The Lightning Tree

“So, this is the one?”
“Yes sir!”
“Alright, easy there Andernez. I was under the impression we’d moved on.”
A sigh. “Really?”
“Ah! Er, sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter. Carry on.”
“Right. So, what should I do with it s-… What should I do with it?”
“Is it the last one?”
“That we know of.”
“And you’re sure there’s no chance of o2?”
“Bots confirmed it an hour ago.”
A pause. “Ever?”
A nod.
“Those botanists know their shit. I guess we have no choice. Give the order.”

Fallout Team First Officer Vishal Miller stepped back as the young recruit issued commands over a phone in her hand.
“Confirmed… Initiate take down… F.O. Miller…” Andernez turned to face the officer “They want to speak to you.” she said, her voice shaking slightly as she calmed her nerves.
Vishal sighed again and reached out for the phone. Andernez handed him an old flip-phone, quite possibly a late 1990’s model. Vishal preferred the more basic phone model personally, but there was no accounting for taste, especially in the young. They were always after the latest modded gadgets, regardless of practicality.
Taking the phone, Vishal looked at it for a moment. Two sticks were taped to either side of the phone allowing it to stay open, and some of the keys had been replaced with similar, yet not identical ones from other phones. On the back of the phone where the battery should have been was instead what looked like a black box the length of the phone with solar panels attached on each of the outward facing sides. The box was in fact a number of different rechargeable batteries wired up and taped together. A single wire ran from the makeshift power supply and plugged into the phone’s charging socket.
Holding the phone to his ear Vishal heard the voice on the other end of the line asking him to confirm his identity. It was his Commanding Officer, Núria Shepherd. “Yes Núria, I can confirm it’s me… Ma’am?… No, I won’t even let her call me Sir… Look, I’m not having this conversation with you again… Fine, Ma’am.”

Andernez smiled as Vishal handed him back the phone.
“Something wrong recruit?” At 6″2, the F.O. towered over the 15 year old Charlotte “Charlie” Andernez, his voice was stern but there was a playful glint in his eye.
“Trouble in paradise… sir?” the smile lingered on her lips as she spoke.
Vishal noted her boldness… or was it foolishness? Any other Officer and that might have been a serious offence. Perhaps Andernez had heard the stories about the mysterious F.O. Miller that seemed somehow to spread around the barracks? Vishal hoped so, he spent a good number of tokens each year to ensure it.

Vishal shrugged “What can I do? She’s the boss… but call me Sir again…” he left the threat unspoken. He felt his point was made, despite his laughter.
They both stood still now, waiting for plans to be put into motion that would in turn put other plans into motion, and so on. Eventually, one of these plans would involve them and they would have the opportunity to continue the cycle. In the unfortunate event of the cycle breaking, there was a plan in place for that too. Lost in his thoughts, Vishal shook his head at his own nihilism. He might have smiled if he didn’t find it so wholly pointless.

As they looked at their surroundings, each preoccupied within their minds, silence slowly crept between the empty spaces in the landscape.
“There is something beautiful about it don’t you think?” Her voice was soft, almost dream-like, as she stared at the dead tree.
Nodding silently Vishal turned his focus to the tree. The bent trunk and naked branches gave the tree an eerie persona. The ends of the tree reached up towards the sky, almost like fingertips trying to take hold of the sun. Yet, there was a beauty to this dead tree that stood proud amongst so much life.
Vishal looked down. By his feet there was a sign on a piece of wood stuck in the earth. Someone, most likely a child, had etched the words “The Lightning Tree – 2206” into the wood. That was 16 years ago.
Vishal was surprised this tree hadn’t already been smoked. If it had been dead all this time someone would have surely reported it sooner. If someone had found this tree over a decade ago, why wasn’t it called in?
He breathed deeply.
No-one was hurt and they were taking care of it now. That’s all that mattered.

Andernez looked up. Her hearing was sharper than most. She could already make out the sound of the aircraft engines as it approached far from the West. A tiny speck in the sky.
It was not so long ago that Vishal remembered there were no planes or helicopters in the air at all. Of course they had known what these strange unusable vehicles were, but no-one alive had ever seen them fly. They were not much more than rusted shells of their former selves.
It wasn’t until a mere ten years ago that they were able to extract and refine fuel from abandoned oil wells deep in the desert regions. The first journey that way took years and many teams disappeared along the route. But that was before Vishal’s time. Now they had villages set up across the globe and satellite communication was up and running for the first time in nearly two hundred years. Many believed it wouldn’t be much longer until their society was technologically able to rival the fabled ‘Old World’ they were taught so much about.

Vishal saw the plane fly overhead marking their position and that of the tree. It would come around for a second time before delivering the payload. Vishal wondered if this was how they did things in the old world. He knew they would use these flying machines for warfare, but how exactly? Did they send in one plane? Did they have a fleet of them? There were so many things that were unknown about how things used to be. Vishal recalled the first time he heard about the old world, he couldn’t accept that mankind had somehow regressed to a more primitive state. But he had only to look outside, at the rusted vehicles and neglected skyscrapers, to know that the hands that built these wonders were far more capable than his own. There was no way for anyone today to replicate these technological masterpieces, and once he realised this, Vishal had to accept that a world far greater than his own had once existed in its place.
There were others however, who believed that advancing technology would somehow re-trigger the events that lead to the collapse of the old world. ‘Technology died for a reason!’ Vishal would hear the protesters shout outside the military research facility. They were there nearly everyday with crudely designed placards depicting broken circuit boards or a noose made from power cables. The ‘Purists’, as they called themselves, were also partial to a little more persuasive action. Factories were constantly targeted by home-made explosive devices and workers were physically harassed as they made their way home.

Vishal stared at the tree, his thoughts drifting out over the political landscape when suddenly he saw something. Refocusing his attention to the present situation, he looked again.
“Charlie. Nocs. Now!”
Andernez was stunned. The First Officer had never issued a command in that way before. She regained her composure, pulled a pair of beaten binoculars from her bag and handed them over.
Vishal took a deep breath and whispered to himself. “Please don’t let it be. Please don’t let it be.” Lifting the lenses to his eyes he could see a small, bright green leaf hanging on the end of one of the higher branches. He looked over the rest of the branch and noticed there were small buds. The tree was blossoming. It wasn’t dead at all! The binoculars clearly showed him that the buds had been covered up with oil so as to appear non-existent.
“Why what Sir?” Andernez asked, a worried, yet quizzical look on her face.
Vishal’s brain was working in overtime. He looked at Andernez. “We’ve been set up.”
Vishal heard the plane come back around. There was no time. The plane dropped a small, heavy bag over the tree.
“CHARLIE GET DOWN!” Vishal threw himself over the recruit as the bag landed on the tree. A green gas swirled out from the bag and wound itself around the branches. As soon as the gas touched the tree there was a giant explosion.
Vishal pinned Andernez down as a fire swept across the vicinity. At first, all she could hear was the roaring of the flames, then it was the sound of Vishal’s screams. His face was just above hers when the fire burned the skin from his back. She didn’t dare close her eyes to him or look away as he painfully sacrificed his life to save hers.
After what seemed like a lifetime, she saw the life slowly go out of his eyes before his full weight finally came down on her. That’s when she blacked out.

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