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The Tree Guardian


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Delayna paused to catch her breath, sweat pouring down her face. The stitch in her side was unbearable. Tiny points of light shone down from the ceiling, stinging her eyes when she looked up. Then she heard the telltale scratchy, skittering noise. The adrenaline rushed through her again, and she ran down yet another shiny metal hallway, her footsteps echoing loudly in her ears like her breathing. What do they want?!? she thought as she raced down a flight of metal stairs. Two more hallways filled with echoes and the sound of labored breathing, around another corner...

She skidded to a halt. She was in a small room with a table and some chairs, and the only exit was behind her. It was a dead-end. Everything had the same shiny metal surface as the hallways. She forced down the feeling of panic as she realized the inevitability of her situation. Delayna calmly walked over to one of the chairs at the table, and sat so that she was facing the hallway. As the noise of the approaching terror slowly grew, she thought, Perhaps I can treat this as an engineering problem. She saw a pencil and some paper on the table, so she took them and began sketching out a logic list to cover all the things she knew about the enemy that would soon find her:

1.  the sounds I hear are like those made by the mineral beetles in my care
    - I assume that these beetles are the ones making the sound and that they are chasing me
2.  these beetles cannot eat meat, only excrement
    - unless they intend to kill me and/or forcibly extract their nourishment, they won't harm me
3.  they have always been friendly and helpful towards me, and others before me
    - if they are my beetles, I won't be harmed

After finishing these thoughts, Delayna looked up. She panicked again as she saw beetles, her beetles, all around her. On the other chairs, on the table at a small distance from her logic sheet, all around her on the floor. She waited for a moment, but nothing happened. It was as if they were all looking at her, waiting for her to give them something. There was silence now, and she relaxed in her chair and bowed her head to rest it on the table. As she did so, her arms began to feel very heavy, her whole body going numb. She found that her eyes were closed, and she began to struggle to move and shake off the stupor that had overtaken her. With a Herculean effort, she lifted her head and opened her eyes, blinking in the light of her desk-lamp.

My desk-lamp, she thought. She blinked her way around the lab, slowly bringing herself into reality and a newer, milder terror: she had fallen asleep at work. Again. What is that, six times this month? No one else was there; this terror subsided easily as she found that it was just four AM, a couple hours before anyone else would arrive, and she recalled that she had stayed late to finish up one stage of a gene-sequencing study. No big deal, it was just a dream, and no one need know that I was here all night, she reasoned. She began to piece together her work from just before she slept, adding to her documentation as she went. She pondered the dream for a moment, then stopped what she was doing. I can remember it! She could recall every detail of the dream, which she had never been able to do before. She reminisced her way through it, finding that she still didn't know what the beetles wanted, but noticing that the metal hallways were very like the cages that were used to house the beetles. Why was I inside a cage with them? she wondered. And what do they want? When no answers occurred to her immediately, she set these thoughts aside and busied herself with preparing for another day of gene-sequencing.

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