By Mark Pantoja

People most in need, need the most help, my father used to say. That’s what I thought when I saw the Corporate bleeding on my porch that night. I gave it a soft kick. It didn’t move, just lay broken in the firelight coming through my front door. But something moved inside the wound in its something. Way down inside. A tree root. It shied away from the light and dug itself deeper into the Corporate’s meat. Marija and Cadia stood on either side of the body they’d dragged up onto my porch from the forest.

“Alive?” I said though I knew it probably was. I’d grown up listening to the oldtimers’ stories about fighting the Corporates. Father used to tell me and Milio stories about the Corporates running into oncoming fire as they jumped off their dropships. Said they wouldn’t go down so easy and had to shoot off their arms and legs. And still they’d try to bite you if you got too close.

“Ayo,” Marija said. “It breathes.” She knelt down next to the offworlder. Watery blood seeped out from cracks in the armor. It smelled like moist, like meat. Marija pulled the Corp’s face-plate up. She put her crystal-faced watch near the soldier’s nose. It huffed up, ever so little, but it huffed up.

“See?” Marija said.

“Ayo,” I said. I got down close and looked at the root. It had twisted itself into an overhand knot. Which was no good. They’re covered in a thick mucus and once they worked themselves into an overhand knot it was just about impossible to get a grip on them. “Why bring this to me?”

Marija and Cadia looked at each other and then Cadia said, “It told us if we helped it–”

“You spoke to it?” I said.

“Ayo,” Cadia said.

I shook my head. “What about? A reward? How you going to spend it after the hill boys string you up once they hear you’re rich? You think they won’t notice?”

“We can take it back,” Marija said. “Leave it in the forest. The trees will eat it.”

“Use your head, Marija,” I said. “You say you talked to it? It knows what you look like? What happens if the boys find it and it starts talking about you? Or worse, it survives. Then, what, it’ll come after you for breach of contract, take everything you own.”

“They already have everything I own,” Marija said.

“Then it’ll bury your whole family in debt.” I chewed my bottom lip.

Right then, I had to assume everybody knew. About Marija and Cadia and the Corporate and them bringing it to my shack. Killing it wouldn’t stop the hill boys from stringing us up. Not bringing it to the boys first was a death sentence, especially for me. No way my brother Milio could let a traitorous sister live.

And if the Corporation knew we had it, killing it now would damn us all to generations of debt and servitude for destruction of stolen property. The only move we had was to cut a deal that would protect us. And for that, we needed it to keep breathing.

“We have to save it,” I said. “So let’s drown out that root.”

I pulled the big tub out into the center of my shack.

My place was pretty small, but it was mine. That and the ten acres of land that I managed to hold on to. The Corporation took most of the rest after the banks collapsed, along with the tractors and robots. Just a humble little shack. Fireplace, kerosene stove, and loft bed. The fireplace is for burning trash and fuel-logs the Land Trust doles out during winter.

Marija hefted the Corporate up and inside the tub.

It was small. Looked like a child in her arms, but for its tactical armor.

Marija was strong from years in the middens and quarries with nothing but pick-ax and shovel to mine pot-coal. And she’d taken on the look of her work. Thick neck, round shoulders, swollen arms. She could bust open as many seams of pot-coal as a man. And on days when she wasn’t hung over, she could bust more. But those days were rare.

There was not time to heat the water, so it was a cold bath for the Corporate. Figured that was the least of its worries. Plus, fuck it. Save it we might, but no reason to make it comfortable. We rinsed it of blood and mud and grime and then filled the tub with salted-water, you know, to clean the wound some.

Cadia cradled the Soldier’s head from the water. It was murky, but I could see little stalks start to rise out of the wound, reaching for the surface and fresh air. I snipped them with a pair of garden shears.

A dark lazy cloud of blood billowed out of the wound. I couldn’t really see anything so I just chopped up the water with the shears. Then the root unfurled itself and extended its main body out of the water. It was still anchored in the Corporate. I grabbed it with a pair of tongs but it thrashed and pulled the tongs into the water.

“Shit!” I said. “It’s gonna go back inside!”

Then Marija just grabbed it.

She got a good grip, and she squeezed it tight in her hand, thick slime squirting out from between her fingers. It shot out all of its needley stalks at once, turning Marija’s hand into a pin cushion.

She held still.

“Cut it,” she said in a flat voice, like it was no big deal.

I cut the root in half with the shears and blood-sap sprayed into the water.

Marija calmly got up and walked to the fire with the root embedded in her hand.

I turned back what was left inside and saw a few more stalks poke out of the water and snipped them. After a few seconds the other half of the root floated up to the surface. I splashed it out of the tub and Cadia stomped it.

I heard hissing and saw Marija at the fire place holding a bloody knife. Her hand was crimson, but empty and the root lay sizzling in the fire.

“Fuck,” I said.

“Ayo,” Marija said.

Cadia drained the tub, letting the water pour through the slatted floor, while I cleaned and dressed Marija’s hand.

After I was done she kept her hand raised up in the air.

“Nobody saw us,” she said. “We brought her the long way.”

“I think it’s a he,” Cadia said.

“Oh, yeah?” I said. “That what you think?” I went over to the Corporate and yanked open the front of its cod-piece. We all looked inside.

Marija swore and said: “I told you it was a girl.”

“That look like a girl to you?” I said. Where there’s usually genitalia there was nothing. Just a smooth mound with a tiny little pee-hole. No rod, no slit, nothing. “They ain’t like us. They ain’t man or woman. They ain’t human. They’re their own thing.”

“They really don’t have sex,” Marija said, as if this was the first she’d heard of this.

“Some do,” I said. “but not these. These birth in crèche-batches.” Each Corporation had their own propriety reproductive strategy, you know, to retain market share. DynaStar, Instlr, was one giant species spread out across the stars.

“Craziest thing I ever seen,” Cadia said. She was young. It’s crazy, don’t get me wrong, but not the craziest.

After all that, I needed a smoke. I retrieved my father’s pipe box from the shelf and sat down at my kitchen table (my only table) and opened it. Father had intended for Milio to have the pipe, but he wasn’t around when father died. He’d run off with a bunch of the other boys to act hero and get himself killed fighting the Corporates. So it was mine. I earned it. Just like the farm. I took care of it. It was mine.

I rubbed the pipe in the firelight. It was made of wood and ivory and polished warm from years of use. Course it wasn’t real ivory. Nor was it real wood. That’d be crazy expensive. All the real earth wood was grown in greenhouse forests run by Arbory, for terraforming. Rich folks got to use the “bad” wood that’s culled annually for houses and art and the like. Everyone else got to use local stone, mud, or cheap plastic.

That pipe was all native. The “wood” was bark-flesh, culled from the native forests while they slept, a desiccated keratinized flesh you could carve. The ivory was bone dug out of the forest middens, where the local trees deposited their refuse, bones and fur and teeth of small prey that wandered into their hungry branches. All the trees in an area deposited in the same midden for centuries.

“There’s no reward,” I said. “What you made with that thing was a contract. That’s how they do things. If you don’t follow through, you’ll be in breach. So, what did you agree to?”

“Well,” Marija said. “We didn’t get that far. Just said we would help, for a reward.”

I packed the pipe and lit it. I puffed it until it got going.

“Well,” I said. “Hopefully, that means the terms are negotiable. You sure no one saw you?”

Marija shook her head. “No one saw us.”

“Might could track you.”

“Track us?” Marija said with a laugh. It was true, she had good forest-feet. Her and Cadia both. Not like me and Milio, though. Father raised us as forest-kin. We could walk through a grimly.

“Exactly how was it you came across it?”

Cadia looked down. “I was out mushroom hunting.”

“Mushroom hunting?” I said. “Now? With the fighting and the forest agitated, you decide that now was a good time to go hunting for mushies?”

She didn’t respond. She was a kid. She’d snuck out to see the fighting. The hill boys had shot down a Corporate transport last night and were hunting down survivors.

I puffed my pipe and said: “They’re coming, mind you. It’s people. Have to deal with the boy’s rocket nests, but they’re coming. Probably carpet bomb the hills, then swarm in. But that ain’t happening for a few days. Maybe a week.” Took a puff. “You gotta trade with their kind. That’s the only way. They are their word, though they have forked tongues. There ain’t no reward, there ain’t no shares for this. Just survival. Ours. Get it to its people and out of our hair. That’s it. You better pray it survives and will trade.”

“We’ll trade,” said a thin voice from the tub. The Corporate had opened its glassy eyes and stared at us with its head lolled off to the side.

Marija stepped forward, knife at the ready.

“What, now you’re going to kill it?” I said. Marija looked at the knife, like she didn’t even know she held it. “Let’s hear it’s offer.”

“We can offer up to an equivalent of our own value.”

“And what is your value?” I said.

“Well, that remains negotiable,” it said with a bloody smile.

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You know the one about the farmer?

There’s this farmer, see, old coot, been working the land his whole life. One day this Corporate walks up and says, “Hey there! We want to buy all your goods!” Soy, corn, extract gluten, they want it all. The farmer, he’s old school, Trusty, doesn’t deal with Corporates. He says to it: “The only thing I’ll sell to you is my shit.” Corporate thinks about it for a second and says: “Agreed. But you can only sell to us and we want all your shit from here on out.” They offer the farmer one Point per shit. Farmer takes two to three shits a day, so he agrees. Easy money. He laughs every time he’s on the pot. All he has to do is put his droppings into little boxes the Corporation sends him. At first, it all works out great. Farmer puts each shit in a box and then he starts to think, you know, it doesn’t matter how big each dump is, a dump is a dump, so he puts one shit in two boxes and so on. You know, as one would. Then one day, in the middle of the hotmonths, the Corporation stops coming by to pick up the shits. Now, it’s like record heat those months and those little boxes they’re made of paper, so the farmer’s dumps start to stink up real bad. He calls the Corporation, no answer. So he tosses his dumps. Very next day, the Corporation shows up and starts going through the farmer’s shit. Audits his shit and find there’s shit missing. “Where’s the shit?” they ask. Farmer explains, “Hey, you didn’t pick up my shit, it started stinking, what am I supposed to do?” Corporate explains, as per the contract, that shit is their shit as soon as it leaves the farmer’s ass. There’s an accounting and farmer comes out owning a few Points. Sure enough the next week, nobody shows up to pick up his shit. He calls, he writes, he complains, but he knows better to throw his shit out cause it’s not his shit anymore, it’s their shit. Finally, the original Corporate shows up, the one the farmer dealt with the first time, and the farmer says to it: “Finally, you’re here. This place stinks! Take your shit outta here.” Corporate says to the farmer: “Well, now, that was never our contract. We said we’d buy your shit, but we never promised to pick it up.” The farmer screams. “What? Are you crazy? You gotta get this shit outta here.” Corporate thinks about it for a second and says: “Sure. We’ll haul your shit. For three Points per shit.”

That’s what I was thinking about when we were negotiating with the Corporate. It’s name was Gee En Three Dash Seven Dot El Kay Oh, Mid Level, Acquisitions Field Team. I called it Gen.

“Well, there’s real and actual value,” it said. It was trying to downplay what it was worth, of course. “Really, we have an opportunity to structure an earn-out, because your perceived valued is probably higher than the buyer’s budget.” It paused and caught its breath. Ironically, our oxygen rich air was harder for offworlders to breath. The extra oxygen and pressure actually made it harder for air to get into the blood and caused fluid to build in the lungs. Long ago, our ancestors tweaked themselves to breath the air. “Specifically,” the Corporate continued, “DynaStar Interstellar has an exact accounting of our worth–”

“What are you offering us to not kill you?” I said and puffed my pipe.

It smiled.

“See, now, that’s just not true,” it said. “You can’t kill us. Our people already know we’re here, that you’re helping us. Through our uplink.” It tapped the side of its head.

“Now, that’s just not true,” I said. “I know the boys can track you by your uplink. You wouldn’t be stupid enough to have it on right now.”

“Very smart,” it said. “Yes, and by boys we take it you mean the terrorists?”

“Trusties,” I said.

“Separatists,” Gen said, with a diplomatic tone. “It’s true, they can track us via the uplink, so we run black when we’re down here.”

“So then no one knows you’re here,” Marija said.

“Not exactly. See, when we die, we send out an emergency beacon, automatically. Since we haven’t released our final transmission our people know we’re still alive. And in the area. But kill us and they’ll know exactly where we’re at.”

No one said anything, just took this in.

“So, let’s not pretend anyone is killing anybody. You’ve already saved us, you’ve invested in us, why not see a return?”

“The only return you can offer us is privacy,” I said. “We can’t ever spend any money you give us.” I glanced over at Cadia. “The only thing you can do is keep our names, descriptions, locations, all personal information out of your Corporate databases. Forget about us.”

“Our mind is an extension of all–”

“Yeah, I know, I’ve heard that before. But you all have secrecy clauses. I know that.”

It thought for a moment. Data mining was a lucrative market for DynaStar. Hell, it could sell our names to the Land Trust or blackmail us. But if I could get it to promise us we would remain anonymous, we might be safe. “Agreed,” it said. “So, then you’ll hide us until our people–”

“No can do,” I said. “The hill boys are going to want every body that was on that transport. Living or dead. It’s only a matter of time before they start searching houses.”

“If we can contact our people safely, we can protect you,” the Corporate said.

“And what happens after you leave?”

“We can offer to move you to StarCity, get you employment in the Corporation–”

“Gen, friend, listen close. You ever suggest me or any of us joining up with your Corporation again, I’ll have Marija over there open up your stomach and I fill it with roots myself, emergency beacon or no.”

“It was only a suggest–”

“I’m an independent settler. My father was a member of the Land Trust. My mother, she was third generation settler. Her grandmother was in the original Landing Party and came here aboard the Esperanxa. I’ve fought your kind for years holding on to this miserable piece of dirt. I’m not going anywhere.”

“Understood,” Gen said.

It didn’t go unnoticed by me that Cadia perked up a bit at the suggestion of working for DynaStar, Instlr. Her family had lost everything. The only bright future that remained for some was working for the Corporations. They had all the nice things. They traveled the stars, which was glamorous to some. I didn’t get it though. Working for them was enslavement. Debt and wage enslavement. The only bright future I could see was kicking DynaStar off our miserable little mud-ball and back into the cold dark where they came.

“So, where does that leave us?” the Corporate asked.

I puffed my pipe and then said, “We kill you, we die. We stay here, we die. We only got one option. Get you to your people.”

“Where’s that?” Cadia said.

“There’s a Franchise office in Bug River Creek, three valleys east,” Marija said. “Get there in five days.”

“Then that’s where we’ll head,” I said. I looked at the Corporate. It nodded.

“Agreed,” it said. “Now, do you think one of you could help sew us up?”

People say all sorts of stuff about Corporates. Most of it superstitious lies, like they eat excrement or they’re telepathic or they bathe by licking each other. Anything to make them seem like boogeymen. They don’t seem to help it much cause they don’t ever deny anything.

Truth is they are different. Like how even deeply wounded Gen could walk around like nothing was wrong. Or its total lack of modesty. When we helped out of the tub and its broken armor, it didn’t even ask for anything to cover up, despite the chill.

It had an elfin little body. That’s the word for it. Elfin. It was thin and graceful and totally without gender. Flat chest and long neck and squarish hips. It moved delicately, but with precision.

It lay down and allowed Cadia to sew it up. It didn’t complain or even wince.

“Doesn’t that hurt?” I said as Cadia finished up.

“Of course,” it said.

“Doesn’t seem to slow you down any.”

“We’re just like you,” it said. “Only we compartmentalize better. The pain and the bleeding. Box it up, put it in the back of my mind. You wouldn’t have anything to eat, would you?”

And by anything, it meant anything. Fruit, nuts, rinds, yesterday’s chicken bones. It even asked for uncooked rice and raw flour. I gave it what I could. Wanted to see if it would really eat the flour. It did, licking its fingers clean.

“We leave first thing,” I said after giving it some farming clothes and a blanket for the corner near the fire.

“Understood,” it said, taking a pause between monster chugs of water.

“You’ll be ready?”

“We’ll have to be.”

I left it alone in the corner but gave Marija a little nod. She was on first watch. Last we thing we needed was for Gen to stumble out or run off and get caught and blab about our deal.

I sat at the table next to Cadia. “You round up all its stuff. Everything. Armor, clothes, anything you might have kept. You get all that stuff together and you take it and dump it in the forest on the other side of the hamlet. Take the long way, through the trees, past the Ruas’ farm. But be careful. Forest is agitated. I can hear it.”

She nodded.

“Now go. And get back here quick. Don’t let anyone see you.”

She started to gather up the bits of armor and plating.

“And, Cadia. No souvenirs.” She nodded and walked into the night.

divider

He smoked the same pipe-weed as father. And me. And I caught him on the wind as I was out back dumping breakfast scraps in the composter behind my shack.

When I got back round to the front my brother and three other hill boys were walking up to the porch. Milio stopped at the first step and the boys flanked out.

They were grubby, dirty, dressed in rags and tree leather. One of the boys rested the butt of his rifle on his hip.

The hill boys were a group of self-appointed militia. A gang, really, of young and old, men and women, the desperate and angry left in the wake of economic collapse of the takeover. They had nothing, no land, no money, nothing to lose.

Milio pulled his pipe out of his mouth and said, “Morning, Ro.” He smiled, but there was nothing behind it, nothing warm about him. He was wild, always was, eager to pull out his knife and stick someone.

I looked up and around, at the gray overcast sky, sun blocked by a heavy algae cloud. I made sure to drop the compost bucket with a bang and say a bit loudly: “What’s so good about it?”

“Didn’t say there was anything good about it,” Milio said. “Just said ‘morning.'”

“What do you want, Milio?” I asked.

“What? I can’t come and say ‘hi’ to my sister?”

“You were never the sentimental type.”

“Ha,” he said and looked down. Ground his boot into the grit on the step. “That’s true. Never was. I came to see what you heard.”

“About?”

“Bout the fighting down in the valley night before last.”

“Heard you shot down a transport.”

“Ayo, we did. We did at that. That all you heard?”

“Ayo,” I said.

“Didn’t hear anything else, like about someone helping out a survivor, a Corporate?”

“Nope,” I said.

“Just running the farm,” Milio said. “Just like pop, huh. Mind your own business, stay out of the fight.”

“Is there something you want?” I said.

“Idiots were flying so low, we had to shoot them down. Killed most onboard. Few got away, ran into the trees.” He chuckled. “Fools. Found most of them, or what was left of them. But one of them managed to make it out. We tracked it for a while and then boom, gone.”

“Guess they’re getting tricky.”

“It wasn’t a trick. Someone helped it. At least two of them, we think. They covered their tracks. Did a good job. Just not good enough.”

I was quiet, but inside I cursed Marija. Fucking Marija. She’s never as cautious as she thinks. Big galoot.

“You came here to tell me you lost the trail?”

“No, big sister. We didn’t lose the shiteater. It’s in this valley somewhere.”

“And you think I helped it? After everything they’ve done?”

“No. At least, I hope not. It’s just, people around here they look up to you. Come to you for advice. Maybe you heard something.”

“Nope,” I said. “Haven’t heard a thing. Been here all night. Marija and Cadia, too.”

“Marija and Cadia–” Milio cut himself off.

“We ain’t seen a thing. Ask them.” I opened the door and looked in. Marija and Cadia were both at the table, like they were in the middle of a conversation. I looked, but the Corporate out of sight. Those two had squirreled it away under the plastic floor slats. They came out onto the porch.

“You all’ve been here all night?” Milio said.

“Ayo,” Marija said. “We come to help Ro with her run.” That was the story we rehearsed.

Milio chewed his pipe and then spat. “What run?”

“Monthly run,” I said. “Seed, grain, fertilizer starter kit. Gotta get the soil ready. You forget how to farm?”

“So, then, you won’t mind if we take a look around?” Milio said. One of his boys, the scrawny one dressed leaf-skin gave an “ayo,” of impatience.

“I do mind,” I said, trying to sound merely annoyed. “I don’t have the time.”

“We’ll just be a second, sis.”

“I don’t think so. You got no right coming here after all this time. I stayed and I looked after the place, I get to say who comes in to my house.”

“I think I might have to insist.” He put his palm on the butt of his pistol and took a step up. One step away from me.

That’s why he was really there. To bully. That’s why he joined up with the hill boys in the first place. He was the same angry little boy with a hot temper and no control. So I had to treat him just like I did when we were little.

I head butted him. Right on the bridge of his nose.

He shrieked and his hands flew to his face. I took a step back and push-kicked him square in the gut. He sailed back and landed on his ass hard, in the mud. He crabwalked backwards and then got to his feet.

The boys guffawed.

He held the bridge of his nose. “Damn you, Ro,” he said. He was all clogged up and his voice muffled and thick. Father taught me a word for that: stomatolalia. Don’t get to use that much.

“I came to warn, you,” Milio said. “The trees are waking. The Corps woke a grimly.”

“Please. You come to play big man in front of your boys.”

He stared at me while the boys chuckled.

Then I saw his eyes. I saw his hand itching for his gun. He was about to reach for it.

And then Cadia said, “I seen something.”

“Quiet,” I hissed.

“What?” Milio said. “What’d you say?”

“The last night,” Cadia said. “On my way over. There was something in the forest, moving around.”

“A Corporate?” one of the boys said.

“No, I don’t know. I didn’t see much, but I think I saw some blue, plastic looking, like they wear.”

“Where?” Milio said.

“Past the Ruas. I can show you.”

“Yeah, you can. And you,” he said. “This ain’t over. I’ll be coming back.”

“I ain’t waiting around for you, Milio. Got a farm to run.”

“We’ll be talking,” he said. “Real soon.” He pointed at Cadia. “Let’s go.”

They moved off, the boys and Cadia.

Marija told me that she and Cadia had discussed her leading the boys off to where she stashed Gen’s armor while Milio and I talked.

It was smart. A good plan.

Still, watching Cadia go off with those boys left me worried. They had that look in their eye, the same that all boys had, man or woman. Angry hunger.

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We made good time on the trail to Bug River Creek. It was overcast and cold, as usual, but no storm sign.

We stayed as close to the creeks and rocky paths as we could to minimize our tracks and off the main road, but still out of the predatory forest. Marija brought up the rear, brushing the ground behind us of our tracks and sign, while I showed Gen how to walk in my steps.

It wasn’t enough.

Milio’d soon figure he was going down a cold trail. After Cadia led him to the armor the trail would grow cold and Milio come back looking this way, if he wasn’t already.

All we could do now was get this over with quick.

I was worried about how fast we could go, what with the corporate having such new tree feet and fresh lungs. But Gen kept up.

Corporates adapt quicklike. I could see it happening immediately. By the end of the first day, it was already faster, took bigger strides, adapted its breathing. Its back seemed straighter and shoulders a bit more pronounced.

Our meals were light, but it didn’t seem to bother Gen any. Nothing did.

It watched and learned. Everything here is poisonous to offworlders. That’s something the Corporates never respected. How much we changed ourselves to live here.

We earned this. We settlers. We adapted, injected ourselves with heritable modifications, learned to drink the toxic water and breath the rich air. Learned to refine tree-meat to make it edible. We were the ones who learned to cull the floating plankton and algae from the skies. We earned this planet.

The Corporates just showed up with the deed and brought everything they needed with them. All they did was take.

But now, the Corporate had to learn some respect.

Surface water being scarce as it is, we stopped at the first little tired puddle we found. Marija kept watched while I scooped up a cup of dark water and filtered it. Gen watched as I treated the water and seemed to appreciate my efforts when I handed it a clean cup of water.

We camped that night in a gully. Marija dug up a little berm around us. A little wall to protect us from slithering roots, the hungry young of the sleeping trees. The blind little critters turn around as soon as they encounter any obstruction.

We woke with the morning sun and I saw a thin column of smoke behind us.

Might could be farmer. But I knew it was Milio. They weren’t far behind.

By late morning we made it halfway up a little hill that led to a bigger hill that lead to a small ridge. We had a good look of the valley off to our left. It was thick with trees. You could hear their agitated whispers.

I kept glancing back behind us, so concerned about our pursuers that I came around a bend and stumbled right into view of a group of hill boys atop the ridge we were to ascend.

Gen was the one who stopped me, hand on my shoulder. “Who’s that?”

At top the ridge sat a little party of hill boys, their morning fire a lazy pillar in the overcast sky. I pulled Gen down behind a scratchweed bush.

Marija belly crawled up next to me with her binoculars out.

“Three of them,” she said and handed me the binoculars.

I brushed aside part of the scratchweed bush. I was too big for it to eat, so it was trying to sting me away. I ignored it, but its urdicating hairs caused me some welts later.

Through the binocs I saw three people, two men, one woman armed with rifles, milling about on top of the ridge in front of us, right smack between us and Bug River Creek. They were hill boys all right. Had that twitchy, hungry look.

“Coincidence?” Marija said.

“First thing Milio did was block the roads,” I said. “They’re out in the open. They want to be seen. They’re here to slow us down.”

“Can we go around?” Gen asked.

“Only way around is back the way we came,” I said. “Course, we turn around now and we’ll fall right into the arms of those following us. We’re pickled in.”

“Not necessarily,” Marija said. “You could cut straight down the hill.”

She was right. The hill was small and its face was broken sandstone. It was slippery and steep, but we could slide down quick and jump into the forest, the hungry forest. It was dangerous in there. Not so much for me, but for Gen. And we couldn’t do it unseen. I told Marija as much.

She squinted at the hill boys.

“Well,” she said. “I might could distract them. Walk right up to them and then break right. You guys go down the hill when they come after me. Meet up with you later.”

“And if they catch you?”

“What can they do?” Marija said. “I’m just on my way to Bug River Creek, picking up supplies like any old farmer. A Corporate you say? No, haven’t seen one.” She gave a toothy smile. “I’ll lead them off. Maybe even take those behind us.”

I didn’t like the idea of losing yet another friend. Or of jumping into the trees. But I couldn’t see any other way. And every moment we sat there, those chasing us were closing in.

I took one more look and then said. “Ayo. You might could. Okay.”

Her smile got bigger. “Let me get ready.”

She gave us her water and extra rations. More tea and oats. Got her pack light for running.

She squeezed my shoulder and wished me luck.

Gen and I watched from the bushes as Marija grew smaller until she went up the hill. She was bug-sized by the time she waved hello at the boys.

“Get ready,” I said to Gen. It checked its pack straps and got ready to bolt. “When she breaks right, we go.”

“Roger,” the Corporate said.

I took a deep breath and relaxed my muscles, getting ready to run.

Marija started to veer away from the group, as if to walk around them. I saw them stand up and point at her. Heard some distant shouting. She broke off into a run.

“Let’s go–” I said and Gen bolted, right when I heard a shot ring out.

When I looked, there was already a cloud of smoke, a few seconds older than the sound it made. But I didn’t see Marija. Anywhere.

Gen came back and grabbed. “We have to go. Come on.”

It yanked me hard, towards steepness.

We slid down the hillface, sandstone pebbles raining down around us. Anyone close enough would’ve seen the dust we kicked up. Nothing we could do about it then.

Once we hit flatness we ran into the forests, but stopped just inside the tree cover. I whispered for Gen to catch its breath. Have to be quiet when walking through the trees, they pick up everything they hear.

We weren’t in the thick of the forest yet, but still had to watch our step. Walking through trees really isn’t that hard as long as you’re careful and avoid stepping on trigger roots and keep an eye for danglers budding on their parent branch.

Marija! I thought.

“I’m sure she’s fine,” Gen whispered.

I didn’t respond, just kept my eyes where I stepped. Made Gen stay close.

“Was probably a warning shot,” it said. “Besides, there’s nothing we could have done–”

“Spare me your corporate morality,” I said. “You’re protecting your neck. Which is fine, I get it. But Marija I’ve known my whole life–You wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh?” Gen said. “And why is that?”

“Everyone is either a consumer or a product to you. Right now, you’re probably thinking about what product to market to me or how to box up my pain and sell it to someone else. You don’t know how to relate to others, just to profit.”

“Hunh,” it said. “We misjudged you. You really think we don’t feel? We’ve been bred to feel, to love. That’s how we maintain our society in the dark years between stars. You think we’re not human, and you’re right. We’re more than human. We’re the next step. It’s we who travel the stars and visit worlds and write the next chapter of history, while you people sit on this rock and bury your heads and pretend all this is so important and the center of the universe, when it’s really just another in a billion balls of mud spinning around a fire.

“You have no idea what it’s like to be part of a crèche-batch. We watched nearly all of them die in a hillbilly attack by a bunch of cowards afraid of change. And now we’re hunted by the very people that we’ve invited to join us in the future. You think because we don’t cry we don’t feel? There’s no time for tears. We’re not going to die on some forgotten mud world lost in the armpit of the galaxy.”

“You talk too much,” I said. “The forest is listening.”

The trees mimic what they hear, creating the susurrus of the forest. People used to say it was the old Gale spirits whispering, but it’s just the trees trying to trick you. The constant echoes and birdsong and snippets of words can distract and lure prey, and confuse birds and bugs that echolocate. Even confuses people at times. You know, like old tales of people going treeways and getting lost or getting forestsick and cutting up their whole family. Tales of settlers going mad on their cursed planet.

I told Gen not to use names. Oldtimers, hermits, tree-kin who live on the edge of the forest, they listen to the rustle and report the new they hear. Rumors, mostly, and garbled sentences. But some information comes out, now and again. And I didn’t need anyone knowing I was helping Gen out. It laughed at me and refused to believe me.

To be honest I find the whispers comforting. It’s a constant layer that’s always there. Lets you know exactly where you are. And if you’re careful and real quiet, so is the forest. Lot’s of people don’t get that. Tree-foot is an art. One which Gen wasn’t very good at at first. It nearly stepped on a snake-vine and almost walked into a hungry branch. I had to show it how to spot stalk-trops, you know, the thin barbed spikey roots that point up like nails.

I had to take it by the hand when we got to denser parts of the forest. I’d have rather it walked in front of me so I could keep an eye, but it’d have stepped on something eventually. Its grip was strong and hard, but smooth and warm at the same time. It felt capable.

But like everything else, Gen adapted quickly.

“Whoa,” Gen said as it pulled me low, saving me from an aerial root that was fishing for ground prey.

“Shhh,” I said and the forest repeated after me. “I would have seen it,” I said. I didn’t like being saved by a Corporate. And it surprised me with its strength.

“Sorry,” it said, as an offering. I could have handled an aerial root, but still, it saved my neck and knew it.

I took a moment and then said, “No. You keep doing what you’re doing. I’m just not used to such a quick learn. Another day and it’ll be like you grew up in the forest. How is it you people ever had any trouble walking through the forests?”

“Never had anyone to teach us before,” it said. “Can’t be a quick learn if no one teaches you. Plus, we’ve been working on an adap,” it said.

“Eh?”

“An adaptation. Sorta like a rules of thumb we can teach our minds. It filters out the low-level tree buzz. We put a gate on the lower sound frequency, cuts out most of the din.”

“So, you don’t hear the tree whispers?”

“Basically. The adap brings attention to sounds that seem out of place. Which is how we heard that aerial root. Once you filter out all the noise, you can hear the trees moving pretty clearly.”

“The whispers are my favorite part,” I said. “I love how it covers me, like a heavy blanket.”

It stared at me for a second and then said: “I have no response to that.”

Later, we found a little gully away from the trees. Gen made a dirt berm without me even asking.

I pulled my jacket tight and held myself to keep warm. It got down pretty cold that night and it wasn’t too long before I huddled up to the Corporate. They run hot. Or at least that one did. People call them snakes and bugs and whatnot, but the truth is, Gen was a good companion. It worked hard, stayed alert, and listened close.

Somewhere in the night, it dropped an arm around me. When I woke, I lifted its arm off and pushed away to shiver in the early morning murk.

Gray and overcast as usual.

It got up and stretched while I boiled some water.

It took off the ragged shirt I gave it and wetted it, gave itself what my father used to call a hooker bath: splash some water on your face, neck, chest, and armpits. It’s the minimum amount of freshening up that one can call a bath.

It looked stronger, its shoulders a bit more broad. It looked like it’d put on weight. It caught me staring and I looked away.

“We got oats and tea,” I said while I pulled out the packets of each.

“Well, then, we’ll have some tea and oats,” it said. I didn’t even have to look, I knew it was smiling.

It put its shirt back on and sat across from me while I folded up the cups.

“Can I help?” It reached out and took one of the paper-flat pieces of plastic that origamied into a drinking mug from my hand. It left it there too long. Its hand was warm. It was rough, but familiar and I felt something that pulled me. It was like in those stories, when one person touches the other and they know right then how they feel.

“You’re a man,” I said. It was a pure thought and I knew it was true as soon as I said it.

His smile broke.

“Yes,” he said. He didn’t make eye contact. He pulled his hand away and concentrated on folding the plastic into a cup.

“I thought you were an instar.”

He finished the cup and set it on the ground next to the stove.

“I was,” he said.

“But?”

He was quiet for a second. “We are instars when we are amongst our own people. Our scent, it keeps us all the same. Equal. Zero sexual competition. Corporate tranquility. Until we are promoted or… are separated.”

“Holy shit,” I said.

“We adapt, Ro. We’re designed to insure our continued survival by becoming sexually opportunistic. If I’d been around males I would have–”

“You’re trying to start a franchise.”

“It’s not like that–”

“You’re a sexual infection. You infect people with the next generation of little Corporate workers.”

“It’s not like that,” he said.

“So, you thought that with most of the men dead or off fighting your kind you could come into deep territory and knock up all us ignorant hick women?”

“We would never try — It’s our body, Ro. That’s all. It’s an automatic response.” Gen looked at me and tried to take my hand but I pulled away.

“You people are monsters.”

divider

I kept my distance the rest of the day and into the night. There was no more huddling. And yet, even in my revulsion I kept stealing glances at him, finding myself near him. I was drawn to him. And that made me angrier.

What most girls felt about men, I just… didn’t. I don’t really feel that way about anybody. Never have. A boy kissed me in grade six and it just felt slimy. I knew I was supposed to like it. Or be excited about it. Or at least talk about, but I just wanted to forget it and never do it again. But I lied and told my friend Fiorina that I thought the boy was cute. He wasn’t. He smelled and threw rocks at frogs.

Later on, when most of the men went off to fight and didn’t come back, there were a lot of cold nights and lonely women. One night I was invited to stay over on a farm a couple of valleys over. I don’t really feel comfortable saying who it was, so I won’t, but it was not the worst experience. I stayed the night because, well, because I was curious. Figured I might like the company of women in that way. But I don’t. It was better than kissing boys, but not by much. Everything tickled and felt funny.

See, thing is, when you get right down to it, people are just kinda gross. I know that’s not how everyone sees it, but I think frankly most people are just blinded by their loneliness. We deep down feel lonely and small and we distract ourselves by “connecting” with others. It’s a trick.

But on that trip, being alone with Gen, I felt drawn to him. Physically. I didn’t feel it in my heart, just my body. He looked and smelled good.

“You’re doing something to me,” I said when we stopped to sit on rocks sip cups of soup in the afternoon murk.

He didn’t respond. Just looked up at a sleeping buck-toothed pine.

“It’s funny that you call them trees,” he said.

“What else would we call them?”

“Back home, trees are plantlife that don’t move, don’t get up and walk around and hunt. We get why you call them trees, what with the sedentary torpor period and the roots and the growing out of the ground, but these aren’t trees. Discussing non-terrestrial life-forms using terrestrial categories of life– flora, fauna, fungi–is ineffective. But, still, trust us, these are no trees.”

I thought about this for a second. “You mean like the Arbory trees. Earth trees. Only rich folk have seen them. And none of them are around here. To us, these are trees.”

He nodded his head. “That’s a fair point. Most of your plantlife is floating around in your atmosphere.”

“Oxygen buoyancy,” I said.

“Ayo,” he said, and I looked at him, but he didn’t seem to notice. That was our word, not a Corporate word. “This is why your world is so important to us.”

“Oh yeah? Why?”

“Because,” he said. “Everywhere else, the terraformed worlds, they’re mostly the same. This world and the handful of other non-terraformed planets offer up a host of new and unique bio-product lines. Why when we got here we moved quick to snatch up the intellectual property of this planet.”

I was quiet for a second. This is was the DynaStar, Instlr story, the story of Big Corporology. They arrived with talk of buy-ins and shares of the future coming out their mouths, but in their hand they had the original charter bought and paid for. Bought it up from the Esperanxa Settlement Expedition investors back on Earth. They owned it all. They forced buyouts and then charged people to live on their own land.

But it was still our home, our land. The Corporates hardly ever set foot on the surface. We lived here, we earned it.

“Just cause you own it,” I said. “Don’t make it yours.”

divider

Gen could have taken the lead at that point. He slipped between the trees and over traps like a quiet wind. But I stayed in front. Can’t have a Corporate leading me through the forest.

We wove through the sleeping forest into the night, my low-glow lamp lighting up the dark canopy. The thick forest wasn’t a great place to sleep, so we had to keep going that night until we found a clearing.

But we were stopped short, when I walked into the butt of a rifle.

I caught a blur of movement in my lamp-light and then I was on my back. My right eye was filled with something wet. Blood.

I looked up and saw over me stood a hill boy. I recognized her. I don’t remember her name, but I knew she was from Rough And Ready, a hamlet in a valley just west.

She’d been hiding behind the trunk of the large claw-oak that reached up over us when I battered-up for her. She held her rifle by the barrel in triumph.

I tried to say something, don’t even know what, just something. I was rattled.

She said something to Gen, but I couldn’t make out what.

I tried to get up and felt a trigger vine squirm underneath me. The branches of the claw-oak started to stretch awake.

“Wait,” I finally managed. The world came back in agitated whispers. The trees were listening. “The tree, it–”

The boy stepped hard on my stomach. “That one I’m supposed to take back alive,” she said with a nod towards Gen. “But you,” she turned the rifle around, maw of the barrel in my face, “I can deal with you right now, Pig.”

Gen moved so fast. He was streak of movement as he tackled the boy.

They hit the ground in a tangle of limbs. I got up to my feet, swayed around, knees wobbly, except my knees weren’t wobbly– the ground was shaking.

The claw-oak ripped out a buried leg-root.

The woman rolled Gen off of her and they both jumped to their feet. As soon as they did the boy swung her rifle like a club.

The Corporate caught it like it was nothing, didn’t even flinch, just a loud smack as the rifle butt hit into the palm of his hand. Then he stepped forward and threw a kick deep into the boy’s stomach, tossing her back.

“No,” I screamed but it was too late. She fell back and was scooped up into a waiting tree branch. She grunted as the heavy branches came down on her arms and legs. The tree lifted her off the ground. She didn’t say nothing, or scream, even as the claw-oak drove a feeding branch through her back. She just gasped and looked surprised.

She’d stay like that for a few days, somewhere between life and death. It would keep her breathing, keep her fresh as it digested her from the inside out. She’d have killed me a moment before, it’s true, but that’s a hard way for anyone to go. Besides, she was one of us. No matter what else.

The whispers started to rise up around us. The trees could smell a fresh kill. The trees, see, they share things. Kinda like a group or society, I don’t really know. But when one feeds, others around it get a taste. Through the roots I’ve been told. They’re all networked up, until they start moving, but when they do, when they swarm, when they go grimly, they move as a huge mass. Not a stampede quite, but like one giant tree.

And that’s what started happening around us. The crash, the fighting, the Corporates who ran into the woods, that hill boy from Rough And Ready, the blood from my eye spilling onto dry soil. It all came together, boiled up the forest’s hunger. The trees went grimly.

I got to my feet and yelled for Gen to run. We ran and ran, blind for while. I lost my torch, but I could see shapes moving in the dark.

I spotted a bare little cliff off the ridge up a head, silhouetted by the stars. I tried to keep that in front of us, hoping to reach it and climb out of the frenzied trees.

I found a gap that opened up to the foot of the cliff. It was a small cliff, an eroding face of sandstone. But there was enough for us to climb up. And up we went.

Halfway up, I heard a hiss from below. A small tree, a sapling of one of the quicker species. A razor-fur or a thorn-willow, I don’t know, but it was hiss-targeting us.

I told Gen to hurry, but I needn’t have. He was soon level with me and then above.

I tried to keep up, but the sandstone was crumbly, and the rock I grabbed fell apart into pebbles. Lost my grip and reeled. I could hear the young tree below us, waiting, tasting me on the wind.

But Gen caught my other arm. He pulled and I managed to grab the edge of the outcrop he was reaching down from. I scrambled over the lip and caught my breath on my back, my skin hot and sweaty in the cool night air.

The outcrop big enough that we could sleep there that night and wait for the grimly to move on for prey or fall back asleep.

I got up and peeked over the edge. The clouds had broke some, thinning as they do at night.

Tree branches glistened and leaves shook in the dim light of the silver moon. We could see most of the valley. Gen watched the forest. It moved, like in those old terran movies of the ocean. It rippled. And in the middle of it all, striding through other trees and towering over them was a grimly. A tree of trees. A huge wave in the ocean.

“We read the reports,” Gen said. “But, we just didn’t understand until now.”

“It’s a big one,” I said.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “Migratory Cascade Event. We’ve never seen anything like it on over forty different worlds in thirty different systems.”

“It’s more than that, isn’t it,” I said.

“What do you mean?” the Corporate said without taking its eyes off the grimly.

But I didn’t say anything.

The grimly isn’t a thing, really. It’s all these different parts working together to exploit any bounty that comes its way. Each branch is like a franchise. Each skewered animal another planet. Cut a branch off and it’ll plant itself and make roots and grow big and strong. Cut off a Corporate from its people and it became a sexual disease, infecting the planet with its brood. Gen admired it.

And now Gen knew about the trees and how to walk through them. He would teach his kind, spread all our secrets.

Gen never took his eyes off the creature. Didn’t notice as I came up behind him. I didn’t hate him personally, but I did hate him. And his kind. I might could have lost him in the forest, or Marija and I could have pounced on him, but they are strong, those Corporates. Survivors. Might have fought us off as easily as he did that boy. Right then, on that outcrop, that was the opportunity I’d been waiting for.

He was calm. Happy even. And I was glad for that.

Unaware, as I braced myself and then and kicked him square in the back.

Gen sailed off the cliff with only a grunt. The Corporate didn’t scream or cry, made no sound as he fell into hungry branches below. Gen got to find out about the grimly first hand.

Maybe our home was just a backwater mud-ball spinning through space. And maybe Gen was just one naïve Corporate in a species that spanned the stars. But we don’t have much more than our mud-ball here. The Corporates left us with little more than nothing. If we were going to keep our planet, then it was settlers that needed the most help from each other. Nobody was going to give it to us.

___

Copyright 2015 Mark Pantoja 

Mark Pantoja is a writer and musician living in San Francisco. His stories have appeared in Tales from the Zombie War and Lightspeed. His short story collection Other Possibilities came out in 2013.