BY GLENN DUNGAN
Copyright is held by the author.
THE MOSS Prophet’s congregation hums in the ruins of a forgotten church, where vines creep upon ivory facades and wrap around broken glass panes. Long blades of thick grass are sticky with dew drops that sway in the humidity of the open edifice. Warm water, the combined runoff from a neighbouring swamp to the right and a crystalline stream to the left, engulf the cobblestoned floors with an inch of thick ichor where tiny bugs swim and vibrant bottle flies scuttle. There are no pews in the Moss Prophet’s church. Instead, there are stumps and fallen logs that have been hallowed out by years of mass. In the corner of the open church, where the west side was blown apart during the forgotten war with the machines, a surviving wind chime twinkles in the swampy air. A frog croaks from the other side, booming through the kaleidoscopic orchestra of gnats and flies that swirl along the seats, singing in a language that only they can understand.
The mid-afternoon sun flutters from the marsh outside, warming the Moss Prophet as he waits submerged to his navel in the swamp water. His thick coat of moss and bark floats like limp wings along the murky water, and he feels the hardness of the cobblestones with his long, green toes. The texture is strange to the Moss Prophet, even now, even after all these years. Nothing in this forest is as hard as stone. Even the cement pillars have been reclaimed by the marsh, increasingly constricted by stringing vines, horned roses, and furry moss. An entire ecosystem, complete with its own politics and royalty exists on the pillars of the forgotten church. The Moss Prophet watches a water bug skate by, fanning tiny waves in between two lofty and approaching lily pads.
The wind chime sings underneath the wind that shook the bushes and grass. This sound was the Moss Prophet’s favourite sound. He watched its rusty fingers clang together and waited for the congregation to start.
The first one to arrive was the Mantis Queen, accompanied by her sons. The Mantis Queen stood at eight feet. Her gown kissed the larger stumps as she passed. Her shell was not as immaculate as when she was young; shades of brown splotched along cracks where her biological body armor was beginning to brittle. The Mantis Queen was proud, and she held her head and her bladed arms high. She wore her weakness and age with dignity and continued to move with as much grace as a ballet dancer pirouetting and playing with ribbons. Her sons are broad chested, their shells greener than any of the moss in the congregation, and more vibrant than even the Moss Prophet’s own skin, which was the colour of steamed asparagus. They held their powerful arms to their sides and stood by the Mantis Queen’s side as she settled herself into one of the stumps. Her sons are of age to take a wife and give the Mantis Queen a suitable heir. Each looks forward to watching the Mantis Queen’s succession but has begun prematurely mourning the cannibalization of their brothers.
The dull yellow light shining through the arch of the Moss Prophet’s congregation preceded the second guest. The Lord of Lightning, brave leader of the Lightning Bug colony at the North tip of the Marsh, floated along the water. The light from his body and crown illuminated the swampy waters below, showing the tadpoles and fish that traversed at the base of the stumps. The Lord took his seat next to the Mantis Queen, where his glowing body illuminated her left side. The Lord of Lightning did not come into the Moss Prophet’s congregation alone; at the edge of the church grounds where the perimeter of the swamp encroached into a dark abyss there were faint orbs of yellow and orange underneath the awnings of trees. The Lord’s knights preferred to stay back, making their own formidable perimeter of illumination. In the Moss Prophet’s ruby peripheries, the lights dimmed and tossed light into the sky, thumping like heart beats.
The final guest to arrive in the Moss Prophet’s congregation was the proud and sturdy King Beetle. His purple armour shone as he waded his way through the murky water. A shawl of moss clung to his hardened shoulders. His horn spiked two feet above his fortified skull, and as typical birthright of the Beetle Kingdom delineation of royalty, his head had grown naturally to resemble a crown. Already his sons and daughters were checking the development of their scalps for any sign that a crown would emerge from their exoskeletons and the kingdom could ascend into a new generation. Yet, King Beetle remains for he still has not found an heir and thus keeps making more children. There are rumours that perhaps the true heir to the Beetle Kingdom lies in the swamp, born to a poor mother in the muggy, humid air. The Moss Prophet hears many things and has seen a mother bring to the church her daughter, who has the eyes of King Beetle. The King came alone, as he always does. He sat adjacent to the Mantis Queen and made sure not to brush against her delicate wings.
With all the guests in place, the Moss Prophet could properly begin his congregation. Against the dancing wind chime, the Moss Prophet blinked his red eyes and traced his long, slender fingers along the water. A cloud of gnats passed over them. He stood, revealing feeble and slender legs no thicker than the branches of a tree in winter. His long nose, almost a snout, dipped down over his moss cloak and towards his stomach, curving into a hook. He licked lips the colour of peas with a tongue the colour of blood. Underneath his cloak, roses and tulips of yellow, white and red breathed along his torso and ribs, blooming in and out like a palm opening and closing. They moved with his breath, and even in advanced age the Moss Prophet was proud of the un-wiltering and unwavering quality of his flowers.
The Moss Prophet spread his arms wide and welcomed the Mantis Queen, the Lord of Lightning, and King Beetle to his broken church. The tribes in the insect kingdom were in constant conflict, as is the nature of territorial creatures. The Moss Prophet’s role was not to broker peace among them, or to make them work together. Just four seasons ago the Mantis Queen and the King Beetle had threatened war with one another, and both had tried to convince the Lord of Lightning to lend a glistening hand. Two weeks prior one of King Beetle’s daughters had abandoned the forest with one of the Lord of Lightning’s most promising soldiers. No, the Moss Prophet’s church was a sanctuary, just as it was for the SOFT ONE’s before, just as it is for the insects who now rule the land. The Moss Prophet does not call his congregations summits. He calls them nothing. He does not send word to them, all guarded in their respective territories, to gather. They just arrive, unspoken, independent of the Moss Prophet. And he waits, because he knows they will come.
The Moss Prophet warned of a fourth guest, and the Mantis Queen dismissed the possibility with a wave of her bladed arm.
“How,” she said, “can there be a fourth personality in the insect kingdom, when already we live in tumultuous balance?”
King Beetle scoffed and the Lord of Lightning fluttered his wings. King Beetle asked where a fourth kingdom could even fit in their forest land, and the Lord gestured that perhaps it was in the upper reaches where the trees are brittle and made of stone, where the SOFT ONES once had their caves and all the wind chimes lived.
The Moss Prophet shook his head and gestured to the entrance. The Mantis Queen’s sons pivoted as the Lord of Lighting’s guards glowed a bright yellow, casting the entrance of the church in a dim marigold.
The unexpected guest walked in with an unsteady gait, favouring its right side. When it moved the sounds of metal scraping against rust filled the church. It wore a cloak of moss not unlike the Moss Prophet’s or King Beetle’s, but this cloak was strung together with vines and petals and was attached to the guest’s scarlet exterior just like how moss grows on pillars. Its face had no pincers or sharp teeth but a perfect circle with a tiny, reflective cracked surface. It had no claws or bladed arms, but instead had three pronged fingers that looked like gnarled roots but were geometrically perfect. The guest waded through the water like a log floating down stream. It walked past the log pews and sat at the other end of the congregation, deliberate and alone. It moved with such lacklustre intention that it made the Queen, the Lord, and the King collectively uncomfortable.
“This is no bug,” the Mantis Queen clicked her pincers as her curious sons braced themselves. “Moss Prophet, explain yourself.”
The Lord of Lightning scoffed and dismissed the creature with a wave of his hand. His body flashed yellow in disgust. “What creature is this, anyhow,” the Lord said, “where are its claws, its many eyes. Why is its shell so flat and cold?”
King Beetle looked at the guest with reservation. He looked for a crown upon its head and found none. He said, “It is not royalty. It looks weak. Why did you bring this shiny monster here, Moss Prophet? Are the SOFT ONES rising from their mud to claim the Earth again?”
The Moss Prophet shook his head. He sat back down, feeling the weight of his cloak lift and suspend on the surface. He gestured to the metal creature.
“This is a robot,” he said, “a remnant of the SOFT ONES and the wars they used to kill each other with. He was sleeping for over 600 years, so much so that the forest has taken him in. Look! See how the forest has grown upon his hard shell, claiming him.”
King Beetle braced himself, puffed out his chest. The sons of the Mantis Queen followed.
“You’ve cursed us,” the King said, “you’ve brought a weapon of war into our holy church, Prophet!”
“Silence,” the Lord of Lightning said, “curb your enthusiasm for battle, King Beetle. Not everything is a slight.”
The Mantis Queen folded in her arms and rubbed the blades together. It sounded very much like the sound the robot makes when it moves. She said, “Let us see what it desires. What do you desire, robot?”
The robot turned, and the entire ecosystem living on its body, moved with it. DOES NOT COMPUTE, the robot said in a voice not full of little clicks or lapping tongues. WHERE ARE THE OTHERS IN MY UNIT? HAS THE OBJECTIVE BEEN COMPLETED?
The Mantis Queen shook her head. “It still thinks it’s at war.”
“Tell us of the SOFT ONES,” the Lord asked.
“Tell us of humans,” the Moss Prophet said. “Tell us of humans before they disappeared.”
THERE ARE NO HUMANS IN THESE COORDINATES. HIGH LEVELS OF RADIATION DEEMED UNFIT FOR HUMAN SURVIVAL. GLOBAL TEMPERATURE HAS INCREASED BY FOUR THOUSAND PERCENT SINCE DEPLOYMENT. FOLIAGE INEDIBLE.
King Beetle asked, “Are there more of your kind? Perhaps hidden under logs or mud?”
ACTION UNAVAILABLE. CANNOT CONNECT TO CENTRAL COMMAND.
“It was a scout,” the Lord of Lightning said, “I have them in my army, too.”
“We know,” the Mantis Queen said. “They are not very good.”
The Moss Prophet turned to the rulers of the forest. He spoke underneath the singing wind chime. “Do not fear the robot scout. It has awoken out of time. It is lost.”
The Lord of Lightning’s body illuminated in thought. Outside the perimeter of the church and past the open façade of its wall, his guards communicated with one another using their electrified bodies. The Lord asked the Moss Prophet what should become of this robot, and if it does not get destroyed, should he be gifted with it as a memento of the SOFT ONES.
King Beetle scoffed, “The robot is a scout, not a gift. It should be in my kingdom. It’s colours more closely match my shell anyway. It’s destiny.”
“Ah,” the Lord said, “you’re wanting to find a crown in its tiny, metal head.”
“And besides,” chirped the Mantis Queen, “its shell is red, and you are purple. I vote, that it remains with me, where it will be given a new purpose as one of my knights.”
King Beetle growled and when he did the Mantis Queen’s sons put a hand on the hilts of their swords. He ignored them and asked if she planned for the robot to be eaten by the daughters of her kingdom, too.
The Mantis Queen stood, trailing her elegant cloak along the pool of water. The Lord of Lightning stood and flew up to the Queen’s massive eight feet height. King Beetle joined them, and when he did both the Queen’s sons and the Lord’s guard surrounded them with their chests puffed. The Moss Prophet’s church filled with aggressive clicks and clatters. It became enveloped in a ghastly yellow glow. The Moss Prophet watched and waited. It was not his place to settle disputes. Although his congregation had always been a palace of peace amongst the rulers of the forest, if they wanted to break this unspoken pact, the Moss Prophet would adapt to the new way of things, just as it had before and will again.
The robot turned. A spider crawled along its arm and disappeared underneath the large, capped fungi developing on its shoulder. THIS UNIT CANNOT REGISTER THE LIFEFORMS OF THIS ECOSYSTEM. Then it paused, and the three rulers and the Moss Prophet waited underneath another tinkle of wind chimes. After a second, the robot continued. THIS UNIT CANNOT CONNECT TO CENTRAL COMMAND. THIS UNIT CANNOT PERFORM AUTONOMOUSLY. THIS UNIT SHALL PERFORM COMMAND: REST.
“Rest?” the Mantis Queen said, “No rest, metal creature. Not when your fate is being pulled in three ways.”
King Beetle waded through the water and poked the robot in its circular eye. It did not recoil, and the lack of response made the King feel uneasy. He tapped it on its chest with a gauntleted finger.
THIS UNIT HAS ENTERED COMMAND: HIBERNATION & ERUPTION. THIS UNIT SHALL PERFORM COMMAND: ERUPT UPON CONDITION OF DEPARTING CURRENT LOCATION.
“You’ve angered it!” said the Lord of Lightning. “King Beetle, the robot said it’ll explode. Look what you have done!”
The King shook his head. “No. It has entered a sleep.”
“And what if we move it,” said the Mantis Queen, “will it explode if it leaves the Moss Prophet’s church?
“It appears so,” said the Moss Prophet. “This robot is a creature lost to time, purposeless, and afraid.”
The Lord of Lightning asked if a creature such as it even feels fear.
The Moss Prophet blinked. A tadpole bounced off his shrunken rib cage. “Yes. All creatures feel fear when they lose their purpose.”
He looked at the robot, which now sat face forward, ignorant of the three rulers of the forest who intended to claim it as an object. The Moss Prophet was unsure of his commanding voice, of how definitive he sounded when he made such efforts over these years to be a pacifist among the bickering rulers.
He continued, “The robot shall remain with me, for it is as old as the church, the last relic of the SOFT ONES that we have broken so far from. Let the robot be a reminder of how far we have come.”
There was a silence amongst the three of the rulers, each surprised at the sudden decisiveness of the Moss Prophet. Finally, the Lord of Lightning asked if the robot was a friend of all the forest.
“Yes,” the Moss Prophet said. He leaned back and skated his fingertips across the water. “I am tired now, my children of the forest. This congregation is over.”
And all three rulers, the Mantis Queen, the Lord of Lightning, and King Beetle made their way out of the church. They each gave the robot one fleeting glance before setting off toward their respective colonies. The yellow glow on the church faded as the Lord Lightning and his fellows left.
The Moss Prophet stared at the sleeping robot and thought it should remain on this natural pew for eternity, for it will destroy the forest if it leaves. The Moss Prophet regarded the robot as a god of sorts, a deity forever tied to the forest and the church. The Moss Prophet will always have an audience of one, even after the Mantis Queen dies and her sons are cannibalized, long after King Beetle’s bastard daughter rises to her throne, long after the Lord of Lightning’s kingdom fades like the stars touching sunrise. And eventually, the Moss Prophet will die, leaving the flowers on his chest and stomach to wilt and crumble into the muggy waters.
Now, decades past, the robot remains sleeping, its moss cloak completely enveloping it, the mushrooms gripping its exterior now brown with rust. The robot, so foreign to the ways of life from the creatures who created its world and destroyed it, now is a part of the forest.