“GesteCo has been…diversifying. They’ve got some interesting trees at their experimental facility in Xinjiang.”

“Trees? You pulled this whole Deep Throat cloak-and-dagger thing for trees? Look: GesteCo is the international leader in artificial gestation, test tube babies, and designer kids for the rich and famous. If you can’t give me something juicy along those lines, there’s no point in talking.”

“Trees can be interesting, Mr. Whitacre. For instance, have you seen the GesteCo tree that’s been making the rounds at bioengineering conferences? They say it can produce human stem cells.”

“It’s easier just to collect those from newborns.”

“You’re not listening, Mr. Whitacre. Inside the trees: you must look inside! It is both a wonder and a horror that will, I think, be well worth your time.”

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The thing about speaking with trees is that most people expect it to be like speaking with people. In fact, it’s almost totally alien in every way–about what you’d expect from beings that have less in common with humans than many species of bacteria.

Tolkien did get one thing right, though: trees move slowly. Except as saplings, it may take them years to process information or to pass that information on. Even then, they tend to notice things like unusual winds, heavy rains, changes in soil consistency, and the number of creatures touching them or moving over their roots.

Even those that have the gifts necessary to speak with trees must gird themselves for a lengthy process: getting even a single data point may take days, and converting a statement about the wind and water and roots and leaves into information useful to humans can take even longer. It’s an undertaking.

But when all’s said and done, nobody knows the forests better. If something happens, be it ten, a hundred, or a thousand years ago, the trees will notice.

“The story teller says that it’s in a place beyond seeking,” Solanine said. “A grove in the deepest forest where the leaves turn and fall year-round.”

“That should be warning enough,” replied Dalonyn. “An overt warning followed by an impossibility. Beyond seeking means it cannot be sought for to do so is folly, while year-round leaffall would bury a tree to its crown. Can’t you see that the storyteller is using this as a metaphor? He seeks to describe a foolhardy chasing of shadows in terms our ancestors understood.”

Solanine folder her arms. “If that were the case, why not simply say so? If it’s in the stories, it must be true.”

“You’ll find that many of the stories are metaphors, lessons for living a good life wrapped up in our ancestors’ tales,” Dalonyn sighed. “Do you honestly believe the tale of Kulynan spearing the moon or Linoni flooding a valley to drive out spirits? It is the same with the Everfall Glen and the miraculous panacea it contains.”

“The storyteller holds them to be true,” replied Solanine, defiantly. “He says nothing of metaphor. When I seek and find it, you’ll see how wrong you’ve been.

Gather around, everyone, for I’d like to tell you a story.

Now, this was a very long time ago, when children stayed children until they were forced to grow up and anything was possible as long as you did it before lunchtime. A little boy lived in a little house on a hill under a great oak tree with his family. And, every night when his chores were done, he would sit under that tree and look up at the stars until it came to be bedtime. It was a very long way to anywhere, and anyone, else from that little house, and the boy often felt like the stars and the great fuzzy belt of the Milky Way were closer than anything, and anyone, else. He used to dream about what, and who, might be looking up at his little star from far-off cosmic hills under far-off cosmic trees.

Of course, there was no way for him to be sure–or so you might think! As it happens, the boy’s house had a very well-stocked library, and he would often take a book to read when the moonlight was at its brightest on hot summer nights. One of the books talked about a lonely castaway on a desert island lost in the seven seas, who had sat under a palm tree on an island hill and wondered the same wonders as the boy. The castaway had written a message and put it into a bottle, which he’d hurled into the vast ocean–not looking for rescue, since he’d come to love his little island, but rather looking for a friend. The bottle had returned bearing a message from a prince in the far-off orient, with the castaway and his new friend exchanging many such bottles in the pages to come.

The boy was enchanted by this idea, and one day he wrote a letter of his own, sealed it up tight in a bottle, and flung it into the sky with a little help from his slingshot.

It was many days later that he found his bottle under the great old oak, warm to the touch and bearing a message back. It was unsigned, but spoke of another child on another hill impossibly far away, sitting under the same sky and wondering the same wonders as the boy. That was the first of many bottles which came and went into the great starry expanse from beneath that old oak on hot summer nights, as the boy and his new friend wrote each other about their shared questions, hopes, and even dreams.

Then, it so happened that the boy’s last bottle went unanswered for a very long time–much longer than usual. When a bottle finally appeared, it looked as if it had been through a fire.

The message inside was brief. It read, simply, “help me.”