Disclaimer... The following story is a purely fictional account. Any relationship to any real person living or dead is coincidental. The narrative deals with the torture of human beings. It is intended for mature readers who wish to view such material, and for whom it is legal to do so. The author in no way condones or promotes such acts in real life.
Copyright (c) 2005 by POW. For spam prevention, an animal name has been added to the author's e-mail address. Remove the animal name to get the actual address: POWauthor zebra at yahoo dot com. This story may be freely copied and distributed so long as it is copied in its entirety, unchanged, including the author credit information and disclaimer. The author welcomes feedback.
I Am The Wood
I am the wood.
Before the humans first came to this world, I knew nothing of them. Indeed, I knew of nothing other than myself. Everything that existed was me, and I encompassed all that was. My various parts included forests and plains, grasslands and tundras, swamps and jungles, but they were all me. My web of roots interlocked and connected all the pieces, and my thoughts flowed through the web in their slow and stately way as the seasons turned and the stars wheeled across the sky.
Then one of the stars grew brighter and brighter, until it moved around the sky in a way like no other star. And soon after, the humans came down from the new star in their shuttles. And the terror began.
They tore up my grasslands. Their plows shredded my roots until all that was left was raw wounded earth. Their saws felled my trees. The once-living wood became lifeless walls and roofs for the humans. They blasted entire mountainsides to get at the metals beneath, discarding the corpses of countless acres of me in huge dross pits. Strange plants spread across the land where I once dwelt, plants that were not-me, that I could neither hear nor speak to. And the humans moved dazzlingly fast. They and the other creatures they brought with them flew like lightning compared to the measured pace of my own thoughts.
Years passed, years of carnage and destruction as the humans spread and grew. I fell back, retreated, further and further each year as I tried to communicate with the enemy, to figure out what they wanted and why they were killing me.
"Who do you think it's going to be this time?"
"I don't know," Callin replied. "No one ever knows. You know that."
"It hasn't been that long since the last one. I wonder why the pace has picked up?"
"Gina, there's no point in talking about it. The forest does what it wants. Its reasons don't matter." Callin continued trudging along the footpath.
"But maybe if we figure out why, what it wants, then we can find a way to make it happy, and then maybe it will stop."
Callin didn't answer. After a while, Gina tried again. "There's got to be some kind of pattern, some reason to it all..."
Callin stopped walking and grabbed Gina by the arm. "Look. The only thing we know for sure is that so far, it has only picked men. So you're safe, and you can think about the big picture all you want. All I can think about right now is how I might get to the top of the hill and find a flower with my face. So please just shut up, will you?
They walked on in silence.
My strength is in my ability to manipulate genetic information. Of course, until I met the humans, I would not have known to put it in those terms. For me it is an instinctual thing to examine, absorb, and rearrange the molecules of life. My own "DNA" is actually a super-large molecule, ten to a hundred thousand times larger than that of the humans or any of their client species. Such a molecule can hold all the information in their DNA with room to spare.
That is why I can be grass, and vine, and tree, and tuber, and thousands of other varieties of plant. A human's cells, all with the same DNA, can differentiate into hair or skin or pancreas or bone depending on what chemical signals they receive as they develop. In the same way, my cells can express as thousands of different forms that the humans would call "species". Unlike them, though, I have some control over the process. I can provide the right chemical environment to make budding cells become strong wood, or light-absorbing leaf, or thirsty root, in any number of variations to meet the conditions of the local climate.
As I said, for me this is all instinctual, like a reflex. Terms like "differentiate" and "molecule" are not mine. These are words I learned from humans. After I domesticated them. But I get ahead of my story...
The first of the invaders that I learned was corn. Each year, the humans planted row after row of cornstalks. Near the edge of one of their fields, I was able to reach out and touch the roots of the nearest one. It was an utterly alien experience. I had never encountered a plant like it. I think I expected it to be like-me-but-other, something I could talk with. But it was not. It was silent, stupid, inert. The Other that I sought was not in the corn.
After much thought and labor, I was able to break down the corn's DNA and understand it fully. The next year, when the humans planted their corn, what sprouted from their seeds was not earth-corn, but me, disguised as corn.
After the first one, the task became easier. In time I took over all their plant life, until their entire imported ecology depended on me, though they didn't know it. At that point their lives were in my hands, but I didn't want to exterminate them. I was still looking for the mind that had to be there somewhere. I wanted to understand them, to communicate with them, to reach an accord with them. They were, after all, the first Other I had ever encountered in the millions of years of my existence. Why should we not find a way to coexist?
After learning their plants, I tried to absorb their "animals" (a new concept for me), but those were too quick. Each time I was able to catch one of the humans' client creatures - and my failures far outnumbered my successes - it would always die and decompose before I could assimilate it. After many failed attempts, I knew I would have to accelerate to match their speed, or they would forever outrun me.
Working in deep forests, far from where the invaders traveled, I developed species with accelerated growth and movement. It was the hardest task I ever faced. The flow of signals in plant tissue is inherently slow. It took many cycles of the seasons before I finally achieved a satisfactory solution. I would never be able to match the animals, but the speeds I learned to reach would be fast enough.
With my new speed, I was better able to catch animals, immobilize them, and invade their cells. I learned what they needed to stay alive, and provided it through links between my capillary tubes and their "blood vessels". I experimented with trying to simulate them, as I had with the plants. That effort failed - without roots to keep it connected to the rest of me, the "animal" tissue that I generated had no will to drive it. It sat, inert, until it ran out of nutrients and died.
But by inserting tiny tendrils into the "brain" tissue of the creatures I caught, I was able to get a sense of the animals' thoughts, and even to insert some of my thoughts into them. It was disappointing - the animals I caught were barely smarter than the corn, and they had no way to network together as I could. How could these imbecilic beings be so successful at overwhelming me?
Then one day I was able to catch a human, and I at last saw why they were winning the war. The human was out exploring far from their main body. It stepped into a hole and broke its leg. I moved in and began to link with it. It thrashed and flailed, but was unable to fight off the millions of tendrils that snaked into the pores in its skin. I immobilized it and absorbed its information, and a whole new world of understanding opened up to me.
Gina and Callin stepped into the clearing. The grey gleam of dawn had yielded to the brighter light of day, although the sun itself was still hidden behind the trees that surrounded the space. Most of the colony was already gathered there. Faces turned toward the new arrivals, all of them somber.
The group was gathered in a rough semi-circle around a large growth in the center of the clearing. Like all the others the colonists had seen, it stood two and a half meters high, made of wood so dark it was almost black. The trunk was round, perhaps 10 cm in diameter, and hardly tapered at all from its base to the top, where it suddenly narrowed to a stem, then flared out in a flower as large as a human head. About half a meter below the base of the flower, two horizontal branches grew out perpendicular to the trunk. Smaller growths emerged near the base of the trunk and the ends of the branches. The lines were unnaturally straight and the curves perfectly circular, making the tree look like something manufactured, not grown.
The path Callin and Gina had followed brought them into the clearing from one side of the tree. Here and there among the gathered colonists, people whispered to their neighbors or grabbed one another's hands. Callin walked around toward the front of the tree, somehow knowing what he would find. When a woman caught his eye and shook her head in sorrow, Callin was sure.
He slowed his steps, but nothing he could do would stop the inevitable. His friends and neighbors melted out of his way as he continued on, until he was standing directly in front of the tree, his eyes fixed on the bloom at the top.
The flower was dense and beautiful. Seen up close, it was actually a collection of thousands of tiny individual blossoms. Delicate petals of pink and white, yellow and brown all grew atop one another in no apparent order. But from further away, a pattern became evident. The individual pieces fit together to make a mosaic. A portrait. A very realistic, life-sized, living sculpture.
Callin was staring at a flawless image of his own face.
What I learned from the human I caught staggered me. Each human was individually intelligent! Each one, so small and fragile, contained a brain to match my continent-spanning one. Running at their absurd animal speed, they could fit a vegetative world's worth of memory and intelligence into a space no larger than a small rock!
Their outlook was so different from anything I knew. It took me an entire year to absorb the information contained in that one human. Physics, chemistry, biology, human history... so much to learn, all thrown at me at once. And I learned that each human was like this - I had not one enemy to defeat, but thousands. It was an overwhelming task, and all the while, the humans continued to rape my lands and destroy me piece by piece.
And the most important thing that I sought - the answer to why the humans were so bent on killing me - was nowhere to be found. I searched and searched through the captive human's memories, but I could find no indication of why they had singled me out for destruction. Indeed, it seemed he had no thoughts of me at all.
And then I realized. The answer, when at last I figured it out, stupefied me in its sheer indifference - they had no idea that I existed!
They didn't even know they were destroying me.
I think it would have been better if they had indeed set out to deliberately eradicate me - at least I would be considered a foe worthy of destruction. Instead, I was nothing to them.
I am not nothing.
I am the Wood.
I vowed revenge. I would take back my world. I would punish them.
Callin didn't move for a very long time. Around him, the others spoke in hushed whispers. There were no other noises in the clearing. No wind blew to rustle the branches, and of course there were no birds to sing or insects to buzz.
Finally, Gary approached and laid his hand on Callin's shoulder. "Callin," he said, "I'm sorry."
Callin still didn't move. Gary said "Callin, you know we can't wait too long. It has to be soon."
At last Callin stirred. He sucked in a deep breath, closed his eyes, and let the air out. "I know, Gary. Just one more minute."
But Gary, watching the tree, saw that the growths at the ends of the branches were starting to swell, growing so fast it was almost possible to see the movement. "Callin, Arbol won't wait for long. Please."
Callin had been ready to go, but the mention of the name filled him with disgust, and he suddenly couldn't bring himself to do it. "No," he said. "No."
Gary's grip tightened on his shoulder. His voice hardened. "Callin, one way or another this is going to happen. You can either suck it up and be a man, or -". His voice broke off as Callin abruptly whirled and slammed his fist into Gary's face. "NO!" he shouted as he broke free of Gary's arm and made to run off, away from the clearing.
He found his path blocked by a wall of colonists. He dodged and spun, but the wall closed in on him from all sides. Callin was not in bad shape - all the colonists had to work hard to build their new world, and their bodies showed the results. But he was no match for the three tall, burly men who stepped out from the crowd, caught him in their grip, and force-marched him over to the waiting cross-tree.
The men roughly stripped off Callin's clothing. He bucked and screamed, but he could not resist them. When he was naked, they grabbed him by the neck and forced him backward until he touched the black wood of the cross. Two of them stretched out his arms to either side; by no coincidence, the horizontal branches of the tree were at exactly the height of Callin's arms, and his wrists fit exactly into the space formed by the quickly-growing shoots. More men came out from the crowd to hold Callin's ankles to either side of the trunk.
"Aaaah, God, no!" Callin screamed. "No!" He jerked and pulled, to no avail. The men held him tightly in his place.
The wood grew quickly. In less than five minutes, thick wooden bands had grown around Callin's wrists and ankles, pinioning him to the cross, and the men were able to let go. When they stepped back, Callin finally stopped screaming, seeming to realize that there was now no possibility of escape, and stood gasping to catch his breath. His ribs heaved and the muscles of his chest labored to bring in air.
When I had drained my captive human of everything it knew, I understood enough to form a plan, and began to exact my revenge.
The first assault was billions of nearly invisible spores, of a fast-growing species I had tailor-designed to consume silicon. I released them from dozens of places, and the wind carried the spores everywhere. Each one that reached a food source grew and ate, binding the silicon into more complex compounds and rendering it useless for its original purpose. The result: the humans' technology collapsed. One day, their launch shuttles and computers and cars and communicators all worked fine; the next, they were worthless hunks of metal and plastic with grey fuzz oozing out.
The second assault was more gradual: one by one over the course of a few dozen days, their food crops all withered and died. That meant killing the parts of myself that were the corn and rice and wheat, but it hurt me no more than a human would feel the clipping of a nail. It certainly hurt far less than the wounds I had suffered daily since the humans' arrival.
The humans grew more and more worried as their food supply dwindled. I'm sure their first instinct was to use their high-tech tools to try to solve the blight, but their tools were all dead, too. They had only their own resources to fall back on. And with only their own resources, they were no match for me.
Finally one evening, all the humans gathered together in one of their buildings to discuss what they could possibly do about their hopeless situation. They argued long into the night. A few hours before dawn, I lit up some phosphorescent lichen on the footpath outside the door. The glowing shape formed an arrow. It wasn't long before one of the humans stepped outside for some air, saw the arrow, and went back in to get the others. Soon they were all gathered outside, pointing and jabbering.
Naturally, the curious primates decided to follow the arrow. It led them to a second arrow further along, and another after that. One by one the arrows led them to the edge of their colony, and then a short way beyond to a little clearing. In that clearing the first of my punishment trees stood waiting for them.
Callin stood against the tree, his arms and legs anchored in place. His eyes were closed, and his head leaned back against the wood. His breathing came in ragged terror-filled sobs.
Gary finished getting up from the ground where Callin's blow had laid him out. He brushed aside the people helping him and walked over to stand in front of Callin. "You know, Callin, you always were a loser," he said.
Callin laughed, a short, bitter sound. "Gee, Gary, I notice you waited until I couldn't move before you said that. What's the matter? You afraid I'd knock your pretty teeth out if you took me on in a fair fight?"
"Callin, the Forest God's rules are simple, but then, you always had trouble following rules, didn't you? Arbol's tree picks whoever it wants. If it picks you, you have to go. If you don't, everyone suffers, and we keep on suffering until you finally accept your fate."
Gary's tone was becoming preachy. Callin decided the speech was not so much for him as for Gary's followers, so he closed his eyes and let the words wash over him.
"It's too bad that it has to be you this time. But you can't fight it, see? You're a dead man already. Either you accept your fate when Arbol calls you and save the rest of us a lot of pain, or we all suffer, and you lose anyway. And frankly, Callin, we're not interested in dying gruesome deaths from unknown poisons or losing limbs to gangrene just so you can have another day or two of life on the run before you end up on the cross."
"It's a shame. You could have gone voluntarily, and everyone would have respected you for it. You'd have been the hero that you've never been able to be in your life. But instead you chose to die a selfish bastard. Typical."
Callin still said nothing.
"Ah, but you understand perfectly well what I'm trying to say. As I recall, you helped hold Jude up to the wood when he didn't want to take his turn, didn't you? Yeah, in fact, you looked like you were really enjoying yourself leaning on his wrist. Yet you tried to weasel out when your own number came up. What a pathetic coward."
Gary was speaking louder, now, definitely playing to the crowd. "I think the Forest God did us a favor this time. Blessed be Arbol!" A faint murmur of "Blessed be Arbol" answered him from the crowd. Gary hawked up a blob of spit, bloody from Callin's blow, and spat into Callin's face, just below his eye.
Callin flew into a rage, but was utterly helpless to move. "YOU SON OF A BITCH!" he screamed. "You're damn right I don't want to die for you psychos and your 'Forest God'! Why should I? Your God doesn't even exist! It's just a forest, Gary. It's no more a god than you are!"
"You will see, Callin. Arbol will purify you and bring you home to him. You will see." Gary turned and began to walk out of the clearing. Callin called after him, "Hey, you and your toadies can preach all you want about 'learning to love Arbol's way' but the rest of us know the truth - you Foresters are just as likely as the rest of us to get stuck onto a cross. If your Forest God does exist, he sure doesn't bother to distinguish between heretic and disciple when it comes to choosing who dies!"
Gary showed no sign that he had heard, and walked on out of sight. Most of the other colonists also started to leave the clearing, now that their presence was no longer required. Only a few stayed back, mostly to say goodbye. Gina lingered longest, waiting until everyone else had left before approaching the cross.
She reached out to touch his cheek, wiping away the bloody sputum Gary had left. "Callin..."
"Gina, don't," Callin said.
"Callin, I just want to tell you... I mean..."
"Just go, Gina. There's nothing you can say that will make any difference. I'm sure Landon will happy to talk to you." He knew this last was cruel, but in his current situation he couldn't see any reason to maintain the charade of civility.
She bore it gracefully. "And maybe I will talk to Landon. Later. Right now I want to talk with you."
Callin sighed. "What is it with women? It's always talk, talk, talk. Take a good look, Gina. Do you see anything here that will be made better by talking? Is there any point? Do you know a magic word that will get me down? Gary's right - I'm a dead man already. Why do you want to waste your time talking to a corpse?"
Gina tried again, as though talking to a child. What was it with men and their macho penchant for bottling everything up inside? "Even if I can't get you down from there, maybe it would help you to have someone nearby. Just to be here for you, you know?"
"Gina, please just go. You know what's going to happen next as well as I do. In another few hours, I am going to be in so much pain that I won't even remember you ever existed, much less be able to have a pleasant little chat with you. You can't help me. Please. Just go."
Gina looked at him for a long while, then embraced him, awkwardly around the black trunk. "OK, Callin. I'll go. If that's your wish, I'll do what you want. But I'll be thinking of you constantly. And I don't promise that I won't come back a little later." She smiled a shy smile.
Callin relented, wishing with all his heart that he could hold her in his arms one last time. "Gina, I do want you to go, but only because I don't want your last memory of me to be of a screaming, suffering wretch who's barely even human anymore. Please go, and don't come back. So you can remember me as a man. OK?"
"OK," Gina whispered "I love you, Callin."
Callin said nothing, but tears were rolling down his cheeks. Gina broke away, turned, and walked out of the clearing without a backward look.
On finding the cross, the humans talked and argued, argued and talked until the pre-dawn sun began to brighten the sky. They talked and argued while the flower bloomed. They talked and argued as the flower clearly became a human face, the face of the one they informally acknowledged to be their leader, though there was no one who officially held that post.
I hadn't expected the human to cooperate so easily. I thought I would have to use more coercion to get my first victim in his place. Perhaps he wouldn't have been so cooperative if he had known just how bad it would be. I found out later that he had pre-existing ideas of a mythology that preached the self-sacrifice of one individual for the benefit of the group, centered around the same symbol as my punishment tree. I knew the symbol was important to many of the humans, but I had no idea it would have such a powerful influence as to compel one of them to submit willingly to what he knew would be torture. I certainly hadn't chosen it for that reason - I picked a cross because it was a very effective way to instill long-lasting pain in a human body.
The human called "Arden" stepped up, put his back to the tree, and stretched out his arms. He was surprised when the shoots that would trap his arms and legs began growing so quickly, but he stood in place until it was too late for him to leave if he had wanted to. The others all watched with reactions of mixed fascination and horror.
They continued watching all through that day and into the following night. Groups of them left at times to rest or eat of their strictly-rationed remaining food, but there was always a large company present to see Arden's suffering.
During the middle of the second day, Arden's struggle ended, and the humans trickled away back to their buildings. On the way, they had to pass through several of their fields, all of which were filled with vigorous young sprouts, bursting into new life.
Alone at last, Callin waited, and wondered which was worse: the pain that would come, or the anticipation of it. He was in no discomfort at the moment. The bindings around his limbs were tight, but not too much so. His circulation was fine, his muscles were not strained. He didn't even have an itch. He knew it would get much, much worse later, but for now, he was in no pain.
He was pretty sure he would be left to suffer alone. Everyone in the colony had watched the horrifying torture that Arden had endured, torture that had turned him into a ravening, gibbering beast by the end. When the second cross had appeared and it became clear that one sacrifice had not been enough, very few people had the stomach to sit through it again. By the third time, the colony had come to the unspoken conclusion that the crucifixions were best left for the victims to endure alone. No one wanted to have others watch as their minds disintegrated from the appalling pain.
His thoughts were interrupted when he noticed that, very gradually, his feet were being lifted. The trunk of the tree was growing from below the ground, and as it grew, it lifted the rest of the tree higher, with Callin attached to it. The minutes dragged on. With each one that passed, a little more of Callin's weight was transferred from his heels to his toes, or to his wrists as his body slumped down. He began to feel some discomfort, and tried to shift his weight to ease it.
Callin become aware of another change. The rings around his ankles began to tilt forward, moving as imperceptibly as the tree itself. The pressure slowly forced Callin's legs to bend, with his knees moving forward and his heels back. This shifted his body downward, putting even more weight on his wrists. His arms were no longer horizontal, but made more of a Y-shape as his head dropped down below the crossbeam.
Eventually, the tree grew tall enough that Callin's toes lost contact with the ground. His entire weight was supported by his wrists and his ankles. The pain was excruciating. With his legs forcibly bent, he was unable to lock his knees, and so the muscles in his legs were forced to work to sustain him. When at last they collapsed from exhaustion, his arms had to take up the burden, and he would hang from them until his legs regained enough strength to take another turn.
He found he could not hold still. He was constantly moving, shifting his body within the constraints the wood allowed him, trying to alleviate the agony in one area but only increasing it in another. He gasped and screamed and cursed as the tree lifted him higher and higher.
The sun had climbed to mid-morning height, and was now beating down harshly on his naked skin. Sweat poured from his head and body, dripping into his eyes and burning them with salt. He found himself terribly thirsty, but knew that any water he drank would only renew his strength and make his ordeal that much longer to endure. He resolved that if any of the other colonists happened to come by and offer him a drink, he would refuse. He just hoped he would have the strength to do so if the time came.
Time passed in paralyzing slowness. Callin kept thinking he would pass out or go insane from the pain, but even that release was denied him. His strong body, hardened from manual labor, now worked against him with its resources of strength and endurance. Up and down, side to side, he tried every position available to him, and of course none of them provided him any relief at all. And still he dreaded what he knew was to come.
The sun was at its zenith when he felt the first pinpricks in the backs of his wrists, where they lay against the crossbeam. Panic set in, and he thrashed his body. His head slammed against the hard wood behind him and his fingers clenched and opened as he fought with new strength to escape his prison. But escape was impossible. He could only endure helplessly as thousands of tiny tendrils invaded his body. He felt them in his ankles now, too. He wanted to die, to fly away, to leave his tortured body, but his consciousness stubbornly refused to go.
I let the humans live in peace for a whole year after crucifying Arden. Their crops grew abundantly, with no work required from them except to harvest them. This left them plenty of time to devote to other things, like trying to develop an alternative to their destroyed silicon tools. They put an enormous amount of effort into trying to recover their lost technology, but they found themselves on a developmental plateau. They did not have the tools that would let them extract or process the ores to get their metal-tech back, and they didn't have the metal to build the tools to get at the ores. To use a phrase I gleaned from my first captive, "Catch-22".
Also, their animals all died. I could see no point in keeping the non-sentient beasts around - all they did was eat and excrete, contributing nothing to my system. I thought about allowing some of the insects to live - the way they provided pollination services to earth-life was intriguing. In the end, though, I decided it was a function I could do perfectly well myself. The humans all became, by necessity, vegetarians.
After a year of such calm, they found another cross-tree waiting for them. This one was for a man named "Renzo". Arrows once again led the whole troupe of them to the place in the early dawn. When the flower bloomed at sunrise, Renzo took off like a shot.
He managed to avoid the tree for three days. Some of the colonists feared what would happen to their food supply if Renzo was not given up, and wanted to force him onto the tree. Others wanted to believe they were still in charge of their world, and helped Renzo stay hidden.
The first day, I did nothing. The second day, one of the women picked a fruit from a tree and ate it. Within an hour, greasy pustules had erupted all over her body, inside and out. It took her four hours to finish drowning in the fluids in her lungs.
The third day, I opened up a hole under one of their pathways. When one of the humans walked over it, he fell in up to his neck, whereupon the roots of the nearby grasses reached out to him and began to digest him. By the time the other colonists got him out, he had lost so much tissue from his arms that they had to be amputated.
I was prepared to go further, but it happened that the man who lost his arms was one of Renzo's sympathizers. His experience caused him to undergo a complete change of heart. As soon as he was able to speak coherently, he told the others where Renzo was hiding. Within minutes, a mob had formed. They dragged Renzo out to where the tree was still patiently waiting, stripped him naked, and held him up to it. The wretch was terrified, and broke down in sobs long before any actual pain began.
Some of the colonists wanted to inflict additional punishment on him, to show the powers-that-be (meaning me) that they were cooperating. But Lydia, who had taken over in Arden's place, pointed out that nothing humans could do could possibly make what Renzo was about to suffer worse, so they should all just leave him alone. Which, after some discussion, they did. Although they did decide that those who ran from their crosses would suffer the humiliation of nudity, while those who went voluntarily would maintain the dignity of clothing.
I didn't care one way or another. As long as I got my victims.
More time passed, each minute seeming to take hours. Callin's muscles were beginning to reach the limit of their endurance. He was hanging by his arms for longer and longer periods. The pain was far beyond anything he had ever known.
He drifted in and out of consciousness. He came to loathe the times when his head was clear, because they brought nothing but a renewed awareness of his torture. Each time lucidity returned, he ached to escape back into the fuzzy dream-state where the pain was still there, but somehow less important. Sadly, he could no more force himself back into that state than he could force himself to sleep.
The sun was hanging midway up the western sky when his right shoulder gave out and dislocated. He would not have thought it possible that he could be in any more pain than he already was, but when his shoulder pulled free of its socket with a sickening jolt, he nearly vomited from the sudden increase in agony. Adrenalin pumped through him, enabling him to coax a burst of strength from his legs so he could take the pressure off his mangled right arm. The relief was short-lived, however. His leg muscles had already been pushed past their limit, and they gave way under him no more than a minute later.
Callin's weight settled back onto his torn arm. He tried to scream, but all that came out was a harsh barking noise. This is the end, he thought. I can take no more. Now I must either die or go insane.
Neither happened. Time continued to pass, and the cross continued to inflict horrifying suffering on Callin's trapped body. Some time later, his left shoulder pulled loose. Callin didn't even have the energy to gasp.
After that, things settled into a routine. I fed the humans, let them go about their business, and periodically harvested one of them when I felt a renewed need for vengeance. I picked the victims pretty much randomly, though I only chose males. In the back of my mind, I had the thought that some time in the future I might want to start a breeding program, and their biology was such that I could easily afford to cull a few males.
The third victim went willingly. The fourth, fifth, and sixth all tried to run, but were caught by the others and forced to take their places. The seventh was interesting. He went not only voluntarily, but almost joyfully, it seemed. I was very puzzled.
When I got my tendrils into him so I could read his thoughts, I learned that a cult had grown up around me. How droll! This particular victim was an adherent of the cult. It had a confused theology, based partly on the cross-centered beliefs that the first victim, Arden, had held, mixed with a good deal of what humans called "animism".
This human had deluded himself into thinking that if he was called to the cross, his suffering would be an offering that would cause his people's crops to grow, his offspring to prosper, his failings to be forgiven, and, oh yes, lead him into blissful union with his god for all eternity.
I think I had more fun shattering his illusions than I did torturing him.
Evening came. The sun set, and chill washed over the clearing where Callin hung. While it was up, the sun had seared his naked skin, and now the burned flesh was radiating all of his body heat out into the night. His body was so nearly spent that he couldn't even shiver.
Somehow, without him noticing, a crowd had gathered below his feet. He became aware of voices in the darkness, Gary's prominent among them. He had blurry flashes of torchlight, of black-clad figures bowing and chanting. He thought once that if he were still the same man he was before the cross, he would be appalled at the behavior of his fellows who had once been scientists. He would have been disgusted at the idea of them praying around him, using him as a sacrifice to Arbol the Flipping Forest God. Now, he just couldn't bring himself to care.
The chants and firelight faded away, and Callin was left alone once more with his suffering.
After a long time in the dream-state, Callin's mind suddenly returned, clarity filling him like a lamp brightening a dark room. He knew beyond any doubt that this was the end. All the other times that he had thought he could take no more pain were false alarms, obvious in hindsight because clearly he had continued to endure. This felt different. There was still pain, of course. But strangely, it seemed much reduced. Some quirk of his mind must be allowing him this feeling, the way a man who is freezing to death feels warm at the end. He thought he might even laugh at the pain for the few more minutes that he surely had left before oblivion came and washed him away. He settled in to await the end.
Callin tried to open his eyes to see who had dared interrupt his death, dragging him back to the world that he had only just now begun to leave. His eyes refused to open. He thought he might once have had the strength to force them. Now, he just couldn't see the point of striving so hard for anything at all, much less something so trivial. He resolved to ignore the voice and get back to the joy of dying.
<Callin. You're not dying.>
Of course he was dying. Couldn't whoever it was just go away and let him get on with it? Callin continued to ignore the voice.
<You can pretend I'm not here, but that won't make me go away.>
Callin thought of trying to answer, but his mouth was as immobile as his eyes.
<You don't need your mouth to talk to me. You don't even have to move your lips. Just think of what you want to say, and I'll hear you.>
Well, why not? In the place where he was now, nothing was too surreal. <Who are you?> Callin thought.
<I am the Wood.> came the reply.
<What do you mean, you're the wood? What wood?>
<I am all the wood in the world. I am the deep forests, and the lonely windswept pines, and the green jungle. But most importantly to you, I am the wood that holds you.>
<You are the wood that holds me... what's that supposed to mean? I'm talking to my cross?>
<I knew I would either die or go insane. I guess it's insanity.>
<No. You are perfectly sane. Can't you feel how clear your mind is? You are as sane now as you have ever been.>
<Then why am I talking to a tree?> Callin thought a moment, then had a sudden inspiration. <Wait! Oh, you're kidding me! You're Arbol, aren't you? Holy cow, those nuts were right all along!>
<Ha, ha, yes, those nuts. No, I'm not Arbol the Forest God, although I can see how Gary and his friends got that idea.>
<If you're not Arbol, then who are you?>
<I told you, I am the Wood.>
This line of conversation didn't seem to be leading anywhere. Callin let his mind wander for a bit. Then a thought occurred to him.
<You said I'm not dying. How do you know?>
<Because I am keeping you alive.>
The first hint of dread seeped into Callin's mind. <You are? How?> he asked.
<I am connected to your body. You remember when you felt my tendrils entering your skin through your wrists and ankles? I have had plenty of time to grow since then. My body is now joined with yours, cell to cell. My tendrils fill you. They run along your nerves, your blood vessels, the threads of your muscles, even into your brain.>
Callin felt sick at this invasion of his body. <Why would you do such a thing?> he asked.
<As I said, I'm keeping you alive. I am providing you with water, oxygen, and the nutrients your body needs to keep functioning.>
<But that's not what I want. I'm in terrible, horrible pain. I just want to die. I want the pain to end. Your keeping me alive is no kindness.>
<I know.> came the reply.
There was a long pause before the voice went on. <I am keeping you alive specifically so you will continue to feel pain. I have engineered every part of your suffering, and I have no intention of letting you use death to escape my revenge.>
<You see, I can not only supply you with the chemicals you need for your life, but also with the chemicals you need for your pain. Or, of course, for your relief. At the moment, I am providing you an anesthetic, so you can focus on this little conversation. But when our talk is through, your suffering will resume in full force. I took samples of the chemicals in your system at the moment your pain was at its worst, and I will soon be providing you with that same mix at a steady rate.>
<I will give you elevated carbon dioxide levels, so you constantly feel like you are going to explode if you don't take a breath. Lactic acid and other fatigue toxins to keep your muscles screaming in agony. Limited water, so you always feel parched with thirst. Low blood sugar so you feel weak. Trace chemicals you have never even heard of, all of which contribute to the horrible, terrible pain that will be your life.>
<And of course, I'll also be supplying a few extras. I've found that humans in your state need only an hour or two of sleep each day to stay on the edge between sanity and vivid hallucinations, so that's all you will get. I will decide when you receive the chemicals that allow you to sleep. The rest of the time, I will supply you with chemicals that ensure you stay awake.>
<There is no escape for you, Callin. None at all.>
<But why?> Callin wailed. <Why are you doing this?>
And so the wood told him, not just with words, but with sensations, too. Callin felt the pain of the plow, the axe, the fire. He felt the great swaths of dead land. And he felt the terrible, aching emptiness of learning that the only Others you have ever met in your untold millennia of existence tried to destroy you without bothering to know or care that you exist.
<That's why. This is my revenge on you humans. I am paying you back in full measure for the years and years of pain you caused me.>
<But if we had only known, we'd have stopped! And we know now. We're living the way you want us to, not causing you any harm. Please, give us another chance! Please, please, let me down from here!>
<No. You already squandered your chance. I tried for years to communicate with you humans. You ignored me. You had plenty of opportunity to deduce my existence, but you stubbornly refused to believe that a forest can be sentient. Even now, you keep looking for a god, a master, someone in charge who is controlling the plants. It never occurs to you that I am spread out all through the web. Trying to find the "master" tree makes as much sense as asking you which neuron is in charge of your brain.>
<So, this is your reward for your arrogance. If, at any time, you want to speak with me, just call. I'll hear you. Though I may not answer. You are my eighth human, you know. Well, ninth, counting Ferrahan, whose body you never found. I've drained all of them dry of all their useful knowledge. So the odds are slim that you'll have anything to say that will interest me. But who knows? Maybe you'll surprise me.>
<Now, let's get you stretched out like the others...>
Slowly, the tree began to grow again. The trunk lengthened; the crossbeam extended; the ankle restraints rotated back toward the vertical. At the same time, the anesthetic levels in Callin's blood began to drop. Callin tried to scream as fresh pains shot through him, but no sound came out. After several hours, Callin's body had been stretched to take up all the slack that had developed in his limbs as he fought the cross. His arms were parallel with the ground, stretched out grotesquely long from his dislocated shoulders straight along the crossbeam to his gnarled, clenched fingers. His legs were flat against the upright, one on each side, toes pointed to the earth.
His abdomen was so distended that it seemed there could be no room for organs inside the concave depression. His head sat upright, supported by the tendrils that connected it with the pillar behind him. His face was contorted with a frozen expression of agony - every millimeter of extra stretching had sent new lightning bolts of pain through his muscles and sinews.
Further tendrils had grown at every contact point, so that Callin's body was joined to the wood all along its length. As more time passed, Callin's skin began to darken and harden. By the time the sun rose the next day, Callin looked more like a carving than a human being. His skin had been replaced, cell by cell, by dark mahogany-colored wood, which blended seamlessly into the black wood of the cross. His eyes were permanently sealed shut; his ears stopped by wooden plugs. Only his hair remained to betray the real origin of the sculpture.
At last the growth stopped. Callin would move no more.
<There,> the voice returned. <You're all set. Welcome to eternity, Callin.>
Callin screamed and screamed, but the sound was only in his mind.
For the first time in my long life, I have a sense of time. It has been a major change in how I think. A paradigm shift, as it were. Before the humans came, time was a circle. Each day began, progressed, and ended, blending into the next day, which was exactly the same. Each year blended into the next year. Round and round went the seasons.
Now, time is a line. It moves in one direction, like an arrow. I have a past. I have a present. And I have a future.
Human lives are fleetingly short compared to the pace of my thoughts. I have studied their techniques of animal husbandry. It won't be hard to use their own methods on them. In three or four of their generations, they will be completely domesticated. They will be utterly obedient to my will. They will be my tools.
And then I will allow them their technology back. I will let them build their industries. I will let them reach up to their dormant starship that still orbits my world. I will let them fly away.
And they will take my spores and memories with them. I will be able to reproduce.
Perhaps I will send them to a new world, which they and my children will conquer together.
Or perhaps I will send them back to their home planet. Perhaps my desire for revenge will have mellowed by then.
Or perhaps it won't.
"Well, at least his suffering is over."
Gina and Celeste stood at the foot of Callin's cross. It was hard to believe that the wooden sculpture before them had once been a living, breathing human being.
"Yes," Gina replied. "It seemed to take him forever to die, though."
After a long while, she want on. "He didn't want me to watch, you know. But I did. I couldn't let him face that horror alone. Even though he didn't know I was there for him, I was. I was there the whole time."
Celeste put her arm around Gina's shoulders. "You did all you could, dear. No one could have asked anything more of you."
Gina's mind kept flashing back to the scene of black robes by torchlight, the sound of chanting and the smell of incense. She was fairly certain Gary and the others hadn't seen her in the shadows. Nevertheless, she was scared of what they might do if they knew she had seen them and their depraved ritual. The Forester cult was still small in numbers, but their power and influence were growing rapidly.
Gina put her hand on Callin's leg and rubbed the smooth wood. "Goodbye, Callin," she whispered. Then she turned and walked off down the path, back to human lands. Celeste followed along beside her.
"There's one thing that has always bothered me," Gina said. "Have you ever looked at the expressions on their faces, after it's all over? It's creepy how real they look. I know it's not possible, but sometimes I swear it looks like those poor men are still alive in there..."