Sea thrift

The Flowers of War World (2007)

The first draft of The Flowers of War World was written at the 2007 Eastercon. For some reason I opted to hole up in the hotel room I was sharing and hammer the story out before my junkyard laptop gave up the ghost. It’s possible that I was inspired by a talk or seminar I’d recently attended, or I was just hungover and couldn’t face talking to anyone.

Either way it started out as a regular third-person tale but I abandoned that version halfway through and began again in first person. I think that this perspective works better for the slightly strange atmosphere I was aiming for; the third-person version seemed to render too much of the narration flat and banal. Instead I feel this version normalises it in a faintly dreamlike manner.

I hope you enjoy the story and please share your thoughts at the end: you’re welcome to be as viciously critical as you like as this story is over five years old.

The Flowers of War World

I can see it now, the great figure of the autoch, no longer just a crimson smear on my overvision map. I ping my men over the squad net and we alight on the leaf of a flower, the glow of our jets banishing the shadow cast by the great petals overhead.

‘Caution,’ I instruct. ‘It will not charge if it does not feel threatened.’

Silence is acknowledgement. We watch the creature ahead, activating binocular functions as we attempt to read it.

Its spinning shells are moving rapidly, grinding scales and showering sparks. It is not a good sign. But it is clear that it has recently fed, because it has not yet come at us. I pan my vision over its turreted eyes. They move freely, scanning the warbeast’s surroundings. A few dozen point right at us, but of course it was aware of our presence. Its keen sonar would have sensed us before we even approached visual range.

A gentle chime in my consciousness marks the receipt of several requests. Some of the more recently decanted soldiers, fresh from the Facilities, are requesting information on the autochs. Their databanks lack more than the most rudimentary data. I squirt back one of my primer records on the creatures:

[AUTOCH: First deployed by the Enemy four hundred and seven years ago, during a period of intensive global biotech research. The earliest models were slow and ineffective, and susceptible to moderate fire support. They proved useful to us in tracking and targeting large-scale Enemy troop movements.

[Later models proved a greater threat. During the ensuant Short War, the Enemy front pushed us back thousands of miles, even threatening the inner margins of our core territory.

[Ultimately their advance was broken when we deployed our own autoch models, based on captured first-gen creatures. When our autochs met theirs they fought or mated. In the former instance, ours died. In the latter, a degenerative virus was released into the stronger creatures, making them torpid and lethargic, ultimately leading to death.

[Later the Enemy broke the programming hardwired into our creatures. We lost control, producing the independents that still roam the planet.

[Military autoch development was terminated and all remaining creatures were withdrawn from service.]

I do not mention my experiences being eaten by an autoch two centuries ago. Some things must be learned.

I suppress my instinctual shudder.

The autoch continues to watch us. Satisfied that it will not attack, I turn my attention elsewhere, exploring our surroundings.

All around us, the great flowers of war world stretch up towards the contrail-streaked sky. Here and there the stamens are visible, reaching above the curves of orange and blue petals the size of starships. Breaks can be seen in the surface of most petals, as well as craters blown in stalks and fat leaves. There is even one plant that has been partially vaporised, a perfect sphere eaten out of it by a controlled antimat release. It and its sisters still stand, tall and proudly beautiful, everywhere.

I wonder if they are scented. I remember flowers having scent.

The autoch shivers. Its rotating shells tilt at us in a gesture of warning, and then it turns away, huge legs driving into the hard ground like pistons. It begins trundling away from us, moving towards the crest of a hillock, scree tumbling down the slope beneath it.

We wait in silence for fifteen minutes after it has disappeared from sight, lost among craters and ravines. I have been watching it on overvision, drawing the map to the centre of my sight and tracking the blip that marks the autoch, until I am comfortable that it does not plan to return.

‘It’s gone,’ I say. ‘We can proceed.’

Several members of the squad respond vocally, the dissipating tension still clear in their voices. I look around, identifying who has and has not spoken. Blank-faced visors look back at me. Linemen Three, Four and Tactical have all remained silent, and their weapons are still part-raised in the direction of the departed autoch. I note this for my later report to the Structure AIs and to the Facilities.

I open private channels to these men. I reassure them, remind them to trust me, to do their jobs, and that if they do so they will be immortal.

There is a kind of truth in this statement.

I squirt new orders to the entire squad. We fire our jets back up and take off, taking a flying leap in the direction previously blocked by the autoch.

Far ahead and high above us I see the great petals wave, teased by hurricane winds as though their violence were merely the clumsy hands of awkward lovers. This makes me think of tenderness, and for a moment I am awash with desire for intimacy. I release the idea as soon as it appears, unwilling to dwell on it. No such risk for the men under my command, sexless built creatures as they are.

I glance higher for a moment. I note the crosswork of contrails once more, imaging the missiles and drones and low-orbit spacecraft fighting their endless battle for dominance. I am glad that the ground-to-air countermeasures are so effective these years, splitting the battlespace into airspace and groundspace. Memories from past lives resurface: dying without warning as plasma fronts raged down from orbit, and being flattened in instants of pressure and hellfire as kinetics cut down from orbit. In each case there is only a moment of darkness or light before death, and then waking up in the Facilities. I remember nothing of death itself.

Distaste for this nostalgia fills me, so I reacquaint myself with the regional maps to distract myself. I try to imagine the mindset of our quarry, where it might be hiding, or the route it might be taking to its unknown destination.

He is a runaway: a prototype model that has become unstuck. His movements have been traced to this uncontested sector. It has been hard, following this unpredictable prey, but his lead and advantages have been worn away.

At first he would leap miles at a time, his flickertech phasing him in and out of space as he hopped. We had dogged him relentlessly, maintaining a broadband link to the nearest strategic oversight facilities, tracing him by the whispers of spacetime distortion. We had burned our fuel so hard, so fast, that our tanks are now half-empty. But his flickercells are flagging, too, in need of charging, and out here this is not possible. Moving on foot, burning muscle instead, his lead is fading fast.

It will be soon, despite his tricks. Like trying to have us contend with an autoch.

I briefly ponder the possibility that the leviathan’s most recent meal was the runaway, but reject the idea. No warbeast can move fast enough to catch flicker. More likely its most recent meal was some other fauna of the war world, some other creature with its masters’ control relinquished.

When the mission profile had first slotted itself into my consciousness, I had been surprised to learn of this flickertech runaway. How such a model was able to escape, I do not know; nor can I guess at its motives, beyond perhaps seeking to join the Enemy. Yet why should it? The rank and file know the Enemy only as targets or killers, and even the Old such as I am aware of little more than that they were built, just as we were, and they will fight forever, just as we will.

One of my jets splutters momentarily, a split-second thing, and instincts ingrained too deep to excise make me glance down. And then I see it: the warp and pop of flickertech. There is the figure of our quarry, the beetleblack limbs and barrel torso.

In an instant I go to combat trance, squirting orders to the squad. We scatter and descend, taking advantage of the few seconds we have before the runaway becomes aware of our presence.

I switch my allrifle to widebeam and fire, bathing the figure below with phased radiation. The small leaf on which it stands blackens and shrivels. Then there is other gunfire – thinbeams lancing down in sequence. Most miss. One punches through the runaway’s left arm and it twists, molten at the break, and almost drops off.

Then the weakened leaf is crumbling, and the runaway is falling, tumbling as though cradled by a hammock of riflelight. And then the figure is gone again, and our gunfire hits nothing. I segue out of trance.

Six seconds. This is the longest of our engagements. And we hit it. The flickertech cells must be almost dry now.

I am troubled by the figure materializing below us, without warning. I do not share my concerns with the rest of the squad as we arrest our descent and hover, suspended and bobbing like petals on water.

We begin to move again, some of the men responding to my orders with enthusiastic acknowledgement, emboldened and excited by the seconds of action. I listen with only half my attention, already composing and transmitting a request for direction from the strategic oversight facilities. The response is near-instantaneous: the AI there has been prioritizing my queries. The quarry follows the same route, making a beeline for deeper uncontested sectors, heavily irradiated zones lying between this continent’s main areas of engagement.

Not for the first time I wish that we, too, enjoyed the mobility and tactical advantage afforded by flickertech. Even with the fuel cells almost dry, our target escaped a lattice of fire that would have quartered any other man.

Instead, my squad and I hop from leaf to leaf, emerging from shadow into dappled sunlight as we jet between flowers. Regular pings from the strategic oversight AI reassure me that we are on the right track.

Our quarry never deviates from its route.

A thought occurs to me. I recall my overvision map, filling my eyes with contours and flowers. Manipulating this is simple, an almost unconscious learned process. I sketch our route, the location of our recent encounter with the fugitive, and the sector he fled.

Then I draw a line, which neatly bisects all of these points. Our quarry has never deviated from its route.

My heart begins to race with eager anticipation. I project the line further ahead, scanning forward kilometres at a time. And then I see it: something so vast it occupies nearly a fifth of the display.

It is one of the great old flowers, sometimes called the totems, which dwarf their lesser brethren. This one is a defiant colossus. From memory I know that it is well over a thousand metres in height. In one of my earliest campaigns I died in its shadow.

I request a direct link to the oversight AI and it is granted.

‘I believe the target is headed for the totem,’ I tell it.

There is the briefest of pauses before I receive a response. Artificial Intelligences do not require time to think – not on the scale human beings recognize – so I know that it has communicated with another.

‘We share your suspicions,’ says the AI.

‘Do you know why it would go there?’

‘No,’ the cold voice tells me. ‘But you will terminate it before it reaches the flower.’

I acknowledge the order and cut the connection. Only once the presence of machine intelligence is gone from my mind do I allow myself to shudder. I have resented the insect-like intelligences for more than nine hundred years.

But if I am honest with myself, I am a man who resents many things.

The water-fat flesh of a young leaf squashes beneath my armoured feet in the instant before the jets kick back in. Then I am sprung aloft once again, the rest of the squad flanking me like outstretched wings.

‘Go to full burn,’ I tell the men, giving my lazy vocal chords more work. ‘We must terminate the target soon. Hold fire and notify me on visual confirmation.’

My suit filters out the increase in pitch from the accelerating jets. The flares they emit will make us more visible to any watchers, but this is not my concern. We have a runaway to take down.

The distance between us and the totem begins to fall away at a faster rate. Our leaps take us farther and higher, up to where the leaves are small and immature. The flowerheads loom above, more ominous and vast than before. I glance up at one, and for a moment my appreciation of their grandeur is tainted by inexplicable fear. The sensation is gone as quickly as it came, but when I next take in the vista of petals there remains a sense of consternation.

Something is clearly troubling me, but I do not know what or how. Like the men who serve under me, my psychology has been expunged of true fear and worry. I have only the memory of these things: they lack even that.

I do not wish to think on it.

I receive a ping from the soldier on point. Then I receive his visual feed and my teeth grit together involuntarily.

He has gone high, this man, risking sub-orbital ordnance and violent winds to see farther. He can see the totem ahead, towering above its little sisters. And he can see the crackle and flash of distant gunfire, stray beams glowing and dispersing in the thick atmosphere.

I wave the squad to a halt, ordering the point man to hold and maintain surveillance. I contact the oversight AI again.

‘Conflict zone ahead; substantial engagement. Request new orders.’

The reply is instant, this time. ‘Maintain pursuit.’

The channel is severed. The order is final. There is no choice.

‘Resume pursuit,’ I order the men. ‘Go high. As high as you can.’

I hope the altitude will help to conceal our reckless rate of pursuit, our hard-burning jets. It may work, unless air-to-ground interdiction spots us, or we encounter Enemy units which are not already fighting.

The sounds of combat grow louder as we bound between flowers. It cannot be far from the base of the totem. I cannot yet see any other soldiers, but it is only a matter of time. I dare not access an open channel. This is not our battle.

I hear a distant whirring like belt sanders clashing. My eyes narrow: an autoch has been drawn here. Our mission is becoming more dangerous by the minute.

Ahead I can see the irrationally thick neck of this greatest of the flowers, with its leaves like continents and its head like a moon. I see something else, too: a beetle-black figure, leaping nimbly from leaf to leaf. One of its arms dangles uselessly.

I squirt orders to the squad, and we begin to close in. The last kilometre falls away rapidly. The fugitive cannot escape.

Two sudden screams sound over the squad net. Two men have dropped off my tactical readouts. I pivot in midair, using attitude jets to adjust myself, and see their figures falling, flailing, toward the ground far below.

Beneath us an Enemy EMP battery is adjusting itself for another barrage. As I watch, the tiny shapes of enemy infantry begin to open fire. My falling soldiers are obliterated in a storm of riflelight.

We deploy countermeasures. Chaff flutters down and smoke enshrouds us. Micro-grenades drop, their rudimentary intelligences keenly intent on the enemy below.

The battery will not trouble us again, but now our presence and identity is surely known.

I return my attention to the totem, searching again for the target. I see it, closer now, just a few hundred metres away.

‘Weapons free,’ I say, and bare my canines in a smile no one can see. From below there is a dull “crump” noise as the EMP battery succumbs to the rain of grenades, and I slip into combat trance.

I fire alongside my command. Particle lances from allrifles reach out to the runaway, delicate fingers that char and blacken the skin of the totem. The fugitive has already gone. I see it reappear above its previous position, a flickering figure of starscape black wreathed in lightning-blue corona.

There is nowhere else for us to jump to; we alight on a petal below the runaway, who shifts again as I take aim. Its flickers are taking it mere metres now, but this is still enough to dodge gunfire and prediction. I snarl and squirt orders to the squad; we scatter and pursue the target. It is ascending: to what end, I do not know. My task is to kill it before it reaches its destination.

I am leaping to a small, higher petal when one of my jets sputters for a moment. I correct myself instantly, landing safely, but I pause before jumping again. My fuel reserves are running low after sustained full burn, and the shock has driven me out of trance.

I glance down, over the lip of the leaf. The fighting has moved closer to the totem’s roots. It looks vicious.

Above it, moving up the body of the flower, I see the distinctive blurring and twisting of flickertech. For a moment I think the fugitive has tricked us, but I know that just metres above me my men are still pursuing our target.

Another flickertech unit, then. I hope it is one of ours, but know well that reliance on hope is a fool’s strategy.

I leap again, springing from motor-assisted knees and jetting straight upward.

There is only one place the runaway can be going from here.

I ascend rapidly, buffeted by strong gusts of wind, watching my fuel gauge grow a deeper crimson. I don’t know how I’ll get down again, but that is hardly important right now.

My upwards course takes me between two great petals, each thicker than the span of my arms. I drop down onto one petal, and am surprised by how sturdy and solid it is underfoot. How unlike the soft and fragile leaves.

I leap upward again, aiming for another gap between petals. Then another, and another, until I am through them all, and am suspended in the air within the cup of petals. It is as big as a lake but there is no water. There is only the slender trunk of the flower’s stamen and, near its base, the squatting figure of the runaway.

I aim and fire in a moment. The white lance of my particle beam is dead on target. But centimetres away from the target, it warps and bends and strikes a petal instead, leaving only the tiniest scar.

My suit senses movement behind me. I turn my head and my weapon to see the second flickertech unit leaping towards me. Enemy or not, I am ready to fire, but then it shifts and is right beside me, casually slapping the rifle from my hands and knocking me down toward the petals.

In my uncontrolled descent I lose sight of everything. I land hard and then I see only stars.

Clarity returns as drugs flood my system, released by the suit. Now I am looking into the visored visage of one of my men. Groggily, I look around. About half of the squad is gathered around me.

I stand, the first man helping me, and turn toward the stamen. Both flickertech units are there. The first still kneels before the stamen, one good palm stretched against it. The other is flailing its hands, apparently trying to reach the first. Whatever flickertech trick diverted my shot is also stopping the newcomer from reaching our target.

I feel a sudden tremor. I turn to look at the man I am leaning against, my lips parted for a question, but I see that he is staring at the petal underfoot.

It is not just me.

The petal shakes again, a more violent tremor this time. My external audio feed snaps and crackles and then, defying logic, a haunting melody fills my ears.

I look around, pushing away from the men supporting me. There is no source for the music. It is coming from everywhere. It is as if the flowers are singing.

This is not possible.

I turn back to the stamen and the flickertech units. The first is still pressed against the stamen, but its head droops. Dead, or unconscious. The flickerfield around it is gone.

The second still stands beside the first, but it stands tall now, at repose. It turns to face me. I receive a link request on a private channel which, confused, I accept.

‘The AIs are dead,’ it tells me.

My blood runs cold. ‘The Enemy-‘

‘All of the AIs are dead. Theirs too.’

Leaving the link open, I leap up to the lip of a petal. My squad remain behind, staring at the flickertech units, or each other, or perhaps at nothing, caught instead by the song. From my new vantage point I can see part of the base of the flower. I can make out clusters of men and machines, but there is no fighting. Even the autoch I heard earlier has stopped moving. I can hear no gunfire over the sound of the melody.

The song has, somehow, down the impossible. Our masters are dead, and the endless war has ended. But I do not feel peace. I feel restless.
I turn back to the figures behind me. The newcomer is still watching me.

‘We planned this,’ it says. ‘But not now. We’re not ready.’

It looks upwards and I follow its gaze: there are lights in the sky, with the threat of shapes behind them. Whatever these men unleashed to destroy the AIs has not defeated their masters, and they are coming.

As I look up toward the descending starships I wonder, for the first time, if I will fight for my world.

[‘The Flowers of War World’, Shaun Green, 2007. Cover image from freefoto.com.]

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