Melody couldn’t see the projector, but its holographic interface at least was a sign that she was nearing her destination. The grueling trip through Watcher’s Woods had taken hours of time and every last pathfinders’ trick in the book.

“The natives weren’t kidding when they said it was impossible to navigate Watcher’s Woods.” Melody said, ruefully fingering the torn fabric from the thorn-choked mud that had claimed her right sleeve and left boot.

“It represents a defense in depth,” the holographic cube replied in an even voice. “Obscurity, covert security, and now overt security. Present the proper identification code and passphrase and you will be allowed to access the memory core.”

Still trying to puzzle out the source of the holographic emitter, Melody nodded absently. “Sure. I think I can puzzle it out.”

“It is only fair to warn you that an incorrect answer will result in immediate termination,” the hologram said. “Withdrawal is likewise contraindicated due to the risk of an obscurity breach.”

That was enough for a little flop-sweat. “The ID code is 201983322,” Melody said in the most confident voice she could muster.

“Code accepted. Awaiting passphrase.”

There’d been nothing about a passphrase, only that damned…of course. “Deep grows the Watcher’s Wood/Where all are ground to dust/Take up the cause of blood/And leave not the sword to rust.”

Anxious perspiration prickled over Melody’s skin as she waited for a response from the holographic cube. There was none; it remained there, floating and flickering inscrutably.

Instead, the tiny clearing came alive.

Branches, vines, and trunks twisted themselves out of naturalistic positions into macabre tendrils, as the ground parted, liquidlike, to allow massive roots to do the same. Melody barely had time to flinch before the madness of the living forest enveloped her; she was covered in vines and protrusions of every sort and lifted bodily off the ground.

She realized that she was screaming only after a few long moments of confusion. But instead of the expected squeezing and twisting of a death roll, she felt a prickle of electricity across every inch of herself. As the roots enveloped her head, pictures began to explode into her waking consciousness, ebbing and flowing with the electrical current that set every hair on her body abuzz.

“My God…” Melody whispered. “The Watcher’s Woods don’t conceal the AI mainframe…they are the mainframe.”

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!