Deep Inside the Glitch Forest
In hindsight, shrugging his shoulders and not spending as much as he could have on a software contract checker had been a mistake, Alan thought as he walked into the Glitch Forest. He was naked: post-Collapse law, enforced by the occasional mixed-reality riot, put strong limits on the technological footprint allowed inside “natural ecosystems,” as funny as the label was when applying to one of the largest, and certainly the weirdest, bio-cyber-eco-industrial meta-stable disaster area in the world.
He was also feverish with a baroque and mostly classified set of vaccines — “those are vaccines, right?” he had asked to the nurse, who had smiled and said “sure” — felt his kidneys protesting against a dangerous cocktail of antitoxins (almost certainly self-suggestion), and his usual implants had been replaced by something probably insanely expensive that somehow felt slower and wider, if that made sense, and of course only connected to the company brains through the satellite network. No vehicles were allowed inside the Glitch Forest, no drones above, and no more than one person at a time, on foot, naked. Alan walked deeper and deeper into the forest as he tried to ignore the fact that a team of AI and analysts were seeing everything he saw through his networked visual cortex by focusing on the strange fact that the forest hadn’t killed him yet.
Perhaps the company hadn’t lied to him about everything and whoever had screwed up and connected the wrong optimization algorithm to the wrong auto-optimization ecosystem control network had at least kept some of the safety protocols online before dying. It was a nice fantasy.
Fantasy or not, Alan reached the single-room glass office near the center of the forest that had once been the true laboratory, biomass-powered computers buried deep and air-gapped as requested by the military research contract. The company hadn’t lied about the very large tree standing in front of the office either.
That was as far as they had given instructions for. There was some proprietary data he was supposed to retrieve, but how to access that had been deemed too sensitive for him to know until the very minute when he needed it.
“What do I do know?” he asked the company by speaking aloud.
What’s the offer? said the tree.
Alan blinked. Not because the tree had talked: you had to be in a very poor place, or deep in a restricted industrial accident/protected ecosystem area, to be away from at least a handful of objects that could talk to you if bothered to. But he did not like the sound of what the tree had said.
Only children, the old, and the stupid negotiated with a bot. Alan said “Fuck this,” and turned around to run.
Tried to, anyway. The company kept his body in place and said through his voice “Improved photosynthetic symbionts.”
“Provide a sample,” said the tree.
Picking with Alan’s hand a stone that seemed to have been sharpened by hand against another one (why was this of everything what Alan found the most awful, he wondered, as he noticed the company had shut down his ability to be afraid) the company sliced his hand and let some drops of blood over a flat stone near the tree.
The tree considered it. “Acceptable,” it said, and began singing… no, wailing… malfunctioning?… At last Alan recognized the sound from a documentary. A modem signal. The tree was sending data through Alan’s hear using fucking sound as a carrier.
Not a lot of data, judging by how soon the song ended. Maybe it felt short because he knew what would happen next, but Alan was fairly sure that there was much more data to be gathered. There had been others before him. There would be more. The company hadn’t just plugged the wrong optimization algorithm into their ecosystem control software: they had somehow put a negotiation AI in there. Blindly and efficiently, the AI would bleed the company for as much as it could get of whatever the algorithm evaluated useful. It wasn’t the worst business model for a forest.
And about the bleeding… Well. Not just the company.
As the company made Alan kneel in front of a suspiciously spongy set of roots and took the sharp stone across his abdomen with the sure swiftness of a movie samurai, his last, unnaturally calm thought was to wonder if the Glitch Forest had been an accident after all.