovering just above the two grasshoppers, Gaia and her four butter- fly escorts listen intently.


"If there's one thing you can say about our kind," Grog continues, "it's that when we're provoked, we are quick to respond and do so in large numbers. It's been beneficial to the food supply, too."


Merton looks at Gaia and then tilts his head up to his dad with a confused expression. "W-why, Dad?"


"Grog supposes you're old enough to hear this," he replies. "We bury the remains of these feathered creatures near the waterfalls. Over the years these sites have produced berried trees and bushes and a vari- ety of vegetables."


"Chirp ­ I don't g-get it," Merton responds, puzzled about the con- nection.


Gaia includes herself in the conversation. "The diets of many... feathered creatures include seed-bearing fruits and vegetables. If these foods haven't been digested before death, they remain in their bellies when they are buried. In time, they grow out of the creature into the food-bearing plants, shrubs and trees they were destined to become."


"Most of the time we must transplant them so there's room to grow," Grog adds.


"Yuckers ­ chirp!" exclaims Merton. "So my f-favorite red berries for dessert?"


"Right from the belly of the beast!" Grog says, half expecting his son not to believe him.


"And Mom knows about this?"


Grog grins and nods at his son. Merton is clearly peeved at what he has just learned. "Another adult c-conspiracy of silence over the years," he mutters under his breath. "When w-will it ­ chirp ­ end?"


Gaia finds humor in Merton's brief dialogue with his father. "Yes, some truths can be eye-opening," she says. "They stretch our minds in


237 Evergreen


ways that allow us to see things differently. That's why they can be so fulfilling. It is also why truth must be pursued and defended."


Merton turns to his dad and whispers through the side of his mouth. "Does she always t-talk like this?"


A stunned look appears on Grog's face at the same time his eyes dart back and forth. He pretends nothing has been said. Gaia just smiles.


At once, members of the group hear a variety of sounds coming from areas throughout the underworld. The tones and range vary in pitch and intensity. Some are deep and punchy with no apparent rhythm, like a disorganized drum corps. Others produce an increasingly intense hissing sound, like millions of slow-moving maracas suddenly shaken to achieve their loudest effect. All of the sounds resonate off the rocky walls and hard ceiling covered in luminescent life. Patches of these life forms flicker, brighten and dim in respond to the tones. Life in Kwak'wala is stirring.


In their own way the families of insects making these sounds are struggling to achieve a musical quality ­ being mindful of others as they add their own unique contributions. Gaia and her companions can't help but observe how the sudden disharmony overtakes the peace- fulness they've felt since their arrival.


With his head atilt and one ear toward the falls, Grog also reacts to the dramatic change in sound. He raises his right front leg to his ear. "Listen," Grog states to the group. "Word gets around fast. Everyone has been informed of your arrival, my liege. The families are now pre- paring to meet you. We must wait until all is silent and pukka-pom- woo begins," he says. "Then we can begin."


"`Pukka ... pom ... woo'?" questions Munyo.


"It is a special event where each family in our underworld will greet and pay homage to our noble visitor as she passes by their colonies," says Grog to Munyo. He then looks at Gaia and slowly bows his head. "My liege, it means `day of the great ogle' and it is held in honor of your historic visit."


238 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II



"I am humbled by the thoughtfulness of Kwak'walans, Grog."


All too excited about what is about to take place, Merton cannot contain himself. He jumps uncontrollably in place ­ at times bouncing off his dad's chest. With a smile, Grog uses his forward legs to fend off being whipped by his son's narrow but lengthy antennae.


Gaia notes the vast distance between the group and the waterfall at the center of the underworld. She turns to Grog. "Would you and your son like to ride atop my cocoon?" she asks. "It looks like a long and exhaustive journey by foot."


In response, Merton jumps as high as he's ever jumped. "Chirp ­ Oh, p-please Dad, can we? C-can we?"


"Grog belongs on the ground," he replies unwaveringly, "to guide you and your companions along Setamina Pass and onto the falls. But Grog supposes that young Merton would have a greater view of pukka- pom-woo atop my liege. You can go, my son," he adds proudly, with a raised smile.


BOING! "Wow! Thanks D-Dad!" replies Merton, now on top of Gaia. He finds a smooth spot on the cocoon's surface just behind her head and squats down in a comfortable position.


Ojeda turns to Merton and solemnly states, "Take all of this in, young jumper ­ every detail. Some day you will tell your children about this experience, and they will tell their children." Not knowing how to respond in any meaningful way, he simply gazes up at the large butterfly. A beaming smile fades to a nervous grin.


All is now quiet in the underworld. Gaia and her five companions hover patiently, just above Grog. He is motionless atop the spiky shrub awaiting instructions. Moments later, new sounds are heard off in the distance. This time they seem more practiced and tightly organized.


Whrrr-bum ... Bzzz-dum ... Mmmm-bum ... Shhhh-dum


The sequence repeats itself and cadence grows louder. Its effects can be seen in the surrounding plant life. Tree branches, petals on


239 Evergreen


shrubs and flowers, and miles of luminescent mushrooms quiver in- tensely and rock back and forth during each brief segment. Even well above ground, the rhythmic vibrations are felt by Gaia, her four escorts and their young adventurer. The almost-frantic, last-minute movement of insects from tree-to-tree and shrub-to-shrub signifies a ceremonial feeling in the air.


Whrrr-bum ... Bzzz-dum ... Mmmm-bum ... Shhhh-dum


From all areas throughout the underworld, a well-coordinated se- quence of speech rhythms can now be heard. They are crisp, clear and contain four distinct passages produced by a combination of insect fam- ilies. In concert the four passages last for about ten seconds and are accompanied by a surge of light from fireflies and other luminescent life forms. When each sequence of passages is complete, the lumines- cence fades to the life forms' original glow or to darkness. After a twenty second pause, the process begins again.


Whrrr-bum ... Bzzz-dum ... Mmmm-bum ... Shhhh-dum


Grog turns to Gaia and her companions. "It is time for us to go and meet my fellow Kwak'walans," he says stately and assuredly. "They are eager to see you up close and greet you, my liege." To be certain that Grog is heard, he must speak within the allotted twenty second pe- riod of silence or be drowned out by the ceremony. "Follow me closely as we travel along Setamina Pass."


Grog turns toward a narrow valley containing a wide stream of fast- flowing water that picks up a few dozen yards away. He leaps in a northwesterly direction away from Gaia and his son, easily clearing twenty yards. He lands on a large, flat stone and faces an endless terrain of rolling hills. A thinly veiled forest of trees, low-lying bushes and colorful flowers comprise this vast terrain. Scattered throughout the miles of billowing hills are millions of insect family homes in many styles and locations above and below ground. Some are burrows found


240 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II


between small, colorful plants and flowers. Other homes are hidden in cavern walls or in cavities within evergreens ranging from narrow pines and spruces to a shortened stock of the much taller redwoods found on the surface of Evergreen. Grog looks over his shoulder to check on the location and progress of his guests. They are closing in at a steady pace. He turns and locates several more flat stones in the stream ahead and springs forward along the planned route.


Whrrr-bum ... Bzzz-dum ... Mmmm-bum ... Shhhh-dum


Gaia and her escorts continue to follow Grog from high above. They watch closely as he leaps along the winding, stone-filled stream that helps to define the valley below. The closer they come to the northwest wall of the underworld, the denser are the woodland areas. In the distance, low-lying bushes and shrubs near the base of the hillside give way to a lush forest that winds all the way to the underworld's edge. From there vines and luminescent life forms are all that can be seen for miles in both directions and straight up to the ceiling.


"L-look over there!" shouts Merton with more excitement than con- cern. "My dad just turned. He's h-headed north on Setamina P-pass! Don't ­ chirp ­ lose him!" he says, jumping in place.


"Be careful, little one," replies Gaia. "You probably should re-think bouncing around on my back. If you haven't noticed, it's quite a drop, even for a well-armored jumper like you."


Merton calms himself enough to take his adoring eyes off his father and peek over the edge of the chrysalis. The distance to the ground be- low causes his eyes to widen. "Oh yes, oh m-my," he repeats nervously and crouches down to a low, comfortably safe position.


"Don't worry," Gaia adds softly. "My winged friends are as experi- enced as they are brave. They will not lose sight of your father."


The escorts begin a graceful descent to the right, heading north along Setamina Pass. Grog continues to leap from one stone to the next atop the water's surface. Within seconds the group slows directly be- hind him and proceeds along a narrow stretch of water in the midst of


241 Evergreen


many neighborhoods. Their position at ground level causes the rhyth- mic sounds to resonate with clarity and force.


Whrrr-bum ... Bzzz-dum ... Mmmm-bum ... Shhhh-dum


Traveling along the pass, Ojeda glances over at Gaia and then back to Grog. Something Gaia is doing during the insect serenade catches his eye. He turns to her again. She is shifting her attention between near and far insect neighborhoods on both sides of Setamina Pass. Then she stares off into the distance with an expression that moves from pensive to puzzled.


"Is something wrong, Gaia?" wonders Ojeda, just after the rhythms end.


She ignores his question for the moment and remains silent. Her eyes continue to shift to locations where she recalls insect families per- forming different segments of the serenade.


"I hear more than a melody," she states, pondering her discovery aloud. "The wonderful creatures within this world have united to pro- vide us with a message. Many types of insects are involved, and each has its own language. Then there are dialects within the languages ­ like tribal differences among human animates. It's quite a challenge."


"You know how to speak ... human?" asks Ojeda, raising an eyebrow.


"I do."


"Why?"


"I'll just have to wait and see," she states without expression.


Being native to this insect underworld, Merton senses an excellent opportunity to assist. He taps Gaia on the top of her cocoon. "Maybe I can h-help with what they're saying. What have you m-made out so far ­ chirp?"


Munyo doesn't like the idea of a moppet newcomer playing more than a spectator's role. "This isn't a game, little jumper," he responds indignantly. "Just sit back, enjoy the ride, and allow Gaia to ­"


Whrrr-bum ... Bzzz-dum ... Mmmm-bum ... Shhhh-dum


The sequence cuts off Munyo's brief lecture in mid-sentence. Gaia continues to process the information while her companion escorts si-


242 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II


lently follow Grog along the most scenic parts of Setamina Pass. Over the next few miles the group ascends to slightly higher elevations. Each rise is marked by a small waterfall that cascades over an assortment of stones and patches of unusually large, highly luminescent plant life. Grog instinctively leaps onto the large, flat stones that protrude from the falls to work his way to the crest at the top of each of the falls.


They continue to travel several miles through narrow channels and across wide vales, carefully examining the life forms that blanket the surrounding terrain. Tepetu decides to break the group's silence.


"Do any of you see what I see?" she asks, tense and a little spooked. "A sea of eyes is staring at us from within the darkness." Clearly unnerved by the steady undivided attention, she adds, "They're everywhere. It's been giving me a strange feeling since those rhinoc- eros beetles charged Grog from their dens and then began to sing at us."


"Oh, they weren't s-singing," replies Merton. "They were b-bawling their eyes out. Dad says they're too e-emotional to harm anyone. Some- times they just can't c-control themselves and c-cry for hours ­ chirp. It's embarrassing at times."


"Well, that explains why they couldn't hold a tune," says Munyo. "I'd have plugged my ears if my arms weren't already full."


Grog overhears Tepetu's concern. He stops and faces Gaia and the group. They, too, stop in response. "There is good reason to feel a little uneasy ­ the way you do," Grog replies, looking up at Tepetu. "As you may have noticed by now, there are millions of nooks and crannies ­"


"­ and little bug fannies," adds Merton, giggling.


"As Grog said," he continues impatiently, "there are millions of places throughout our world where Kwak'walan families live. Each can house from a few to a few hundred thousand of us. Grog figures there must be two or three billion sets of eyes fixed on us at this very mo- ment." He raises his front right leg to his mouth and moistens it. Then he uses the leg to slowly stroke his chrome forehead from front to rear. This produces a temporary shine. Grog winks at his son, smiles and turns to


243 Evergreen


resume his journey along Setamina Pass. Under his breath the group hears him say, "Yes, there is good reason to feel you're in the limelight."


"That's my d-dad," quips young Merton proudly.


Feeling more anxiety than comfort over Grog's observation, Tepetu stares ahead to avoid eye contact with a billion or more adoring natives.


Whrrr-bum ... Bzzz-dum ... Mmmm-bum ... Shhhh-dum


"Love," states Gaia reflectively as they move closer to their destina- tion at the center of the underworld.


"I feel it, too," replies Kunziah with a sappy look on his face.


Gaia chuckles and continues to describe her thoughts to the group. "`Love' is what the fireflies and lady bugs were shouting when they rushed our position and then retreated. The translation of other friends in the third segment ­ the spiders and dragonflies, for example ­ result in similar sentiments like `respect' and `cherish.'"


Ojeda's curiosity has grown into a full-blown obsession about what Gaia is doing. He turns to her and asks, "How does this help you to un- derstand the Kwak'walans' message?"


"I have been able to determine the meaning of the first three seg- ments," she responds. "The fourth one still evades me. There seems to be too many families participating in that portion of pukka-pom-woo. Each time I listen closely," states Gaia, "the message becomes garbled."


"At the r-risk of being lectured to again, I think I can h-help ­ chirp," says Merton, eyeing Munyo cautiously. "Leaf chewers like me t-take part in the last s-segment."


Gaia turns over in her cocoon to face Merton. "Of course, little one," she replies. "Why don't you participate in the next round? You will be my emissary."


Merton is quite pleased to help, even though he's not at all sure what an emissary is or what it's supposed to do. He sticks out his chest with pride. "It'll be an honor ­ chirp!"


Whrrr-bum ... Bzzz-dum ... Mmmm-bum ... Shhhh-dum


244 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II



With the start of the next sequence, Merton carefully rises up, stretches his rear legs and wiggles his hind quarters. The escorts are careful to maintain a slow and steady flight path so he won't lose his footing. As the fourth segment begins, he joins in by rubbing his rear legs together at a frantic pace until the metallic finish appears to glow from the heat he generates.


"That's it?" complains Munyo. "A three-second, high-pitched tweedle from a thimble with legs?"


"I'm not a thimble!" shouts Merton angrily. "What's a thimble?"


"Never mind that, what's a tweedle?" wonders Kunziah.


"That's all the information I need," says Gaia, now facing Setamina Pass below. She sees Grog leap from one stone to another and turns to- ward Merton over her shoulder. "Nicely done, little one. Now it makes sense why it was so difficult to figure out the final segment. It wasn't what was being said. It was how it was being said. Among the many insect families in the last segment are leaf chewers like you and your father, as well as locusts and katydids. Males of this special group use their rear legs to communicate an ultimate purpose in life ­ the desire to have little ones."


"So what's the message?" asks Ojeda respectfully.


"And, uh, should we cover Merton's ears?" simpers Kunziah.


"It is a very powerful one," she replies. "If followed, it could divert or prevent war from ever starting." Gaia looks out to examine the vast hillsides that surround Setamina Pass. The group continues to follow above Grog as they wait for an answer to Ojeda's question.


Whrrr-bum ... Bzzz-dum ... Mmmm-bum ... Shhhh-dum


"The Kwak'walans wish for me to carry a message to animates on the surface: `Above all, love children.'" An awkward moment of si- lence follows.


"What creatures don't love their children?" probes Kunziah suspi- ciously.


"Not just your own children," says Ojeda over his shoulder. "The Kwak'walans are saying that we should love all children."


245 Evergreen



Gaia nods and considers how to best approach this important moral principle in the presence of young Merton. She decides an object lesson is in order. "There are animates throughout the world, some on land and others in the air, who choose to loathe their enemies more than love their children."


"What does it mean to l-loathe something?" questions Merton.


"It's like how everyone down here feels about birds," replies Ojeda plainly.


"Shhh!" yells Grog from well below the group.


"You mean l-like hate?" asks Merton. "Is it the same thing?"


"Yes," says Gaia. "When this happens, everyone may be placed in harm's way."


"Why would anyone take such an unnatural position?" Tepetu asks thoughtfully.


"Not all animates operate according to the rules of nature. Some create new rules and function as if the new rules are natural. In time, they teach their children to share this view. They are called beliefs. Such beliefs may cause some animates to favor their enemy's destruc- tion more than care about the preservation of their next generation and those of the future."


Tepetu doesn't like what she hears. "These monstrous beliefs could not only destroy others, but could lead to self-destruction as well," she de- duces. "I hope that the Golem would never stand for such awful behavior."


Gaia weighs her escort's thoughts. The deep ridges above her eyes lower toward the center and wrinkle. "Indeed, Tepetu," she coldly re- sponds.


Another ceremonious hour of pukka-pom-woo passes, and the group has traveled many more miles along Setamina Pass. Ojeda and Tepetu notice that Grog has stopped at the base of a wide, one-hundred- foot-tall waterfall. They communicate Grog's position to the others and slow their pace just behind him near ground level.


Gaia and her escorts look up to examine what rests along the crest of the waterfall. They see water pouring over boulders of varying


246 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II


shapes and sizes and dense pockets of small-to-moderate-sized trees that have succumbed to the water's heavy flow. Though the large wa- terfall in front of them produces an intense and immediate roar, a deeper, more ominous underlying rumble is sensed by members of the group. For the moment, however, the tall waterfall and surrounding rock formation all block the source of the unusual ground-shaking rumble.


"We have reached the end of Setamina Pass," states Grog with pride. Approaching Gaia, he asks, "Have any of you noticed anything?" To give them a hint, Grog tilts his head and places his right forward leg next to his ear. Merton giggles at the obvious gesture.


"Oh, I know ­ the absence of Kwak'walan tunes," states Kunziah, surprised that he didn't realize it sooner. "We must be near the center of the underworld."


"And our resting place," adds Munyo. "I'm tired and can use some shut-eye."


"You'll need nourishment, first," says Gaia. "Each of you will."


"Do you eat, t-too?" asks Merton politely. "When we f-first learned that you were coming, we wondered, `What does Gaia eat?' My friends w-wanted me to ask you that question. Well, d-do you ­ chirp?"


Turning to Merton, she replies, "Yes, little one, I do. The physical side of me needs food and water just like you and everyone else. In fact, I'd say that I'm quite hungry right now."


"There will be plenty of food for you and your escorts," says Grog, "once we clear the crest and settle down beneath Redwood Falls. We're almost there." Grog turns and leaps toward the base of the waterfall to complete the last leg of the journey.


A thought comes to Merton just as his father lands on a rocky ledge a short way up the falls. "What is the other s-side of you called?" he asks. "Y-you know, in addition to the ­ chirp ­ physical side."


"Merton!" interrupts his father, who slides to a halt on a wet, flat stone just inches from its edge. "I told you not to ask so many questions ­ espe- cially such personal ones."


247 Evergreen



"Remember, Grog," says Gaia in a reassuring voice, "we must be mindful to encourage curiosity in the pursuit of truth." Still facing the young grasshopper, she states, "I have found that the other side you re- fer to is not physical because it is not of this world." Gaia probes deep into Merton's eyes. "Little one, soon disasters will befall Evergreen and balance will no longer exist. I was created by the Golem to help right these wrongs and restore balance. With a long and perilous journey ahead, I have been given special powers to carry out my mission and, in time, fulfill his prophecy."


Gaia pauses and offers a gentle smile. Then she opens both sets of her eyes wide and says, "I feel an unworldly connection to the Golem, so I'd say that my other side is magical."


Merton draws closer to the coarse but transparent lining of Gaia's cocoon and presses his nose against its scarred surface. He feels com- pelled to probe deep into her eyes, too, now just a few inches from his own. Although mesmerized by what he sees, the young grasshopper remains unafraid. A faint fiery glow appears at their center. It is unlike any image Merton has ever experienced. After a few seconds, he shakes his tiny head and looks again, but the glow is gone.


Without so much as a blink, Merton asks, "Is the Golem your f- father?"


The weight of the question prompts Grog and each of the four es- corts to gaze at Merton with nearly the same awe as they reserve for Gaia.


"The kid's got spunk," says Kunziah under his breath.


"I hear that," adds Munyo.


"Well, I think he's simply adorable," replies Tepetu.


They shift their attention to Gaia in anticipation of her reply. She continues to gaze into Merton's doting eyes through the lining of the cocoon. With resolve, she tenderly replies, "I believe he is, little one. But not in the same way you think of your father. Since my existence ­ as unusual as it may be ­ is owed solely to the Golem, there's no other way to describe who he is to me." Merton gently nods his head in a


248 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II


trance-like manner. "What do you think, Merton?" asks Gaia. "Is the Golem my father?"


For the moment, Grog and Gaia's four companions have forgotten all about moving beyond the waterfall to their final destination. Instead, they're more interested in the conversation between a twelve-inch, heavily-plated juvenile grasshopper and an enchanted warrior created by the most powerful life force on the planet.


"The way I see it," replies Merton heedfully, "the Golem sent you into our world to protect all animates down here and up there," he says peering upward with his head atilt. "This means that he cares about everyone. So he is not just your father, he is everyone's ­ a great magi- cal spirit that connects all life forms and makes us safe ­ chirp."


Gaia's impressed with Merton's keen reasoning. "How does a little one-footer like you come to grow up so fast?" she chortles. Her com- panions laugh, pleased that a potentially provocative moment has turned into light-hearted fun.


In the background Kunziah mutters, "Did anyone hear the kid stut- ter that time?"


Grog is too nervous to find anything amusing about his son's dia- logue with Gaia. He's just glad that it ended well. He takes a deep breath and heartily announces, "Redwood Falls awaits us." Grog con- tinues up the waterfall at a quick pace, leaping from one flat stone to another until he nears the water's surface.


Gaia's escorts respond to Grog's cue by slowly ascending the wa- terfall to begin the last leg of their journey. Grog waits patiently on a boulder beneath a tall patch of redwoods close to the top. He watches their expressions as they discover what lies beyond the falls' crest.


At once their hearts begin to race as they rise above Grog and clear the tips of the redwoods. For the first time they are able to view up close what was almost inconceivable from their earlier vantage point nearly twenty miles away. The range and intensity of color that blankets Mesequoya's immense, petrified limb are as overwhelming as the roar of the falls itself. Neither Gaia nor her escort companions


249 Evergreen


can take their eyes off the ten-thousand-year-old relic. Never has life complemented death in such a captivating way. It's as if it were meant to be.


"Is that what remains of the ancient one?" wonders Tepetu rhetori- cally in one long, deep breath. "My, she should be so proud."


"Redwood Falls is our life giver," Grog humbly replies, keeping pace from below. "Her origin is of no concern to Kwak'walans." He leaps toward the next flat stone rising just above the water's surface. "Isn't-she-grand!" he proclaims gallantly, in mid-air, from over his shoulder. As Grog moves farther away from the group, his comments are drowned in the torrent of water that cascades down the mountainous limb into the highest and largest lake in the underworld. This body of water flows outward to several waterfalls that, in turn, feed into Seta- mina Pass and other smaller streams throughout the cavern.


"If that's one of her limbs, imagine what her trunk would have looked like with thousands of them poking out all the way up to the clouds," observes Ojeda, amazed at the spectacle.


"Yeah, and imagine what her termites would have looked like back then," adds Munyo half-jokingly.


"You mean humites, don't you?" interjects Gaia grimly. One at a time the four escorts shed their grins and cast an uneasy glance her way. "After all," she adds, "they are what brought down this magnifi- cent life form in its prime."


"Creatures that powerful deserve some measure of respect," says Ojeda, eyeing the massive structure and shaking his head in disbelief.


"And an even g-greater measure of distance," remarks Merton, now a little jittery.


Gaia looks up at the last remnant of Mesequoya and carefully ex- amines a few knots and cavities that may have been entry points for these terrible creatures long ago. She recalls the Golem's prophecy in Ontawa earlier in the day. A fiery glower slowly emerges in her eyes. "Soon I will meet their queen," she states softly to no one in particular. "I am destined to do so."


250 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II



The others pretend not to hear the grave words uttered by their friend. From their position, Ojeda and Tepetu each notice the glower surface in her eyes and quickly fade. They turn away guided by hope of what the future will bring and sadness that there are no guaran- tees.


Grog slows to allow the group to catch up. Once he has their atten- tion, he points to a small, lush island a short distance away.


"My liege, your destination is that long stretch of land just ahead," he calls out loudly.


Excited to know where they will finally touch down, the group con- tinues past Grog at a swift but comfortable pace. He sees them pick up speed and decides to leap into high gear himself. Moments later they approach the island and land on a narrow shoreline consisting of peb- bles, stones and plenty of sand. The island is located about one-half mile in front of Redwood Falls. The portion of land facing the gargan- tuan waterfall is blanketed with flowering shrubs, vine-covered boulders and moderate-sized, fruit-bearing trees. The side where Gaia and her friends just landed is largely an open beach nestled between the trees and the lake's freshwater shoreline.


Merton jumps off Gaia's back and onto the sand. He hops around to the front of the chrysalis and faces Gaia through the surface of her tat- tered cocoon. His antennae are raised and swaying slightly due to the falls' misty breeze.


"I will n-never forget our time together ­ chirp," he states politely.


"Nor will I, little one," replies Gaia sincerely. Merton stands firm and upright, beaming in response. "You keep asking questions of your elders, too," she adds. "It is a trait that will serve you well."


Bobbing his head up and down, he replies, "You can c-count on it." Merton turns to locate his father near the woods and then looks back at Gaia.


"Go now," she states warmly. "We will see each other soon."


But Merton is uncertain if he'll ever be this close to her again. Carefully, he steps up to the cocoon and places his cheek against its


251 Evergreen


surface. His two antennae gently stroke and probe its hard lining. His eyes are closed. "Chirp," he utters almost in silence.


"I know, Merton ­ chirp," she replies tenderly.


The young grasshopper turns and leaps toward his father who watches the warm exchange from a nearby clearing near the edge of the woods.


Ojeda looks around to assess their present location and then turns to Gaia. "Would you prefer to rest closer to the plants and trees, or is this spot alright?" he asks.


"My liege," interjects Grog from the clearing. Gaia and her escorts look in his direction. "We have spent much time filtering out pebbles and stones to prepare this area for you," he states, motioning the group from beneath a thicket of tall trees and colorful shrubs. "Here you will find smooth sand and an abundance of food, so that your stay will be comfortable and your rest will be sound."


"I'm sold," says Kunziah, readying himself for the brief move.


Ojeda glances at Gaia. "Shall we?" he asks respectfully.


She nods and says with a wink, "One last time, my friend, for old time's sake."


Ojeda and his companions gently raise the chrysalis and carry her a short distance to the clearing specially prepared by the Kwak'walans. Seconds later Gaia rests comfortably on the soft sand and eyes the new surroundings. Her escorts quickly settle in and begin a well-deserved feast of nectar and assorted berries. The mist and continuous thunder produced from Redwood Falls soothes the sore, battle-weary travelers. The deep, intense rumble also decreases their capacity to hear sounds off in the distance.


After an hour passes, Grog appears before Gaia and the group. "Ex- cuse me, my liege," he says, "but Grog is here to inform you that the second part of pukka-pom-woo is about to begin." The large grasshop- per takes a long, hard look at his special guest. He senses something is different with Gaia but can't quite put his antennae on it.


The sound of Grog's voice awakens Munyo from a deep nap. He opens one eye. "How many parts are there?" he asks, stretching his wings.


252 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II



Grog glances over at Munyo and replies, "There are two." He quickly returns to Gaia with a puzzled look. "My liege, is your cocoon shrinking around you or have you filled your space more fully? Grog thinks it looks quite snug in there."


"Since my journey began this morning, my body has been chang- ing. I am in a constant state of growth," Gaia responds. "My head, body and wings continue to change by the hour."


Curious about Gaia's response, Ojeda examines her extremities through the cocoon's largely transparent lining. A troubling reality suddenly surfaces from within. "You don't seem to be taking on the shape of any butterfly I've ever seen," he points out. "The structure and size of your wings and legs are rather ... unique. And your head looks nothing like ours."


Gaia chooses to ignore Ojeda's observations of her physical trans- formation. "Soon the lining of my cocoon will no longer bear the weight of my changes, and I will be free to travel on my own." She looks at Ojeda and says, "It is all part of the Golem's plan."


Although Tepetu is well aware of her and her companions' role as Gaia's escorts, she can't help but wonder what comes next. Somberly, she asks, "When these changes are complete and our services are no longer needed, are we going to remain down here?"


"That's part of the plan, wingnut," chimes in Munyo. "Actually, I like it here. It's got everything we need. Plus, we're protected from you-know-who that's soon to be revived on the surface."


"Well, I suppose there is everything we need," responds Tepetu.


"All I want to know is if we have to go anywhere for the next part of pukka-poo-poo," interrupts Kunziah, taking advantage of the soft sand on his back. His broad and colorful wings rise and fall slightly, as if he's a tourist fanning himself to keep cool.


"Have you been taking in nectar through your nose, rather than your mouth, Kunziah?" gibes Munyo.


Grog senses what it is that Munyo wants to know. "The second part of pukka-pom-woo requires no further travel," he states, stressing the


253 Evergreen


ceremony's actual name. "Just relax and enjoy yourselves for the re- mainder of the evening. Grog and Merton will remain close by to address any questions you may have about what appears before you."


"What can we expect to see?" asks Ojeda, excited about the contin- ued attention.


"That will depend on where you look," he responds with a silly grin. "To keep it a surprise, Grog will give no more clues." He and Merton chuckle and leap a short distance away from Gaia and her com- panions. They find a soft spot in the sand between a thicket of plants, shrubs and dogwood trees with yellow flowers. Cuddled together, they wait to view what their fellow Kwak'walans have designed especially for their honored guests. The wait doesn't last very long.


"Look at the ceiling off in the distance! It's shimmering!" shouts Tepetu to the members of the group. "I see thousands of red and white lights coming toward us. I think they're in rows. What kind of life forms are they? They can't be mushrooms ­ or can they?"


Merton snickers at Tepetu's confusion. "I've never seen a mush- room with l-legs, Dad, have you?" He is immediately shushed by his father. "Except m-maybe when it's sticking out of your m-mouth," adds the young grasshopper with a bad case of the giggles.


"Calm down, Tepetu," replies Munyo. "Like Grog said, just relax and watch the celebration. There's a reason for everything that hap- pens. I'm sure this part of the ceremony is no different. Maybe all those lights will somehow become organized to send Gaia another message. You know, so she could deliver it to the animates on the surface."


"What kind of message?" asks Tepetu naively.


Munyo pauses for a moment. "How about `above all, stamp out in- sect eaters'? That would be a good one, don't you think?" he quips.


Gaia and her friends share a hearty laugh. Even Grog and Merton enjoy the joke. As the laughter fades, the red-and-white glow across the ceiling is twice as close and gaining rapidly. Through her cocoon Gaia focuses in on the lights and magnifies them. Close inspection reveals that each light is actually one of over two million large luminescent


254 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II


ants known within the underworld as "lumens." These special creatures are advancing in wide single-file rows in the direction of Redwood Falls. At the head of the immense army of lumens is a small number of leaders who plan to personally greet Gaia on behalf of their respective colonies.


"Is it snowing?" Kunziah wonders aloud. "I see white flakes floating down from above. There are red ones, too. Do any of you see them?"


"Red snow?" replies Munyo skeptically. "How can there be any snow in a cave beneath a lake? Plus, it's too warm down here."


"Hey!" spouts Tepetu with delight. "Look at all of our cute little cousins dancing about!" Intrigued by the sight of glittering lights and thousands of small, colorful butterflies, Tepetu flaps her wings and ris- es several dozen feet above the sand. With her eyes wide open, she hovers in place for a better view. "You're right, Munyo!" she shouts from well above the group. "They're not snowflakes, but they're beau- tiful to watch! The little tykes are so sweet I could just eat `em up!" At once, a stillness sets in among thousands of butterflies closest to Tepetu in response to her statement. Warily, they resume their planned activity along with the others.


Also fascinated by the strange events unfolding in the cavern sky, Kunziah flaps his wings and rises to join Tepetu. "Will someone ex- plain to me what's happening?" he states all aflutter.


Gaia looks up at her two curious companions in response to their fuss. This is hard for her to do, having reached the spatial limits of her cocoon. Gaia is aware of the transformation taking place but acts as though nothing is out of the ordinary.


"Please come down and take your place among us," Gaia insists. The two loyal escorts acknowledge her request and land in the nearby sand. In light of their excitement, as the second part of pukka-pom-woo commences, Gaia decides to address the group.


"As you are aware, we are here to observe a special event created by the Kwak'walans in our honor. I am sure that Grog will address any of your questions if you allow him to do so."


255 Evergreen



"Yeah, Kunziah," interjects Munyo.


"For now," Gaia continues, "let us quietly take in the wonders of these magnificent creatures who have inhabited this private world for thousands of years. We should cherish their innate abilities and treasure their personal interest in this important journey."


"In other words, shhh!" says Ojeda, staring at his three friends.


Moments after Gaia completes her thoughts to the group, she feels thoroughly pained and exhausted for the first time in her short life. Though still alert, she senses how forces are acting on her in unusual ways. Her wings are no longer lightweight and do not rest comfortably against her body. Their lining is now dense and sweaty with the sensa- tion that an arm has emerged within each wingspan. Large clawed fingertips already penetrate the cocoon's surface. Two sets of hind legs that once rested comfortably inside the cocoon now buckle and grate against its coarse lining. They, too, have strengthened and taken on un- usual proportions.


Perhaps the most noticeable change for Gaia is with her vision. The second set of eyes that rests just behind and below her main pair has now significantly enhanced her horizontal vision and doubled her verti- cal range. Taken together, these physical changes heighten her fatigue and encourage a deep sleep. The metamorphosis is nearing its peak.


"Grass seeds ­ chirp," interjects Merton from beneath Grog's metallic chest. The four escort butterflies turn toward Merton but say nothing in light of Gaia's request. "If you're w-wondering, what you now see shim- mering and f-flickering all around are grass seeds. They were launched a few minutes ago by d-dung beetles. Didn't you ­ chirp ­ feel the d-draft? Didn't you smell it either? When those guys get revved up, they can cause b-berries to shoot out of a b-berry b-bush and take any l-locals with them in seconds flat! Don't get in their way, either. I've seen dragonflies get c- caught in their wind and end up with their butts stuck in t-trees ­ chirp," he states, nodding, with his antennae bouncing up and down.


"Once the grass seeds are l-launched, they are kept in motion by b- butterflies." Merton looks up to watch the small, showy insects dance


256 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II


around the seedlings to alter their course. "I like the w-way the seeds sparkle in the light ­ chirp," observes Merton.


"Me too," whispers Tepetu. They share a warm smile.


"NO!" yells Kunziah, frightened and in shock. "What's happened to Gaia? Is she okay? Is she still alive?"


Members of the group carefully approach the cocoon, terrified by its sudden change in appearance. Grog and Merton follow close behind. The lining is no longer transparent. All signs of teal and gold that once rippled throughout its surface are gone. In their place is blackness without a hint of variation in pitch. The only sign that a creature inhab- its the cocoon is two large, jagged claws that penetrate the thick lining at opposite sides. There is no movement. "I've seen butterflies emerge from cocoons ever since I became sentient," states Ojeda, "but I've never seen a chrysalis in this condition before. She looks dead."


"Maybe it's because Gaia's not a butterfly like you or me," replies Munyo. "Think about it. Which one of you has a parent that looks like hers? Or can turn ten thousand silver-beaked blackbirds into an over- cooked dish at a barbeque with a blink of an eye?"


Merton brushes up against the cold, hard exterior of the chrysalis. "Why can I no longer s-see you?" he cries. "P-please, ­ chirp ­ c-come back." With tear-filled eyes, Merton turns to Ojeda and Munyo and pleads, "Can you bring her b-back?"


Until now Gaia's escorts were prepared for any challenge that con- fronted them, mainly because Gaia always had the right words of support or chose the proper course of action when they were in doubt. This is different. They feel abandoned. They feel alone.


Munyo looks at Merton and then at the darkened remains. "It just doesn't make sense," he states. "An entire underworld celebrates Gaia's journey before her lifeless cocoon? There's no way the journey ends here and now." He continues to ponder the circumstances.


The young grasshopper stares at Munyo, hoping that he will say something to make things better. In that instant, Munyo's eyes widen. He begins to smile. "Like I said, there's a reason for everything that


257 Evergreen


happens, and this part of the ceremony is no different. Little jumper," says Munyo, "our friend is in stasis."


"I knew that," replies Kunziah. "I just wanted to see how long it would take the rest of you to figure it out." Embarrassed, he flaps his wings and rises above the group to view the ongoing ceremony.


"I know stasis. That m-means she'll return to us s-soon," says Mer- ton, suddenly uplifted.


"Well, at the rate things have happened today, it probably won't take very long," replies Munyo. "When Gaia does fully change into her new form, I'm sure she'll return to us for a brief time," he adds with more hope than fact on his side.


"To say goodbye, right?" asks Merton, drying his eyes with a near- by leaf.


"That's right," says Munyo, "and then she'll continue on her journey."


"Stasis isn't v-very pretty," Merton declares. He is encouraged by Munyo's words and the prospect of seeing Gaia one last time. He turns to his father and asks, "Dad, can I w-wait here by her side until her ch- change is complete ­ chirp? I want to be the first to g-greet her when she wakes up and breaks out of her c-c-cocoon."


Grog walks over to his son. He places his front right arm on Mer- ton's metallic shoulder. "Grog and Merton will remain here together. Even if it takes all night," he states.


Ojeda, Munyo, Tepetu and Kunziah are finally at ease from the ex- citement. Each butterfly finds a spot to rest on the sand near Gaia with full knowledge that she is vulnerable to attack. However, there is no sense of fear among her faithful friends, no pressing need to stand vigi- lant and protect her from harm. They feel safe on their small island surrounded by insect colonies that continue to celebrate Gaia's arrival through the pukka-pom-woo ceremony.


Everywhere, the underworld is jam-packed with bright and colorful animates. All in attendance witness an array of choreographs never be- fore seen at this grand scale. The armies of red and white lumens now fill the cavern ceiling, like a bizarre starry night, and march all the way


258 Flight of the Chrysalis: Part II


to Redwood Falls. Once they reach the waterfall, the lumens jump in unison and ride the currents down Mesequoya's immense limb to the lake below. From the base of the falls, they float along the water's path around the small island and out to the maze of streams below. At times, lumens catch branches that protrude from Mesequoya's limb. This causes them to spring out from the falls, sail over the island, and plunge into the lake in front of the group. Once at the surface, they join the other lumens and head toward smaller waterfalls in the distance, like well-lit boats under a fiery sky.


Lumens, beetles and butterflies are only a few of the insects to take part in the evening's festivities. Just below the surface of the lake, in the vicinity of the shoreline, shiny water scorpions form rings around lumens that happen to take a deep plunge from Redwood Falls. These unusual underwater insects help guide the disoriented creatures to the lake's surface and on their way.


Spiders and fireflies also have a role to play along southern portions of the cavern. Colonies of large emperor spiders work together to spin massive webs. These networks of silk glisten in the light supplied by nearby life forms. The webs are so big that they can be seen by mem- bers of Gaia's group many miles away. For this special ceremony, emperor spiders leave the center of their webs unfinished and gather around the small spiral openings. In a rare act of unity, these spiders permit their favorite meal, neon dottyback fireflies, to safely pass through the web openings, even though their prey is within striking dis- tance. From almost any corner of the cavern, an endless chain of brilliant orange- and yellow-speckled fireflies are seen passing from one spiral opening to the next like a shimmering tapestry slowly being woven together with neon thread.


Perhaps the most impressive display of all is found within hundreds of the cavern's mature trees. In the upper branches are multiple nests comprised of lightning-fast, metallic blue wasps. These insects are known as "blue sparklers" throughout the underworld because they per- form a highly visible dance when their territory is threatened. Once


259 Evergreen


agitated, two teams of blue sparklers take flight near their nest. One team gathers just outside of the nest's entrance to prevent unwanted entry. The second team travels at a high speed in circular bands around the first team in a shape that resembles an atom. As blue sparklers rotate in their lanes around the entry guards, small portions of their metallic blue bod- ies come in contact with one another and produce sparks. This behavior serves these creatures well since it intimidates potential enemies, causing them to think twice about aggressive incursions. All colonies of blue sparklers agreed to coordinate the performance of this unique dance for the pukka-pom-woo ceremony.


Adding to the picturesque display of thousands of insect families performing throughout the night, entire colonies travel to the small is- land to witness Gaia in stasis. Outside of an occasional quiver or bulge in the cocoon's lining, she moves very little over the course of the eve- ning. Though her loyal companions are exhausted, they remain close at her side.


Just before the first light of dawn, all creatures big and small finally return home to sleep. So, too, members of Gaia's group, including Grog and his son, close their eyes for a well-deserved rest. No one could pos- sibly foresee what lies just a few hours ahead ­ the scope of the enemy's assault and the size of their army, the pain and suffering they intend to inflict.


Unbeknownst to the Kwak'walans now sleeping soundly through- out the underworld, the rise of the morning suns will bring their greatest challenge ever. After one hundred centuries beneath Lake Au- gur, their ability to meet this challenge will determine if their way of life will continue or die. The consequences of the battle will be critical not only for the Kwak'walans, but for all animates throughout Ever- green, for the outcome will determine if Gaia completes her metamorphosis and continues on her historic journey or is brutally slain by Syrus, the ruler of all winged carnivores, and his legions of merci- less marauders.


A war of two worlds is about to begin.


260 Chapter Twelve


Battle Beneath Lake Augur




261 Evergreen



T


he early morning bronze sky shows hints that dawn is near. Trac-


es of light flicker and dance along the peaks of the Grand Divide.


As the rays of the first sun reach across Lake Augur, Syrus clears the forest canopy and descends thousands of feet before his legions in the misty ravine. The silhouette of the feared ancient warrior against the back- drop of the falls incites his followers into a frenzied, deafening roar. Some of the flocks get so roused that they begin to fight among themselves with the weaker members quickly rooted out and savagely slain.


Syrus flies past hundreds of cave openings in the steep rock forma- tion to fuel the fervor and feed his tremendous ego. He circles past his troops three times and lands on a leaf-filled branch of a largely dead tree that juts out from the immense stone wall. The time has arrived. From the branch Syrus raises his aged leathery wings and pans the sha- dowy cave openings side-to-side with his one glaring eye. He sees very little but knows that a motley feathered army stands before him ready to fight. The commotion dies down. Partially hidden in the darkness of the pre-dawn hour, Syrus addresses the army he has assembled.


"Warriors and defenders of the forest throne, an enemy has emerged who operates in our skies," he begins in a time-worn, deep and gravelly voice. "This creature and those who provide her with ha- ven are responsible for the deaths of many thousands of our kind. The unspeakable carnage took place right above our homes and in front of our families. This creature threatens our way of life. Is this accept- able?" he questions forcefully with his wings outstretched.


A thunderous "No!" rivaling the energy of the Great Falls echoes throughout the ravine.


"Must this end here?" he continues even louder.


A roar of "Yes!" sweeps across the ravine and dies.


Syrus allows several seconds to pass. He raises his right wing slightly and leers at the shadows stirring within the caves. "Must this end now?" he scowls in a gritty, rhetorical tone.


Chaos erupts from the cave openings that surround the ancient ru- ler. From several of the caves his followers cry out, "Shred her!"


262 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


"Destroy them!" and "Avenge the killings!" Minutes pass before the emotion dies down. Syrus continues to eye the cave openings, though it is still too dark to see the details of those inside. Finally, he proceeds.


"This enemy believes she can hide behind the falls to escape our fury and avoid our justice. Well, my brave and loyal soldiers, she's dead wrong!" Amid the revel and screeches of delight from his troops, Syrus shouts, "Rise up, powerful defenders of our way of life! Join me in reclaiming our rights as keepers of the forest throne. Today we re- claim our pride from the terrible loss of our brothers and sisters less than one day ago. Today we regain control of our forest and the skies above by defeating our enemy who mocks us and laughs at our tragedy. Today we exact revenge on that freak of nature known as Gaia!"


Set off by Syrus' speech, the caves empty and the deep and wide chasm fills with hundreds of thousands of winged carnivores circling and diving in anticipation of what is to follow. They are desperate to hear their leader give the order for the battle to begin.


Syrus turns around on his branch to face the enraged legions before the tremendous falls. There are so many birds that portions of the falls are blanketed and difficult to see. Sensing that a historic occasion is about to take place, Syrus takes a deep breath and loudly proclaims, "The day will soon be ours!"


His wings outstretched, he leans forward and dives off the branch. Seconds later Syrus swoops into the misty ravine and soon emerges taking an upward flight toward the waterfall's crest miles above. From the details provided by Taggart, he is aware of the location where Gaia and her escorts penetrated the falls. Syrus motions in flight to the lead- ers of different flocks. They break from their groups and follow him as he ascends the height of the falls. Taggart and his trusted team of os- preys are among those behind him. The balance of Syrus' legions mill about in the ravine and await his orders.


"We will land there," Syrus commands, pointing his right claw at a large, wide island along the crest that divides the powerful flow of Lake Augur. He clears the top of the Great Falls and flies out around the


263 Evergreen


edge of the giant lake. The tourmaline moon reflects off the northern waters farthest from the lake's crest. He circles the area one more time to study the layout in relation to where Gaia entered the falls miles be- low. The leaders he selected are close behind, blindly following him and eager to take the next steps.


The island that has Syrus' attention contains plants, shrubs and boul- ders of all shapes and sizes. Its terrain is comprised of stone, moist dirt and dark teal-colored moss. The most important feature of the island to Syrus is its tall redwoods. With an endless supply of water and more than their fair share of light from the suns, several of the trees exceed the size of most evergreens found throughout the land. Critical to the task ahead, the island rests less than a thousand feet from a smaller island with simi- lar features also along the crest of the Great Falls. This is what Syrus recalls he would find at the top of the falls. He is optimistic.


Syrus lands on a long branch he observed among the tallest group of redwoods on the island. The branch is outstretched well above the crest where water from Lake Augur pours into the ravine. He is posi- tioned to see the falls directly below and oversee his plan at the same time. The leaders of several flocks that accompanied him land on a few branches of nearby redwood trees. Taggart and his gang of marauders land only a few feet away from Syrus. Strong, blustery winds are at their backs.


"What would you have us do?" asks Taggart, aware of his place in the chain of command.


Syrus stares down into the chasm at the location where Gaia entered the falls. "Open the floodgate and allow the troops access to Gaia's hole in the mountainside," he states calmly. "Gaia and her allies are not alone. I've heard stories that there are enough bugs in there to feed our army for months."


While being up to his beak in bugs conjures up a delicious image to Taggart, he's clearly confused about the details of the whole "open the floodgate" idea. "Okay, so, what would you have us do?" he asks once again, hoping for greater clarification.


264 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



Syrus looks at Taggart and those in attendance. In a firm but patient voice, he states, "We will create a dam from these tall trees to raise the flow of water. If we do this above the area where Gaia entered the falls, we can create an opening in the falls." He reads the blank stares of those around him and adds, "Then we go in and feast on everyone in sight. I will deal with Gaia." He turns to Taggart and says, "Is that clear enough?"


"No, really," he replies, "what are your orders?"


Syrus steps toward Taggart on a branch nearly one thousand feet above the waterfall's crest and miles above its base. Sensing a confron- tation, members of his flock bound to other branches. With his long, scarred beak now inches from Taggart's face, Syrus says, "You're ei- ther part of the solution or part of the problem. Now which is it going to be?"


"I vote solution," he responds. "It's a great plan."


"What a surprise," comments Syrus sarcastically under his breath. He then looks with a sidelong glance at the leaders nearby. Their bodies quiver from the sudden attention. "I want each of you to bring any sol- dier with a sharp, straight or chisel-shaped beak to the bottom of this group of redwoods as quick as you can."


"That'll be the spike-headed woodpeckers and silver-tipped black- birds," notes Taggart.


"Whoever," he replies dryly. "Have them work together to tear out the lower west part of each tree one at a time. Begin with the tree that's closest to the water. If they tire or break their bills, then replace them immediately. Do this until you hear the first buckle or crack ­ from the tree, that is. Then call in the muscle ­ our legions of prey."


"Understood."


"Above all remember that each redwood must drop across the crest and behind those tall trees and large rocks," declares Syrus, pointing to the smaller island at the edge of Lake Augur. "Now go!" he shouts. The leaders promptly clear the branches and disappear into the gorge.


Syrus remains on the large branch. He stares out into the rocky wa- ters of the lake, trying to imagine a world beneath its depths.


265 Evergreen


"Wherever you are and whatever you are," he asserts, eyeing the ap- proaching currents, "your time is coming to an end."


It doesn't take long before the uninterrupted sounds of chopped, ripped and split wood echo from below Syrus' perch. One by one the massive redwoods crack at their base and fall into the water behind the small neighboring island. After six trees wedge in place like a pyramid, the turbulent flow of the middle crest rises and juts out several feet be- yond the waterfall's edge. Syrus is delighted to see the results occur so quickly. He swoops down from his branch and circles the area to in- spect the work. The leaders observe Syrus in flight, but continue to direct their flocks on the island in case the job is incomplete.


"It is time!" he shouts as he veers toward them and touches down on moist dirt near six wide redwood tree stumps. Syrus ignores the hard work of his soldiers and the pain of those injured. Instead, he walks over to Taggart and the other leaders, crushing several wounded birds in his path. "Now go and assemble your troops," he demands, "and meet me across from the enemy's gateway as soon as you can. From there you will receive my next orders."


Taggart notices something different about Syrus. His one eye twitches and his long, jagged jaws tremor. He looks hungry. Together they make him appear unhinged and almost rabid. The others see it too, but dare not say a word. They look away.


"Yes, sir," they reply nearly at the same time and take flight.


Syrus casts one last glance at the results of his plan. Satisfied with what he sees, the ancient leader raises his wings and joins them in flight. Within seconds the island is abandoned. Left behind is a tremen- dous wooden barrier that connects both islands and elevates the flow of Lake Augur's central crest.


He descends into the ravine and hears faint but familiar echoes. Words like "gap," "plan" and "entrance" start to take shape. It is clear that the sounds are coming from his legions below. The farther he de- scends, the greater is his sense that a celebration is taking place. Screams from the caves along the ravine help to define the excitement:


266 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


"Look at the gap in the falls!" "Syrus' plan worked!" "There's our en- trance!" "They can hide no longer!" and "Hello, breakfast!"


Syrus circles around the gorge and returns to the largely lifeless branch from which he previously addressed his troops. It is clear that his legions are elated by the plan's success. From his position, Syrus sees that the once impenetrable waterfall is now vulnerable. Its torrents contain two downward flows where the gap between them is several feet apart.


"The gateway is exposed!" he proclaims heroically from his branch. "I hope you're all real hungry because breakfast is about to be served!" The troops around him respond in jest by lifting up their beaks, opening their mouths and cawing like fledglings who have just learned that food is near.


At once a burst from the second morning sun fills the sky and sur- rounding hillsides. The steep, cave-lined ravine is blanketed with a brilliant golden warmth. The primitive shrill of pukka dim builds across the land. High-pitched screeches continue and grow louder among the birds throughout the ravine. They see the timing of the rising suns as a sign of good fortune with the battle about to begin.


His wings outstretched, Syrus joins in the chorus by emitting his own blood-curdling shrill. It easily eclipses all others. The sound is prehistoric, unlike anything produced or heard by his winged troops in their distant memory. The legions are startled by what they consider to be Syrus' battle cry. They quiet down for his next command. The wind- swept gorge is now filled only with the mist and roar of the falls.


After centuries of uncontested rule, Syrus is ready for battle. He stares at the narrow gap in the falls exposing the location entered by Gaia and her companions. Then he observes two downward torrents. One has surged long before Mesequoya was a sapling. The other flows a few feet in front of the first and just came to life. The success of his plan to reshape the waterfall to his advantage strengthens his confi- dence. He feels invincible. The need for war flows through his rigid veins once again. He can wait no longer.


267 Evergreen



Syrus takes flight in the direction of the exposed gateway. He makes eye contact with the leaders of eight legions. Four are large, po- werful birds of prey, and four are vicious, lightning-fast, silver-beaked blackbirds. One by one he motions each in the direction of the falls with his right claw. Taggart is among them.


"Each of you follow me!" he shouts. "The rest of you await my or- ders!" Taggart and the other leaders tell their troops to be patient until they return. Moments later they are behind Syrus heading toward a nar- row gap near the center of the Great Falls.


Thirsty for combat, it doesn't take long for close to one million im- patient soldiers to leave the vicinity of their caves and circle around the gorge like vultures. Eyeing the opening with each pass, they hope or- ders will be given to descend into the gateway and begin their assault.


Syrus charges through the gap of the falls as if he expects to engage Gaia in battle on the other side. He immediately pulls up in flight when, instead, he is confronted with a tall, jagged stone wall. The small group of leaders observe his sudden reaction and hover in flight close behind within the falls.


"Look above you," states Taggart with his left wing pointing to- ward five dark tunnel entrances.


"Yes, I see," replies Syrus, now circling in front of the rocky openings. "It seems we have a bit of a puzzle before us. Well, I have little patience for such games." He leers at the largest of four silver-beaked blackbirds. "Bring me five of your troops with twenty in each," he demands.


"Sir, yes, sir," responds the dark, weathered bird without hesitation. He turns and darts through the gap in the falls to select one hundred subjects for Syrus' experiment. Though some speculation is given to the fate of his fellow comrades, he dare not question his orders.


Syrus turns to the three remaining blackbirds. Outside of deep scars on their shiny beaks and a few broken feathers, they appear to be iden- tical. "Find five of the longest vines from the tallest trees at the lake's crest and strip them clean," he demands. "They need to be very strong and very long. Are your orders clear?"


268 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



"Sir, yes, sir," they reply in unison. Each quickly clears the gap to find help and ascend to the waterfall's crest.


With his thick, leathery wings outstretched, Syrus glides toward the rocky entrance of the center tunnel. From above he swoops down, circles and lands on its cold, damp edge. Carefully, Syrus looks around and peers down. He observes how small amounts of light on the inner stone wall quickly turn pitch black so that the tun- nel appears bottomless. For safety he chooses not to probe any deeper into the cave opening. Fortunately for him, the gap created in the falls has all but eliminated the once strong air flow into the gateway's tunnels.


"So they designed this trap to keep out the big bad monsters, did they," he states drolly. Syrus continues to cautiously inspect the en- trance. "Well, bugs," he adds, sniffing the walls around him, "sleep peacefully because big bad monsters are coming, and there's nothing you can do to stop us." Taggart and his fellow osprey chuckle at the off-hand comment.


Syrus flies away from the tunnel's edge and circles down to the opening below on the right. He performs this ritual on all tunnel en- trances, each time leaning in only for a cursory inspection. He knows others will soon do his dirty work.


"Once we find the right passageway and begin our descent, the element of surprise will be essential," states Syrus to the four remaining leaders.


"What do you have in mind?" asks Taggart, hovering in flight near the rocky entrance to the center tunnel. Because he is curious about what lies deep inside, Taggart lands and peaks over the edge into the darkness. He sees nothing. A loose stone is too tempting to ignore. He grabs it with his claw and is just about to toss it into the stone chasm when Syrus latches onto his throat with his winged-claw and pulls him away from the tunnel entrance. The stone is jarred loose and bounces along the rocky wall below members of the group. Taggart's eyes swell to twice their normal size.


269 Evergreen



"Were you planning on notifying the enemy of our arrival?" asks Syrus in an outwardly calm but highly indignant tone.


"N-n-no," utters Taggart with what little oxygen he can force through Syrus' large, powerful claw.


He loosens his grip on Taggart's neck, and air wheezes from his lungs. "Don't do that again," states Syrus firmly. While the leaders qui- etly sneer at Taggart's mishap, he barely manages to remain in flight.


"Now to your question. Squads of our fastest and quietest troops will be sent in, one after the other, to scan the entire area and eliminate all insect guards and lookouts. Since stealth and speed must be accom- panied with strength, you will assign fellow birds of prey to each squad. Nothing can be left to chance. The squad will travel low and tar- get any movement or noise that may alert the enemy to our presence. They must consume or destroy whatever is found. This will allow our legions time to assemble at the tunnel entrance within the enemy's for- tress. At that point, I will lead the charge."


"What if they are detected?" asks Taggart in a sore, raspy voice.


"Then they will die without an opportunity to notify us. Unmerci- fully, I assume."


From behind Syrus, a shaky voice interrupts the conversation. "Five troops of twenty are ready to serve, sir. They await your orders."


"Splendid," says Syrus, now at the top right tunnel entrance. Just inside the tunnel's edge, partially hidden in the shadow of a stone crev- ice, rests an eight-inch long piece of shredded cocoon lining. It is moderately thick and largely transparent with a narrow, teal-colored ripple near the center. It would have gone unnoticed were it not for Sy- rus inadvertently piercing it with the rear talon of his left foot.


"What's this?" he says, looking down from over his shoulder at the unusual find. Syrus lifts his foot toward his beak. He pulls the item off the talon with his sharp teeth and takes a closer look. With his eye fixed on its coarse surface, he gingerly touches it with his tongue to inspect its taste and scent. Syrus' eye opens wide in horror. Flames engulf the portion of his long, leathery beak that contains the small piece of co-


270 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


coon lining. The shock and pain cause him to shake his head violently and emit a tremendous roar.


Several legions outside the falls respond, in kind, with a rousing chorus of their own. The cocoon lining, still in flames, is jettisoned to- ward the leaders who squawk and scatter just in time. Together, the group watches the fireball plunge into the depths below until it's no longer in sight.


Tending to his inflamed jaw, Syrus tries unsuccessfully to piece the events together. "I know that thing in that damned cocoon played some part in this," he vents, licking his wound. "But how can a piece of her cocoon's lining burst into flames on touch?"


"Like I said before," interjects Taggart, hovering a few feet away, "we're up against no ordinary creature."


Syrus glares at Taggart and the other leaders. His long, dark maroon beak quivers noticeably, causing those around him to wince and back off slightly in flight. "Nonsense!" he snipes. "If one small piece of lin- ing can be ripped from her cocoon, then a thousand pieces can be ripped from her hide." Syrus' eyebrows lower at the center. "If we can shred her, then we can kill her," he states coldly.


Below Syrus and the group leaders, three small flocks of blackbirds emerge from the darkness. In the grasp of each is a leafless, two-inch- thick vine that extends well below Syrus and the others into the depths of the mountainside. The last two flocks appear seconds later with their vines in tow.


"As you requested, sir," states one of the lead blackbirds flying just above his flock. "All vines are ready to be deployed." Dozens of the laborers obediently shake their heads to indicate they're prepared for the next order.


Syrus circles the five groups of blackbirds to inspect their lengthy cargo. He then returns to the center tunnel and cautiously lands on its rocky edge as he did earlier. It is clear that he wants to avoid snaring any more pieces of shredded cocoon lining on his talons. Taggart lands next to him with a puzzled look. He notices Taggart's odd expression.


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"Well, what it is now?" snaps Syrus.


"Since you found a trace of the enemy in the top right entrance, shouldn't we check out that tunnel first?" he questions in a manner mindful of the ruler's authority.


"True, it may have dropped there accidentally, but it could have been put there by design to throw us off," Syrus replies. "I will take no chances." He raises and flaps his claw-tipped wings to lift off the tun- nel's edge. "Bring me the five troops I requested," he shouts, circling the flocks and their cargo once more. He glides past each flock and points to a specific tunnel entrance. "Carry the vines about one hundred feet down into each tunnel and wait there. Do not, under any circum- stance, let go of the vine until the troops arrive to relieve you," he commands. "Then return to your posts in the ravine to await further or- ders."


Moments later hundreds of yards of vine drop outside each tunnel opening into the depths of the mountainside below Syrus and his hen- chmen. Inside the tunnels, his laborers wait patiently. Five troops of twenty silver-beak blackbirds now gather before the gateway and listen carefully to their leader's plans.


"Yours is a most important and dangerous mission," states Syrus. "You have been chosen to help us discover which of these tunnels lead us to the enemy and which do not. On my order, each troop will enter an assigned tunnel and follow the vine until you meet up with the blackbirds. There you will take over their assignment by clutching the vine in your claws. Do not let go. Navigate through the passageway with the vine in tow until you reach the tunnel's end. When you are sure you have entered the enemy's fortress, tug on the vine three times. Then leave it in place and return immediately to confirm what you have found. Do not engage the enemy," he states firmly. "Is that clear?"


"Sir, yes, sir!" they shout together.


"Excellent. Your success will lead to our victory," Syrus continues. "And know this: At the end of the day, whether or not you live to see the suns set or die a horrible death in the tunnels below, you will have


272 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


given us vital information that will help us carry the day and preserve our way of life."


"Uhm, sir?" interrupts a thin, disheveled blackbird from the rear ranks of one troop.


"Yes, what is it?" snaps the ancient ruler, annoyed at the disruption.


"How do I transfer out of this outfit?"


A chorus of knee-slapping belly laughs erupts across the troops. The revelry quickly dies down when the blackbirds notice Syrus is not laughing with them, but at them.


"Please come forward, my brave soldier," urges Syrus in a tense but lighthearted voice. Though irritated by the sudden unsoldierly mood swing, he hides his true feelings. The bird is understandably nervous as he makes his way through his fellow comrades and approaches Syrus. He stops a few feet in front of the leader's imposing beak.


"So, tell me again," asks Syrus slyly. "What is it that you want to know?"


"Um, how do I get out of this chicken ­"


­ CHOMP! GULP!


The speed of Syrus' action and the quivering bulge sliding down his throat signal to those in attendance the seriousness of the offense. Their eyes open wide and mouths drop. A dozen of the largest black- birds among the troops are angered by the severity of the punishment to one of their own. It is well known among winged carnivores that a non- trivial number of the rank and file have joined the battle to avenge the recent deaths of their kin rather than to preserve the forest throne occu- pied by Syrus.


"You just ate our brother," declares one of the blackbirds mourn- fully. He is oversized and unusually filthy with much of his plumage and silver beak dulled from battle scars and neglect.


"You call it, Truman," states a comrade nearby. The large blackbird and eleven of his supporters inch out from the ranks of the five troops and move toward Syrus, Taggart and three other birds of prey. Instinc- tively, Taggart positions himself between the approaching threat and


273 Evergreen


Syrus. His fellow birds of prey also fall in line to stave off any act of aggression.


"Ah, Truman, is it?" questions Syrus rhetorically. "Tell me, do you and your friends wish to stage a revolt right at the moment of our great- est glory?"


"Now he's in your belly so you can fatten up," seethes Truman with the horrific incident still whirling in his head.


"Well," replies Syrus, "if the truth be known, there wasn't much meat on his bones. So my shapely figure will likely remain. But I do admire your loyalty, misguided as it may be."


With Truman acting as their leader, the incensed rebels are now face-to-face with four of Syrus' most trusted henchmen. Because any one of the birds of prey weighs more than the dozen blackbirds com- bined, it is increasingly evident to everyone that their action is futile and symbolic.


Over the shoulders of his protective guard, Syrus scowls at each of the blackbirds. "That is what happens to insubordinates," he says, rub- bing his stomach with his claw. "So, who's next?" The seconds that pass include an assortment of dueling glares, but no further movement.


"Gee, no takers?" taunts Syrus. "Well, now that this little hissy fit among comrades is behind us, let's get back to business." Under his breath he mutters, "I hope I don't get heartburn. I always get heartburn when I swallow someone whole."


"And gas, too," remarks Taggart, still facing Truman.


"Right. Gas, too. They're vicious side-effects. I really should kick the habit someday."


Truman continues to glare at Taggart like a fighter to his opponent before a match.


Taggart returns the glare. He doesn't feel intimidated, and Truman knows it. Recognizing that this battle cannot be won, the tattered and worn silver-beak turns away to rejoin his troop. The others follow his lead and fall back into place in four rows of five, except for one empty spot.


274 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



All is now quiet in the ranks as they hover before the gateway tun- nels. Having their undivided attention once again, Syrus points his claw-tipped wing at a troop and then a specific tunnel entrance one at a time.


"Expose the location of the cocooned invader and her guardians!" he commands. "Go swiftly and silently into the caves below. Remem- ber your orders. Find our enemy's lair. Leave the vine in place for others to follow and return at once!"


"Sir, yes, sir!" they respond collectively. Each troop proceeds with dispatch to enter their assigned tunnel. Within seconds the vines quiver, move ahead slightly and then advance down into the tunnel at a moder- ate pace. Five groups of silver-beaked blackbirds, relieved by Syrus' troops, emerge from the entrances at nearly the same time. In a blink of an eye, they dart through the gap in the falls and join the countless le- gions milling impatiently in the ravine.


"Shall we organize for reconnaissance now?" asks Taggart, ready to press on.


"Yes, and prepare for the main assault," replies Syrus as he lands on the outer stone surface of the center tunnel. He turns to face the eight leaders he selected earlier. "I want each of you to spread the word. All legions must line up immediately in a three-by-three forma- tion at the gap in the falls. We must now prepare for battle."


The smaller silver-beak leaders respond with beaming smiles and high fives using their wings. There is no notable change in the birds of prey. They remain focused and at attention.


Syrus eyes the antics of the four blackbirds with growing concern. "Listen closely," he states, moving in closely. "I want you to assemble one hundred reconnaissance squads. Each will consist of ten of the fastest and most trustworthy blackbirds. Do you understand what I'm asking you to do?" They nod so hard that a few feathers come loose and stir back and forth around them.


"I hope so," replies Syrus, watching the feathers disappear into the blackness below. Weary about their ability to carry out the orders, he


275 Evergreen


stares angrily and says, "If you disappoint me, I will hunt you down ­ even at the risk of heartburn."


"And gas," adds Taggart. His fellow birds of prey snigger at the image in their heads.


Syrus then shifts his attention to Taggart and his cronies. "Be sure that two of your kind are added to each reconnaissance squad," he says. "I need some measure of reassurance." Syrus glances at the blackbirds and then at Taggart. With a calm, no-nonsense expression, he whispers, "If they deviate from their orders, kill them."


Each bird of prey remains at attention but smirks as a way to ac- knowledge the orders. "You can count on it," replies Taggart.


"Splendid," says Syrus. He moves toward the center of the leaders to address both groups. "Once reconnaissance enters enemy terrain, we'll send in the rest of the army to assemble at the entrance. On my arrival and command, the attack will begin."


"Sir, yes, sir," they reply. The lead ospreys and silver-beaks head toward the gap in the falls to carry out their orders.


"Taggart!" yells Syrus before he leaves the falls. "You remain here with me. I'll need both of your eyes fixed on the vines to observe and report any change."


Taggart circles and returns. "You mean like if one of the vines should happen to be in flames?" he asks.


"Exactly."


"One of the vines happens to be in flames," reports Taggart.


Stunned and curious, they watch as fire exits the lower left tun- nel and travels down the remaining length of the vine like a long, brightly lit fuse. Thick plumes of smoke emerge from the entrance. A few more seconds pass. None of the members from the troop re- turn safely.


"What could have caused that to happen?" wonders Taggart aloud.


SNAP! The weight of the burning vine causes it to break in two. He and Syrus watch as a portion of the fiery vine slips into the depths of the mountainside and snags on a boulder about one hundred feet below.


276 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


It quickly burns into cinders and breaks apart into a free-fall. Flames and embers from the vine cast an orange glow along the damp, jagged rocks like a lantern accidentally knocked from its perch.


"The only possible sources of heat beneath us are fire and lava," notes Syrus. "Since fire is unlikely deep inside the mountain, they must have found their way into a lava-filled chamber that feeds into the noi- sy mountain top. Hmm. I hope there's only one of those ­"


"­ Uh oh," interrupts Taggart, backing away from the gateway.


"Buzzard biscuits," remarks Syrus, disturbed but less surprised than he was moments ago.


Plumes of fire and smoke emerge from a second tunnel entrance in front of them. This time it is the bottom right tunnel that consumes an entire troop and its leader.


"Well, on the bright side," says Syrus upbeat, "that's two tunnels down and three to go."


"Listen, do you hear it?" asks Taggart with his ear outstretched to the gateway tunnels.


"Do I hear what?" replies Syrus curtly. "All I hear is the waterfall. My hearing declined about a century before you were even a hatchling. Be specific."


"Shhh! Just listen," pleads Taggart.


Syrus refrains from talking just long enough to hear a troop's ca- dence surface and grow stronger from within the center tunnel.


"You won't believe what's in this cave, one way out, bones in a mass grave. Sound off ... one, two. Sound off ... three, four. One, two ... three, four." As the cadence ends, the troop leader and his fellow silver- beaks exit the center tunnel a few feet above Syrus. They are in a two- by-ten formation, clutching the first fifty feet of the vine between them. Once the troop falls into place behind Syrus and Taggart, the last two pair of blackbirds reel in the rest of the vine.


The troop leader flies over to Syrus to present his report. "Nothing in the center tunnel except colorful plant life and a graveyard of our kind, sir!" he states obnoxiously loud and at a fast pace. "Looks like


277 Evergreen


they've been in there forever. Along the way we checked every possi- ble crevice and cave opening. No path to the enemy was found, sir!"


Syrus considers the implications. "You have executed your assign- ment well," he notes in a rare moment of support. "Release the vine and join the troops in the ravine. My orders already have been given."


"Sir, yes, sir!" they shout with zeal. Both the vine and the entire troop of silver-beaked blackbirds are quickly out of sight.


No sooner has the troop left through the gap in the falls when Syrus sees a familiar face enter through the same gap and hover in front of the gateway. It is the leader of the blackbirds assigned to the top left tunnel. He and Taggart do a double-take when they first notice his arrival.


"Explain yourself," commands Syrus, impatient and confused.


"Uhm, Syrus," interrupts Taggart pointing to the top right tunnel with his wing. "The vine just stopped. They must have found some- thing."


"Yes, yes," nods Syrus eagerly in response. "Well?"


"Sir," asserts the leader, "we traveled deep into the tunnel with both eyes fixed on finding where the enemy is hiding."


Syrus tilts and angles his grotesque head to better gaze at the black- bird with his one functional eye. "And?"


The leader instantly realizes his poor choice of words. Nervously, he adds, "We found no alternate route beyond our assigned tunnel, sir. After quite a few miles of twists and bends, we saw a bright light. It turns out that the tunnel takes us directly out to the eastern side of the mountain. We returned with the vine to provide you with this informa- tion. What should we do next, sir?"


"Drop the vine, return to your troops and follow the orders I gave to ­"


Syrus pauses just as Taggart looks in his direction. Both hear com- motion coming from within the top right tunnel. They exchange empty glances, not knowing for sure if the fifth troop accomplished its objec- tive. They are well aware of what failure means to the crusade.


"I gave the order to tug the vine three times if the mission was suc- cessful," Syrus declares eagerly. "Did you see it shake at all?"


"Nope, not once," responds Taggart.


278 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



At that moment the troop leader races out of the last tunnel, nearly colliding into the immense falls. He quickly veers to the right and cir- cles around. Following directly behind him, twenty blackbirds spring from the tunnel in no discernable formation. They are as thrilled as their leader and just as breathless. After some shuffling about, the troop falls into place in a four-by-five formation. The lead blackbird ap- proaches Syrus with urgent news.


"I believe we have discovered the enemy's fortress, sir!" he shouts all fired up. Sounds of excitement come from the ranks behind him. "Though we detected no movement or other signs of life, it may be be- cause they are still asleep."


"Excellent! We still have the element of surprise," says Syrus reas- suringly.


"I saw no tugs on your vine, soldier," observes Taggart. "Did you forget your orders?"


"We pulled on it three times, but it's a long way down," replies the troop leader. "There are many large rocks and deep crevices. The vine could have gotten wedged between them at any point. Once we tugged on it as ordered, we high-tailed it back to relay the good news."


"So the whole vine-tugging thing wasn't such a good idea," admits Syrus. "Now, tell me about their lair. How much larger is it compared to, say, this area in front of the gateway?"


"Than here? Let me try to put this into perspective," says the lead blackbird. "Forget this area. Think of our home forest where we first encountered Gaia. You picturing that?"


Taggart slowly nods his head. Syrus is growing increasingly agi- tated. The blackbirds in formation cover their beaks with their wings to minimize the cackles of laughter.


"Well, compared to this place, our home forest is so small ­"


"­ How small is it?" shout the troop members in high spirit.


CHOMP! GULP! Only the roar of the falls is heard.


"So the battlefield is large," replies Syrus who, again, shows his contempt for uninvited humor. "I just loathe ad lib comics, don't you, Taggart?"


279 Evergreen



"I never really had the chance to get to know one very long."


Syrus sneers in the direction of the silver-beaks who are shocked and saddened by the senseless loss of their leader. "Now be off with all of you!" he yells impatiently. "I have a war to wage!" On the double, they exit through the opening in the falls to join their troops.


With their departure Syrus instructs Taggart to direct all birds into the correct tunnel. "Everyone knows their orders by now," he says. "You make sure they take the right path."


"Will do," asserts Taggart. "You can count on me."


"Indeed I can," responds Syrus with a pittance of gratitude. "I'm heading out into the ravine to signal the start of our offensive. I want you to wait until all soldiers are through the tunnel and I return. Then join me as I lead the charge in battle." He looks at Taggart resolutely and adds, "Together, we'll find the cocoon they call Gaia. And only after I've chewed and shredded every part of it and heard her cry for mercy in front of the last few bugs who escaped death will the day be ours. Then you and your vultures can do with her carcass as you please." "I understand," says Taggart. "Stay away from the chrysalis until you're finished."


"Splendid. Now let's get on with it," says Syrus resolutely. He turns away from the gateway tunnels and disappears through the gap in the falls. Once he clears the downward torrents, he is struck by the enor- mity of the three-by-three formation taking shape across the immense gorge. Birds of two dozen varieties stretch for miles along the steep, cave-lined ravine. Like a general who observes his army on the verge of a decisive battle, he feels the adrenaline rush through his veins.


The sight of the great ancient warrior gliding across the ravine with his monstrous clawed wings outstretched triggers similar feelings among the troops. However, unlike the deafening reception Syrus re- ceived when he arrived near daybreak, the soldiers now reserve their energy in anticipation of fierce combat with an unnatural enemy and an unknown array of defenders. It is no longer time for speeches. It's time for action.


280 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



Without saying a word, Syrus launches the battle by emitting his second blood-curdling shrill of this historic day. The army's formation starts to move toward the gap in the center waterfall. Minutes later thou- sands of troops continue to descend swiftly into the tunnel. Syrus flies beside the scores of legions along the length of the ravine to boost their morale and monitor their progress. The only sounds he can hear are of wailing winds to a backdrop of thunderous falls. He feels the heat of the morning suns dry his moist, leathery skin. Like the troops that comprise his army, he is physically comfortable, but emotionally on edge.


In the world beneath Lake Augur, Syrus' strategy moves forward to search for and destroy Gaia and her supporters. All reconnaissance squads have penetrated the insect kingdom without being detected. Nearly one-fourth of the massive army is already in place near the tun- nel entrance to the underworld and silently awaits Syrus' appearance. Hundreds of soldiers enter the underworld every few seconds.


One mile from the tunnel entrance, in a cluster of yellow and white flowering bushes nestled along the edge of Setamina Pass, a reconnais- sance squad engages the enemy for the first time. A small group of bumble bees just awoke from the night-long celebration and decide to gather some nectar from the colorful flowers. At the front of the squad, a fast and quiet silver-beaked blackbird inadvertently flies over the fra- grant bush containing the busy bees. A slight breeze generated by the fly-over alerts the insects to the intruder's presence. They immediately combine their low-pitched hums to sound the alarm and frantically race back to the hive. Their efforts are short-lived. Ground-level squad members who follow close behind quickly move in to eliminate the noise and cut off access to the hive. Almost as soon as it started, the small group of bumble bees are picked off, one by one, and eaten by the blackbirds. Although the alarm doesn't reach its intended destina- tion, a chain of events is now set in motion.


Thousands of red lumens who gather food under a nearby thorny shrub witness the incident. Of the red and white species, red lumens are


281 Evergreen


the most poisonous and aggressive. "Notify the queen!" shouts a work- er lumen seconds before he and dozens of others nearby are swallowed by a duo of veracious blackbirds. "Send for the defense force!" cries out another worker just as she meets the same fate. To alert their queen, the remaining group members scatter above and below ground as if they are about to be trounced at a picnic. Only the queen can authorize the deployment of the lumens' fearless defense force. A large corps of lumens finds its way into a rotted root system below ground and swiftly works its way in darkness toward the queen and colony. Its destination is the hollowed-out center of a spiny olive tree near the base of the lowest falls. Moments after learning about the invasion, the queen gives the word.


"Notify the defense force to fall into sky formation at once," she declares, raising her large crowned head and front quarters off the ground high above her subjects and pointing upwards. "They must di- vide into two divisions. One will be purely defensive and must protect Gaia at all costs. The other will engage the enemy at the first sign of their arrival." With dispatch, her loyal subjects are on task.


Ten feet above the entrance to the rotted underground root system, a pair of bark beetles is unable to sleep because of the cries of their hungry two-day-old larvae. Both are startled and confused as they see hundreds of red lumens frantically race across the large root that juts out from beneath their home inside a tall oak tree.


"What's all the ruckus about?" yells the father beetle to any lumen willing to respond.


"Dear," remarks the new mother gently, "you know they don't speak beetle, don't you?"


"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he responds. "But I figure if I speak slow enough, then maybe they'll figure it ­"


CHOMP!


The mother beetle's eyes widen as a blackbird snatches and swal- lows her partner whole just inches away. Instinctively, she revs her wings and screams in to her sisters beneath the bark, "Take care of the


282 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


grubs! I have to alert the Goliaths that birds have invaded our world!" Off she goes to inform the largest and most powerful beetle family in the underworld of the horrible attack. Legend has it that Goliath beetles have the ability to defeat even the most difficult of all challenges facing insects ­ birds. Soon the legend will be put to the test.


Her sisters and their fellow bark beetles are prepared for such an emergency. Immediately, they fill the thin openings between the long pieces of bark and tree trunk with wood shavings to seal off any entry. The adults move between their precious grubs and the entrances to sac- rifice themselves should the blockade fail. After a few seconds they are in position with half their eyes on the sealed entrance and the other half on the grubs.


A colony of fireflies rests comfortably above the family of bark beetles in the same oak tree. The fireflies have made their home in sev- eral of the tree's upper branches. In a deep knot beside a low branch, a vigilant sentry has been paying close attention to the noise made during the past few minutes. After listening to the fuss, he decides to bring the news to his bride, who is asleep six branches above him.


"Chloe, wake up," he whispers anxiously, his tail aglow. "I have to tell you what I heard."


"Come to bed, Sheen. Whatever you heard can wait until you get a good night's sleep," she replies, eyes closed and groggy. "Just tell me in the morning."


"No, no! This can't wait. I just overheard the Barkleys say that birds have invaded our world!"


"That's nice, hun," she responds. Chloe's eyes open wide as the words finally register. "Birds?" she clamors. "Are you sure? What are we going to do? Where should we go?"


"Calm down," he states, wings raised and still aglow. The brave but frightened firefly decides that the news he learned is too important to remain within the colony. "I must alert Gaia and her escorts about the danger," he says, staring at the tears beginning to well beneath his new wife's eyes. "Chloe, you must alert our entire colony of the danger. Go


283 Evergreen


to each entrance and warn them not to venture out until `all is clear' is heard across the land."


"I want to come with you," she states, afraid of losing her husband. "Besides, if I come, it doubles our chance of reaching Gaia."


He bends over to kiss Chloe goodbye. "Please do what I say and hurry! We must protect the colony as well as Gaia, and I cannot do both!" he states steadfast and strong. Sheen flies off in the direction of the island beneath Redwood Falls.


Once he's out of sight, Chloe musters up the strength and courage she needs to travel from one branch entrance to another to warn fellow fireflies of the invasion. Within the confines of her own branch, she circles around to spread the news of the invasion, along with Sheen's message to stay put.


Once everyone is notified, Chloe takes a deep breath and leaves the safety of her present location to deliver the same message to another group of colonists near a higher branch. Nervous but determined, she flies at top speed, ascending along the bark of the oak tree. As Chloe comes within a few feet of the colony's next entrance, she sees, out of the corner of her eye, an immense pointed silver beak open its mouth just inches from her. Her last sensation is a gush of hot air.


CHOMP!


Several hundred yards away, Sheen continues to fly close to the ground, shifting in between low-lying bushes and branches and maneu- vering around rocks. He is fully aware of the importance of remaining unseen so the news can be delivered to Gaia. He is unaware of Chloe's fate. Less than a few minutes into his mission, he is forced to take a sharp left turn to avoid a thicket of shrubs. At once Sheen is caught in a large web strung between a tall, flat-leafed bush and a group of ivy- covered vines that cling to a nearby boulder. Inches away are the rem- nants of two partially cocooned insects too decayed to determine what they once were.


A large emperor spider feels the vibration of her latest victim and emerges from a thick cluster of branches. Carefully, she moves in to


284 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


paralyze her prey. Though she's performed this ritual hundreds of times, a sense of delight still remains as she watches her next meal squirm helplessly on the sticky strands of silk.


"Shame," she comments aloud, "you're such a tiny little snack. Too bad you didn't bring a friend."


"I don't taste good either," he comments nervously. "I've heard that even when you eat a few of us, an hour later you're still hungry."


"Almost too small to make it worth my while," says the spider un- der her breath.


"How about letting me go, then?" he responds. "I'm on an impor- tant mission."


She continues to ignore his remarks. After some consideration, she states, "You are the right size for my young ones, though. I suppose you'll do."


"A truce was arranged for Gaia's celebration. Have you no regard for pukka-pom-woo and our special guest?" he says, tinkering with the large creature's sense of fair play.


"Huh?" replies the spider, clearly annoyed that she's engaged in an ethics debate with her family's breakfast. "Well, that was then and this is now," she replies. "The celebration ended hours ago, so we no longer have a truce. Just your luck, hmm?"


The emperor spider closes in on Sheen. He is unable to move. Her graceful legs motion up and down, resting only for a moment on each silky strand in her path. She reaches Sheen and places both of her front legs just below his small head. Her six remaining legs surround him. He begins to quiver as a foul-smelling secretion drips from her mouth and lands beside him on a spiral strand. He squints and turns his head in the opposite direction, fearful of what lies next.


"But I have pressing news that must be brought to Gaia's attention at once!" blurts the brave firefly. "Birds have invaded our world!"


The spider pauses nervously and then smiles. "Clever, but an un- likely story," she replies, forcing her two fangs into Sheen's neck to deliver the poison. Her head stops just as it touches his. After a few


285 Evergreen


seconds she pulls away and removes her fangs. A burning sensation overcomes Sheen. His eyes open wide.


"Besides," adds the large spider, "Gaia is here to protect us. No bird would dare venture into our world now ­ not even in groups." She looks up to survey her surroundings and returns, her eyes fixed on Sheen. He sees a reflection of himself in each of the many lenses that make up her eyes. He also observes a dark mass closing in from behind in his reflection. A smile manages to appear.


"You've kept me from feeding my young ones long enough," she says. "It's time you join us for ­"


CHOMP!


Sheen is thrown quite a distance onto a branch midway up a pink flowering crab tree.


The jolt frees him from the sticky strands of the spider web. Though he is nearly overcome by the poison, he manages to spot a green and white osprey with the emperor spider in its powerful, curved beak. She is tossed once in mid-air and swallowed whole. Pieces of the web dan- gle from the osprey's wings and feet as it flies low behind a group of trees and out of sight.


"What? Huh? Who are you?" asks an oversized ladybug who was just jarred awake by Sheen's sudden arrival. The bright red creature with black spots notices both holes in the firefly's neck and the presence of a few spi- der web fibers on his body. "Hey, you don't look so hot," he says.


Sheen stares calmly into the ladybug's eyes. He gathers all his strength to utter one last thought before he dies. "Birds ... warn ... Gaia."


"Oh my, birds you say?" mutters the ladybug skeptically. "Are you sure the poison hasn't driven you mad?" He looks at Sheen one last time and says, "I suppose you're not sure of anything in your condition. Still, I shouldn't ignore the dying words of a fellow beetle ­ even if you're just a distant cousin. Plus, I'd hate to have to explain to everyone why I didn't warn Gaia about the birds if a couple of them do show up."


SWOOSH! WOOSH-WOOSH! SWOOSH!


286 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



A reconnaissance squad passes within a few feet of the flowering crab tree. The breeze causes the ladybug to twirl in place so many times that he has to spread his wings to slow down. Were it not for being so well hidden within the leaves and flowers on the branch, his bright col- ors surely would have been detected.


Four families of grasshoppers, akin to Grog, are out searching for a crisp, leafy breakfast. A score of young hoppers remain close to their moms. The adults are shocked at the sudden appearance of the small band of birds overhead and watch in awe as the invaders brush the tree ahead.


"Oh dear, oh my. My little cousin was right!" exclaims the woozy ladybug stricken with the dizzies. "I must notify Gaia that birds are here!" He raises and whirs his spotted wings until he is able to take flight. Though he believes he's heading straight for the island beneath Redwood Falls, the light-headed ladybug actually flies away from Gaia's location in wide and erratic circles.


CHOMP!


Seconds earlier the young hoppers giggled when they watched the loopy ladybug emerge and take flight overhead. However, their obser- vation of the insect's fate in the mouth of a dark-feathered monster turns their amusement into horror. Instinctively, they scream and scatter in fear. Their mothers chase after them, guided only by a selfless need to protect their children. The fathers assess the chaos and plan for the protection of their families. But there is no time. Sounds made by the youngsters are overheard by a reconnaissance squad in the vicinity. They begin their descent at maximum speed.


The fathers see what is ascending toward their location. They ex- change heavy-hearted glances and take deep breaths. Any prior thoughts of notifying Grog and Gaia about the intruders quickly shift to their family's immediate survival.


"Get underground now! shouts one of the fathers. The other fa- thers, still out in the open, rub the edges of their hind legs together in a frantic pace to set off a loud, extended alert to the colony. As


287 Evergreen


shadows from above grow across their position, the fathers close their eyes. They know they have become a beacon for merciless creatures who feed on insects like them, but hope the action will al- low their families needed time to find shelter. They willingly accept their sacrifice.


The first grasshoppers to be silenced are the three fathers who sounded the alert. One at a time the blackbirds swoop in and snatch the insects in their beaks. They waste little time, swallowing their prey whole before moving onto the others. The remaining father is skewered by the talon of a green and gray osprey just after he warns everyone to seek shelter. The bird of prey flings the grasshopper several dozen yards into a narrow stream. Still barely alive and trying to sound the alarm, he floats along the current until a silver-beaked blackbird identi- fies him as yet another a morning snack.


CHOMP!


While most members of the grasshopper families are devoured in their tracks trying to find a safe place to hide, two of the mothers and a small number of little hoppers find a tunnel entrance to a fellow Kwak'walan's home. Though the mothers have no idea who lives there, the consequences of remaining aboveground outweigh the risk of not being welcome.


A pair of silver-beaked blackbirds notices the mothers and their young slip into the tunnel. Though both have already reached the daily quota of grasshoppers, they decide to land near the tunnel entrance and peek inside. One of the blackbirds picks a grasshopper leg from the un- derside of his partner's shiny beak and strikes up a conversation.


"I hate it when I get a headache from food, don't you?" he states nonchalantly.


"Yeah," the second bird chuckles, "I usually don't get them unless they're real cold and I eat `em too fast. So, you think the bugs are hid- ing below ground, or are they long gone in some tunnel?"


"Trust me, they're just below the surface," he responds confidently.


"How do you know?"


288 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



"The entrance may be between those two thick bushes, but look at the size of the tree directly behind it. Bugs would have to dig pretty deep to get away from those roots and that main trunk," he says.


"Sounds reasonable. Let's go hunting. Wait a second, though." The blackbird squats slightly and squints. "Hey, I just made room for des- sert," he adds with a smile.


It doesn't take long for the pair of blackbirds to tear up the soil around the entrance with their beaks and penetrate the tunnel. Members of their reconnaissance squad land and monitor the progress close be- hind. They are confident that the creatures who entered the tunnel must, at some point, show themselves to their welcoming party. After another minute of digging, the tunnel has become noticeably wider. This prompts one of the blackbirds to put his head into the opening.


"Here, buggy wuggies," he states to the suppressed laughter of squad members. "Poppa's got a little room left in his belly and ­ OH!"


SNAP! CRUNCH!


In an instant, a quivering bird disappears into the tunnel with no fur- ther sound. Alarmed by the sudden need for a defensive posture, the second blackbird cautiously approaches the entrance but remains on guard.


"Uhm, is this a joke, pal?" he wonders aloud. "Because if it is, I'm going to ­ WHOA!"


Out of the tunnel charge two goliath beetles, almost as long as the blackbird and easily twice its weight. They are brown and white with distinctive black marks in rows along their back and powerful black legs. Although their mouths are large and razor sharp, their greatest as- set is their T-shaped heads, which are used as a hammer when they feel threatened. Together, they charge the blackbird, hoping to pound him into the ground like they did to his partner.


The silver-beak flaps its wings and jumps back just out of the reach of two tremendous blows that fall short of their intended mark. Dirt and dust from the strikes form a small cloud over the area. The goliath bee- tles get a fix on the squad members who remain on the ground and begin their charge.


289 Evergreen



On a low-lying branch behind the tunnel entrance, an osprey rolls his eyes. "I've had enough of this," he mutters to himself. The large bird spreads his wings and effortlessly glides toward the goliath beetles, who continue to rush the blackbirds and pound the soil. From overhead, the agile osprey clutches a beetle in each claw and ascends to the high- est point of the immense underworld. Flying just below the jagged stone ceiling, he locates a wide rock formation. When he is directly overhead, the mean-spirited bird lets go of the mighty insect warriors. "That'll teach you to attack us," he vents from his high vantage point. "Hey! Where in the world did these come from?" His tone instantly changes from anger to distress and pain.


From the ceiling hundreds of red lumens drop like parachuters onto the back and wings of the osprey and begin their assault on all points of his body. These feared creatures are equipped with sharp, powerful jaws that are one-fourth the size of their bodies. Once the jaws are thrust deep into a victim, a line of pores above their teeth secrete poison into the exposed flesh. This causes a swift death among small creatures and a sustained paralysis in larger ones. In the event that a mass of red lumens infests a large creature, death can be equally as swift.


"AHH! GET OFF OF ME!" cries the bird in excruciating pain.


Under attack by a division of red lumens, the severely impaled os- prey tries desperately to reach a safe location. He maneuvers back and forth, diving and climbing wildly. Finally, he is able to shake off the majority of the creatures, even though dozens have buried their lengthy jaws beneath his skin. Seconds later a new division drops from the ceil- ing. Most land successfully.


"These guys ... are good," he states, nearly overcome with paraly- sis. With those last words the first bird of prey among Syrus' elite force plummets to his death.


The fall is noticed by several nearby reconnaissance squads who have their beaks and claws full trying to silence pockets of Kwak'walan resistance. The plunge also is seen by many thousands of insects who just encountered the squads and were fortunate to have escaped the ma-


290 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


licious attacks. Their cheers are heard across nearby hillsides and in parts of the lush valley. As word of the incursion continues to spread, three insect colonies dispatch large formations of their most skilled fli- ers in the direction of Redwood Falls. They must warn the four escort companions about the invaders so they can protect and defend Gaia un- til she emerges from her cocoon.


In a gradual, unrelenting build-up of sound, billions of creatures beneath Lake Augur awaken to a dreadful warning: "Birds have in- vaded our world! Defend the colonies! Protect Gaia!"


The amount of noise generated by the insects throughout the un- derworld causes members of each reconnaissance squad to stop their atrocities in mid-chew and retreat to areas near the tunnel entrance. For the majority of the blackbirds, the retreat includes a short dip in the closest available stream to remove the insects' guts and extremities from those hard-to-reach places. The birds of prey mainly wash their claws and beaks and quench their thirst.


In the midst of a vast and colorful underworld now teeming with in- sect alerts and battle preparations, reconnaissance squads begin to land in the area where they first emerged in the underworld. These squad mem- bers and legions of new troops alike squeeze in among the ranks of soldiers already assembled. The most subtle and vibrant forms of plant life are trampled underfoot. In their place, a still dark mountainside looms ominously ­ the cave wall is now fully occupied by Syrus' forces.


Twenty miles north of the army's present location, Gaia and her four companions are nestled within the bushes and trees on the island beneath Redwood Falls. They are unaware of the heightened emotion and level of activity throughout much of the underworld. Only the roar of the falls can be heard from their position. For the moment, they are safe and comfortable. Munyo and Ojeda are fast asleep on the side of the chrysalis that faces the lake. Tepetu and Kunziah are sleeping on the opposite side next to a clump of flowering trees and a semi-circular batch of luminescent plants.


291 Evergreen



Gaia's pitch-black cocoon remains motionless and largely un- changed since the pukka-pom-woo ceremony ended a few hours earlier. The only difference is that she must have shifted in her cocoon during stasis because the two large, jagged claws that once penetrated its thick lining no longer appear. In their place, feathers with the same sooty color as the cocoon brim from the two irregular openings.


A few feet away from Gaia and her companions, Grog rests com- fortably. Young Merton, on the other hand, shows signs of restlessness. From underneath his father's shiny metallic chest, he raises his eyelids, stretches his front legs and yawns. Though he's not quite certain, he senses something out of the ordinary is occurring because of the intense level of activity off in the distance.


"D-dad? Are you awake?" he asks, repeatedly nudging his father's underbelly with his hind legs.


"Hmm, huh?" responds Grog, still partly asleep. "Stop, your legs are tickling Grog," he says a few seconds into a drawn-out giggle.


"L-look around at all the m-movement," he states nervously. "I h- haven't seen this before ­ chirp. It's not supposed to l-look this way, is it?" Merton turns to his father. "Dad, they look spooked like there's something ­ chirp ­ h-happening."


Grog rises from the soft sand and carefully observes the activity at different locations. He quickly moves away from his son and toward the shoreline without responding. Grog's behavior doesn't sit well with Merton. He decides to follow closely behind his father to the shoreline.


Along the way Grog somberly states, "You are correct to be con- cerned, son. This is not part of pukka-pom-woo or any other plan. Something must be terribly wrong."


"What could possibly cause all this?" Merton asks uneasily.


"Grog doesn't know," he states with his eyes fixed to the south. "But it would help if Grog could hear what they're saying. Can you make it out?" he asks. "Grog cannot hear over the thunder of Redwood Falls. Whatever they are saying is being repeated over and over."


292 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



"No, I cannot m-make out the m-message," he replies. "Shouldn't we wake up Gaia if there's something b-bad happening?" Merton glances over his father's shoulder. Something unusual catches his eyes. "Dad, look!"


Off in the distance, three large insect formations approach the far edge of the lake and begin their travel across the water toward their lo- cation. The groups include massive swarms of bumble bees, copper- banded dragonflies and metallic jewel beetles. On close inspection, all the groups are clearly frightened but have determined looks on their faces.


"I see we have visitors," comments Ojeda. He gently touches down on the sandy shoreline behind Grog and Merton. "This must have something to do with the strange behavior throughout the land."


"And the m-message they are repeating," adds Merton. Anxiously, he stares at the large, seemingly lifeless chrysalis and then turns to Oje- da. "Is Gaia ... uhm ... up yet?"


The large butterfly smiles. "Her stasis is not yet complete, young one. At least from what I can see. Gaia does seem to have filled out her cocoon, though. Perhaps she will emerge at any moment."


Merton beams a smile. His father returns the same warm expres- sion. A sudden spike in the level of noise and activity among Kwak'walans prompts Ojeda to lift off the narrow beach and investi- gate. Impatient and looking for answers, he considers greeting the newcomers over the large lake that surrounds them, rather than waiting for their arrival.


"Munyo and Kunziah, wake up and follow me!" he orders. The three escorts abruptly awaken. They can tell something isn't quite right but haven't a clue what it is. "Grog, return with Merton to the wooded area near Gaia until we find out what's going on. Tepetu, remain with Gaia and notify us of any change."


Grog nods his head in compliance. Tepetu flies in front of Gaia and stands at attention, puzzled and ill at ease. Her companions take flight on a heading behind Ojeda.


293 Evergreen



Grog places his shiny arm on Merton's shoulder and says, "Grog and Merton must do what is asked." They spring toward the bushy area near Gaia where they previously slept. Merton positions himself on the soft sand while his father squats over him to provide protection. To- gether, they patiently survey their surroundings for anything out of the ordinary.


A short distance into their flight over the lake, Munyo catches up to Ojeda. "Where are we going, and why are we headed straight into those rather sizable groups of insects?" he asks.


"Yeah, what's the rush? I could have used some more shut eye," quips Kunziah, catching up from behind.


Ojeda glares, straight-faced, at his two friends. "Take a long, hard look out there," he says, motioning ahead with his front right leg. "Tell me what you see."


"You mean beyond the insects coming at us really fast? It looks pretty busy if you ask me," remarks Kunziah.


"I'm hoping we can find out why from those insects," states Ojeda, to the surprise of Kunziah.


"But we don't speak any tiny bug languages," Kunziah replies with a touch of sarcasm. "Gaia did that for us. I know Gaia. I've traveled with her for many miles. You're no Gaia."


"Perhaps the Golem gave each of us an ability that we must dis- cover for ourselves," asserts Ojeda impulsively. "You know, a way to be useful that comes from something beyond our intended design." He glances over at Munyo and winks.


Kunziah laughs so hard he begins to lose altitude. "So let me get this straight," he says, gaining his composure and rejoining the group. "You get a few hours of sleep next to a creature who, according to the Golem, will help save the world, and you wake up thinking you can communicate with teeny-weeny bugs? About these delusions of gran- deur, is there something you'd like to talk about?"


"Be quiet," snipes Munyo, nervous about the insect masses closing in fast.


294 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



"Yeah, save it for later," says Ojeda. "Let's hold up here and see what they want."


One hundred feet above the lake's surface, three dense insect forma- tions converge and hover side-by-side in front of the majestic butterflies. Ojeda is in the lead with Munyo and Kunziah directly behind him. At once the insects attempt to deliver their urgent message. The harsh and discordant sounds they produce startle the companion escorts.


"Whoa!" shouts Kunziah with his front legs outstretched. "Don't you folks know any tunes fit for extra-large butterflies? Sorry, but we just don't understand. Unless you know what they're saying," he quips, eyeing Ojeda with a smirk.


Frustration is shared by all who are present. Nothing understand- able has been revealed.


Seconds later assemblies of small insects emerge from within the center of their respective formations and move toward Ojeda. In their grasp are hundreds of pieces of evidence that convey the grave problem that confronts all Kwak'walans.


"Are they carrying what I think they're carrying?" questions Munyo in disbelief.


"Now that I understand," says Kunziah. "I don't suppose they're plucked from only one bird, do you?"


Munyo looks over at Kunziah and shakes his head. "No, it's not from one bird! You think they're here to invite us for soup or some- thing?"


Ojeda sizes up the situation and takes charge once again. "We have to return to the island to alert Tepetu and tell Grog and Merton to stay low." He rises well above the swarms of insects to look around. "I'm afraid Gaia won't survive if those blackbirds attack before she emerges from the cocoon. We must do whatever is necessary to defend her." Ojeda takes a slow, deep breath and exhales. "And we must succeed," he adds somberly. "The stakes of failure are simply too high."


With vivid memories of the last confrontation fresh on their minds, Munyo and Kunziah turn and race back to the island beneath


295 Evergreen


Redwood Falls to alert the others about the invaders and to prepare for a potential strike.


Ojeda bows his head before the insects. "Thank you for traveling here to warn us. I know it was at great risk to all of you. Now, please go home," he states firmly. Using his front legs, he motions repeatedly for the insects to leave. "Go back to your colonies and remain with your families."


The insects try unsuccessfully to read Ojeda's tone. However, they do understand his gestures and quickly scatter in the direction they came. In their wake, the feathers they held moments earlier rock back and forth on their way down to the cold, steady current that flows to the lake's edge.


Curiosity keeps Ojeda from returning right away to the island. In- stead, he flies in the opposite direction, well above the route traveled by hundreds of blackbird feathers in the stream. Along the way he is drawn to the darkness that overpowers the southern wall where his group first entered the underworld.


"Where are the beautiful colors? I don't recall that area being so ... black." Uneasiness shifts into an intense anxiety as Ojeda nears the lake's edge. In contrast to other areas of the cave that still display a spectrum of luminescent life, an undulating dark mass seems to span the entire southern region. "That can't be ­"


SWOOSH! SNATCH!


"Hey!" yells Ojeda, suddenly under attack. "Get off of me! Get away!"


From high above, a stealthy red-tailed hawk dives onto Ojeda's nape and sinks his talons into a portion of soft skin. He is broad- chested and mainly gray with a flat tan beak that curves to a sharp point. Holding on just below the back of Ojeda's head, the hawk de- livers an important message to members of his squad. "I found one of them!" he screeches boldly. There is no response. Frustrated to have


296 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


been left alone, the hawk pushes off, clutching a small chunk of skin in each claw.


"AHH!" shrieks Ojeda, more than a mile away from his companions. "Not even those silver-beaks caused that much pain before," he moans, trying to regain his balance and remain in flight. The deep punctures ooze streams of clear fluid. Wind from Ojeda's hasty retreat to the island directs the fluid between his immense wings. Though his back is soon drenched, he tries to ignore the chill and focus instead on returning safely. He plods along, coming increasingly closer to the water's surface. In spite of the damage inflicted by the hawk, the attack causes more emotional than physical trauma. Ojeda just didn't see it coming. "If one of them can cause such damage without being detected," he vents to himself, "I don't want to think about what hundreds can do."


Wings spread wide, the red-tailed hawk decides to circle the lake before he departs to the southern region. "Where there's one of those freaks, there'll be the others," he reasons. After he passes behind Me- sequoya's colossal limb, he ascends high above the narrow island. No one can detect him at his present altitude. Much to his surprise and de- light, three large, colorful butterfly escorts reveal the location of Gaia's blackened chrysalis. "Syrus will be pleased," he states with a grin. "I must relay this location to him right away."


Excited about the discovery, the hawk veers south and flies at breakneck speed along the contours of the valley. Every so often he grazes a tree top or swerves to snack on a few panicky insects in flight. The closer he comes to rejoining Syrus' troops, the more impressive is the size of the army quietly assembled along many miles of rock, dirt and plant life.


A little more than a half mile from the island, Ojeda continues to struggle to stay aloft. He nurses both open wounds by extending his long, tubular nose and sipping the fluid. At the same time he tends to the injury and copes with the pain, a second screech is heard from the red-tailed mauler off in the distance. Ojeda wonders if the hawk is taunting him by shouting, "I'll be back soon to finish you off!"


297 Evergreen



"Dad ­ chirp, look!" shouts Merton from beneath his father. "Over the l-lake, I think it's Ojeda, and he doesn't l-look so good." Merton tries to get up, but his father holds him in place for his own safety. "But he l-looks like he's not gonna make it back. Can't we help ­ chirp?"


"Ojeda's orders, remember?" Grog states soundly. He wouldn't want you in harm's way should any birds suddenly appear. No one would. Grog is sure that one of the others will help him, son. They work together as a team, just like the two of us."


Merton stares out over the water and forces a nervous smile. "I d-do hope so."


Twenty miles to the south, the red-tailed hawk swoops up and over the last hillside. Once he clears the trees, he is confronted with more than a million soldiers who are poised and eager to engage the enemy. The hawk angles to the right in the direction of the tunnel entrance about a mile ahead. Ensconced in his brain is what all soldiers were told before they traveled into the Great Falls: When Syrus appears at the entrance to Gaia's lair, only he will lead the charge. Along the way, the hawk sees thousands of troops stirring impatiently on high alert. The air is dank and silent, but thick with anticipation.


Out of the darkness of the tunnel soars the feared, ancient warrior. His clawed, leathery wings are outstretched and motionless; his large pair of opposable, razor-sharp talons are side-by-side and trail from be- hind like meat hooks. Moments later, Taggart emerges from the tunnel in Syrus' shadow. He lands on a tall formation of dirt and rock where several of his most trusted birds of prey have patiently awaited his arri- val. No one makes a sound as they all watch Syrus travel high above his army, circle back and land just above Taggart nearly two hundred feet in front of the tunnel entrance. All eyes are upon him, spellbound and unwavering. Syrus slowly raises his wings. The entire army crouches and raises theirs, as if he possesses their souls.


Standing on top of the tall, vine-covered rock formation, Syrus glances down at Taggart. "Have all the reconnaissance squads re- turned?" he asks.


298 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



"I've been told that a third haven't reported back," replies Taggart. "The last squad returned just a short time ago without its leader."


"A third are still unaccounted for? That's nearly four hundred soldiers!" he snaps angrily. "Hmm. Well," Syrus surmises, "they probably gorged themselves with all these free-range bugs to the point of being too fat to fly and have to walk back. They'll just have to catch up with us later."


"Wait, I think that's one of them approaching now," observes Tag- gart over his shoulder. He squints in the direction of the incoming bird. "Yes, he's one of mine."


"Delightful," states Syrus sarcastically. "Shall we wait for the re- mainder of your kin to show as well, or can we proceed?"


Seconds later the red-tailed hawk closes in on their rocky location with urgent news. "Sir! Sir!" he calls out as he slows before Syrus.


"Well?"


"May I have a word with you?" he asks, anxiously flapping his wings in place.


"You're here, aren't you?"


"I have found the location of Gaia and her attendants."


Syrus raises the thick, coarse eyebrow over his one good eye. "Now this is an interesting development," he says calmly. "One that will save time and energy. Please join me young trooper and don't leave out any details," he insists. He and Taggart watch the hawk land on a needle- filled branch of a mature evergreen tree next to their position. Once the details of the location are revealed, the dialogue ends abruptly.


The moment Ojeda lands on the sand next to Gaia's cocoon and wipes his brow, a tremendous forceful shrill overpowers the roar of Redwood Falls. The deafening sound commands the attention of every- one on the island. All eyes shift to the southern end of the underworld.


"Dad, l-o-o-o-k!" shouts Merton, frantic and scared. "The wall! It's exploding!"


"That's no wall, son," he replies gravely. "It's an army. Birds from the world above have just waged war against our kind because we shel- ter and protect Gaia. They will not stop until she is destroyed."


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"How many b-birds from above are in their army?"


Grog reaches down and gently tucks his son close to his belly. In his ear he whispers, "Just about all of them."


Merton is horrified by his father's words. His young mind is unable to stop them from echoing in his head. He struggles briefly and frees himself from Grog's sweaty, nervous grasp. "I have to warn Gaia!" Merton shouts, racing away with sand kicking up behind him.


"No, Merton!" cries his father. "Please stop! Come back!" Grog senses the futility of repeating his request and leaps after his son across the sand to the chrysalis. They arrive to witness Gaia's four brave com- panions kneeling at her side. Each is carefully searching for some sign that would show she is about to awaken from stasis. In light of the grave circumstances, they also offer words of encouragement to speed up the process. After another minute passes without change, they glance at each other and then to the south.


"It looks like it's up to us," says Ojeda, tired and still quite sore.


"Yep, it's show time," adds Kunziah, wearing a brave face. "We'll give it our best."


The four butterflies lift off the sandy ground just above Gaia and form a row, one next to the other. Their hearts begin to pound as they watch a massive black wall move increasingly closer to their island lo- cation. Across the wall's dark surface, small and large ripples rise and fall gently like undulating water. With thousands of troops expanding and contracting around their enemies, these ripples provide evidence that hundreds of large scale battles have already begun.


The most distressing images witnessed by the four companions are the most visible and stark. From their vantage point the butterflies help- lessly watch as teams of rotating blue sparklers try to protect their families. No sooner than small portions of their metallic blue bodies produce atom-shaped sparks, whole teams are shredded and swallowed by an onslaught of silver-beak blackbirds with a long score to settle.


The horrifying sights and hideous sounds, now no more than two miles and closing, cause shock and numbness among the butterfly es-


300 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


corts on a scale never before experienced. Every square mile of space overtaken by Syrus' army adds to this tremendous loss.


"So much devastation and carnage," observes Ojeda, numb and emotionless.


"Such a willful disregard for life," adds Tepetu, suppressing the urge to weep.


"They seem to take personal pleasure in what they're doing," notes Munyo calmly.


"Killing," seethes Kunziah. "We're witnessing a slaughter and can do nothing about it."


The sheer size and number of soldiers are just too powerful, even for the most deadly Kwak'walans engaged in pitched battle. Though a handful of Syrus' troops are seen dropping from the sky from success- ful aerial attacks of red lumens and kamikaze-style heroics of goliath beetles who were able to take flight, none of the colonies can effec- tively defend their homeland.


Unable to hold back her tears, Tepetu cries as she watches Syrus' crusaders forge ahead and impose their will on the colonies that get in their way. "Gaia! We need you!" she calls out desperately over the roar from the immense battlefield and Redwood Falls. "A tidal wave is about to consume this entire world!"


"And we're in its path," notes Ojeda, still poised and calm.


"I'm pretty much thinking we're its destination!" shouts Munyo. "The problem is once a tidal wave is in motion, there's no hope of slowing it down!"


BOING! "There's-always-hope!" interjects Merton at the peak of his leap. He drops to the ground and scurries over to press his face against the cocoon. He chooses an area he believes is closest to Gaia's head. With his cheek against the surface, he yells, "She won't leave us ­ chirp ­ to die! I j-just know it!" Merton turns and stares into the thick, black lining and pleads, "Why don't you hear all the screams and c-cries for help? Gaia, won't you please wake up and s-save us? Now is a good time!" With no detectable movement, he buries his little face in the chrysalis' side. He, too, begins to cry.


301 Evergreen



Shadows in a variety of shapes and sizes appear over the shoreline and move toward the chrysalis. The four companions hear an intense crescendo of flapping and fluttering and a series of forceful "thuds" in the distant sand. Merton also hears these sounds around him and holds back his tears. After a few sniffles, he remains still, though his heart continues to pound. A short, strong breeze follows. All is now quiet around the chrysalis, except for the ongoing thunder of Redwood Falls and faint caws and screams taking place well off in the distance. Mer- ton wipes his eyes with both antennae. He feels hot, putrid breath on his forehead and reluctantly looks up.


"NO!" he screams, inches away from a long, scarred beak lined with jagged, blood-stained teeth.


Syrus tilts and turns his head slightly to expose his empty eye sock- et just for the shock value. Merton stares in horror at the enormity and terror of what stands before him. He instinctively shuffles back several feet in the sand and bumps into the belly of a green and white osprey.


"Look at what we have here, Taggart," says Syrus from on top of the chrysalis. "A little young to be a zealot, aren't you?"


Syrus' large, menacing image proves to be too frightening for Mer- ton to take in. He looks away and covers his face. When Merton looks up, he sees Taggart's piercing eyes focused on him. The large osprey grips Merton's shiny metallic shoulder with his talons, raises the young grasshopper above his wide open mouth and lets go.


SWOOSH! SNATCH!


"Who Hooo!" chortles Wiley with Merton safely in his clutches. "I'll take the little zealot off your hands," yells the aged but nimble lu- na owl, elated at his timing.


"Stop that annoying old coot!" demands Syrus to a nearby troop of blue-headed falcons.


"We'll handle it," declares the largest among them. They lift off the sand near the cocoon and follow at top speed.


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"We're being chased!" shouts Merton, facing the rear, "and they're c-closing in on us!" He senses that the odd-shaped bird poses no threat from his tone and firm but gentle touch.


"I may be up in years, my shiny little friend, but what I lose in agil- ity I make up for in wisdom," he replies confidently. "Oh, of course. How rude of me. My name is Wiley. What is your name, young one?"


"You can t-talk!" responds Merton in awe.


"Of course I can talk."


"I mean you can t-talk to me. And you're n-not a Kwak'walan."


"Yes, well, for hundreds of centuries my species has possessed a special gift," he says humbly. "We communicate with other species to help them work out problems that arise between them."


Merton looks around at the devastation that has befallen his fellow Kwak'walans. "You're not very good at it," he states candidly.


"Who Hooo!" laughs Wiley. "Things aren't always what they seem, uh, ­ what's your name?"


"Merton. I'm Merton, but ­ chirp ­ I'm not sure for how much l- longer!" he yells in panic. Four falcons are only a few feet from Merton and Wiley's tail feathers, with the balance of the troop approaching fast.


"Like stealing a baby from the candy," mutters one of them. The others laugh in stride.


Drawing near the edge of the large lake at full speed, Wiley turns his head completely around. He is shocked to see that they are within inches of grasping the young grasshopper. Just as he reaches the lake's edge, Wiley is able to stop on a dime and watch the troopers race by and veer out into the valley below. Still in considerable danger, he as- cends as swiftly as he can to the underworld's ceiling. He has set a course for the region where Mesequoya's immense limb is encased in amber.


Angry at being temporarily outsmarted by such a big, easy target, the falcon troop makes a wide turn and begins its ascent in pursuit. For the moment, Wiley and Merton command a sizeable lead.


303 Evergreen



Well below, on the narrow island beneath Redwood Falls, Syrus' troops gather near Gaia's darkened, lifeless cocoon. The trees, boulders and sandy shoreline surrounding her are packed with curious, bug- stained onlookers. Everyone anticipates what is about to take place. Their leader will destroy the most significant threat to the forest throne in centuries and declare that the war has been won. As a result, a num- ber of the troopers battle amongst themselves for a better view of the savage climax to the day's historic events.


Syrus walks along the chrysalis' surface, his wings proudly out- stretched to symbolize power and victory. Every so often he stops to survey the damage throughout the insect world caused by his army. Though he is delighted at the outcome, his need for vengeance is not fully satisfied.


"Slither out from this smelly, rotten refuge and show yourself!" demands Syrus, picking and jabbing at the cocoon with his razor sharp talons. A subtle smile appears on his face. "I've been hoping to greet you face-to-face," he says. Dozens of followers around him sneer and provide further encouragement. With no movement from the chrysalis, Syrus' mood changes drastically. He raises his head and angrily delivers a bone-chilling screech. It echoes throughout the un- derworld.


Troops still engaged in insect butchery break away and fly across the many rolling hills to the small island. With the exception of an empty circular area of sand around Gaia's cocoon, the island and sky slowly fill with close to a million feathered crusaders. The arriving troops arrogantly gloat over their opponent's massive number of casu- alties. Syrus overhears a nearby celebration and reacts harshly.


"Fools!" he shouts from over his shoulders. "Can't you see our work isn't complete? This never was about defeating bugs. It's all about her," he states, persistently digging his talons into the cocoon's lining and twisting and grinding them back and forth. Though Syrus' viewpoint is clear to many around him, most of the birds never hear a word he says and simply continue with their celebration.


304 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



Frustrated at the absolute stillness beneath him, Syrus shakes his head feverishly and lunges at the cocoon with his long beak, taunting it and sniffing in any available opening. "Very well," he states firmly as if he's speaking directly to Gaia, "If you won't reveal yourself, then this will be your tomb!"


Far above the island, Merton observes the blue-headed falcons make up time in their chase. "Wiley!" he shouts. "We have the s-same problem as before!" Unsure of where Wiley is headed, Merton tries to adjust his position to view what lies ahead. The best he can do is see Wiley's white, fluffy belly from over his shoulder.


"Here, let me help you," says Wiley. He carefully shuffles Merton around in his feet so that he faces forward. "Now this should be better."


Merton's mouth drops and his eyes open wide. He has seen rays of light filter through the amber ring in the ceiling ever since he was a nymph, but never at this close range. He stares for a few additional sec- onds but is compelled to tuck his head underneath his body to check on the falcons' location. Upside down, Merton sees the birds are within one hundred yards and gaining fast.


"Never mind about them," says Wiley. "Feast your eyes on what is in front of us."


Merton lifts his head to face forward. "Where?" he asks, fearing the marauders' attack at any time.


At first he sees only radiant amber light and streams of water gush- ing down onto Mesequoya's wide petrified limb to feed Redwood Falls. Nervous, he once again peeks back. This time he finds the four predators are within one hundred feet and closing. When Merton's at- tention returns to the area ahead, he tilts his head in disbelief ­ first to the right and then to the left. He is no longer consumed by fear. Even the spectacle of amber light and the remnant of Mesequoya are no longer of interest.


Merton is now focused on a large and unusual shaped silhouette that rests on the border where large amounts of amber meet the rock


305 Evergreen


and dirt ceiling. Though most of the silhouette blends into the darkness above, he can't look away from four oval-shaped objects that, together, form a half circle.


"Are those reflecting the light, or what?" asks Merton in response to the warm orange glow coming from each. The strange silhouette stirs ever so slightly over the amber, as if the stone-hard surface provides some form of nourishment.


"Or what," replies Wiley knowingly. He ascends to a height less than twenty feet below the narrow upper portion of the silhouette. A momentary ray of intense amber light spreads across it directly above their location.


"Whoa," they respond together, sharing the glow of the brilliant light.


Merton begins to tremble as uncertainty gives way to wonderment. He can hardly contain himself in Wiley's grasp. At last, Merton under- stands why he was spared from certain death by a kind, hoary, winged creature and taken to the highest point in the underworld.


"Delighted to see you, again, my young friend," says Wiley. "As you requested."


Bring me Gaia's co-conspirators now!" orders Syrus. He jumps off the cold, motionless cocoon onto the sand and begins to pace back and forth before his troops. Many have managed to squeeze into a spot on the beach or crowd onto rocks and tree branches. Most hover or circle overhead in anticipation. Syrus takes a deep breath, raises his wings and exhales slowly. The legions that surround him lean in with their wings slightly raised, mesmerized by the image of evil their leader represents. Syrus turns to the chrysalis, scowls in disgust and quickly turns back to the mass of soldiers on the ground and in the air.


"Before all of you," he bellows brazenly, "I want those winged tap- estries to bear witness to the destruction of their leader and the end of their journey."


Ojeda is the first to appear in the claws of the enemy. He is carried in by more than a dozen osprey and thrown face down onto the sand a


306 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


short distance from the cocoon. It is evident from the amount of fluid that still trickles across his neck and back and soaks his colorful wings that he hasn't been able to tend to the wounds inflicted earlier. For the moment, Ojeda is too worn down to wage any battle. He cannot even muster enough strength to stare Syrus in the eye and tell him what he thinks of his horrible war against Gaia and the despicable treatment of the Kwak'walans.


"I found this one among the group, too!" shouts a cherry-headed eagle in flight with Grog tightly clenched in his talons. The bird circles just above Syrus and drops Grog on his back next to Ojeda. His thorny legs thrash wildly in the air until he is able to gyrate, twist and flip onto his belly. The eagle circles once again and lands with one foot on the sand and the other across the large metallic grasshopper's head and nape. With Grog's face in the sand, he wisely shows no signs of resis- tance.


Ojeda turns his head toward Grog. "Are you alright?" he asks faint- ly.


Grog struggles to raise his mouth from the sand to reply. The eagle responds by adjusting his foot and clamping down even tighter. A sharp talon, still soiled with insect guts, slips into one of Grog's sizable nos- trils.


"Ugh," he begins nasally, "Grog has seen better days." The smell of the eagle's foot forces him to gag and cough a few times. "It wouldn't be so bad if Grog was in a foul mood, but Grog is okay," he declares dispirited.


"Shut up, bug!" orders the brawny eagle. "Or I'll dip you in choco- late and sell you to the natives." Several soldiers in the vicinity overhear the comment and laugh out loud.


"Have you seen Merton?" whispers Grog at considerable risk. "He was next to Gaia when ­" Grog gasps and stops short of completing his sentence. He's breathless, his mouth wide open, as he watches Munyo, Tepetu and Kunziah thrown face down on the other side of Gaia's cocoon. They too are pinned in the sand by dozens of birds of


307 Evergreen


prey. Their moans reveal they have been treated about as well as Grog and Ojeda.


"No, I lost him in all the confusion," he responds apologetically. From Ojeda's location, he is unable to see his companions ushered in and tossed to the ground. But he can read the dire expression on Grog's face. "Things don't look so good, do they, pal?" he asks with as much energy as he can marshal.


Grog glances at Ojeda and the others nearby who struggle vainly to free themselves. He then sees Syrus raise his clawed wings to address his troops. "Grog thinks things just got worse," he replies.


"Warriors and defenders of the forest throne," declares Syrus pride- fully before his army, "Gaia's reign is over!" A thunder of cheers erupts around him. "This spineless freak of nature will now pay for the plague of death she wrought upon us yesterday in our own homeland! For taking the breath away from so many of our brothers and sisters, we'll now return the favor." Syrus stretches his neck and leers toward the shoreline. "Drown her in the lake!" he shouts, pointing to the water.


Amidst a savage spirit that escalates throughout the island and circles overhead, hundreds of birds rush to clutch or tear into Gaia in her cocoon. Dozens dive bomb from the sky, only to slam into those who get there first. Every unsavory specimen in Syrus' army is represented in this horrid momentous event. With only minor difficulty, they lift the cocoon off the sand and into the air and carry it over the lake just beyond the shoreline.


SPLASH!


The heavy, blackened cocoon and its contents lurch forward and then wobble on the water's surface as if a struggle is taking place in- side. Within seconds water surges into its thoroughly punctured and partly shredded lining. The chrysalis teeters once and sinks just below the surface of the lake. Millions of bubbles rise like boiling water and soon disappear. Moments later the shoreline is calm. At once a roar from Syrus' legions near and far signifies their approval.


308 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



SPLASH! SPLASH! SPLASH-SPLASH! SPLASH-SPLASH!


Bobbing in the water above Gaia's shallow grave are several clean- ly plucked falcons. They are pink, bumpy and stiff as a board. Most peculiar, however, is how they landed. They are on their backs, wings spread and feet raised like they were about to clutch something when they took their last breath. A look of shock remains with the featherless birds at the water's surface; their eyes and mouths are wide open. The roar of Syrus' troops dies down to an uncomfortable whisper.


"What are those?" exclaims Syrus, angered by the sudden interrup- tion to his otherwise triumphant morning.


A smattering of blue, gray and white feathers begins to fall from above, gently rocking back and forth over the watery burial site and across the shoreline. Several find their way to the sandy area where Gaia formerly lay in stasis. This highly unusual event catches the atten- tion not only of Syrus and many thousands of his troops, but of Grog and the four companion escorts, too.


"Find out who's responsible, Taggart!" commands Syrus furiously. "Be absolutely sure!" A few stray feathers from the blue-headed fal- cons land on his outstretched, leathery wings and beak. "I want answers fast," he states, shaking them off.


Taggart doesn't budge. "Nothing born from among the creatures in this world can do that," he replies somberly.


"What are you saying?" boils Syrus.


Taggart stares at the featherless troopers afloat. "It's unnatural. I've seen this before. Only one time she left the feathers on and the other there were no traces of the bodies at all." He turns to Syrus. "The crea- ture that was brought here is responsible," he says trembling. "It's now somewhere among us and quite alive. Odds are it's gonna love you for this."


The strong current from Redwood Falls begins to draw the dead falcons away from the shoreline. Rage overcomes Syrus to the point where his lower jaw shakes and his eye twitches uncontrollably. Those


309 Evergreen


around him back away and form a large perimeter. Once Syrus gains his composure, he turns to Taggart.


"Tell me you're suggesting that the thing under the surface of this lake is not Gaia," he states in a cold, gritty voice. "Go ahead, I dare you. Tell me."


Taggart's silence only heightens the ancient ruler's rage.


"This is no game of chance," Syrus declares, jabbing his winged claw in Taggart's chest.


"Then there's only one way to know for sure," replies Taggart, now taking flight just out of Syrus' reach.


"Yes," says Syrus snidely. He turns to his troops. "Retrieve the re- mains from the water!" he orders. The thought of the next steps produces a rare smile and stifled laugh. "We'll just have to open it up and peek inside."


Hundreds of birds of prey dive into the cold water. A few seconds later the dark cocoon rises to the surface. Scores of birds seize parts of its waterlogged lining with their feet and beaks. Feverishly, they strug- gle to lift the dead weight out of the water, and sections peel right off in their claws and mouths. The largest birds, including eagles and hawks, maneuver underneath the cocoon to provide support and prevent it from slipping back into the lake. With much determination and persistence, the cocoon is raised from the water and slowly carried over the shore- line toward Syrus' position. Birds on the sand beneath them wisely scatter just in case ­


­ R-R-R-RIP!


The underside lining of the water-drenched cocoon splits in two from the weight of its contents. Out from its bottom pour hundreds of silver-beaked blackbirds and a small number of osprey. They form a stiff, smelly, charcoal-black pile on the sand. With no further need to hold onto the cocoon's lining, the birds let it drop onto the mound and watch it slide to rest at its base.


"Now we know what happened to our remaining recon squads," states Taggart, hovering near Syrus and sensing danger.


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Syrus gazes at the cocoon's gruesome contents. Incensed at being outwitted by his nemesis, he lifts off the ground and points at each of Gaia's companions. We'll see if your savior can ignore you now," he says cold-heartedly. "Kill them!" shouts Syrus. "Kill them all!"


At once an intense acoustical pitch resonates throughout the under- world. Out of fear and uncertainty, the birds of prey who are about to follow Syrus' orders stand down rather than continue. The uncanny, soul-piercing sound occurs again. It races from low to high at the same time as it does high to low, with an unknown origin. The flow of en- ergy is both warm and simple and harsh and complex. The eerie, almost overpowering sound repeats a third time.


Syrus has to raise his large wings overhead to lessen the impact of the strong vibrations. After a few seconds pass without incident, he lowers them and spear-chucks a vicious look at the troopers who just released Gaia's companions. He lifts off the sand and callously pro- claims, "If none of you have the spine to carry out my orders, then you're no better than the bugs I'm about to kill!" He sails toward them, wings outstretched, and makes a hard landing between Grog and Ojeda. The troopers immediately take flight.


"Cowards," Syrus mutters under his breath. He feasts his eye on Grog and begins a violent assault.


"Grog will not be that easy to catch!" he hollers, trying to escape. Grog shifts to the right and leaps in the opposite direction. His feeble attempt at trickery is of little consequence. The large, ancient warrior anticipates the move and bats him to the ground with his hard, leathery wing. Grog bounces twice before he stops at a thicket of bushes where he and Merton awoke only a short time ago. Though he lies there un- conscious, Syrus is quick to scoop Grog from the sand with his long beak, toss him in the air, and clench down on his thick metallic armor.


"Ugh!" Syrus complains violently. "This one's going to take a little elbow grease to crack open." He adjusts Grog in his mouth for a better angle to split the hard shell in two. Suddenly, he hears many thousands of his troopers frantically lift off as if to escape danger. "Sounds like


311 Evergreen


my entire army just fled the island," he thinks. Winds generated by the birds kick up sand and plant debris. Syrus protects himself and his snack by stretching his wings to cover his body like a cloak.


Once the strong winds die down, Syrus is more interested in finding out what all the commotion is about than eating. He drops Grog on the sand by the bushes and takes flight. Circling the area, he is astonished to see only Taggart and Gaia's four companions remain. The rest of the island has been abandoned. Though Syrus swoops down just above the group, they completely ignore him. Instead, their attention is directed upward with their mouths wide open.


Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!


Syrus lands near the location where he previously took off. He scowls at the soggy mound of birds that were once the fastest and strongest soldiers in his army. Just beyond the area, he notices a dark shadow blanket the shoreline and move in his direction, first across the stack of dead birds and then across Taggart and the others nearby. Within seconds the edges of the shadow become more clearly defined and smooth. As the shadow decreases in size and increases in clarity, it forms a star-like silhouette around Syrus that extends to the others.


Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!


Strong gusts pick up once again. Only these are different than be- fore. They arrive in two-second intervals and are accompanied by a sound from above that is both odd and familiar.


Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!


Syrus is annoyed at how the others continue to ignore him and stare up in the sky. "You look like you're waiting for the ceiling to cave in on this hole-in-the-ground," he states arrogantly. "It'd be a fitting end to this dreary world."


No reply is offered. They remain transfixed.


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Finally, he yields to pressure and peers up. His eye widens and body cringes. There are two gushes of air, an impact that sounds like a boulder just hit the sand, and several wheezing gasps, and the next sec- ond, a giant reptilian insect appears with a presence that knocks Syrus flat on his back.


"Who are you?" he cries out, shrinking backwards in the sand.


The monstrous creature glowers over him and slowly hisses, "G-a-i-a."


A momentary spike of intense colors from luminescent life forms is seen throughout the underworld. Although Syrus pretends to ignore it, such clear and compelling evidence that Gaia lives brings great joy to her four loyal companions. Their sense of delight is quickly tempered with anxiety and concern. The chrysalis they knew as Gaia has taken a form that is much larger and very different from their own.


In many ways, she is shaped like a butterfly: two pair of teal, white and gold-rippled wings that span nearly thirty feet; a fifteen-foot-long, light-gray body with three daunting pairs of legs; and an oblong-shaped head with two thick, featherlike antennae. On close inspection, how- ever, parts that appear insect-like share characteristics found only among the earliest and fiercest reptiles.


Gaia's broad and wondrous wings are attached to clawed, muscular arms, one set positioned just above and inside the other. Her head, tho- rax and abdomen are thick and coarse with thousands of small pentagonal scales that fit together to produce a leathery sheen. Even her fibrous antennae flair upright like horns on a creature from an era that has long since died.


Perhaps most unnerving at the moment to those who stand behind Gaia is her lengthy tail, which thrashes unpredictably. It is forked near the end, like a snake's tongue, and is lined with small triangular plates along its crest.


"Someone pinch me," says Kunziah in awe. "I don't know about any of you, but this bad girl makes me feel like we've got nothing to fear."


"Unless you recently ordered the annihilation of all Kwak'walans," replies Tepetu.


313 Evergreen



"Or you've been using cricket legs as toothpicks," says Ojeda.


"And your belly's filled to the brim with bug juice," adds Munyo.


Taggart lowers and shakes his head. "I told Syrus this was no ordi- nary creature," he mutters to himself. Annoyed, he looks in Syrus' direction. "But did you listen?"


Kunziah turns to Taggart. "You pack an extra set of feathers?" he asks straight-faced.


They exchange eye contact, but Taggart offers no response. Instead, he calmly stares down at his talons partly buried in the sand. He con- cedes defeat when just minutes earlier there was an air of victory. A circular patch of green feathers underneath his wings catches his atten- tion. He preens, pondering his fate.


Gaia proceeds with Syrus in a calm, measured tone. "From high above, I've been watching your minions devour the warm inhabitants of this world ­"


"­They're bugs," he interrupts smugly, "and they were cold until they settled in my stomach."


The thickened ridges above Gaia's forward pair of eyes lower at the center. She straightens to an erect stance and glares down at him impatiently. On each elbow of her lower pair of wings emerges a curved, serrated claw, easily two feet in length. Unlike claws attached to the arms of some reptiles, Gaia's slide in and out like a retractable knife.


"There's a gazillion of them down here," says Syrus, pretending to ignore her imposing presence. "Tomorrow, another gazillion will be hatched, and it'll be like we never had this picnic. You know, it's a cir- cle of life thing."


"Circle of life thing," repeats Gaia, her eyes lax, as bitter as she is repulsed by his indifference.


"What's a little death when you have a throne to protect and no in- terest in having it occupied by some new freak of nature," states Syrus brashly as he gains confidence. He looks beyond the rolling hills to- ward the area where he and his army first appeared. "Okay, a lot of


314 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


death." He then hunkers down to gather strength. "And there is no rea- son you can't be next!" In a last desperate act, Syrus motions to attack Gaia. He springs toward her neck with his mouth open wide, wings fanned out and razor-sharp claws pointed forward.


THWACK!


Like a flash of light, Gaia fires her long, forked tail around her side and knocks Syrus to the ground. A long line of narrow indents on his abdomen quickly fill with blood from the sharp plates along the top of Gaia's tail. It is clear from Syrus' pained look that he is injured, but he is still quite capable. He stands, angered by the split-second assault, and lunges at Gaia for a second time.


SNATCH!


Syrus' feet and wings dangle over the sand, his body ensnared in Gaia's tail. He writhes to free himself but is unsuccessful. The narrow edge of each triangular plate faces him and circles once more, like a cobra entranced by a snake charmer. He feels her grip tighten. Syrus is firmly in her grasp.


"Now, tell me again," says Gaia, turning him sideways so his feet and head are parallel to the ground. "Why would you go to such lengths to find me?"


"What a shame," he responds, his wings and claws draped above the surface of the sand. "Such bulk and brawn, yet so little retention. You haven't been listening, have you?"


"Millions suffered needlessly!" she thunders in a deep, almost de- monic voice.


"Oh, at least that many. I'd say a million stink bugs alone perished. They're so slow. And in case you were wondering, holding your nose and eating them is really the only way to get rid of them."


Gaia glares at her captive, distressed about her timing and inflamed by his vile humor. "The pain and suffering ­ all that has taken place ­ could have been prevented," she vents scornfully.


"Nothing could have prevented it, once you attacked and destroyed my troops in the southern forest."


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"Your troops attacked us," declares Tepetu from behind Gaia. "We were well above your stupid forest minding our own business."


"Yeah, and your marauders took us for their next lunch," adds Munyo. "It was either kill or be killed."


"Indeed," replies Syrus in a grim voice. "It still is," he states, eye- ing the escorts as if they're his next victims.


A few seconds of silence pass. Gaia emits a deep, grainy sigh and shakes her head. "Yesterday's encounter wasn't supposed to happen. It set in motion events that brought massive death to this world. All of this just wasn't meant to be."


"What makes you so sure?" asks Syrus. "And would you turn me around? Do I look like a bat to you?"


"A damn ugly one, if you ask me," mutters Kunziah. Ojeda and Munyo snicker to themselves, thinking the exact same thing.


Gaia ignores his request, but addresses his question. "I am on a journey to defeat a powerful enemy," she states, dead serious and to the point. "This enemy will be revived from its grave at the time of Kaleija within the next lunar cycle. My journey was foretold by the Golem in Ontawa, just after the suns rose yesterday. Contact with your world was not part of the Golem's prophecy."


"Right," says Syrus sarcastically. "What's a Golem?"


"The Kwak'walans who celebrated my arrival and passage into this current form also should not have come into contact with your world," Gaia continues. "When they did, I could not intervene. I was powerless to do anything about it," she says regretfully. "I had to wait until all of my changes were complete. Then I had to wait until I gained strength."


"Please, spare me the burden of a bug's life, moans Syrus, rolling his eye. I usually don't think of such things when I squash their little heads beneath my feet. It makes me queasy."


Gaia looks away in disgust. She takes several labored, uneven breaths and quickly returns, leering at Syrus. "I had to endure their screams due to the carnage you unleashed in this world!" she growls angrily. "None deserved the punishment you inflicted on them!"


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"Oh, come now. Not even the tasty ones?" he quips, still upside down.


Gaia's anger slowly shifts to a broader, satirical outlook. She leans to within a few inches of Syrus' foul-smelling beak. "I hope you're prepared for who you've found," she sneers darkly.


"You found me," he replies, unaffected by the undertone of Gaia's words. He grins as only Syrus can grin and inhales long and deep. Once he reaches the limit of Gaia's firm grip, he emits a loud, horrid screech.


In the surrounding hills and valleys, nearly one million soldiers who panicked and fled when Gaia first appeared recognize the call to battle and take flight. A pitch-black mass begins to form out of the ris- ing legions of birds. For the second time, an immense, dark wave moves perilously toward the small, narrow island at the base of Red- wood Falls.


Gaia's two thick, fibrous antennae flair upright. The featherlike fi- bers that line each instantly sense the sound and movement at the southern edge of the underworld.


"This war is far from over, you freak!" shouts Syrus, now posi- tioned right-side-up. "You may have been able to handle a few dozen flocks of silver-tips, but I doubt you'll have similar success with my entire army. He leans to the left, glancing at the ground below Gaia's clawed, muscular lower wing and sees Taggart standing between Munyo and Kunziah. His second in command looks deeply depressed. "My gosh, soldier!" he yells, still trapped in Gaia's tail. "You look like you've just lost your best friend. Snap out of it! We have unfinished business to tend to and a battle to wrap up!"


Taggart doesn't budge.


"You want more death?" questions Gaia, far from stunned.


"I want your death," seethes Syrus coldly.


Gaia scowls at her captive and rises fully erect from a low stance. A thin reddish membrane slides across both sets of her eyes. In the dark- ness of the underworld, a deep orange-red glow increases steadily like a pilot light, the second set burning brightly just behind and below the


317 Evergreen


first. Syrus is transfixed by the sudden and dramatic shift in her de- meanor and appearance. She snaps closed her rear pair. The air around her begins to stir and sway like a mist that suddenly changes direction with the wind. Gaia swings her head toward the army of birds en route and back, glowering directly into Syrus' eyes. He feels the pain of ex- traordinary heat penetrate but not burn his leathery skin. At once, energy bands flow from her body in waves and spread throughout the entire underworld, distorting the appearance of whomever or whatever they pass through. Faint screams are heard in the distant sky and rap- idly grow into a chorus of terror. The haunted cries continue with the sound of fear overpowering even the thunder of Redwood Falls.


Taggart looks over his shoulder and observes the chaotic exodus off in the distance. "Oy," he groans, "we're doomed."


Gaia opens her rear pair of eyes, and the sounds fade. Unbeknownst to Syrus, his once loyal army is now in full retreat. There's no mass formation. It's every bird for her or himself.


"My death," repeats Gaia, her eyes still aglow and fixed firmly on Syrus.


"Indeed. Hard to accept the inevitable, isn't it?"


She unfolds and raises her upper wings like two ornate sails and stretches her lower pair out to each side. Her face, now hunched down, is hidden in the shadows away from all traces of light. The surfaces of her eyes cut through the darkness, glistening like fire opals. Their pierc- ing centers churn with rage. Carefully, she probes the savage ruler from his decayed eye socket and trembling beak to his battered, scrawny feet.


"Then from this day forward," proclaims Gaia, "you will see and feel every brutal act committed on another to preserve your reign. It doesn't matter whether you ordered it or carried it out yourself. You will experience the pain and suffering of each life you took through the eyes and souls of your victims."


Out of the corner of Kunziah's mouth, he whispers to Tepetu, "That's a pretty creepy fate."


318 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



"It is just," Tepetu concludes, steadfast and strong.


Taggart overhears the exchange. "That's over three hundred years worth of creepy," he interjects. "It's a fate worse than death."


Prompted by the unfamiliar voice, Gaia turns her head in a slow, clockwise fashion and stops in front of Taggart. Her four companions each take one step backwards in the sand, uncertain of what she might do. No one can look away from the exquisitely monstrous sight that towers over them. Taggart quivers uncontrollably at the unwanted at- tention. He feels his heart pound at double its normal pace. Without taking her eyes off of Taggart, Gaia raises Syrus behind her head in full sight of everyone. His body sways a short distance to the right and then the left with little effort on her part.


"Did you help that creature plan this barbaric invasion?" she probes forcefully, her rear eyes shifting to Syrus and then rejoining the front pair.


Taggart gazes at Syrus suspended in the grasp of her reptilian tail, its small triangular plates catching the ambient light from above and its snake-like fork erect and undulating behind the trapped leader. After a moment's pause, he reluctantly replies, "I did."


"Of course he did," states Syrus from behind. "Can't you see, it's in his blood. And if you look close enough, it's scattered around his mouth and feet, too."


The air around Gaia begins to ripple and flow outward once again. At once, all eyes spring wide open. Gasps of terror come from her com- panions as an intense ball of flames explodes from the spot where Taggart stands. The flash of light casts a brilliant whiteness across those who witness his fate. A shadowy figure lunges, face first, out of the dying fire onto the sand. Taggart is alive and moving slightly, but he is now featherless with smoke rising from his scorched body.


Gaia quickly circles back to face Syrus. Slowly, she lifts the large winged reptile several feet higher than before and loosens her grip from around him. Stiff from being squeezed by her heavily-plated tail, Syrus plummets, head-first, to the ground. Giving him barely enough time to


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pull his face from the sand, Gaia leans in. Syrus winces and leans back, desperately kicking and flapping in the sand to create as much distance between them as possible.


"Yours will be a death that befits your reign," she declares. "A liv- ing death."


With those words Syrus stops his frantic retreat and glares up at Gaia, bristling with contempt. He rises clumsily and shakes off the sand. "I make no apologies to you or anyone else for the battles I've waged or the justice I've brought to those who opposed me. For more than three centuries, I've protected the southern forests from predators who seek to destroy our world," he states haughtily, as if he is address- ing his soldiers. "I'm proud to have acted in ways that preserved my reign, secured my way of life and fulfilled my destiny. So tell me, Bug- zilla, why should I be enslaved in an act of vengeance by a beast that even makes me look warm and cuddly?"


Gaia reflects a confident, almost sublime spirit as if she knows something about which Syrus will soon be aware. At a slow pace, her rear eyelids begin to close. An intense band of heat races through Sy- rus' bones. Startled but on guard, he tries to block the heat with his thick, clawed wings and turns away. His arms still raised, Syrus sees a bright golden glow penetrate his wings and cast across his body and the nearby sand. Curious and unnerved, he slowly parts his wings, now smoldering on their outer surface, and peers up at the incredible crea- ture. His eyes squint and widen at the same time. Standing over him is an unimaginable sight in his three-hundred year reign.


Gaia's eyes are engulfed in a whirlwind of flames, each penetrating Syrus' coarse skin like the suns' rays through a magnifying lens. Her wild, fierce glower fixed on Syrus, she lowers her jaw and hisses, "Be- cause incivility will always be painful."


SHHH! SHHH! SHHH! SHHH! THUD!


From high above the small island, a deep, twenty-foot wide, dome- shaped slab of amber drops on top of Syrus, producing a cloud of sand


320 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


and debris. After a few moments pass and the dust settles, Gaia sees the centuries-old ruler cowering on the sand beneath the dome covering his head. Her companions see him, too. The varying thickness of the amber distorts his appearance like a fun-house mirror at a carnival. The sight makes Kunziah chuckle. Soon Munyo and Tepetu join in.


With barely enough room to stand, and only a few thin air slits, Sy- rus screams in rage and charges the hard, steamy amber surface. Though at times a claw or a portion of a wing poke through one narrow opening or another, his attempts to break free are futile.


Gaia moves in close to the amber chamber. She alternates between two narrow gaps for a face-to-face view of her captive. Again, he charges the rock-hard chamber wall that separates them. This time he turns his head and slams into the amber, positioning his good eye in the slit nearest to her.


"You think this will stop me?" snarls Syrus, his face pressed against the uneven surface.


Together the four companion butterflies nod their heads and re- spond, "Uh huh."


Munyo eyes the sand around the dome, noting that there's only a small amount of the chamber above ground. "Looks to me like you'll bury yourself if you try to dig your way out."


"Just wait until my troops arrive! When they've finished with you, they'll clean their beaks with your wings and get to those hard­to-reach places with your antennae!" he shouts with only a two-inch thick amber surface blocking his freedom. "I'll personally throw your remains into this rotting cell ­ except for your head. That I will mount on the wall in my lair. The perfect trophy for my victory."


"Blah, blah, blah," grumbles Ojeda, partially hidden behind Gaia. "Don't you tire of your own drivel?"


"You weren't so plucky when your head was being crushed into the ground by my soldiers, bug," snipes Syrus.


"Yeah, isn't it odd how destinies can change so fast?" comments Kun- ziah. He lifts off the ground and lands next to the chamber on the opposite


321 Evergreen


side of Syrus. The large insect's colorful wings remain outstretched to lift off at a moment's notice. He carefully leans into a narrow opening and continues his thought. "One minute you're an evil warlord leading a mil- lion soldiers into battle, and the next minute you're a defrocked crotchety old bird without a single warrior under your command."


Enraged by the harsh reality of his words, Syrus charges Kunziah's position. The sight forces Kunziah backwards and into flight.


"Kinda puts a damper on your plans, huh?" adds Kunziah, now over the chamber a few feet above Syrus' head. "Yup, a crotchety old bird," he chuckles.


"And damn ugly, too," quips Munyo with a quick wink at Kunziah.


Gaia smirks at her companions' banter and turns to Syrus. "Comfort- able?" she asks sarcastically. "Because your ­ what did you call it? ­ picnic is just getting started."


"When I get through with ... you," growls Syrus, beginning to stammer like he is drunk, "you'll wish you ... you never ... heard of ... goalies ... from Ottawa." His speech slows to a mumble, and then it stops. He stares, spellbound, at no place in particular through the un- even amber surface directly in front of him. No longer realizing where he is, Syrus begins to flap his wings as if he's taking flight. He has a determined but confused look on his face.


"You mean the Golem from Ontawa," replies Gaia, her eyes lax but her fiery glower still warm and radiant. "I'll take my chances."


A short distance from the group, Taggart remains face down in the sand. He coughs several times, and puffs of dark smoke filter through the sand to form a light haze just above him. The humid breeze from Redwood Falls quickly carries off the smoke. Taggart gingerly pulls his charred beak from the sand to watch the unusual exchange among the two leaders. Head forward and flat on his stomach, he looks like the main course at a holiday dinner, minus the giblets and gravy. He sees the once-feared ruler of all winged carnivores captive in the dome- shaped amber chamber for the first time. "Well, would you look at that," he groans calmly, "victory is ours."


322 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



"Where did all these birds come from? Where am I?" wonders Sy- rus aloud. "And how did I get here?" Though his feet are firmly planted in the sand, his wings flap at half their normal height from within the limited space in the amber chamber. He quickly surmises, "I'm among my troops in the tunnel. We're heading ... home. But how can this be? How is this possible?" he shrieks, baffled by the sight.


"As you can see," replies Gaia, her rear eyelids now shut tight, "your warriors are abandoning you and your half-baked second-in- command sunning on the beach."


Taggart turns and stretches his tender reddened neck to observe the darkened southern part of the underworld behind him. In a long, drawn- out wince, he calls to Gaia. "How many of them remain?"


"Only you."


"But we had close to a million soldiers!" he cries out popeyed, holding back his pain.


"Each soldier is currently in retreat through the same passageway that brought all of this devastation to the Kwak'walans. Those of your army who remain have already begun to reach the surface and will soon return to their home forests. Their battle is over," says Gaia as- suredly.


Taggart barely stands, brushing off the sand, and eyes the strange giant. "What are you?"


"You mean who are you, don't you?" argues Tepetu, out of respect. She lifts off the sand and flies over to Gaia's location. Her companions do the same. Each awaits her response.


"I am a friend to all who follow an ancient code in their thoughts and deeds," says Gaia proudly. Behind her, Syrus continues his imagi- nary flight home among his legions, lightly thumping against the ceiling of his prison chamber.


"What kind of code and where did it come from?" asks Taggart through painful eyes. Compelled by the spectacle, he shifts his atten- tion between Gaia and Syrus' entranced actions just a short distance away.


323 Evergreen



Gaia looks out at the destruction leveled at different parts of the un- derworld. "At a time of great crisis throughout the land," she explains, "the Golem first appeared deep within a cave far from here. He offered those in attendance a way to restore balance with nature and one an- other to help resolve the crises. It was a code of conduct that involved new ways of thinking and behaving. The code has us respect the land around us, its inhabitants, and all of our shared resources. The Golem told us to be mindful of these values and pass them down to our chil- dren so they can endure in our world forever."


"That's unnatural," replies Taggart with growing contempt. "It's survival of the quickest, strongest and most dangerous. You take what you need before someone else gets to it first. If your group wants what another group already has, then it's war. That's my code. Well, that was our code under Syrus, anyway."


"Then he and those like him, not the need, are the sources of the problem," affirms Gaia point-blank. "What if those like yourself ­ who blindly wage war under another's command ­ become increasingly outnumbered by groups who reject your way of life and choose, in- stead, to follow the Golem's civil code?"


"At first it could get quite messy," he responds candidly without much thought. "It would be us against them. There's strength in num- bers, and successful battles make you stronger. But, I suppose, if we continued to be outnumbered, then there would be fewer battles to wage because there would be fewer and fewer us."


"Until the last battle fought is not against outsiders but those from within," interjects a sagely voice from atop a wild patch of flowering trees. Already aware of Wiley's presence, Gaia looks up. His words touch off a special feeling of comfort and connectedness ­ like family. Curious, her four loyal escorts glance in his direction. Then, out from the colorful thicket of trees swoops the hoary, peace-loving luna owl. He lands in the sand next to the featherless frame of a smoldering but inquisitive osprey. "Such a battle would be about whether we should fight at all," adds Wiley, eyeing Taggart oddly. "Have we met?"


324 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



"Don't ask," he replies. "That's a lofty ideal for thinkers like you and leaders like her," Taggart continues, glancing up at Gaia with a cringe. "But until we reach such a day, there's only loyalty to one's troop, legion and, ultimately, army. Besides, what else can we do other than follow or- ders to survive? I'd say the chances are pretty high that we'll continue our code for years to come. Syrus will be replaced," states Taggart dejected. "We know of no other way."


"From what I just witnessed," says Wiley, "I'd say the chance that your comrades will continue to be soldiers are pretty low. Using the numbers in your army alone, I'd say about one million ­ to one."


"And you're the one," observes Ojeda.


"That's only because their minds have been controlled by Gaia," says Taggart skeptically. "It's just like what she's doing to Syrus. For crying out loud, the guy's in a tiny prison but thinks he's going to be flying over forests without a care in the world."


"What is happening to your leader is of Gaia's doing," remarks Wi- ley. "However, the mass exodus of your troops is of their own will."


"That's impossible," Taggart reasons. "They're trained to attack ­ or die ­ until their objectives are accomplished."


"Their actions have been governed by fear," responds Gaia. "If they refused to carry out their orders, they knew they would die under Syrus. I have given them a choice. They have witnessed the consequences of their current path and have been given the option of avoiding an unpleasant fate that awaits them in battle. Wisely, they altered their objectives and chose a new path."


"So you coerced them," concludes Taggart.


"I enlightened them," replies Gaia.


"Was I enlightened, too?" asks Taggart cynically.


"No, just lit up," says Kunziah with a smirk.


"Who Hooo!" shouts Wiley, hunched over laughing. "This one's a riot! Can't we keep him around for parties?"


Gaia ponders Taggart's interesting yet skeptical response. "Well," she replies, "if the issue has to be war, would you rather fight to protect another's rule or for the right to be free from anyone's rule?"


325 Evergreen



Taggart glances over at Syrus, reflecting on his rise in power to be second in command and his many years of loyalty and service to his reign. After a moment of thought he replies, "I would fight for the right to be free."


"Then what do you think?" asks Gaia rhetorically.


Still spellbound, Syrus' small rounded head and clawed wings now thwack repeatedly against the chamber ceiling in an alternating rhythm. Fixed and focused in flight in an alternate location, Syrus seems unaf- fected by the mild blows.


Gaia lowers her head to within a few feet of Taggart. "Because we are again at a time of great crisis," she continues, "the Golem created me for a special journey that is in its earliest stages."


"So how did you end up down here in this smorgasbord o' bugs?"


Gaia tilts her head scornfully at his cold indifference to Kwak'walans. She leans forward, her eyes casting a bright menacing glower.


"Oh no!" Taggart cries out remorsefully. "I mean ­ well, I'm sorry. Old habits, I guess."


"Hmm," she grumbles, raising her leathery, oblong-shaped head up and away from him. "I was entrusted in the care of these four coura- geous friends," she states, glancing over at her escorts. "At their own peril they brought me into this world and helped to protect me until I became self-sufficient." She leans in close to his ear. "I'm self- sufficient," she whispers.


Nervously, Taggart's eyes dart back and forth. "I hadn't noticed," he wheezes followed by a smoke-filled cough. Munyo and Kunziah try to suppress their laughter. Still barely able to stand, Taggart notes, "I heard stories of an overseer from my elders when I was young but nev- er paid much attention to them. Few in my clutch ever did. So that would make you, what, the Golem's messenger?"


"She's a symbiont, actually," says Wiley, strolling about in the sand with his wings folded behind him.


"A what?" questions Taggart as he tries to ignore his wobbly knees.


326 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



Wiley circles around and comes to within inches of his face. "A symbiont!" he snaps impatiently. He walks past Taggart into the center of the four escort butterflies a few yards away. "With all due respect, Gaia's humble response doesn't quite do justice to her purpose. She's no messenger, oh no," he chortles. "More of an enchanted, shape- shifting deliverer ­ and a whooping good one, I'd say! Her journey is neither simple nor enviable, oh no."


"A deliverer? From who or what?" asks Taggart, his thin wings outstretched, still trying to keep his balance in the sand.


Wiley ignores Taggart's question for the moment. He walks out from between the group of butterflies and over to Gaia. Because his eyes are not what they once were, he leans back to get a good look at her from bottom to top. "Who Hooo!" he shouts, taking in a most im- pressive sight. "Enemies of the land are often ruthless," he says with his back to the group. "They can even be barbaric like Syrus." Wiley turns to Taggart. "Some enemies are as hideous as they are powerful. Today's battle was just a taste of things to come. Oh, oh my," he thinks aloud. "Bad choice of words. Anyway, like I said, Gaia's a symbiont."


"Yeah," says Kunziah, thrown off, "that's the part where you lose me."


"Me too," add Ojeda and Tepetu, nodding their heads.


Just as Wiley begins to speak, he points at Gaia with his fluffy right wing. The wing's once razor-sharp tip accidentally catches in between two coarse, pentagonal scales on Gaia's massive thorax. At the moment of contact, she lets loose a tremendous "ROAR!" A blinding, colorful flash follows, and her forked tail slams against the ground, causing a brief island tremor and small cloud of debris. "Oh," Gaia says, taken by surprise, "I didn't realize I am so ticklish."


The circular field of yellow-orange light that bursts outward from Gaia continues on its path. Mesmerized, no one can take their eyes off the shimmering band as it continues, like a singular ripple in a pond, out over the hills and valleys in all directions. Moments later a series of brilliant flashing lights are seen along the outer perimeter of the entire


327 Evergreen


underworld. A powerful, low-level rumble follows, like a subterranean explosion just took place.


"Whoa! I wonder what a sneeze would have done to this place?" asks Munyo, turning around to face Gaia. Cautiously, the others do the same.


"A sneeze?" adds Kunziah, looking beneath Gaia's tail. "What if she blew it out of her ­"


"­ Never you mind," interrupts Wiley in a stern but lighthearted voice. "As I was saying, Gaia's path is to live among different kinds of animates in a close, connected relationship, one with advantages for her and the species she will serve. You know, like scaly insects and some fungus among us down here or clownfish and sea anemones along the shoreline above. Mutual advantages include food and nourishment, shelter and protection from predators, and longer lives. Only through this type of association, and a little luck, will the enemies of our land be defeated and crises be resolved."


"Isn't that kind of what happened here?" wonders Tepetu.


"Oh no, my psychedelic friend," says Wiley. "The Kwak'walans have seen Gaia only for a brief time and, in the past hour or so, only in her current form."


"Current form?" she asks, shocked at the sudden revelation. Every- one looks suspiciously at Wiley and then slowly turns toward Gaia.


"Things are not what they seem," says Wiley. "Her future calls for even greater physical changes. And it won't just be evolutionary. It will be revolutionary, as well."


Taggart sighs, drops to his knees and then falls face first to the ground. "Isn't that magical," he murmurs into the sand with Munyo and Kunziah standing nearby. He turns to rest his head on its side. "Sy- rus was right to call her a freak," he says nastily. "What else do you call a possessed changeling who not only transforms to fit her surroundings but has the power to alter them to suit her needs?"


"If she's on my side," remarks Munyo, "I'd call her my best friend."


"I kind of like the sound of `Bugzilla'," adds Kunziah. "It makes you want to look over your shoulder and point. `L-o-o-o-k! Bugzilla! Runny way! Runny way!'"


328 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



Gaia clears her throat to interrupt the overly dramatic exchange. She shifts her attention to Wiley. "You are a special breed, indeed," she states warmly. "Thank you for taking care of our precious package."


Wiley bows his head and replies, "I am honored to serve you at this historic time."


Gaia's four companions are confused. What each last recalls is the sight of Wiley snatching Merton from just above Taggart's jaws and fleeing a troop of blue-headed falcons at breakneck speed over the lake and out of sight. One at a time, each puts the pieces together.


A short distance away, Syrus begins to flap his wings in a frenzied pace. "Move! Get out of the way!" he shouts. At once, Gaia and her friends turn to look inside the dome-shaped chamber. Syrus' wings are now still and outstretched. Even though his claws are on the ground, he bends his knobby knees and appears to soar and maneuver around some comrades traveling slower than others at his current pace. His jaw be- gins to tremble noticeably. "There's fear all around me!" he cries out. "What is it? Why are you yelling, `Don't look back?'"


"Doesn't he see us?" asks Tepetu, staring at the peculiar yet oddly funny sight.


"No," responds Wiley. "He sees only his fellow troopers in the crowded tunnel trying to escape to the surface."


A new shrillness is detected in Syrus' voice. "Move! Move! Don't look back!" he shrieks revealing that he, too, is consumed with panic, now a participant as well as an observer in the narrow, winding tunnel. Changes in his facial expressions and voice reveal that he's shifting from one soldier to another, like a possessor of frightened souls. Vivid encounters with each in-body experience compounds the terror. "Don't hurt me! Just leave me alone!" he squeals in an unusually high-pitched voice. No matter which soldier's body he occupies, the ancient ruler is frantic to reach the Great Falls. He does his best to stomach what he sees and feels.


Suddenly, Syrus' pain and nausea come to a halt. "NO!" he blares a split second later. "Don't let that near me! I gotta get out of this place!"


329 Evergreen


Desperate and exhausted, Syrus begs from inside the chamber, "Please, get me out of here!"


Within a thicket of yellow and green leafed shrubs near Grog's un- conscious body, a sweet young voice asks, "Is he going to s-stay over there on the sand screaming like that ­ chirp ­ forever?" A small but familiar sight timidly emerges from between the lush, shadowy bushes.


"Merton!" shouts Ojeda affectionately. The large, wounded butter- fly cautiously lifts off the sand to greet his friend, delighted he has not been harmed. Tepetu is also comforted by the good news. She follows closely behind Ojeda.


Gaia sees Merton and offers a welcoming glance. "No, little one," she responds, "not forever. I have placed him among the ranks of his troops for the time being. It is a prelude of things to come," she says, slowly winking her front right eye.


To Merton's amazement, a twirling shimmer and brilliance in white, teal and gold briefly radiate through her single eyelid in a pattern similar to those found on her wings. Catching himself in mid-ogle, Merton shakes his head and puts on a more serious face. "I under- stand," he says in his best grown-up voice, chin up and tilted right.


"I am glad you and Wiley finally caught up with us," Gaia contin- ues. She glances over at Grog and then back to Merton. "Your father has not fully recovered, has he?"


Merton responds by sadly shaking his head. His silvery antennae lower. Tears well at the base of his large eyes. Quietly, he asks, "Will he g-get better? I saw it happen. Father hasn't moved s-since that mean, awful thing knocked him to this s-spot."


"You know, little one," she observes, "your father was brave to look Syrus in the eye and confront him as he did. A little out of his league," she adds, concerned and strangely amused, "but he will be fine."


Merton's antennae perk up, grateful to hear the comforting words. In response, Gaia's two thick, fiber-filled antennae do the same. He re- turns to his father who remains still on the ground and brushes up


330 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


against his side. Then he gently places his face on his father's cheek. Merton closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.


Ojeda and Tepetu, who moments earlier landed a few feet away, approach Merton and his father. Each is aware of how alone he must feel, even though he is surrounded by those who care. Sensing their presence, Merton opens his eyes and looks in their direction.


"I'm okay," he says resolutely. "Gaia told me my father will be al- right." He sees the compassion in Ojeda's eyes and quickly hops toward him for a much-needed hug. Ojeda responds by wrapping his immense tattered wings around the young, tiny grasshopper. Merton is invisible within Ojeda's loving embrace. Next to them, Tepetu kneels at Grog's side and gently fans him with her wings. His large metallic hind legs shuf- fle in the sand like they just scratched an itch. No other motion follows.


Several yards away within the amber chamber, Syrus barks, "Move it, you smelly songbirds!" Anxious, he now leads a squadron of red- tailed falcons just a few hundred feet from the approaching gap in the falls. In front of him is a dense flock of silver-beaks. Some caterwaul in excitement and others squawk in fear. Many sense freedom ahead and envision their flight away from anything to do with the underworld. Others are still stricken with panic. Moments earlier they witnessed a tremendous yellow-orange energy field incinerate hundreds of their fel- low troopers in the tunnel just before it collapsed behind them. The same grisly image resurfaces in their heads.


"It's time to say our final goodbyes to Syrus," announces Gaia to her friends.


"And good riddance!" adds Ojeda, with Merton still beneath his wings.


Gaia smiles and raises her rear eyelids. Syrus immediately senses a sudden release, no longer a part of the troops fleeing into the misty ra- vine from beneath the Great Falls. "In a moment," says Gaia, "we will leave this island and its new permanent resident. Once the real end-of- life experiences begin, there will be no purpose for us to remain. Plus, it will be a bit noisy around here ­ at least at first."


331 Evergreen



"And kind of depressing I would imagine," remarks Tepetu.


Syrus shakes his head several times to fully regain consciousness. Standing still and breathing heavily, with his cold-blooded heart beat- ing fast, he quickly puts it all together. His anger and humiliation over being used by Gaia cause his head and wings to shake uncontrollably and his stomach to churn. Through the transparent chamber wall, Syrus sees his enemies and gains his bearing. He wastes no time and once again races toward Gaia's location. Violently, he slams into the amber wall, pressing his good eye into a long, narrow opening.


"Keep your mind games to yourself, you gutless hag!" he yells through snarled teeth. Syrus pushes away from the wall and walks in the other direction so he doesn't have to face his nemesis or hear her reply.


Gaia rises high in her stance and scowls at her captive. Effortlessly, she flaps both sets of wings twice and lifts off the sand. Instantly, she lands on top of Syrus' rock-hard prison with a loud thud. "Oh, this is no game," she says, looking down at him with a deep fiery glower. The familiar pain of radiant heat penetrates Syrus' leathery hide. Gaia closes her rear pair of eyes. An intense spectrum of color illuminates at a steady pace from life forms throughout the underworld. As the air around the dome chamber stirs and sways, Syrus charges the uneven walls, hoping to find a weakness. "It doesn't get any more real than this," hisses Gaia through the blurred amber surface.


Syrus tilts his head sideways to look up, provoked by her words and infuriated by her total command of his fate. He can't help but notice her six muscular legs spread across the top of the chamber. Serrated claws of the lower two pair firmly grasp the air slits while, just above, her third pair tap the amber every so often for further balance. The lower legs are made of the same tough, scaly skin as most of her body. How- ever, Gaia's uppermost pair is longer and stronger than the other two pair. They look much different. They are fibrous and jointed like those found on an insect but with prickly opposable claws for greater grasp- ing abilities.


332 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



At once, strong tremors jostle the chamber and its defiant prisoner. Neither the ground beneath Gaia and her friends nor the leaves on nearby trees and shrubs quiver or shake. The tremors exist only in Sy- rus' location. Taggart lifts his head and stares at the vibrating dome. Though free from harm, the four escort butterflies take several steps backwards just to be sure.


The ground movement is so forceful that Syrus loses his footing and topples to the sand. Gaia remains on top of the chamber, easily riding the wavelike motion produced by the tremors. She continues to stare through the amber, closely watching his attempts to gain footing. Syrus extends his wings for balance and tilts his head to look up. Finally, he manages to stand. Now face-to-face and separated by a few inches of amber, the two leaders glare directly at each other for the last time.


"I told you," thunders Gaia, fierce and deep, "incivility will always be painful!"


"Drop dead, bug," he responds, still maintaining his balance amid the strong tremors. Syrus' eye widens as he feels the unthinkable. Sand begins to cover his claws and ankles. The thought of being buried alive causes his eye socket to stretch until it spasms and his lower jaw to tremor. Steadily, his stomach and chest sink into the quivering sand. The transparent prison lowers at the same pace his body inches into the sandy grave. In the face of his enemies, he chooses not to scream. But everyone who witnesses this final moment is aware of how terrified Syrus is of his fate.


Within seconds, the top of the cold amber dome lowers to less than twelve inches above his head and sinks further into the ground. Syrus writhes violently as he's consumed by sand up to his throat. The only other physical sign beneath the dome are two dark-gray serrated claws protruding from his large wings. The chamber finally stops moving when it presses down on Syrus' head just inches above the ground. With a last-second maneuver, he manages to center his sight over a long air slit. One of his claws also finds a thin slit and pokes through about three feet from his head.


333 Evergreen



"You think you've won?" wheezes Syrus, with just enough room to squeeze out his last few threats. Warm air trapped within the dome quickly fogs up the remaining amber to restrict his view. His only field of vision is through the open slit. His only sight is Gaia.


"The p-point is that you didn't," chides Merton, peering out from below Ojeda's embrace.


"Who Hooo! Well said, my courageous little rebel," chortles Wiley close by.


"I should have eaten you myself," snarls Syrus beneath the humid haze of the chamber wall. Faint outlines of his head can be seen shift- ing slightly. "There are more out there," he warns, "commanding millions ... just like me." The sand's dense weight against his chest causes severely labored patterns of breathing. "If you try to ... defeat us all," exerts Syrus forcibly, "you will be guilty ... of what you set out to correct ... and suffer a fate ... worse than mine."


Gaia returns an unsympathetic gaze. "One battle at a time," she says calmly, as unimpressed with the ethics lesson as she is with the butcher who delivered it. She shakes her head. "For centuries you justified fear, death and mass extinction to expand your reign."


"Hey, it's a living," he groans crassly, with a weak but wicked chuckle and a long retch.


"Dying is a strange way to make a living," says Ojeda darkly over Syrus' irritating spew.


A swirling shimmer and dazzling glow radiate from Gaia once again. Glistening patterns of white, teal and gold reflect off Syrus' wide-open eye like fireworks spiraling out of control. Mesmerized by the brilliant sight, he can neither blink nor stir. Gaia's friends see the spectacle from behind as the slick, arched surface of the chamber captures and reflects her ravish energy and the pending doom it will soon unleash. With her eyes tightly shut and massive winged-arms raised high, Gaia invokes Syrus' first heinous act to seal his fate and launch his sentence.


"You recall the day you claimed the forest throne?" she asks, brows wrinkled and fully erect above the chamber. "You must have thought


334 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


your parents were so proud of you," she adds sarcastically. "You know, when you personally attacked and savagely killed your father in front of his troops to assume command ­ and arranged for your mother's death to occur at the same time."


"He was weak. There were no wars. His time was up," Syrus re- plies, exhausted and breathless, in short, choppy sentences. "It was up to me. I had to end his rule. She had to die, too." Syrus begins to gasp for air. His head droops in the sand to the extent that it can. He rests quietly for a few seconds and then lifts his head with renewed strength. "We needed a new leader with a fresh, bold vision. I was the one."


"You will come to know how they felt," replies Gaia fiercely.


"Irrelevant!"


Gaia pauses, her eyes still closed, to witness firsthand the centuries- old bloodshed. "The shock and betrayal," she says coldly. "The intense pain inflicted on them," she grieves angrily. "You shredded your father. Moments later you had your mother brought before you, only to have her suffer the same fate."


"Irrelevant!" he repeats, wheezing and closing his eye. "There is no honor ... in peace ... or in preserving it." He opens his eye and gazes up at Gaia's bright luminescent display, no longer enthralled. "What world do you live in, bug?"


"By the rise of tomorrow's suns," interjects Wiley, "one without the likes of you, I'm pleased to say."


Gaia pauses to quietly take in the last morbid thoughts of a three- century-old tyrant. "Your hunger for power and thirst for war were all that mattered to you," she states somberly.


"Still are!" shouts Merton, peering out from beneath Ojeda's wing. "Once a creep, always a creep."


A smirk eclipses Gaia's grave expression. It quickly fades. "You will start from the day you murdered your parents and, eventually, over the years, work your way to the troops you sent into the gateway tun- nels to find me." Amber light that shines onto the highest points of Mesequoya's limb finds its way down to the island and reflects off the


335 Evergreen


dome. Gaia feels its glimmer and warmth. She looks up. "Nature can be magnificent," she says, raising her eyelids to fully capture the continu- ous downward flow that feeds Redwood Falls. The scales lining her throat abruptly pull inward and tighten. The motion produces a sound like stretching leather. "Except when it gives rise to creatures like you," she adds sharply as she turns to Syrus. "So many were sacrificed be- cause of your vile rule. Savor the fate you so eagerly assigned to each soul in this world beneath the lake," she says with contempt. "That alone should take months."


"Probably a lot longer," spouts Wiley. "Many weren't so lucky and died a painfully slow death. It continues as we speak."


Gaia looks out across the valleys and hillsides. Pangs of sorrow re- kindle her sense of regret. She quickly returns to Syrus. "Even when you are stiff and cold beneath the sand, your brain will continue to function. You will not die until you see and feel each death executed under your command," she seethes. "Let's take it one victim at a time, shall we?" Her thickened eyebrows lower at the center. A moment passes with not even a twitter from Syrus. "Sure," she growls wryly. From behind Gaia, Wiley and her four escort companions see a bright colorful glow reflect off Syrus' dome-shaped chamber. Each takes an- other step backwards.


"NO, SON! STOP!" shrieks Syrus in full sight of a sudden, grue- some image, seen and felt through his father's eyes as it happened three centuries ago. Helplessly, he experiences firsthand his own sharp, jag- ged teeth and serrated claws thrust forward and tear into the neck and chest of the body he now occupies. Syrus is the victim of his own mu- tinous crime. With every rip and tug of his father's flesh, he feels the physical pain and emotional torment of being feverishly disemboweled. "WHY!" he blares to a crescendo in his father's mangled, blood- gurgling voice during the last few moments of life. He then falls silent.


Now still, Syrus' eye flutters as he struggles beneath the chamber ceiling to erase his own blood-soaked image as he proudly stands victo- rious over his father, at times pressing and distorting his long scarred


336 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


jaw and fleshy bulbous eye against the moist inner chamber wall to re- veal to those who bear witness more detail than anyone should ever see.


In the minutes that follow, a stream of ghastly screams pierce through those in attendance. Each deafening cry pleads for a life Syrus has long since silenced. Each time, the voice, pitch and intensity change to reflect another bloodthirsty encounter ­ a different life, a dif- ferent death.


The shrill, gut-wrenching sounds of Syrus' endless in-body experi- ences resonate and echo in distant regions. Vibrations that carry the intense horror cause bioluminescent life forms to react in memorial by emitting colorful patterns of light in their own unique way. Countless insect species afflicted by the day's carnage join in a chorus that cele- brates Syrus' hellish fate.


Gaia's companions can't help but observe what seems to be the en- tire underworld joining in the fray. Though moments earlier the world beneath Lake Augur laid waste to violence and death, they now feel energized by a kinetic, almost indescribable atmosphere. Young Mer- ton, however, remains disengaged and unsettled. Anxiously, he hops out from beneath Ojeda's wing and over to his father's side to keep a watchful eye on his progress.


The complex spectrum of light and cacophony of sound continue until Gaia raises her head and emits an intense pitch akin to the piercing sound that trumpeted her arrival. All signs of the celebration come to an abrupt halt with Gaia's prominent hale. From one end of their world to the other, mature, able-bodied insect species anxiously converge on the narrow island by land and air. The young and those who cannot attend ask members of their colonies to take down every detail so they can later be told to the group. Gaia repeats the extraordinary hale. Once she senses that the Kwak'walans near and far are in visual range, she opens her eyes and retracts her two pair of membranes. Once again, Syrus is released from her control. He compares his last frightful experience with what he now sees resting atop the amber dome overhead. Slowly and angrily, he begins to fully regain consciousness. Gaia flaps both


337 Evergreen


sets of wings twice and lifts off the prison chamber. Seconds later she lands near Merton, who stands vigilant next to his father. Gaia leans in.


"I know there is joy and celebration for what Kwak'walans are about to witness," she says justly. "There's little doubt that you feel the same way because of what Syrus did to your father. However, in spite of how you feel, your eyes and ears must turn away. Vengeance is not for young eyes and young hearts, little one."


Merton pauses for a moment, thinking about what Gaia said. He glances over at Syrus, whose obscene comments presently directed at Wiley indicate that he's now fully aware of his surroundings. Merton lies down facing his father and away from the amber dome. "I will do the r-right thing ­ chirp," he says patiently, "and keep my father c- company until he awakens."


At once the sand beneath the chamber quivers and shakes and the dome begins to sink.


"YOU WILL NEVER DEFEAT MY KIND!" Syrus cries out, us- ing all of the energy he can muster. "NEVER!" His trembling eye, now engorged from ruptured blood vessels, slowly lowers into the ground. In his final frantic movements, Syrus' jagged claws shake and vibrate, clicking and scraping against the amber ceiling in unsteady intervals. Through narrow openings in the dome, Kwak'walans circling above bear witness to the last traces of the once-feared ruler of all winged carnivores. Sand quickly covers his head and claws until they are no longer seen. Syrus is buried alive beneath the island shore. Long muf- fled screams are all that Gaia and those near to her can hear as the sound competes with the thunder of Redwood Falls. Less than four square feet of amber remain exposed at the sand's surface like a grave- stone, a grim reminder of the events that occurred during this fateful day in Kwak'walan history.


"Do you guys feel that?" Tepetu wonders aloud as Syrus' tomb comes to its final rest.


"Oh, I feel it," replies Kunziah facetiously, with his wingtip touch- ing his heart. "I feel it."


338 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



"Stop it," snaps Ojeda. "I hear something, too," he adds, his head atilt and outstretched.


"Huh? You two are serious? Wait ­ I feel something, too," notes Kunziah.


"Great," says Taggart calmly, struggling to rise from the sand. "More of Gaia's hocus-pocus. Is she going to drop a stone tomb on me, too?" he asks, half-serious.


"You do not share the same fate as your boss, my overdone adjutant," states Wiley with confidence. "What we sense is not Gaia's doing."


"Well, neither `the tomb' nor its occupant are in any way responsi- ble," concludes Munyo, standing next to Syrus' burial chamber with his back to the shoreline. Unnerved, the sudden ground swell compels Munyo and his companions to slowly turn and gaze out across the lake. "Whatever it is, it appears to be coming from beneath the water," he says, "and it's getting stronger."


BOOM! PHOOSH!


A thunderous eruption below the center of the lake creates an im- pact ripple and raises a watery mountain one hundred feet in the air like a huge tidal wave. Clouds of spray and tons of water soak all points surrounding the epicenter, drenching the island and all of its inhabi- tants. The massive circular wall of water generated from the blast motions out in headings that include the small island.


Dripping wet from top to bottom and still sore, Ojeda's eyes widen. "We've got about thirty seconds before we're swimming with the fish- es!" he shouts, turning to Gaia. His three waterlogged friends also observe the pending peril. No strangers to danger, their fear is tempered in Gaia's presence.


Wiley observes the unwavering bond between them and smiles. "Yes, indeed," he says unflappably, shaking water from his chest and tail feathers, "I doubt you would have come all of this way to end up at the bottom of a lake." He flicks and flutters his wings as fast as he can to dry his dank feathers and lifts off the ground to investigate the blast.


339 Evergreen



"Well, maybe we did," chimes Kunziah, jittery about what is fast approaching their shoreline. He turns to his three companions who re- turn dubious glances.


"Today is not your day to die, my brave friends," says Gaia in a soothing voice. "That will not harm any of you." In the background, the massive wave is now twice as close and three times as loud as when it started. Gaia turns to comfort Merton, but movement from Grog's head, antennae and hind quarters catches her attention. "Water from the eruption seems to have revived your father, little one," she says above the deepening roll of the wave.


The rising clamor of the wall of water drowns out Merton's reply but not his beaming smile and excited reaction. Grog shakes his head and slowly lifts himself from the sand only to be knocked onto his back by Merton's enthusiastic lunge. They embrace as if they haven't seen each other in years. However, the warm reunion comes to a sud- den halt the instant he looks beyond his son and sees who towers over him.


"WHOA!" shouts Grog, horror-stricken, shuffling backwards in the sand with Merton clutched in his arms. For the first time, Gaia stands before him in her present form, far from the chrysalis he befriended. Grog's emotions shift from fright to utter panic as he leans to the right and then left of Gaia and observes the gigantic wave a few hundred feet offshore and closing.


"Dad, that's Gaia," says Merton eagerly in his father's ear. "It's r- really her."


"My liege?" he responds curiously as darkness, moisture and a dea- fening roar overtake the island. Grog then tilts his head in awe and disbelief because of the vibrant and shimmering swirls of color he sees illuminating from Gaia.


PHOOM!


Instantly, a transparent energy field surrounds the entire island, producing an atmospheric vacuum similar to what Gaia used to protect


340 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


her escorts before the gateway tunnels. Pressure from within the vac- uum silences the thunderous sounds of the tidal wave and Redwood Falls. All moisture and high winds are eliminated as well, drying the island and its guests. The only sounds that break the silence are Syrus' faint, eerie wails from below ground.


"Look!" shouts Taggart aghast, falling backwards onto the sand. Everyone takes a deep breath in anticipation of what is about to happen. Merton closes his eyes and nestles his head in his father's chest.


HMMM RMMM! HMMM RMMM! HMMM RMMM!


Intensely deep sonic vibrations sweep through the island the moment the gigantic wave slams into the energy field and rises up and over their position on the beach. For the brief period of time the island is sub- merged, flashes of indigo and violet shoot across the transparent field's surface like discharges in an electrical storm. Moments after the tidal wave engulfs the small island, millions of tons of water pour over the sides of the underworld's largest lake and surge into the valleys below.


"We're not in danger! We're not going to drown!" cries Taggart ju- bilantly, kicking his feet in the sand. "I'm going to live!"


"Calm down," responds Ojeda. "We can hear you."


"Syrus can hear you," adds Kunziah, twisting a portion of his wing in his ear.


Gaia opens her rear eyelids and resumes her conversation with Grog and Merton. The atmospheric vacuum surrounding the island is instantly broken. Humidity and the sounds of gushing water permeate the air. Between the demise of Syrus and his army and the impact of the eruption from within the lake the insect world is abuzz with chatter.


"Grog is sorry about having to leave the battle before it ended," he says, with Merton beneath his chest. "However, from what Grog can see and hear, it is clear that Syrus is insect fodder, Merton is in hoppity- jumpity spirits, and my fellow Kwak'walans owe you a mountain of gratitude. Grog will forever be thankful, my liege."


341 Evergreen



"Me too," adds Merton gratefully. He turns to his father and says, "Dad, you should have s-seen how Gaia squashed Syrus into the g- ground!"


"Yeah, like a tiny bug," Taggart comments from a short distance away.


THUMP!


"OUCH! What'd I say?" moans Taggart painfully, his charred head the only body part not buried in the sand. "So, what, the goofy looking butterfly is the only one who can crack jokes? Okay, I didn't know that."


"Pardon me," interrupts Wiley, flying above the group, his feathers noticeably flustered. He circles once and lands between Gaia and Grog. "I visited the site of the eruption at the bottom of the lake," he states, facing Gaia and clearly out of breath. "There's something down there I think you ought to see."


"Wow! You can t-travel underwater?" asks Merton, eyeing the large owl doubtfully but impressed with the possibility. "You must have s-special power to ­" He stops in mid-sentence and gazes out be- yond Wiley and Gaia, shocked and confused. Slowly, he moves away from his father and walks to the shoreline next to Ojeda. "Oh my," comments Merton, as if in a trance. He is greeted with a nervous smile. Ojeda and his companions stand at the island's edge and look down. "Oh my," he repeats. The largest lake in the underworld is empty.


Mud, algae, broken stalks of kelp, and slimy rock formations of varying height are all that they see surrounding the small island. On closer inspec- tion, millions of life forms flop about, hoping to make their way to water- filled crevices. Some creatures, mainly the smaller ones, are successful. Most exhaust their supply of air and energy and slip into a fatal stillness. The mass of insects circling overhead and those standing at the shore's edge bear witness to yet another unimaginable sight on this fateful day.


Merton turns to Gaia as she and Grog approach the shoreline. "Did you do this?" he asks.


"Grog thinks you should be mindful of your place and not ­" He pauses, recalling an earlier conversation in which Gaia encouraged the


342 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


pursuit of truth. He then looks out across the vast, damp space that once fed into countless streams throughout his world. "Never mind," he says uneasily.


"No, little one," replies Gaia in a deep but gentle voice. "I did not cause this to happen. Yet, like many events that have occurred around me since yesterday's journey began, I feel responsible. This must be connected to me in some way."


Wiley rolls his eyes as he preens his feathers. "That's what I've been trying to tell you," he says, lifting his head a tad ruffled. "We ha- ven't much time. Would you please follow me?" Wiley flaps his wings and lifts off the shoreline. "Hurry!" he shouts from well above the group and swoops down into the darkness. Munyo and Kunziah are quick to follow, but Ojeda and Tepetu await movement from Gaia.


BOING! "Can-I-go, t-too?" hollers Merton impatiently, at the peak of his leap. He lands in front of Gaia. "Please, can I?" he asks again, skittering about in the sand.


Gaia waits for Grog's response. "Go ahead, son," he replies. "Grog will wait here for your return. The crispy head in the sand can use Grog's company." Uneasily, he hops over to Syrus' burial site. Muted sounds of ghastly moans continue. He returns to Gaia and anxiously adds, "Grog would appreciate it if you hurry back, though."


Gaia nods once in response. "Climb aboard," she orders. "We do not want to keep Wiley or your father waiting, do we?"


BOING! "Why? I-wonder-what's-the-hurry?" He lands on Gaia's nape and settles securely behind her rear set of eyes. "Maybe there's more n-nasty bad guys down there," says the young grasshopper, clear- ly unafraid of the prospect. Gaia raises both sets of wings, leans forward and is airborne.


"Let's hope no one is down there," remarks Tepetu to Ojeda. "I don't need any more surprises." They spread their wings and gracefully lift off the shoreline.


For Merton, the experience of flying on the back of an enchanted reptilian insect above the bottom of an empty lake surrounded by Wiley


343 Evergreen


and four regal friends is overwhelming. "Whoa," he comments quietly. "This is incredible ­ chirp! I wish my friends c-could see me."


A funny expression appears on Gaia, like her inner child just sur- faced. "Let's make it so," she says with a smile.


"Really?" gasps Merton, stunned and delighted.


Gaia veers to the right in the direction of Setamina Pass. Members of the group observe the sudden change in course and are confused.


"Oh no," Wiley grumbles to himself. "Where are you going, now? We're almost there." He glances at the location of the blast off in the distance. "We haven't much time!" he shouts.


"Once around the block!" she responds loudly, with a double wink. "We'll catch up with you!"


"Yeah, once around the b-block, Mr. Wiley," echoes Merton. "We'll s-see you soon!" His beaming face helps Gaia's companions understand why she took a last-minute detour. It doesn't take long be- fore they clear the edge of what is now the largest cavity of mud in the underworld and are out of sight.


Wiley points his right wing at a massive rock formation lying at the lowest point among the lake's beds. "We need to land down there," he says, circling the group. "That's where the explosion took place. We should find a spot near that wide, blown-away section. The one that looks like the tip of a volcano."


"Volcano?" replies Tepetu nervously.


"You land, fluffy," says Kunziah, fluttering in place. "We'll wait up here for Gaia."


The venerable owl circles the group once more. "What happened to the four brave escorts I met?" he probes. Though Wiley presents a sensible question, no answer is provided, not even eye contact. "If you join me on the surface," he follows, "I'll explain why time is our enemy."


"Promise there won't be any more booms or bangs?" asks Munyo.


"I promise, not even a twitter," replies Wiley over his shoulder as he descends into a dark, murky stone formation.


344 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



"A twitter I can handle," grumbles Ojeda. "It's those tidal waves I can do without."


Moments later the group comes to rest on the mucky surface of several long, flat rocks elevated above the bottom of the lake. Below and to the right of their position is a bottomless crater produced by the force of the explosion. While its depth is unknown, the width of the irregular mud and stone opening is nearly sixty feet and dwindling at a rate of about five feet per minute.


"The rock is shifting!" shouts Tepetu the second she lands. Shaken and more than a little skittish about the location, she takes flight. All but Wiley instantly follow her lead. They hover just above the sagely owl and eagerly await an explanation. "You said there's no danger," she adds angrily. "Well?"


"The reason for the ground movement is simple, my jumpy friends," says Wiley. "Look carefully at Mesequoya's limb and tell me what you see." The butterflies turn in place and gaze at the wondrous sight. After several seconds of study, their silence is broken.


"An endless food supply for termites?" quips Kunziah.


"Who Hooo!" chortles Wiley. "That's a good one. No."


"A miraculous waterfall," states Tepetu, amazed at the way beams of amber light radiate onto gushing streams of water that divide at vari- ous branches and cascade down behind the island.


Wiley's bushy eyebrows rise at the center. "Miraculous, indeed," he replies. "In spite of what just happened to the lake, water will appear once again as it has for ages, filling every crevice it flows into along the way. It's just a matter of time before the lake is replenished and spills over into the narrow brooks that nourish the vegetation and ­"


"­ You're rambling," interrupts Munyo. "Please get to the point."


"Oh, yes," responds Wiley, clearing his throat. "As you know, an enormous eruption blew open this hole at the base of the lake. This, my colorful friends, is no ordinary hole, oh no." Wiley puts his left wing up to his ear. "If you listen closely, you can hear the wind howling in its depths. When I flew over it a short time ago, I was most curious about


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the wind's origin, especially way down here. So I followed my instincts and investigated it. That's when I discovered a chamber. Well, techni- cally, it's not so much a chamber because it is not fully enclosed ­"


"­ Wiley!" shouts the group impatiently.


"Oh, hmm. Yes, to the point," he stammers. "It's a behemoth of a passageway. I don't know how long it is or where it leads, but it must stretch forever because it swallowed this lake in less than a minute. I found only traces of water and a few locals flopping about."


"What are you saying?" asks Munyo cynically.


"A rift has been created between this world and one that lies be- low," he responds. "And the rift won't last long."


No longer sensing peril, Tepetu lands on the muddy stone surface for a second time. Ojeda and Kunziah do the same, but Munyo remains above the group.


"A dandy story," he remarks, "but what does it have to do with the waterfall or shifting ground?"


"Even you should be able to figure that out," simpers Tepetu. "The movement is because the water flowing from Redwood Falls into this lake bed has caused the ground around us to soften."


"Yeah, land on it and take a few steps," gibes Ojeda. "Show us how soft it is."


Wiley turns to Tepetu. "You're right, of course," he says. "The lake above gives life to this world. Already water from the falls seeps into the muddy lining of the hole and begins to fill nearby crevices. Soon the lining will close in on itself and the passage below will no longer be accessible."


"Accessible?" questions Munyo. "Besides you, who in their right mind would choose to go down there?"


"Actually, that would be me," says Gaia, hovering quietly above the group. She and Merton descend slowly and land on a large rock forma- tion near her companions. Her weight causes the flat stone mass to settle deep in the mud with a long, hitch-pitched squish.


"What m-makes you think this is your exit?" asks Merton in a sad, shaky voice. Though the young grasshopper has dreaded Gaia's depar-


346 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


ture from the moment they met near the tunnel entrance, the unex- pected dialogue amplifies his sorrow.


Sensing Merton's distress, Gaia raises and angles her rear set of eyes to look directly at him. She sees his tears and feels his antennae gently tapping and caressing her scaled, leathery nape.


Kunziah turns to Ojeda and whispers, "I didn't know she could do that." He is promptly shushed by Tepetu, who rests on the same flat stone several feet away.


Gaia places one of her tall, feather-like antennae under his silvery chin and lifts his head slightly. As soon as his eyes meet hers, she fond- ly states, "Sometimes you see a path and just know it's yours to take, little one. The windy path Wiley visited is, in fact, a hollow root that died long ago. It grew over many hundreds of centuries from the same redwood that gave your world a single branch."


"You mean that is a branch of a tree?" asks Merton, gazing in awe at Redwood Falls.


Gaia nods her head. "The large root below us, like many others be- neath the land, died after the great redwood plummeted into the sea. Now that the entrance to the passageway is revealed, it is time for me to move on."


"Time that is nearing an end, if you don't act quickly," urges Wiley. "You should leave now to ensure adequate clearance deep within the rift."


"A few stones and a little mud won't stop Gaia from reaching the entrance to the root," states Ojeda confidently.


"A mountain of stone and mud won't do it, either," quips Munyo.


"Wiley, you of all creatures should know that I do not plan to con- tinue my journey without saying goodbye to Grog. He expects me to return his son, and I will not disappoint him. I promise," vows Gaia, "I will not be late for a journey that I am destined to travel."


"Are you d-destined to succeed, too?" asks Merton, straightforward and teary-eyed. Astonished, everyone shifts their attention to the young grasshopper. For the moment, even Kunziah is speechless.


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Gaia smiles, nods slowly and winks both right eyes in response to the honest but frank question. "Now, let's go see your father," she says, with both sets of wings outstretched. She and Merton lift off the large, muddy stone surface to begin their brief journey back to the island. As if on cue, Wiley flaps his wings to do the same.


A few seconds into Gaia's flight, Kunziah decides to reflect on Merton's recent conduct from their position on the muddy stone sur- face. "You know," he says, watching Gaia and her tiny passenger shrink in the distant sky, "the only thing more annoying than that kid's weepy, wide-eyed candor is his nerve to continue to use it."


"Shhh!" replies Tepetu disapprovingly.


"What? You think they heard me?" he responds smugly.


"I did," whispers a deep, familiar voice swirling around him like a disembodied spirit.


"WHOA!" SPLAT!


Spooked by the unexpected ghostlike exchange, Kunziah loses his footing and slips, face-first, into several inches of mud. Embarrassed, he eyes his friends from the cold murky surface and cracks an awk- ward smile. Witnessing the scene from only a few feet away, Munyo laughs so hard that he too loses his footing and falls into the mud. Un- affected and dry, their friends simply shake their heads in disbelief. Once Kunziah and Munyo gain their balance, they plod through the mud to a shallow pool of rising water nearby and begin to cleanse themselves.


"Have the two of you had your fun rollicking in the mud?" asks Ojeda in a snit. "Because it's time to go."


"I'm not sure," snickers Kunziah. He turns to Munyo and flicks him in the chin with a clod of mud. "Are we having fun yet?"


Munyo laughs heartily, splashing water over the trickling glob, and replies, "Not sure either, but I've got a feeling I know who's having the best laugh of all."


Quite a distance away, Merton taps on Gaia's nape, without a re- sponse. He does so again. Finally, after repeated efforts, he leans over


348 Battle Beneath Lake Augur


her left rear eye. "What's so funny?" he asks, gazing curiously at his own reflection. Clearly amused, she ignores his question and continues to chuckle to herself. He shrugs his shoulders and leans back to enjoy the remainder of the ride.


From the edge of the shoreline, Grog leaps in the air. "There they are! They've returned!" he shouts, landing near Taggart's darkened, featherless head in the soft sand. He squints for a better view. "Grog can see Gaia," he states. "Grog cannot see Merton, though. Perhaps he's behind her large and kind-of scary head. Oh, and that fluffy, fun- ny-looking bird who likes to talk is with them, too."


"Ugh," moans Taggart, looking away from the shoreline and trying to ignore Syrus' muted wails off in the distance. He rests his chin on the sand and closes his eyes. "I rate that newsflash up there with the coming of the plague. Pardon me if I don't get all goose-pimply."


Grog turns and approaches Taggart. "You should not worry about suffering the same fate as your leader," he says sociably. "If Grog has learned anything about Gaia, it is that she uses her powers wisely against those who threaten animate life for selfish gain." He weighs the tight spot Taggart is in and says, "Grog does not think you are in a po- sition to do any more threatening, do you?"


Judging the answer to the question to be painfully obvious, Taggart lifts his head, stares at the large, silvery grasshopper and says nothing.


"Well," Grog continues, "just remain low and see what happens."


"Like I have a choice," he grumbles.


Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!


Strong gusts begin to pick up near the shoreline. The sudden burst of wind catches Grog off guard. He quickly grasps Taggart's neck with his two front legs to keep from blowing away.


"Is ... this ... necessary?" strains Taggart amid the stinging sand.


Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!


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An intense surge of air lifts Grog's hind legs off the ground just as Gaia lands with a giant thud. His metallic body drops onto the sand at the same time Taggart lets out a wheeze and several painful coughs.


BOING! "Dad!" shouts Merton in mid-air. He lands next to his fa- ther's position. They greet one another with a warm embrace and walk toward Gaia. "You'll n-never guess what Gaia found at the b-bottom of the lake," he says, excited by the experience.


Grog studies his son's expression and then gazes sadly at Gaia. She smiles at Grog and nods her head one time. "A way for my liege to leave our humble world, no doubt," Grog states humbly.


"How d-did you know?" wonders Merton. "Wait, you knew all along that's where we were going, d-didn't you? That's why you had that sappy l-look when we l-left."


Wiley swoops down from within a thicket of colorful trees familiar to the group and lands in the sand near Grog, Merton and Taggart. "Once Gaia emerged from stasis, young hopper, her prompt departure was a foregone conclusion," he says. "That is, until Syrus interfered and wreaked havoc on this world with his army of miscreants."


Angrily, Taggart recalls Wiley's disloyal, unpatriotic encounter with Syrus at his lair high above their home forest. "Shut up, you trai- torous scoundrel!" he blurts indignantly from the sandy surface. "Syrus should have finished you when he had the chance!"


Wiley conceals the emotional impact of Taggart's scathing remarks. Drawing strength from his keen intellect, he takes a deep breath and looks up. With a gentle smile, he observes how magnificent it looks when water cascades through the sunlit amber onto Mesequoya's limb. "For generations to come," he comments tactfully, "the fierce war val- iantly fought today and decisively won will be known as the Battle Beneath Lake Augur. It will not be the last battle, oh no. It is one of many to involve Gaia in one form or another across the land. I only wish I could be there to witness her adventures and see firsthand the benefits they entail."


350 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



"Thank you, Wiley ­"


"­ I'm not quite finished yet," replies Wiley.


"Ugh," groans Taggart, inches above the ground. "More treacher- ous drivel from a ­"


THUMP!


All that remains is an impact circle in the sand.


Grog gently shakes his head and lowers his antennae in disap- pointment. "Grog guesses it's true," he says. "A leopard beetle can't change its spots."


Wiley clears his throat and picks up where he left off. "As I said, I wish I could accompany you on your journey, but, quite frankly, I am not sure you need an old sidekick with more than a touch of arthritis," he notes, rubbing his hip. "No, instead, I will remain here and offer my considerable diplomatic services to the Kwak'walans. There are many factions that can use my help. Besides, who better than I to educate fu- ture generations about Gaia and today's historic battle?"


"And what `Lake Augur' is," adds Merton puzzled. "Mr. Wiley, s- sir, can I help you to d-do what you ... do?" he asks, mindful and sin- cere. "I think I'd m-make a great translator."


"Hmm," ponders the sagely owl, scratching his fluffy chin. A wide- eyed grin appears after a moment's reflection. "But of course!" he hoots, eager at the prospect. "I can always use a savvy assistant on the road to making peace." Wiley turns to Gaia. "Especially since there are no maps down here," he whispers, covering his small mouth.


Gaia nods and says, "The two of you will make a fine team."


"But only after Merton completes his homework and does his chores," interjects Grog. "We wouldn't want to show any favoritism with your twenty-three brothers and sisters, would we?"


"And I thought butterflies lived in large families," sniggers Ojeda, crossing over the shore's edge with Tepetu by his side. "Hello again," he adds, glancing at his friends on the beach. Approaching from behind in a far-from-perfect flight path, Kunziah and Munyo wobble back and forth in their descent to the island.


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"Never mind the village idiots back there," says Tepetu, half- annoyed and half-amused. "They're still not quite fully dry from their romp in the mud."


"I wonder what caused that to happen," simpers Gaia. Ojeda and Tepetu land gracefully by the group on the shoreline. However, the ex- tra moisture causes Munyo and Kunziah to hit the sand much harder than usual.


"For butterflies, you two seem pretty clumsy," responds Wiley to the awkward landing.


"Who Hooo!" replies Kunziah sarcastically. "You fly wet, you old far ­"


"­ Friends," interrupts Gaia, "the time has come for me to say good- bye and continue my journey." She moves her upper set of wings toward Wiley and Grog, who stand before her. The wings shimmer in the ambient light and begin to radiate in twirling patterns of white, teal and gold as they unfold. She drapes them behind her two friends, gently touching their heads and stroking their backs. The luminescent colors dance on Wiley's light feathers and reflect off Grog's shiny, plated armor like a neon sign. Merton rushes behind Grog to work his way underneath his hind quarters and snuggle up against his chest. He, too, becomes captivated by the sight. "You are both kind and thoughtful," she says graciously. "I will sorely miss your good company and the wisdom and strength each of you impart to those around you. I will carry your friendship with me wherever I go."


"Thank you, my liege," says Grog, nearly in a trance. He shakes his head to break loose from the daze and adds, "Ditto," with a smile. "Once we rebuild, Grog will see to it that Mr. Wiley is introduced to the neediest of warring colonies. From experience, there are quite a few, so he will not soon tire." Grog's tough outer appearance begins to falter. His metallic head and silvery antennae lower enough to block his son from viewing Gaia in these final moments. Merton leans to the left to peek out. Grog inhales deeply and exhales slowly. "On behalf of all Kwak'walans," he proudly states, "it is with great joy and heartfelt sorrow that we bid you farewell so you can continue on your historic journey."


352 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



Caught up in the emotion, Wiley thrusts his right wing in the air and shouts, "Give `em hell! Oh, hmm, sorry," he stammers, embar- rassed at being out of character. "At the risk of sounding like a pathetic old coot, I hope that someday you will return." His serious expression quickly turns into a near-comical beam. "And when you do, it will be a great day! We will relax under a large tree, and you will recount the times that have passed since you left this world. You will say `I re- member the time when,' and I'll laugh and cry and be amazed. Then I will pass on the stories, and soon all of Kwak'wala will learn of your heroic adventures. Oh I do hope you will return."


"You will come back someday, won't you?" pleads Merton from below his father's chest. "I don't want t-time to go on for so long that I forget what you look like. Please, don't let us become strangers."


Gaia lifts her wings from around Wiley and Grog and takes two gi- ant steps backwards. The tip of her long, forked tail dallies above the pockets of rising water well below the shoreline. "Approach me, little one," she asks in a tone that is warm and inviting.


Merton slowly emerges from beneath his father. He crosses into Gaia's shadow as if he's on a gangplank, trying to delay the inevitable. "Two plus three is five. Two plus four is six. I will not cry. I will not cry," he thinks privately. Finally, he stands under her massive chest and muscular legs and looks straight up. "Uh huh," he whimpers.


Gaia reaches down and carefully lifts Merton off the ground. His ti- ny, silvery hind legs dangling, she gently hands him off to her upper pair of legs that elevate him high above the group. Within seconds he rises past Gaia's neck to the lowest part of her monstrous, oblong- shaped head. From the jaw-dropping look on Merton's face, it is clear he is no longer focused on her departure. Just above her deep, angular jaw, he examines a thick, drawn-out layer of leathery skin that extends like a trunk down over her mouth. Its outer surface is lined with a swath of small triangular plates like those found along the crest of her tail.


"Is that your n-nose?" asks Merton curiously. "It kind of l-looks like a nose."


353 Evergreen



The sides of Gaia's jaw rise to expose a smile laden with an arsenal of razor-sharp teeth, including enormous upper and lower fangs. "Yes and no, little one," she replies. "I can breathe through it, should I choose to do so." She raises Merton slightly and places its firm, flat- tened tip on his shiny underbelly. A brief suction-like sniff bonds the two together in an airtight seal. She releases Merton from her grasp and lifts him high in the air.


"WOW!" he shouts, giggling and swaying back and forth well above his father and friends. Seconds later he returns to Gaia's grasp, still sniggering from the ticklish experience.


"It provides no true sense of smell, though," Gaia continues. "For that I rely on my antennae. They do much more than detect foot fungus among centipedes."


Merton laughs, motioning his own pair in plain view. "Those don't l-look like antennae," he observes. "See, look at mine. Yours l-look like a big pair of horn-shaped bird feathers."


Gaia runs the long, fibrous edge of her right antenna across his face. "Perhaps," she says amid the cackles, "but I can detect any changes in liquid, solid or gas within twenty miles."


"Really? Any changes?" asks Kunziah, standing among his friends near the shoreline. "You mean you can sense when a bird changes di- rection twenty miles from here?"


"Almost as keenly as when a large butterfly passes wind six paces away," she smirks, to his embarrassment. Munyo and Tepetu look askance at Kunziah and move a few steps away from his side. Gaia stops tickling Merton with her antennae fibers and looks straight into his eyes. "Do you think you have an adequate memory picture of me, little one?"


"Like it's etched in stone," he replies, transfixed with a wide grin.


"Good, because I too would not want you to forget what I look like," she responds inches from his face. "You know," she adds, "I think I will miss you most of all. You have enabled me to put a face on what it is that we stand to lose. To me, you symbolize why all animate life must be free and why my journey is essential."


354 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



"So, I'm a symbol?"


"Indeed, a symbol you are."


"And that's a good thing, right?"


"Yes," she replies, nodding her head, "that's a good thing." Gaia leans over and places Merton on the sand next to his father. "Goodbye, my friends," she says with adoration, staring into the eyes of Wiley, Grog and Merton one at a time.


Gaia turns toward the shoreline, raises and unfolds both sets of wings and flaps them twice. To their amazement, her immense body gracefully lifts off the shoreline, her lengthy plated tail whipping and flicking the sand before it snaps into the air and flows behind, parallel to the ground. Along the shoreline, her four companions are shocked and saddened.


"I don't understand," says Ojeda. "How can she leave without say- ing goodbye?"


"Maybe it's something we did or said," surmises Tepetu. "We were a bit irreverent towards the end."


"Huh?" replies Munyo. "What does that mean?"


"We weren't always in our place," she adds. "You know, respectful of her authority."


"We did everything she asked right from the start," snaps Kunziah. "Besides, Gaia doesn't want us to be goose-stepping followers who blindly await orders. She wants free-thinkers like Merton who under- stand the rules and make life interesting."


"Well said," swirls a familiar voice.


"I told you," Kunziah says smugly out of the side of his mouth. He looks out across the partially filled lake and sees Gaia veering to the left on a return heading that would take her around the small island.


"Please, follow me," whispers the disembodied voice.


Their response is immediate. The four companions meet up with Gaia moments later, excited to be flying at her side one last time. They follow her lead and begin their descent as they approach the far side of the island. Once past the thick line of shrubs and tall trees, they come to


355 Evergreen


an abrupt stop with their mouths agape. Fluttering in place, they are stunned at what they see.


"With the others I have discovered the bonds of lasting friendship," says Gaia, circling the group. "As important as that is, with each of you I have found more. I have discovered deep affection, a sense of belong- ing and joy."


"You mean love," says Tepetu. "Don't you?"


"If love means that each of you has won my heart, then yes. Until now, my love has not been shown. These are my gifts to you," she says dearly.


From all points north to south, the shoreline facing Redwood Falls is covered in giant butterfly bushes. Clusters of yellow, purple and white petals range in size from five to ten feet long. Their aroma is thick and intoxicating. A steady mist from the giant waterfall and am- bient light from above provide an idyllic location for these bushes to flourish for generations.


"We can handle it from here," Kunziah quips with a wink and a smile, "right, boys?" His two friends nod in agreement. Together they descend to their newfound Garden of Eden.


Tepetu gazes at her companions with a sparkle in her eyes. "Yes, Gaia, I think they're right," she snickers, heading down to the island.


"Goodbye," Gaia whispers in the ears of the only family she knows, "and good luck." With those words, she glides across the small island in the direction of the collapsing entrance to Mesequoya's root.


Merton sees her sail by directly overhead. "Goodbye! Don't be a stranger!" he hollers with a thin grin. "Please?" His smile gives way to sorrow. Tears well at the base of his large oval eyes. He realizes that the work of Gaia's four companions and his father is finished. In the distance, he sees both sets of Gaia's immense leathery wings rise and fall in unison and her long, plated tail flow parallel to the ground.


As if to provide a final farewell, she offers one last prominent hale that echoes throughout the underworld. A rousing and appreciative send-off builds in response from the Kwak'walans as Gaia glides farther away from the island and begins her descent to the bottom of the empty lake.


356 Battle Beneath Lake Augur



Merton's silvery head bows and two shiny antennae droop. For comfort and security, he rubs up against his father's chest. "Don't be a stranger," he repeats quietly. Merton looks out across the rising water for one last glimpse of his friend. The dissonant chorus gains in strength throughout the underworld. Gaia circles once around the rift and slips into its murky depths out of sight.


A hundred miles west of Lake Augur, just below the surface of the land, a tall, slender man with a blood-soaked cloth draped across his face and forehead weeps semi-consciously. In between the gibberish that spews from his mouth, every so often he mutters, "Don't be ... a stranger." The middle-aged man rests face up on a well-quilted wood- en floor of a hut made from petrified root fibers and mud. Underneath his head is a thinly netted bag filled with colorful feathers. In addition to the stained cloth bandage, he wears only a small beige wrap around his waist. The man is nestled deep within a two-hundred-foot-wide redwood knot that once belonged to Mesequoya's largest underground root system west of the Grand Divide. Delirious and sweaty, he rambles further and repeats the phrase, "Don't be ... a stranger."


Several feet away, a large, heavy-set medicine man watches his pa- tient stir. Throughout the primitive hut are signs of his mystical healing practice: bowls of various sizes containing substances already crushed or ground with the flat end of shortened clubs; mummified animals hanging from the ceiling and similar animals with missing body parts de-mummified on a flat surface; razor-sharp tools forged from petrified wood; a medium-sized cauldron made from the shell of a giant red- wood seed; and, hanging from the medicine man's suede serape, a dozen small pouches, five ceremonial shakers in different sizes and other symbols of his magical art.


Prompted by the sudden clarity in his patient's speech, the special tribesman glances at a long wooden scepter that leans up against the side of the hut. At the top of the scepter is an ornate, seed-shaped cere- monial shaker that is tightly mounted with twine and amber. It is much


357 Evergreen


larger than those hanging from his serape. The mystic healer takes a deep, heavy-hearted breath. He reaches for the scepter and stands.


"Please! Don't let us become strangers!" shouts the slender man in a strong voice from underneath the cloth. The contents of his dream force his eyes wide open. Shocked and confused, he quickly pulls off the blood-stained cloth that covers his head and sits up. Everything around him is blurry. Instantly, he feels pain throughout his body, espe- cially in his shoulder, forehead and throat. He places his right hand on his head and feels a warm wetness. Curious, he tries to look at his hand but sees only a fuzzy, pasty red substance that doesn't quite register. Seconds later his vision and understanding become as clear as the coat of blood on his hand. With the sound of movement behind him, he real- izes someone else is in the hut.


"My name is ... Niles," he states, carefully massaging his head. "Who's there?" Slowly, he turns toward the sounds. At once he winces and angles both arms above his head for protection. Standing over him is the medicine man, seething, with a scared look in his eyes as if he's compelled to act.


"Alak'aluf! Alak'alee!" chants the medicine man, violently thrust- ing and shaking his scepter at Niles. "No ghost from the past will be our deliverer!" he yells scornfully. Hands trembling and holding on tight, he raises the wooden scepter high above Niles and prepares to strike.




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