(reading time: 50 minutes)
Monkey Girl Diary #488
(transcribed from video log)
Hello everybody. We still not heard anything from Transplant or Pawn. Dreamweaver is here with us; she is looking into our heads at night for signs of psychic badness. To this point she has found nothing. I think she is in my head right now, but I will not be sure until tonight. If she is in here with me, I have some questions to ask her.
You see I am having a problem with my puppy… but it maybe just a problem with me instead. When Alpha Dog gave Golden Boy and me our puppies we were very excited. I name mine Honeydew and he name his Trophy. Alpha Dog explained to us that the puppies have a program that makes them mimic their owner’s personality. I think this a great idea, but it is hurting Honeydew. I do not know if robots can be hurt, but it looks like Tin Soldier can and the puppies sometimes whimper so realistically.
I first noticed the wrong thing when we were cleaning up after Pentazar. If you don’t know, Alpha Dog had a couple pieces of that big starfish they fought a time ago frozen in the freezer for study. He took one out a couple of days ago so Doc Donor could sample it. When it thawed it came back to life and grew out into a new starfish. It escaped from its container. It was not so big this time, but it did not need water and it splitted like crazy. They are not supposed to do that, but Pentazar did anyway.
We woke up that morning with sticky baby starfish all over everything in the Bay. They were crawling on the walls, into our beds, and even turning the showers on by themselves. We had to move quickly, because the starfish needed to be keeped away from the aquariums. If they got inside they would be put back out into the ocean and then they would be everywhere. I was pulling them off the glass in the front tunnel when Tin Soldier came up to me. He had a big white bucket with a lid to give to me so I could put the starfish in it. His puppy Tin Scout marched behind him. He say something silly to me when he handed me the bucket.
“I haven’t had a chance to speak to you privately,” he say. I only been there a few days. “I know you’ve been made aware of my previous issues with race. I want to assure you that they are in the past and that your Mediterranean heritage will not prevent us from becoming fast friends. I have many friends of color.”
“Oh-okay,” I say. He seemed happy with that. He turned around and left and Tin Scout marched behind him with his little puppy head held up. I thought it was cute, but it made me notice that Honeydew was not with me. I left my bucket of wiggly starfish in the tunnel and went to look for her. I saw that the other Backers I passed had their puppies helping them. I was the only one alone. I poked my head into my room and called Honeydew. Her little head came out of the wrinkly blankets in my hammock. I know you probably not believe me because she is a robot, but she looked sad to me. Droopy eyes and ears. She almost never barks like she did when I got her. I tapped my thigh and called to her again. She slowly got up and jumped to the floor. She walked up to me. I smiled at her, but after a few seconds she just laid on the ground and put her head between her paws.
I picked her up like a real puppy and she barely moved. I don’t know much about machines, so I thought maybe she had low battery. I decided to take her to Alpha Dog. He was in the part of the aquarium that used to be about the wetlands, so it has lots of fake trees. Mangroves, I think they are called. All of his dogs were around him, grabbing starfish with their teeth and putting them in more buckets.
“I wish these were oysters or shrimp or something,” he say when he noticed me. “At least we could cook them up and get a free meal out of it if they were. Nobody eats starfish right?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Something is wrong with Honeydew.” I held her out to him. He looked confused, like it was the first time anybody say to him there was a problem with one of his machines. Maybe it was. He took her and whistled. One of his new doggies, the name I do not know yet, came over and straightened his back out to make a table. Alpha Dog put Honeydew on it and pressed a hidden button to make her stand up straight. He took some tools off his belt and poked at her for some seconds. He checked her reflexes. He had her bark out the Justice Backers theme music. I think he sometimes just makes them do that for fun. He stared at her with a wrinkly brow and his hand on his chin.
“So what’s the problem?” he asked.
“She doesn’t follow me like the other puppies follow. She has no energy and she is very quiet. She looks sad.” Alpha Dog looked at her and then around the room. He noticed that Paladina and Orb were in there too, scraping stars off the walls with spatulas. He picked up Honeydew and nodded towards the next room. I followed him in there. It is a dark room that has many little bubble-shaped tanks on the walls. We stood next to one with a big flabby salamander in it. I guess we upset him because he buried his fat head in the mud.
“There’s nothing wrong with your puppy,” he say to me quietly.
“What about all the stuff I say?”
“Do you remember how the puppies pick up cues from their owner’s personalities?”
“Whatever this is, Honeydew is getting it from you. The software is doing exactly what it’s supposed to.”
“But I am not sad,” I say, laughing a little. He looked at me like I was shivering and chatting my teeth.
“You know you’re covered for therapy if you need some,” he say to me. “I picked out a great therapist.”
“I am not sad. Look at me. I got out of bed, Honeydew didn’t. How is she getting it from me?”
“She’s probably picking up on subtler cues. Your demeanor. Your breathing patterns. Pupil dilation. She’s built an observational portrait of you and to her that portrait looks depressed. So she’s acting depressed. Do you not like being back?”
“Oh it’s not that,” I say quickly. I felt this way before I got to the Bay. I did not realize it counted as depressed. I assured Alpha Dog it wasn’t being on his team because I know that’s a soft bruise with him. He say to me more about the therapist and then gave me her card. He handed Honeydew to me and went back into the mangrove room to peel a starfish off a whining dog’s face.
I guess this is why I picked to come to the Bay. I thought maybe getting a new home would help me get excited again. Working with the Backers is always hard for me. There are a lot of jackasses on the internet who do not like me very much. You think they would stay away from me, but they don’t. Even after Swagglerock died, it is still bad. They still take that still picture of me being shaved and put it all over. The one where I look scared and quiet, where only a fool can’t see my smile is pretend.
Honeydew thinks all my smiles are pretend. Maybe I can make them more real by getting some of the weight of the internet off me. I’m going to tell you about some of the worst things. I want to know how they compare to your worst internet things backers. You can tell me if I am just being a big baby.
One group of the jackasses is always trying to say to me that I am not human. Their favorite thing is pictures. They find ones where my mouth is open or I look upset and then they mix it with a picture where two monkeys are having sex. They put my head on one of the monkey bodies. This is uncomfortable to say… sometimes it looks like I am being raped. I have seen that picture in a hundred different forms. They spam the pictures any place they think I might look. They even made a fake nature movie that say about me like I am an animal. They put in sounds they take from our mission videos. They make it sound like I am having sex when I was really fighting a bad guy. I am proud of where those sounds come from and they use them to lie. On bad days I get pictures of men with guns holding up dead monkeys.
Other groups have different things they love to hate about me. Some hate that I am not American. There was a rumor, it wasn’t true, that back when I first joined the Justice Backers, some white boys didn’t get on the team because girls took their places. Alpha Dog say a hundred times it is not true, but they ignore that. Alpha Dog say to me that I am having the worst of it because they think of me as a Mexican stealing jobs. I am not even from Mexico! They take everything further than the monkey-haters. They don’t know my address, but they always try to send things anyway. People say to me when they receive packages meant for me. Many of them have rotten food in them: tacos, burritos, nachos… I am from Portugal! That’s in Europe!
The worst group is also upset I took a boy’s job. They just don’t like me because I am a girl. They have all these studies that Alpha Dog and Archive say are from not-very-good scientists. They think the studies are proof that girls should not fight in the military or be superheroes. I can’t believe they don’t have anything better to do. Some of the specific ones spend all day putting hate online and trying to send me threats. They say they want to hurt me. They say they are going to find where I live. They say I ruined the Justice Backers and that they are going to rape me until I leave. I am not joking.
That Grill Marx man is one of them. His messages flip flop every day. He loves me. He wants to burn a house with us inside it. He adores me. He wants to paint a picture with my blood. It scares me. I reported him to the police, but the police aren’t really allowed to help us since we are criminals. There have been days where I fill my pillow with hot tears and I cannot bear to make diaries because I know they will be encouraged by the sight of my face. I want very much to go to his house and beat him up, but I know he wants that. Usually when these boys upset me I talk to Archive, Wallflower, or Impala. They are not here now, so I am saying to you. How do all of you deal with the jackasses?
I will take some questions. Please don’t ask about Transplant or Pawn because as I say, we do not know anything yet.
Tomcruisemissile: What about drill abby? Sportfish said she was gonna ask you guys for help with him but nobodys saying anythin about it?
I do not know who Abby is. I am not caught up with everything this team is doing yet, so I will ask.
FuggbootsXO: OMG Monkeylady Im so glad your back your my absolute favorite of everybody and Ive wanted you to come back for so long and Im totally megafreaking out right now I told my friend that I knew you would come back and she didn’t believe me but she can just go suck a butt because your back now and all is right in my manic little weird girl world.
Thank you Boots. I appreciate it. You maybe need to calm down enough to ask a question next time, okay?
Passwordforgetter: Monkey Girl you’ve been single the entire time you’ve been a superhero. Are you not getting lonely? I know a lot of guys who would be all over you if they had the chance. Do you not like to date?
I haven’t exactly been single the entire time. I try to keep my business private when I can. The jackasses are always prying, so I know you did not look at their stuff since you thought I was always single. Thank you for that! Being a hero can get lonely, especial when you are the only one who looks weird. Most of the others, except Tin Soldier, can pass off as normal. Hiding a tail is a problem.
Okay backers I am done. Please write down your ways to deal with jackasses so I can look at them later. See you later!
Tin Soldier Diary #57
(transcribed from video log)
Hello financial backers and welcome to Tin Soldier diary entry number fifty-seven. Today I will be recounting our most recent mission and all of the new information that has come to light. I estimate this entry will be 3,169 words long, so please budget the appropriate amount of time to read it based on your individual reading speed. If you need to test your reading speed, click here and follow the listed instructions.
In the first part of this entry I will discuss my ongoing efforts to address racism in both its personal elements and its wider societal implications. I was programmed to fight in a race war. I have realized that I can still do that. It is a figurative war. (Please see the definition of figurative if you are new to the concept; it can be difficult to grasp immediately.) It is also a war to unite the races rather than divide them. I will only have to kill misunderstandings and aggression. My efforts are still in the stages of personal development. I have not yet acquired enough friends of color to take my plans to the next level.
In order to better connect to other free individuals of color, I have sent 10,000 friend requests to people of color on social media. I have so far gained 2,460 friends with this method. I am looking to improve the rate of friend accumulation by including a personal statement with the request. I value your feedback backers, so please offer constructive criticism on this draft of my personal statement:
Hello potential friend of color. My name is Tin Soldier. I am a robotic soldier constructed in the year 1976 who has only been active for a small amount of the time since. Race relations have changed much. I am ashamed to admit that I initially fought against the integration of the races, but I am putting it behind me. As a direct result I thought that you and I could become friends. If you agree with me, please push the ‘yes’ button on your screen now. If you need to be convinced, I encourage you to send a personal statement to my account. If you do not wish to be friends with me, you need only ignore this message and my friend request. Thank you for your time.
Many of you have told me about specific individuals of color I should become friends with, but I have not had much success in that area. The most frequently suggested, Samuel L. Jackson, remains unreachable. I should note that his work in the film industry is impressive and I feel as if we are already friends thanks to the number of times I have appreciated his performances.
In the second part of this entry I will discuss our team’s primary mission. This week we were alerted to a strange situation in a mountain range on the east coast of the United States of America. A place of business was under attack by peculiar creatures. It was not your typical place of business; it was a mountaintop removal site. If you are not familiar with the process, mountaintop removal is when large construction machines and explosives are used to remove the stone and earth above veins of coal to make accessing it easier. The excess minerals are then dumped into nearby valleys.
I suspect the site looked like a war zone before we even arrived in our helicopters. The deconstructed mountain was nearly devoid of trees and undergrowth. A long line of trucks packed each quickly-constructed dirt road to and from the site. A collection of colorful paper and cardboard signs outside the fences indicated that civilians had been protesting the operation up until the very moment it was attacked. The attacker in question was Eisenoides carolinensis: a common earthworm. The worms were exhibiting a very uncommon quality with their size; some were more than eighty feet long and wide enough to ride like horses. Alpha Dog was ecstatic at the sight of them burying a bulldozer in the loose sediment.
“Oh my god it’s happening,” he said. “Giant monsters. Actual giant monsters! No need for politics this time, boys and girls! They’re big! They’re gross! They’re wrecking things! Let’s wreck them back! Wooh!”
The worms were dense enough on the ground that we deemed it necessary to disembark without landing. Alpha Dog activated the autopilots of Chomp and Bit and had them hover over the roiling mass of annelids and soil. I attached my grappling hook to the end of my rifle and then to the railing of the helicopter. Paladina and Alpha Dog each grabbed my shoulders. I lowered the three of us down while Alpha Dog jettisoned the hounds. Everyone else disembarked utilizing their own abilities.
We wasted no time in attacking the creatures. Act-of-Goddess spewed flaming chunks of underbrush from a wildfire; the worm’s flesh hissed at the heat and their movements became far more erratic. They practically tied themselves in knots. I am not sure how they managed to process the information that they were being attacked, but they then adopted an organized counteroffensive. Individual worms shot out of the ground like geysers and dropped down in an effort to crush us. I knew my rubber bullets would do little against creatures with such flexible tissues, so I switched to my bayonet.
Paladina had a similar strategy and used her samurai sword to cleave the worms from their own tails. The ground quickly became moist with their internal fluids. Our initial upper hand evaporated as more and more worms emerged from beneath. The very ground under my feet was squirming and making balance difficult. Then the ground collapsed. A landslide of dirt clods started carrying me down the side of the mountain. I was only able to return to the battlefield when Golden Boy tossed me a smaller knotted worm as a lifeline and pulled me back up. That was when I took notice of a central crown of worms. In the middle of the crown rose the largest worm of them all, as big around as a cement truck. A mysterious woman straddled it near its eyeless purple end. She carried a dried worm as a staff and her mannerisms suggested she had control over the annelids.
The turmoil quieted. The sea of worms became a gently lapping pond. The worms created some sort of collective low-frequency moan as they stoically awaited orders.
“Who are you?” Paladina demanded of the worm woman. There was no response except a massive increase in the volume of the worms’ moan. The air rumbled like we were standing in the midst of a thunderclap.
“What do you want?” Alpha Dog asked. She did not respond with words; she pointed her staff at a patch of earth between the worms and our team. A strange tree grew up in front of us and spread its branches and leaves. I immediately recognized the physical features of a plant being manipulated by Transplant. The middle of the tree opened like a change purse and my suspicions were confirmed. Transplant stepped out along with Pawn and two other individuals. One was Rot, the human swamp who had previously been a servant of Deckard. The other was new to us and very strange. It was female in shape, but had green flesh and only the suggestions of eyes and a mouth molded on its face.
“We want our planet back,” Transplant said. We did not know how to respond to the presence of our missing friends and their adversarial expressions. They did not appear to be prisoners.
“Transplant! Pawn! What are you doing here? What happened to you?” Monkey Girl asked.
“We were called by the Lichen,” Pawn answered.
“What? You mean that thing that gave you guys your powers?” Golden Boy asked.
“Yes,” Pawn confirmed. “The Lichen also gave Rot his abilities. And Dry Worm over there. And Venus Man-eater here. Our powers were an olive branch between man and nature. We’re here to address the very failings of the species.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Alpha Dog asked.
“Overpopulation. Pollution. Extinction. Environmental destruction. We have to undo everything we can,” Transplant said. “We’re disabling these machines and reclaiming this mountain.”
“Uhh buddy,” Alpha Dog scoffed, “that’s illegal. This mountain belongs to the mining company. Or… well probably not…”
“The mining company has likely been granted permission by the state and federal government of the United States of America,” I informed him.
“Right, thanks,” Alpha Dog noted of my diligence. “You two are Justice Backers. You can’t run around destroying property. You’re upset; I get it. I don’t like looking at baby ducks being strangled by soda rings either. It doesn’t mean you can run around making people’s decisions for them and wrecking their livelihoods… and stuff. You want to talk about undoing things? How about leaving in the middle of the night and scaring the piss out of all of us. You remember us right? Your family? The people you’ve been fighting crime with for years. You’re trying to tell me after all that you’re just running off with some Lovecraftian mushroom?”
“We’re doing what we’ve always done,” Pawn stepped in to say when Transplant seemed speechless. “Taking the law into our own hands. We just don’t need money this time. We don’t need a consensus, or a poll, or a damn comments section. This planet is everyone’s livelihood Eben. This mountain is just as much mine as it is the miners’. I did not give them permission to tear it down.”
“But we can’t fight you,” Monkey Girl said as she wrung her hands.
“We can’t?” Alpha Dog asked sarcastically. The hounds growled at Justice Backers for the first time.
“We don’t want to fight you either. We’re still your family,” Transplant said. “Sometimes families have disagreements. We’re going to do what we have to.”
“It’s some kind of trick. The Lichen is controlling their minds,” Act-of-Goddess suggested.
“We’re not controlled; we’re convinced,” Pawn said. He chuckled spitefully. “Go back to the Bay. This isn’t for you guys. Go back and stop domestic abusers and drunk drivers and whatever socially inept terrorist is putting on a leotard this week.”
“That sure sounds like Pawn to me,” Alpha Dog said.
“Better yet,” Pawn went on, “go after the worst bad guy out there: Drill Baby. That guy is so selfish, so shortsighted, and so completely responsible for like eighty percent of the destruction that convinced the Lichen that action needed to be taken in the first place. He ignores the pathetically weak environmental laws anyway. He’s spilled more oil than we’ve spilled blood in all the wars ever. He owns these coal chewers too. Why don’t you go pay him a visit? Are you going to keep pretending you’re not getting Sportfish’s e-mails?” The question seemed to be directed at Alpha Dog personally.
If you do not know, Sportfish is Alpha Dog’s niece and an independent Justice Backer. This was the first I had heard of any e-mails from her, but I still trust Alpha Dog to do what is best for the team. If he thought they were not important, they were not important.
“We’ll get to him when we get to him. Right now you’re the only criminals I see,” Alpha Dog said.
“Maybe we should leave,” Monkey Girl said to no person in particular.
“I don’t care if we’re outnumbered by worms,” Alpha Dog spat.
“It’s not just worms,” Pawn said.
Transplant put his hand to the side of the tree. The wood splashed up and around his arm like a skin of water. Four more trunks emerged around us, two from behind. The tops opened like volcanoes and out surged strange beings. They were human in shape but bore green skin as well as floral and fungal mutations. I counted twenty-seven of them. I have become quite adept at befriending humans of color, but those green men and women still made me cautious. Perhaps it was their animal-like posture, knees bent and fingers splayed across the soil so lightly it was like they weighed the same as a fallen leaf. I was going to attempt a scientific classification, but Alpha Dog surprised all of us by ordering an attack. The hounds immediately assaulted the green men.
The team had no choice but to fight off the resulting tide of attackers. The situation was made direr by Rot and Venus joining their soldiers in the fray. I lost sight of Transplant and Pawn, but I could hear Dry Worm and her legless menagerie getting back to the business of destroying the site.
I immediately singled out Venus as the most dangerous. I attached my flame canister to the end of my rifle and made my way to her. (I have chosen the pronoun her based on body shape alone. I have been told this sort of thing may cause offense in the twenty-first century, so I encourage you to insert whatever pronouns make you the most comfortable.) Flames ate up the air in front of me, but when I stopped pulling the trigger she was nowhere to be seen. Total incineration was unlikely at those temperatures unless she was made of straw.
I tried to walk but was pulled back. I looked at my left ankle to see a smooth vine sticking out of the ground and locking me in place. I was about to slice it off with the bayonet I was holding in my left hand when Venus exploded out from under me. Her face split down the middle, creating a bear trap of plant flesh. The interior of her head was pink, red, and moist like a slice of watermelon. I got a very in-depth look as she attempted to crush my head in her vice grip.
I think I was saved by my hat, the shape of which got caught in the base of her trap. When Electric Eel sees or reads this, I imagine he will immediately regret his many snide remarks about that hat. That will have to do as its eulogy, since Venus shredded it and tossed the remnants into the wind. Her arms split as well, creating two more traps. She rose up on legs that were suddenly a set of four snaking vines and came down on top of me. One set of jaws tore my left arm from my body. Another ripped my weapon from me and tossed it away. I was a moment from destruction when Orb rolled in and smashed her off of me. I did not manage to get to my feet before three of the green men were on me, kicking my head and chest. One of my eyes went out. I had no prior memories of being half-blind. Even when I know I am nearly out of power and require a human hand to wind my key, I do not fear death as much as I did then. To me, half the world was destroyed.
A towering wall of crisscrossing roots and leaves pushed us all towards the unstable side of the site. The wall seemed to discourage the green men, as they lost interest in dismantling me and crawled back into their tree tunnels like ants. The wall pushed us so close to the edge of the hill that fighting became impossible. The hounds whined as they struggled to stay on the lip. It got so close that Orb had to exit his sphere in order to avoid rolling down. Venus and Rot stepped through doors in the wall that only existed for a moment. Then we heard Transplant speak through the tangled wall he was no doubt controlling. His voice was soft. There was no anger from our friend. I believe there was sadness.
“Go. You’ll have to take on the bad guys without us. We’re after the insidious part of everyone.” A root in the wall handed me my arm and my weapon. After I gathered them up I looked to the left and right to see the state of the other Backers. Act-of-Goddess was floating safely behind the wall, but the rest of us were practically on the tips of our toes trying to stay on flat ground. No one else was missing an arm, but Golden Boy had a black eye and plenty of scratches. Alpha Dog had a large twig planted in his right thigh. His anger seemed to distract him from the pain.
Transplant changed his wall to create two bridges up to our helicopters. He gave us no chance to argue with him or Pawn; he simply rolled the wall forwards until we had to ascend the bridges and take our seats in Chomp and Bit. Act-of-Goddess could have torn through it, but she judged it a fruitless maneuver. It wasn’t clear if there was anything that could be won from this fight even if we did force our way back into it.
Dejected and confused, we took our leave. There was much discussion on the way back as to our next course of action. Alpha Dog was adamant about locating the Lichen and destroying it. Everyone else was less sure. He asked Act-of-Goddess if she had any way of tracking such a creature and she answered that she would only be aware of the havoc they produced in the wild after it had begun.
Orb suggested a policy of live and let live. He thought that perhaps the traditional authorities bore a greater responsibility for both the triggers of this incident and the incident itself. Though Transplant and Pawn were valuable members of our team, it was not us who granted them superhuman abilities. As I am the newest member of the team, I do not often feel it is necessary to put my opinions up alongside the others. So I did not speak. I was too distracted by the missing half of the world to make much of an argument anyway. Monkey Girl stared at me oddly when my head jerked towards her. I was just checking to make sure her voice was still coming from her body. I do not know what kinds of lies or distortions the darkness of blindness might create.
Everyone separated when we returned to the Bay. I tried to speak to each of them individually, but I was waved away. I did not get a chance to say that my key was nearing the end of its rotations and I needed one of them to power me. I cannot reach to do it myself. They have always been available before. I stopped moving in one of our common areas. The last thing I saw was a forest of kelp in the tank in front of me. I thought of Transplant as my mind slowed to a halt.
In the third and final part of this diary, I will take questions from financial backers. I have allotted three slots.
Almightyfanbrush: Do you watch television? If so, what is your favorite program?
I primarily watch Spanish soap operas as I am learning the Spanish language. I also enjoy Black Entertainment Television.
G0bluefins83: What’s it like when your key isn’t moving? Do you dream?
Dreams are for humans. Dreamweaver could no sooner inhabit my mind than she could a video game console. My soul has a pause button. I do not feel pain or fear when booting up or shutting down. While answering your question I visited your Connectera page and noticed you are a Muslim. I have sent you a friend request.
Amodestbroposal: R u guys taking on Drill Baby or not? Cuz I really hope u dont. My dad works for 1 of his copanies and I like, u know, like 2 eat and would liek 2 maybe get 2 go 2 college. Almost everybody in my nayborhood works for him and who is going to replace all those jobs?
A positive action does not negate a negative one. A hypothetical question for you: A doctor goes out at night and kills random people equal in number to the amount of lives he saved at the hospital that day; should his actions be ignored? In fact, you are expressing the sorts of concerns Transplant and Pawn were talking about. What does a job matter compared to the ground you walk on, the food you eat, and the air you breathe? As a free individual who will likely never hold a traditional occupation, perhaps I am not the most qualified to answer this question. All of humanity could destroy itself and I might be left behind intact, transformed into a statue by your absence.
This is the conclusion of diary entry #57.
Transplant’s Personal Diary
Today was our D-day. We stormed a beach and fought overwhelming odds. Bullets and bombs versus worms, roots, and mushrooms.
It was not the best day to feel the way I did. I don’t know how to describe it. I didn’t exactly have a headache when I woke up in the cloud forest that morning; it felt like the sharp toes of an eagle had been probing all the little tunnels in my brain. The other spores slept well. We were all huddled together in a depression of moss and fleshy leaves the size of wakeboards. None of us cared we were sleeping with our sides touching, like fledglings in a nest. The Lichen left us our souls, but most sense of personal space is gone between us. Pawn is more my brother now than he ever was before. He told me that if anything happens to him he wants me to help Salt Shaker raise their daughter. No matter how my composition changes, I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for that. The Earth is my child and parent; look at how I’ve cared for it.
I should have used my powers more aggressively before the Lichen called. Being an upper middle class American overpowered all my guilt. I wasn’t part of the problem because I bought cage free eggs and organic carrots. Somehow I just didn’t notice the gas my car drank, the toxic purple box I kept my art pencils in, or the lights I left on when I left a room. I could’ve gone out at night and reclaimed wetlands with my powers. I could’ve pinched forests back over construction sites like green clay. Instead I played the superhero and made big houseplants for people to gawk at.
I’ve learned more about the other spores too. Rot and Venus appear so strange because they let the Lichen replace bigger parts of them. Parts they didn’t like. Rot had the Lichen literally replace the pieces of him that convinced his human mind to commit violent crimes. Gone was the domestic abuser. Gone was the gambler. He kept his taste in fancy clothes, which is more than I can say for Venus.
Dry Worm has grown close to me. It’s impossible to hide anything in the knots between us, so the entire drama that could take two people a lifetime to play out took us one night. She huddled close to me and held my arm when we had settled in to sleep. We all shared silent stories around an imaginary campfire. The lesser spores hovered around us, feeding on the details of the human emotion they used to have like chickens pecking at seed. Too much would make them heartsick, so they came in waves to listen.
Stories flowed through her arm and into mine by the subtlest squeezes. A soft squeeze meant there was a time when she had been happy, even behind her veil. She had a garden. A Jolt of tightness. The garden was fading. It needed worms to help move and nourish the soil. She was walking home carrying a jar of them. The police showed up and manhandled her. The crime… irrelevant… something the man she was seeing had done. They’d killed him. That was when the Lichen rose from the cracks in the ground and swallowed them all. It spat out the police… dead. They were not fit for the call or anything else. The Lichen kept her and her worms.
Her squeeze loosened slowly. She’d lost her faith and her love of her home. She traveled the world underground with her pets, like reading a book backwards. The earth told very recent stories. Very painful ones. Landfills. Poisonous dumps. She swam in mass graves. Everyone was out to kill her garden and even she was guilty of it before the call.
She squeezed softly and stroked the soft side of my wrist with one finger. Nothing physical separated us spores. Not the age difference. Not the cultures. Not our bodies. It was just me that kept us apart. I don’t know who I want to be with. I like Dry Worm, but life is too overwhelming for me now for all that. I don’t feel much like starting a new family after abandoning two of them. I’m not up to it. Her grip loosened. I felt every bit of badness she did. Even in that nest you can still be lonely. The other spores felt it too. Her hand left my arm. There was war coming soon and it was perhaps the only distraction big enough to get her to let go.
The Lichen’s connections are stronger and more numerous than Act-of-Goddess’. When thousands of gallons of oil spilled on a frigid northwestern beach, we were alerted. We traveled there under the ground as fast as we could, expecting to find the ruptured hull of a ship or a flaming platform. When we emerged there was nothing in sight but a great sheet of acrid blackness clumping up in the tide. I took off my boots and walked out into the edge of it. I felt the greasy oil between my toes. Rot stood next to me. When the next wave touched his feet, a purple film took over the oil around him and ate it away. Among the thousands of species of fungi and bacteria all over his skin, one of them likes to eat oil. He waded waist high into the mess and started eating away at the black stains.
I consulted with the other spores. We were thinking about building some kind of dense kelp net to corral the pollutant. I was eager to get started before the sun broke through the puffy blue clouds overhead, but before I could reach down and grab up any washed-up plants the sand shifted. A silvery spinning spear shredded the sand, tossing it into our faces. A bulky machine like a cartoon robot with a drill for a head emerged from the hole. I had never seen him before, but the Lichen had shown us what to look for. It was Drill Baby.
I had previously wondered why the Lichen hadn’t made its way to him and tried to stop him with the call. The Lichen told me that some people physically could not accept it. Their minds were too hard, too impenetrable when it came to the suffering of other living things. They had morals that couldn’t find room for compassion. People like Drill Baby could only be threatened, jailed, or killed. When I saw his sneer and that E-cigar of his I dreaded that inevitable third option. His helmet opened.
“I told my boys. The trap’s only as good as the bait,” he said, teeth clacking on the exhaust pipe in his mouth.
“You spilled this oil… on purpose?” Pawn asked. His skin can’t turn the color of rage, but I heard the purple in his voice.
“Did you think I’d let you destroy my operations?” he chuckled. “You done picked a fight with the heavy weight champ.” He spun the drills on his suit like he was beating his chest. “Shame on you for thinking I’m one of them boardroom biddies who sidesteps the stink-eye. I don’t pretend I’m apart from my work. I’m a world shaker. I’m not going to let everyone ignore the treasures pooling under our feet. I’ll drag the whole damn world into innovation if I have to.”
“And destroy the planet in the process?” I asked.
“I aint destroying nothing. Conservation of matter, learned about it in school. Everything I do sticks around.”
“Do you want to die?” Pawn threatened. His threats are bad and he knows it.
“A bear roars at me,” Drill Baby said, “and I just shove my arm down its throat to shut it up. Let’s get to work boys! Bonuses if you bag somebody’s head!”
That was when the sea turned to froth and a line of amphibious vehicles emerged from the water. Loading doors on the front of them popped open and vomited out their contents. Maybe the men in those vehicles were trying to protect their jobs or maybe Drill Baby had hired a bunch of ex-military to take us down; it didn’t really matter. They had guns. Armor. Black visors. That stupid drill-riding toddler on their chest. And they shot on sight.
All I had to work with was columns of floppy kelp, but I worked hard. One length of it around my waist kept me suspended in the air while I brought the other one down to slap a mercenary’s face into the oily sand. I pushed his head in until it was buried. I never felt the need to do anything like that in the Justice Backers. That was never war though. That was a game where we occasionally risked our lives, like climbing a tree and hanging upside down in a branch. Silliness. This was different. I don’t know if I killed that man. I don’t think I did.
Venus certainly wasn’t holding back. She went for the head, shredding necks with her hidden spines. Her body mostly absorbed the barrage of bullets, only occasionally taking wounds that looked like snapped pieces of celery. Rot swept in after her, covering the dying and struggling with a layer of suffocating mold.
Pawn reminded me of our own army, waiting patiently in an underground burl. I used the kelp to force my way into the sand and open a connection to the burl so the other spores could join us. They threw themselves mindlessly into the chaos to get chewed up and shredded. They didn’t think enough of themselves to consider death an actual consequence.
When I came back to the surface Drill Baby ripped through my kelp and tossed me across the sand. The guns on his chest fired, creating geysers of sand that came closer and closer. I was only saved by a sudden change in the terrain as a worm burrowed under me. It breached the surface and dropped itself on Drill Baby. He held the worm’s girth up with his mechanical arms and drilled into it. The poor animal’s guts sprayed all over him. Dry Worm snuck under him and placed her staff between his legs. The dried-out worm’s tissues inflated and returned to life. It wrapped itself around Drill Baby’s legs and tripped him when he tried to walk. That didn’t give any of us an opportunity to strike, as he just spun up again and burrowed out of sight. Oil and sea water poured into the hole he left behind.
Pawn was the safest from the bullets, so he did his best to coordinate the lesser spores. He had some of them gang up on the vehicles and flip them over. The ones that could ripped red thorns from their bodies and tossed them like knives. The oil. The blood. The strange green fluids from the worms and spores. They all mixed together into a vile slurry and then into a foam. I thought we all might drown in it.
Drill Baby’s arm exploded out of the sand and snagged Venus by the neck. She wrapped all her vines around him and tried desperately to bind him, but his armor was too powerful. He ripped one of her legs off. Her many hidden mouths split open and screamed. The sound struck my heart like a dagger and the strength went out of me. I thought I was still standing, but then I looked down and saw my knees grinding into the sand. Nobody deserved to have that filthy beach as their grave.
An unexpected savior leapt out of the ocean: a small black whale. It flipped through the air and at its highest point a woman leapt from its back and extended rubbery wings. Alpha Dog never would have sent her, but thankfully she doesn’t take orders from him. She bombarded Drill Baby with strange little bursts of air until he was forced to release Venus. The injured spore slithered across the gross sand like an octopus, looking for a lifeline. I threw her some kelp that attached to our underground burl so she could recover away from the fight.
Sportfish was the only one in the air, so her support was invaluable. Everywhere where we were getting mowed down she swooped in and broke up the firing squads. Our remaining spores limped forward and pushed more of Drill Baby’s soldiers back into the surf. She landed next to me and helped me to my feet.
“You’re helping us?” I panted.
“I assume you’re here to protect the beach.”
“Then we’re on the same side for now.”
“You sure pissed uncle Eben off.”
“Pretty sure I’m pissing the whole world off,” I admitted.
Two mercenaries took aim at us. I was about to pull Sportfish to the ground with me when I saw her whale power up onto the beach as far as it could. It opened its mouth wider than any real whale could and created a sound so loud that the men were forced to drop their guns and cover their ears. Sportfish told me to cover mine as well. The whale got louder and louder. Through my covered ears I could hear that the sound had become a song, a really popular one in fact. One of those house music tracks with so many contributing artists that they wouldn’t know who to give the Grammy to. It felt like it had been years since I’d last heard music like that. My life has been all cicadas and peeping frogs.
The sound wave attack forced nearly all the soldiers to their knees. The spores mostly lacked ears. Pawn did not look concerned, even as his powdered eardrums ran out of his ears like sugar. I looked back at Sportfish to see her literally dancing along with the music. Every time a move had her extend her arm she fired another blast at a vehicle or a soldier’s feet. I hadn’t pegged her as the theatrical type, but then I noticed the small crowd of people gathered over the far dune at the edge of the battlefield. I saw at least a dozen phones recording us. After she was finished breaking it down, Sportfish saw me looking at the crowd. She switched off her whale’s sonic attack.
“The show was for them?” I asked and pointed to the phone stands across the beach.
“You guys might not need good press,” she said, “but I do.” Our eyes were drawn to the arrival of several police vehicles. I guess Drill Baby didn’t like seeing them either, because he vanished beneath the ground. What was left of his forces stumbled back to their aquatic tanks and sank out of sight. “You’d better get going too,” she said. We shook hands. She took to her whale and we spores descended back underground.
By the end of it we looked like a bag of mulch. The husks of twelve spores were left on that beach to get swallowed by the tide. They weren’t human anymore; they were plants that had twisted back and forth over the years as they chased the sun and forgot about the ground they were rooted in. They weren’t devoid of feeling though. There was faded pain when they died and that pain throbbed in all our minds.
It was pitch black inside the burl while we traveled underground, but I still felt like I could see the blood glistening on Venus’ fangs. I think we killed four of Drill Baby’s men. As a spore I shared in the murders my peers committed. I had known I would not return to the Justice Backers since the call, but today cemented it. Neither Alpha Dog nor Impala would take us after this. Even if they wanted to they would quickly lose the financial struts the internet provides. I rubbed my aching knee in the spot roughly equivalent to where Venus’ vine had been ripped from her. She would grow it back but for now it hurt us.
“We need a better plan,” Pawn said without words. Rot nodded.
“The Lichen has one already,” Dry Worm said. “We’re just to keep prodding. Humans are dumb. They need all the chances we provide to get the message.”
“We might get killed before that,” Pawn argued. Venus hissed out loud. The content of the hiss was clear. She had told Pawn he was welcome to leave any time if he didn’t agree with the Lichen’s course of action. The rest of our return journey was spent in near silence.
Even after the invasion, the day wasn’t done beating the crap out of me. I was tired and my brain still had that clawed-out feeling, so I decided to take a nap alone back in our nest. I closed my eyes… and I found a prisoner.
My dreams have metamorphosed since the call. They’re more like dandelion seeds in the wind, mixing with the seeds of my peers. It’s a melting pot of old fears and hopes fading into the distance like a Bob Ross sunset. It is not a safe place for a human’s mind. I found Dreamweaver in a shadowy cave-like corner of my dream world. She was bound in tight stone vines, leaned against the wall like a chrysalis knocked from its twig and deprived of sunlight. I couldn’t see even the tiniest fold of her dream dress. The Lichen’s consciousness is fluid; it doesn’t leave any spot untouched or exposed. I was frightened for her.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. She looked like she barely had the energy to speak. Her blue lips suggested the dream world had been utterly airless to her until I’d closed my eyes.
“I came to you from Monkey Girl,” she said. She had crossed between us when we were feet apart on top of the mountain Drill Baby had popped the top off of. “I needed to see if you were being controlled.”
“I know that now. I’m sorry about your head. It was me clawing around. I was so sure… I know you are not holding me here. This mind is… inhuman. It is like stones and water and a hundred other things before life. It is cold.”
“It is cold to you. The Lichen learned to appreciate the sun’s weak glow through centuries of impenetrable clouds. Its warmth is old and less intense.”
“Is it going to release me?” she asked.
“No,” I answered. I sensed a cold tear on my real-life eye.
“Is it going to kill me?”
“No. The Lichen cannot trust you. It can’t let you take its secrets back to the minds of men. It’s going to keep you here.”
“I cannot stay here.”
“I’m sorry. You won’t even be here actually. The Lichen is going to take you from me. You’ll be in its mind.”
“Transplant please I don’t want to go there,” she cried. The Lichen was reverse-engineering her to figure out her powers. It was touching nerves that hadn’t felt a twinge since she was a flesh-and-blood child. “Transplant, the monster’s going to eat me! Please! I don’t want it to eat me. I don’t want to be in that dark stomach.” The stony vines started to drag her backward into the cave.
“I’m sorry,” I said again. I knew it wouldn’t kill her. It would try to be gentle, but the Lichen doesn’t understand us. It mixes with us and learns from us, but it won’t touch our flaws. Without those it can’t understand our fears. I can only hope that when it lets Dreamweaver go she’s still herself. Her sobbing little kid face disappeared in the cave. The Lichen tried to comfort me. It does care, even though it can’t do it in a human way. Its way is probably better.
Pawn shook me awake. We locked eyes and he learned what happened to Dreamweaver. We hugged. I don’t know if the person reading this knows much about coral, but I’ve got a depressingly good analogy. When two pieces of coral grow too close together, they fight. Neither can move, so they extrude their guts all over each other and try to digest their neighbors right out of their limestone shells. I saw it on the nature channel when I was a kid and it always stuck with me. That’s what the Justice Backers and the Lichen are doing. Their goals are just close enough that they have bumped into each other, but they can’t shake hands and play nice. It’s an acid fight. Pawn and I feel the burns on both sides.
Drill Baby’s Manifesto
(This document has been edited to remove Drill Baby’s recruitment information.)
I, Kenny Bittumer, of handsome mind and raucous body, do hereby declare war on the boot stain that calls itself ‘the Lichen’ on behalf of the entire human race. I intend to totally and utterly obliterate and annihilate this abomination of the Stone Age and all its slimy green subsidiaries. Let no weed go unburned. Let no mushroom stick its ugly flat head into our air. After seeing a vine eat the south, I will not be party to any treaties or laws that has man shaking hands with a stinking bog. We do not make deals with nature. We tame it. We make it beg for mercy. We do this because we recollect every crack of lightning that made our slack-jawed ancestors scurry into their caves. We do it because we recall children ravaged by polio, livestock dragged away by wolf teeth around their throats, and hurricanes that drown our cities. Nature is not your friend. It is our natural opponent, and I am one competitive sumbitch.
I can hear the worry warts already: but Baby, Earth is our home! Global warming! Endangered species! You’re pissing on your own rug! Yeah? So what? Y’all are smart people; I don’t need to split my tongue with you. Industry breaks things. It’s always been that way. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but life keeps getting better and better! You have your fancy phones and computers because we took all the pieces out of the ground. We move our cars and planes with what I take from the ground.
Is it going to run out one day? Of course! Conservation of mass, look it up. Once we turn all that oil and coal into something else there’s no way to turn it back again. Maybe magic can make the carriage a pumpkin again, but I aint seen anybody waving magic wands at present. What all the jawing heads on TV neglect to say is that we need the tank to hit empty. The red needle is a motivating kind of force. We stagnate without a howling danger over our shoulders.
There will be wars of shortage. There will be sleepless nights. The world will change. Don’t fight your natural urges. You’re a hard-working bullet-sweating god of a creature and if you want to take an hour long steamy shower on the massage setting, you deserve it! When the oil’s gone we’ll ram our way through the old impossibilities into a new set of supposedly finite luxuries and resources. You hear me? We thrive on the edge of annihilation because that’s where we were forged. This is my planet and I’ll use it up as I please. If the Lichen wants to stop me, it knows where to find me. Even as some yellow countries start to shut me down, I can always count on the good old U.S. of A to keep chugging on. My operations there will be increasing. Tar sands. Natural gas. Oil and coal. If you want to help me defend them then you can answer my call.
A warm welcome to all my new soldiers of fortune. I’ll be sending you a free Drill Baby flag you can fly on your home. We are a nation within a nation that’s finally ready to say, ‘I will not respect the boundaries of nature. I will fight to better my life and my family’s life and I don’t care what the dirt or the air or the sun has to say about it!’
I’m also officially inviting the Justice Backers to join us in defending the human laws of their homeland. They’re not a bad bunch just because a couple of crabapples got mixed in. This is the kind of war everybody fights in whether they say they’re a soldier or not. If you were standing right next to me while I did my work you’d either let me stick that drill in the ground or you wouldn’t. If you sit on the fence you’ll only get splinters. So join me! Support our troops and feel some pride at the pump!
If you’re a tree-hugger or a Lichen-lover I only have one thing to say to you: don’t you dare tread on me. I’ve got fangs full of oil and I’m not afraid to use them. We are at war.
With respect to human craftiness,
Known in his moments of glory as