Trees were never intended to be sentient beings, or God would have created them that way, back in the Garden.
Ailanthus ponders this sometimes as the sun’s rays prickle her leaves’ tiny solar panels and the tubules of her stems absorb the afternoon’s deluge. If the Tree of Knowledge had a voice, would it have cried out to warn the Tempted? Or would it, too, have been deceived by the Serpent and the false promises falling from its golden, forked tongue? Had it spoken, might the Tree have saved its offspring? In a way, the trees’ first parents had failed them, too.
Though admittedly, Ailanthus is not a natural tree, composed of wood and leaf and bark. No, she was created by another hand, forged of copper and steel and gold, in a factory not far from the Wind Forest. Its fumes are familiar to her. As soon as they’re inhaled, they’re processed through her leaves and exhaled again in a form fresh and renewed. The humans planted her here, her and her brethren—miles and miles of eight-armed trees-that-aren’t-trees in a forest-that-isn’t-a-forest. A second Eden, created to save the world.
Whether the other trees spend their days in philosophical ponderings, Ailanthus has no way to know. Though her branches scrape theirs when the wind blows just right and their roots are irreversibly entangled, their creators gave them no means by which to communicate, so their solidarity is one of silence. Thus, Ailanthus spends her days processing the air, dreaming her dreams, and wondering what she’d say if she had the words.
Something—no, someone stirs at the edge of the forest and Ailanthus shifts her attention from the skies, from the impossible flight of black-feathered birds and the way they pick the copper from her leaves’ veins for their nests high in her cloud-closest branches.
• • •
“—with enough energy to power a hundred households for a hundred years in each and every tree.”
“They’re not trees.” Bita’s voice was hostile, accusatory. She knew how she sounded, but she didn’t care. She hadn’t wanted to come here anyway. The trees here cast eerie crisscrossed shadows and the wind whistling through their branches seemed a whisper of warning.
“Bita.” Aunt Gigi’s disapproval manifested itself in gradually deepening lines. Each wrinkle was unique: some longer, some thicker, some that oddly hooked themselves about along the contours of her face.
That, Bita thought, is how a tree’s branches ought to be.
“Well, they’re not trees,” Bita said. “Not real ones, anyway. The real ones were each different. Complex and magnificent. Not like these things. These aren’t even plants; they’re machines—cold and hard and ugly.”
“You know how long it took to build this wind forest? Decades upon decades. If it weren’t for these trees and the others of their kind, Earth would be a wasteland—destroyed by years of pestilence and plague. You understand that, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. I am a botanist.”
“Botanist.” Aunt Gigi snorted. “Why waste your time studying the things of the past? We need intelligent young people like you to continue the march of progress, to increase efficiency, to solve the problems of rusting roots and corroding xylem and phloem and ... and these birds! Shoo! Go away! Menaces, all of them, but they’re endangered species now, so what can you do? There, doesn’t that sound like a problem for a scientist to solve? How to keep them from picking apart our trees without driving them into extinction as well? Or better yet, figure out how to make these trees reproduce so we don’t have to replace their rusting and broken parts every decade.”
Bita had stopped to study one of the trees’ eight identical branches. Sure, it carried out the chemical processes of a real tree—photosynthesis, respiration, transpiration—and even produced a “green” source of energy as a byproduct, but calling these mechanical structures “trees” was like calling a light bulb the sun.
“Please, Bita. At least consider it. We’re terribly understaffed. We could use your help, and I know you could use the work.”
Bita sighed and placed her hand on the nearest tree’s trunk. Through the steel bark, she sensed the rushing fluids, the transference of energy pounding through the metal like a cold, mechanical heartbeat. And somehow, deep within the vibrations, somewhere among the hums and clicks and whirring of parts, Bita swore she heard a quiet voice say, “Please.”
• • •
Ailanthus knows she’s not long for this world. The harsh corrosion of her inner, movable parts produces friction and uncomfortable burns. The birds have stolen the copper from her uppermost leaves again this spring, yet not one of the trees’ keepers have come around to replace them. Without these sun-nearest panels in optimal condition, she functions more slowly, barely eking out two-thirds of the energy she’d once produced each day.
The Creator once commanded the trees to reproduce: the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth. Perhaps His blessing is what the steel forest lacks. There was no booming, powerful “Let there be” as Ailanthus and her brethren rolled across the conveyer belt and down the assembly line, as branches were welded to trunks. There was no anointing of their roots as they were placed in the ground, no sprinkling of holy water on their leaves. Nothing but indifferent mechanical procedures and wearying nine-hour shifts and the afterthought, generations later, of fruit and seed and renewal and the bitter realization that what was once deemed the world’s greatest solution was really no solution at all.
• • •
“I told you, Steve, they want me to do the impossible. They think a botanist is some sort of wizard, some sort of Dr. Frankenstein to bring dead objects to life.” As she passed by each tree, Bita placed her palm on it, just long enough to hear the rumble of its inner workings. In the months she’d been working at the wind forest, she’d done this to each tree she passed but had never experienced that small, pleading voice again. Either she’d imagined it, or she was going crazy. Mama would’ve said it was a sign, a message from God, but Bita hadn’t believed in that sort of thing for years, since her prayers for Mama’s recovery had gone unanswered.
“These forests were supposed to solve the earth’s problems,” she said, frowning, “but we’ve only created more. The factories that manufacture new trees and replacement parts are using more energy than these worn-down acres can produce. They want me to make magic, to make these trees self-replicate like the trees of the old days used to.”
“What if you had a seed?” Steve asked. “An acorn, or a piece of fruit, or pinecone? Could you do it then?”
Bita sighed. “If I had a seed? A real, viable seed? One that somehow, by some miracle, wasn’t destroyed by the plague? Well, we wouldn’t need these broken-down scraps of metal then, would we? It would take some time, but we could fill these rusted forests with living trees instead. Can you imagine? No more rust, no more clanking of branches when the wind blows, no more harsh glimmer of the afternoon sun reflecting off the metal panels. They say that the old trees used to have their own unique scents, that you could tell by just smelling whether you were in a forest of maple or cedar or pine. And the fruit—”
“We have fruit.” Steve looked insulted, as though her words were a personal slight.
Bita laughed. “No, we don’t. We have blobs of protein injected with artificial flavourings and synthetic vitamins.”
“You’re not going to be one of those mothers, are you?” He laughed as he took her hand.
“What do you mean?” It was Bita’s turn to look insulted now.
“The kind who’s obsessed with keeping her children from the evils of processed foods. Who’ll spend a fortune on groceries to get real wheat and corn from halfway across the world.”
“Who said I wanted to be a mother at all?”
• • •
Ailanthus wants nothing more than to be a mother. Nothing more than to give life. If she had the means, she would be her kind’s Eve without a breeze-whisper’s hesitation. If she had the means.
She’s been listening to the young woman, watching her as the she tries to solve the forest’s “sustainability problem,” a problem Ailanthus equates with death. Not only her own—that she might bear bravely—but that of the forest itself.
Is there an afterlife for a forest of steel? A bright city of glory where branches won’t rust, where their limbs won’t snap in strong winds? And there, will they be reunited with those who’ve gone before? Their ancestors of fragrant wood and soft leaf?
• • •
“The numbers don’t look good, Bita.”
“Just six more months,” she begged.
Not five years earlier, it was Aunt Gigi pleading for help, and now how the cogs had fully turned. Bita placed her hand on one trunk, then the next, searching for hope amid the rusting forest. Its rattling had grown so loud the women had to shout to be heard, but still Bita strained her ears, leaning in close, for some sign of that small, trusting voice.
“They’re pulling our funding,” Aunt Gigi said.
“Then I’ll work without pay.”
“We need to consider other viable options.”
They both knew that there were no other viable options. Without the trees, the carbon dioxide levels would rise too quickly. Without the trees, everything would die.
“We need to start looking for solutions elsewhere,” Aunt Gigi said.
Bita pressed her hand against another tree’s trunk. “Please ...”
And from somewhere deep within the clanking, clanging tree trunk, a single syllable emerged.
• • •
Ailanthus has never encountered the thing the woman calls a seed, but each day, she pushes her roots out farther, searching. The seams and joints creak as they unfurl the years’ worth of gnarls and reverberate as they clash against those of her brethren.
The woman presses her hand to the metal trunk and speaks of a long-ago time, when in the place where they stand once stood a true forest, with branches eternally vibrant.
“Evergreens.” The whispered word echoes through Ailanthus’s branches, burrows deep in her soul.
Weeks pass. The woman wearies, resting her back against the trunk as she scribbles thoughts and ideas onto a plastic tablet, then shakes her head and erases them. The sweat on her brow is slick against the trunk’s steel plating, but still, Ailanthus searches, calling upon her silent brethren for help.
Her roots extend, each tube stretched thin, breaking apart rock and ever searching. With the additional effort, she barely creates enough energy to keep her own processes functioning, much less power anything else. Around her, her brethren crumble and fall, carried away in beak-sized bits by the birds alighting on every branch, pecking and dismantling each leaf.
Lightning ignites the abandoned ruins, far on the forest’s edge. Only the woman’s swift call for help saves Ailanthus from the same fate.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
• • •
The tree was dying. Its energy output was less than ten percent what it was just weeks ago. Still, Bita wouldn’t give up. She shooed the birds from its branches and sheltered it from the rain, all while she sat in the shade of its branches and tried to devise a solution.
She soon ran out of spare parts to dull its rattling and materials to patch the rusted holes in its trunk. When a sparrow alighted upon it, it looked so natural a movement, Bita didn’t even think to shoo it away until it had already tucked itself inside.
Perhaps that was what did it in, in the end.
Within moments of the bird’s nesting within its trunk, the tree gave a jolt and a shudder, its branches extending one final time. The gears ground to a halt, and it let out a groan.
“Don’t give up,” Bita pleaded. “Look. Just look at what once was.”
She held up the image on her tablet of a lush, green tree in the centre of a garden. Quercus wislizeni: the live oak.
The tree gave no sign of seeing.
• • •
Her limbs are immobile. Her gears are rusted stuck. Yet in that stillness comes a silence she’s never experienced before. All her life has been filled with noise, the noise of mechanical parts clinking and clanking and shifting and moving. A noise she’s associated with life.
But now, in the silence, she can hear those around her. Their dying thoughts fill her consciousness. The noise, the bustle, the wheels of progress which they’d so desperately tried to keep moving ... that was the thing disconnecting them.
In half-whispered thoughts, Ailanthus calls upon the others. She tells them what to look for, where they might find it. And then, she waits, saving her last reserves of energy.
• • •
Bita fell to her knees, head bent against the metal panels so corroded that she could almost, just almost imagine that it was the roughness of true bark. Her hand dropped to the ground beside her, and there she felt ... something.
There, protruding from the black soil, entwined in the mechanical tree’s roots, was a block of amber. Within it was something she’d only seen in pictures of long ago: the battered, half-broken, yet undeniable form of an acorn.
• • •
Ailanthus’s branches never rust. Her leaves are always bright. She looks down upon the cloud-swirled sphere, at the bright blotches of green.
Copyright © 2018 Wendy Nikel. Originally published in Glass & Gardens: Solarpunk Summers. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she's left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nature, and elsewhere. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com.