It was unmistakeable; the tree in front of her was exactly grown in the image of the One Tree; it was easy to check as the silhouette of the One Tree lay on the horizon wherever you . Its leaves glowed slightly, green with a slight golden sheen, and small flowers dotted it, each with a tiny yellow dot in the centre. The bark was pebbled and there was a slight vine-like protrusion, as if something had grown under the bark, spiralling up the trunk.
The cable ran straight into the root system of the tree and disappeared somewhere into the earth. Lauren walked around the wide trunk of the tree, stepping carefully over exposed roots and avoiding patches of long grass. She saw a glimmer of something in the branches and stepped closer to look. She leaned against the trunk and immediately drew back with a gasp.
It was warm.
Her mind raced as she drew everything her father had taught her to the forefront. The Arbour, a vast tree in the centre of the continent; the Church of the One Tree held it in such esteem that it was only to be touched by the High Father himself and then only to obtain the cuttings needed for founding a settlement. It was, in all other respects, a relatively normal tree; bark, leaves, flowers. It never bore fruit, though. It was locked in time forever, enjoying an endless spring.
It shouldn’t be warm, though. And was that a pulse she saw running up the trunk? Impossibly, it was as if a ripple of something physical had travelled from bottom to top, and the leaves of the tree rustled in response.
It was difficult to be raised an atheist in a world where the arbiter of the main religion was a physical presence, visible from everywhere, but Lauren’s father had managed it. Even so, it was difficult to climb the tree, to even set foot on it. She couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was watching her, that her back was bared to some hidden naked blade, and more than once she stopped on a branch and turned to check.
Towards the top, she found what she was looking for. It seemed that whoever had put this cable in place - and she was still not willing to name her father as the one responsible for this - had somehow cored the entire tree and run the cable up. At various points they had teased one of the copper wires inside out and wrapped it around a branch.
Lauren, stood on tiptoes to examine the cable, tapped her fingers on a branch. Whoever had done this, it was brilliant work; the One Tree was known for providing a slight amberic charge when properly harnessed or recorded, but this was a way of obtaining far more energy from the tree than normal. The wires wrapped around the branches would amplify the energy and allow it to be channelled into several labour-saving devices, were there to be any nearby. This experiment was active, to be sure; how long it had been operational, though, was anyone’s guess. It was unlikely that the Growth Movement had closed the circuit and left it running. Had it been humming away since the last time its creator had been here?
It was normally far too much of a risk, though. The energies were unstable and could feed back into the tree itself, causing rapid combustion and an expanding sphere of superheated splinters of wood. In short, trees exploded when this was tested in the workshop. More than one engineer had died. Moreover, the Church viewed this as a gross sacrilege, more than anything that the SIC normally undertook, and had made it clear that stiff penalties would be applied to anyone working with trees in this way. It was a threat taken seriously by the SIC, who had passed the decree on to all engineers, whether registered or not.
Lauren climbed carefully back down and began to follow the cable back towards the quarry, thinking her way through the situation. The Growth Movement weren’t tied to the Church, but they had the same goals and ideals. The Church didn’t approve of the Movement, but let them get on with it as long as they didn’t do anything too terrible. For the Movement to come and try to deal directly with Lauren told her a few things. First, the Movement didn’t want the Church to know about it, perhaps because the Church would undoubtedly try to cleanse everyone who knew about it, including Movement members. Second, they didn’t want the SIC to know about it either; they wouldn’t go so far as to kill the people involved but they would definitely silence them in other ways. Forced relocation would be the least of it. And then, of course, they might look at this setup, such a long-running, considered and delicate approach to a problem that normally ended in death and destruction and think that it should be preserved, researched, studied.
Realistically, the best solution was that Lauren herself safely turn the system off, deconstruct it and forget that it ever happened. She was fully capable of it, almost honour-bound to do it; things between the SIC and her father had never been good and something like this would certainly cause problems.
She reached the quarry again and slid down the slope into the bowl. The cable disappeared into the nearest dark hole, just large enough for her to walk into. She had gone several dozen paces before she realised that whoever had set this system up had had the forethought to place several lamps strung up and connected by gossamer-thin cables to the main one. She lit them and was surprised to find that the tunnel widened out, heading almost directly back towards the tree providing the power.
Her footsteps echoed and, somewhere, she could hear water dripping. The tiny amber bead inside the glass bulb in one of the lanterns had cracked and a strange blue spark rattled up and down the metal frame; Lauren hissed and pulled her hand back. Taking a handkerchief out of her pocket, she unhooked the lantern and the dancing blue spark abruptly stopped, plunging that section of the mine into darkness.
The tunnel ended, opening up into a large round chamber and Lauren followed the cable, which snaked around the chamber and then into the middle. Every lantern she lit revealed a new facet of the experiment taking place here, and she marvelled at the unseen architect.
The roots of the tree above, for she was surely directly underneath it, penetrated through the ceiling and curved down to form a sort of hourglass shape. Captured in the middle, where the roots pinched together, was the largest piece of amber Lauren had ever seen. It was almost perfectly spherical and easily the size of her head; the cable had been split into smaller, rubber-sheathed filaments that were wrapped tightly around the roots and attached to the amber with some sort of resin.
This treasure must have formed naturally over hundreds of years, somehow perfectly nestled here in this chamber, waiting to be found. Usually in experiments such as this one it was the buildup of unused energy that caused the trees to combust, but here there was no such worry; the amber contained it all and more, naturally bleeding it out into the air while simultaneously feeding it back into the tree via the roots. It explained how this could have run for so many years without worry.
It couldn’t last forever, though; the tree was warming up and, though it might take more years, the end result would be the same. Combustion, probably just the tree itself as it was a few metres removed from any other trees.
She moved to take a closer look and felt her foot knock against something that rattled as it struck the roots. It was something dark against the dark floor, in the shadows thrown by the lanterns, and she knelt to picked it up.
It was a mug, made of cheap tin that was painted with red enamel paint. Her father’s name, engraved on it so many years ago, was still clear even though it had been used so often. Her mind flashed on so many childhood memories; sat on her father’s knee as he drank something strong-smelling; the smell of smoke from the occasional cigar mixed with oil and wood shavings; the mug holding pencils during one of his obsessive abstentions from hot drinks, or soup, or whatever he thought might improve his work. All this and more flooded back to her as she turned the irrefutable evidence of her father’s work over in her hands.
Turning her back on the splendour of the scene, both to her engineer’s eyes and to a simple observer’s, she left the mine and began the slow walk back towards her horse.
It was nearly night by the time she trotted back into the village and made her way up the twisting path to the workshop. It seemed a different place now, suddenly empty; where her father’s spirit had always seemed to fill the walls, learning that he had kept his greatest and most radical accomplishment a secret made him seem different in her mind. She tethered the horse back behind the workshop and went inside. She sat in one of the overstuffed armchairs, not even bothering to light a lantern, and closed her eyes for a moment.
She heard a small sound and opened her eyes. She was back in the cavern under the tree, but the room was filled with a growing red light emanating from the amber. She could see a whirling vortex of energy growing there. Beams of light shot out from it, scoring dark patches into the walls and she screamed as the temperature increased. Suddenly she was ten miles from the tree, watching as a huge column of light grew out of it, shooting into the sky; a massive sphere of angry red energy began to grow, centred on the amber, and she was helpless to do anything as it raced towards her. She shrieked and raised her hands to her eyes.