After the Dark – Part 1 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

The sky brimmed with the promise of tears. The clouds had lingered all day, waiting for an opportunity to spoil the mood. They could have come sooner, for my tastes. I’d reached the point I get to in any celebration when I just can’t sustain the required, expected feelings any longer. Maybe my tolerance is low, or I’m just a grumpy sod who should be allowed to go home early, but I’d had enough half the day ago. Pleading a headache, and the cure of fresh air, I’d taken off on my own for a few minutes of peace and quiet. I slipped out of the chalet’s back door, hands and expression placating my friends – just in case one of them felt they ought to accompany me.
I found myself under those clouds, and on the edge of the lake. I released the breath I’d been holding all day and let my shoulders shudder it all out of me. It was much quieter out here; behind me, the chalet vibrated with music, chatter, and laughter. It wasn’t like I was abandoning them. I’d be back, once I’d done a bit of sulking and kicked some stones into the water. The afternoon was rapidly fading away, and the sky was turning that rich teal that I love at this time of year. The sun, low over the lake, and the first hint of a moon sketching itself into existence. A beautiful place, and apt for celebration, though if I was honest with myself, I rather resented being back. As gloomy as the clouds I scuffed my way through the thin grass to the shore, careful to step around the young, hungry saplings; those would be a task for another day, not that I’d remember them.
Such a pretty, still lake. I kicked a few pebbles out of the sand, messing up my smart boots. They had a good weight to them, and I couldn’t resist breaking that perfect surface. The first stone, as always, began with a promising string of skips, but vanished sooner than I’d like. The calm now ruined, I watched the ripples spread and fade away. Pebbles two and three did a bit better. The fourth I hurled as far as I could, and lost myself for a minute of stamping at the sand, hoofing the stones every which way. At least I’d uncovered a few more bright prospects. I brushed the sand off them, for streamlining purposes, and tossed them, frustrated, back to the ground.
A walk. I’d promised myself a walk. The lake, and this little wooden house were the first things I could remember. A place to grow up, to make friends, and lives together. And now we were back, to take it all away. My feet led me inexorably around the lake, its gravity had always drawn me on. When I was younger in my time, I’d taken to climbing out of the window at all hours of night. I’d been restless, prone to insomnia through over-excitable thoughts, or some restlessness in my spirit that made sleep an elusive property of consciousness. Hard won, and surprising when it crashed down on me. The night-time walks didn’t help me sleep, but they did fill the time.
I would fold back the covers just so – not in a heap – that would create pockets to be filled with cold. Better to leave it neat and open, ready for me to slip back in later. Then I’d pad across the wooden floor, flip the catch atop the sash window and slowly slide it up. The damned thing always seemed to stick, and ground its way upward with what seemed an appalling sound. Still, it never woke my sibs. I’d always forget its racket by the next day, and would chide myself for failing to oil it, or whatever it is that would soothe a wooden window frame, saddened by its age into deformation, vexed near-nightly by a youth who wouldn’t let it sleep. Presumably it still got stuck; perhaps I’d test it later.
The path round the lake is half sand and half ragged patchwork of pressed down rubble, kicked loose and into the waters by people like me. It wound in a way that spoke to my feet, and together we skirted the water on my left and the ever-darkening woods to my right. ‘Woods’ was probably an exaggeration. Here there were mere copses competing for light and earth, none grown so large as to dominate the area, all just toughing it out, waiting to see which would suddenly sprout up and bully the others into shade and diminution. Still, I kept my distance, respectful. There’s no need to intrude – there was space, for now, for all of us. The lake had returned to a glacial stillness, in anticipation of full moonrise, which would be upon us soon enough. Time yet for a walk.
From the window I could half-slide and scrabble my way down the wooden-shingled roof, its heart-shapes under my hands and feet. As I grew older it became a smoother ride, my confidence grew and I would take longer strides. Until that night it was raining and the tiles were slick. I slipped almost immediately, just one foot out of the window, spinning me head and shoulders into the roof, one leg snarled over the sill. After that I put both feet out together. I certainly didn’t stop going for those moonlit walks. The short drop beyond was always easy, and then I could be off. A half-dozen backwards glances to confirm that I wasn’t missed, and I was away.
The half-drawn moon fleshed out its colours as the sun faded, grew bright and yellow and cast its buttery glow over the lake. Calia out in all his glory. The trees began to unfurl their secondary leaves, and I paused for a moment to watch them spread their thick spines, the leaves filling out like sails being caught by the wind, straining between the spines. All to catch that creamy light. The lake developed its first ripple; not from any stone I’d cast, but from Calia’s twin, lending her weight to his pull. The two came as a pair, and sure enough, the ripples grew into waves as the lake was being dragged to the east, and Talens emerged from behind Calia. The trees shuddered, their leaves rippling like the water, soaking up the light from the twin moons. I could feel something of their magic myself, all lined in yellow, caught between their victim, the lake, and the trees who hungered for the moons’ touch. This was why I used to come out at night. To feel part of the world, to see the parts that we usually missed by being asleep, or inside, or in the city where the trees were less common. It’s too easy to miss out on the simple things.
I was glad to be out walking, even if I still wasn’t happy about being here. The sounds of the chalet had long since faded, replaced by the meaty shuffle of the leaves and the involuntary tide of the lake. It had been years since I’d tasted this air, felt the moons here, all with the promise of returning home to a bed, which would be chilled from my absence, but would soon warm up as I lay there, watching the moons disappear over the other side of the world. And I’d go back soon too, but it would be for the last time. I was torn between dragging this walk out as long as I could, and returning to the others and cherishing our little family. It was, of course, somewhat selfish of me to leave them at all, but that too was a thing I wasn’t entirely ready to give up.
A wave sloshed over the path, splashing up my trouser leg and through the lace holes of my shoe. It really had been too long, I’d known every step of this road and felt its tides to the second. But now I had a wet foot. It seemed certain that was a metaphor for growing up, or forgetting one’s youth, or something. The world is full of symbols if you care to look for them, though that doesn’t accord them actual meaning: one man’s inspiration is another’s tedium. As I pointlessly shook my foot (well, it was hardly going to get the water out of my sock, was it?) I was startled further by a voice behind me, calling my name. I turned; there’s no avoiding the ones you love.
“No one’s ever come out after me before,” I said, attempting to repress the flux of emotions that suddenly welled up with my words.
“I always assumed you wanted to be alone, Jenn.”
I grinned. “Of course I did, and of course you did.”
The moonlight sloshed its bright yellow over Maina. She was a bit taller than me, and in the moonlight she glowed like a spectre. In a heartbeat she was beside me, in another, her arm was tucked firmly through mine.
“Did you come out every night?” she asked, her shoulder bumping against mine.
“Most nights,” I said, companionably bumping back, “it’s the moons. And the trees. And the lake.”
She laughed, a soft sound that I mostly felt rather than heard. “I stopped wondering where you going after a while. Once I knew you were coming back. That window must have woken me every time until I got used to it. Squealed like murder.”
She shook loose a laugh that I didn’t know I was waiting to let go of. Another deep breath.
“But it’s lovely out here,” Maina looked up at the moons and sighed, basking a little in their light, “maybe I should have joined you.”
“I think I might have liked that,” I admitted, “I didn’t know you could hear the window.”
“Are you kidding? There was nothing in that house louder – not even bloody Aer’s snoring.”
“I thought it was one of those noises that was louder in your head, like when you pop your jaw, but no one else can hear.”
“I can confirm that the window is not inside your head.”
“Funny.”
“Is that your foot?” she asked.
“Nope, that squishing sock sound is entirely in your mind.”
We smiled. She rested her head on my shoulder and we went on.
“I was coming back,” I started, “it’s just–“
“It’s all a bit much, isn’t it?” Maina interrupted, “you always were terrible at these things. Do you remember Aer’s party? When he got that job, out at the hospital?”
“Maybe,” I hedged.
“He was bragging about how well the interview went, and how good he was going to be at looking after people – and you – you couldn’t stand it.”
“We’d been telling him how great he was for hours. Well, it felt like hours.”
“And then Rumala slipped, and fell down the stairs.”
“I’d forgotten that,” I clapped my free hand over my mouth, “that was a really bad fall. Didn’t she break her arm?”
“Kind of. Turned out she’d broken it days ago, falling out of a tree. Since it had popped back into place, she thought it must be all alright. Falling down the stairs proved her wrong. That scream!”
“Even thinking about it makes me feel queasy,” I said.
“Ha! You don’t remember properly do you? As soon as the attention switched from Aer to Rumala, your face absolutely lit up. You looked delighted,” Maina leaned heavily on me for emphasis and my foot squelched especially loudly, “I bet I was the only one who saw. You weren’t pleased about Rumala, but you were thrilled not to be talking about Aer any more.”
“That’s not–“ I started, but unable to honestly continue that line, “–fine. I was, plus it gave Aer something to do instead of talk about himself. He did do a good job of looking after Rumala, I’ll him that.”
“Ooh, that must have hurt to admit,” Maina was beaming at me, “and is this the same? Everyone’s together again properly.”
I booted a stone into an approaching wave, breaking its concentration. The moons picked up the slack though, and they kept coming, thick and fast. I angled us further up the path, away from the water’s edge.
“I don’t know. It all seems so silly now. It just goes on so long that it feels forced, I feel like I’m having to try to be all happy and pleased.”
“And you’re not,” Maina said, turning me to face her, “I know you’re not.”
“Are you? Are you really alright with all this – tomorrow we’re going to end it all, and none of us will be together any more, and it’ll be like we never happened,” Maina stared at me, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to shout. It’s just…”
“Jenn. You don’t have to go too. You know that, right? You do know that.”
The damn tears weren’t in the clouds any more, they’d snuck into my eyes while I was gazing at the moons.
“I– I can’t. How could I go on alone? And you – is this what you want? Or are you just going along with it because Aer and Rumala have decided it’s time, that they’ve had enough of each other, and the rest of us are just going down with them.”
“Talens’ sake Jenn. You’d have them go on, unhappy, fallen out of love. And what, just persist?”
I took back my arm, and folded them both about me.
“That’s not how it’s done,” Maina continued, growing angry now, angry at me, “you’re being selfish.”
“Because I want to live? Because I don’t want to sweep all of this away, sweep you, and Aer, and Rumala, and Eleran, and Tesh, and Miqual and Teresa’s into nothing? Because I don’t want to forget everything we’ve had together? Selfish? I think Aer and Rumala are being selfish, and taking the rest of us down with them.”
“But – we all agreed, Jenn. We all agreed. And we all came out here – the shettling is tomorrow – and now you’re doing this? I thought the story about Aer’s party was funny, but it’s not. It wasn’t Jenn just being Jenn – this is, I don’t know what this is. I can’t believe you.”
I reached out for her – a conciliatory hand, an apology I had no words for, but she spun away.
“Maina.”
The moons now only lit her walking away from me. Sharp, angry paces. Maybe it was best that I’d always walked alone here before. But that was stupid thinking too – to blame Maina instead of myself. I knew what I was agreeing to. A group shouldn’t take shettling lightly, but nor should its weight press them down, or hold them back. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, tried to listen just to the trees leaves fighting for the moons’ touch, the waves slapping down on the shore, tried to hear my own heartbeat and drown out the wail in my heart. Ever unwilling to submit, I carried on my walk.
Aer and Rumala were a beautiful force of love. I’m not sure when they fell, fully, for each other. Presumably that was being revisited back at the chalet, probed and enriched by sharing our memories and thoughts. Sometime after the broken arm I guessed. Aer had put her arm into a sling, and taken her out into the woods. There weren’t many of the right kind of tree near the chalet. These are all too young now, and they were younger then, too involved in jostling for space to be concerned with us. But Aer knew where there was a much older relative of theirs. He’d found it one summer, off hiking with our mothers and fathers. I hadn’t gone on that trip. It must have been him, probably with Tereis and Tesh, since they were inseparable. I don’t know what I was doing that summer. It must have been when I’d taken up music with a vigour, soon to be abandoned when I discovered I wasn’t really going to be very good at it. But they found this big old tree, its roots thick and massive. There was no doubt that it was part of the alltree. Its primary leaves were turned crimson, because it had grown large enough to dominate its neighbours and could now subsist solely on its nocturnal photosynthesis.
It would have been perfect, if Aer could have actually found it again. But he couldn’t, and after leading Rumala around for hours, in pain from her broken arm, he had to admit that he couldn’t remember where it was, and bring her back to the chalet and father had to call for an ambulance. He Aer spent the whole ride into town apologising profusely to Rumala. I guess that did the trick, somehow. Ah, but they fell so hard in love. We’d all lived together, just waiting for such a romance to break out. Once it had, it gave the rest of us licence to fall too. It seems to be the way. Tereis and Tesh, always together, now gained an extra glint in their already gleaming and mischievous eyes. Theirs was a love that had not faded. I’d rarely seen them when they weren’t holding hands, or at least pressed shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip. And I loved them dearly too. Even Aer, ridiculously pompous Aer. Maina, Eleran, Miqual and I fell in and out of playful and passionate spells. None of us had the fire to match those first two, enduring pairings. Instead we slipped with equanimity and friendship through a happy cycle of relationships with each other. I regretted not having more. I’d always had an eye for something special for Maina, and though we spent time together, it never hit that peak I had hoped for. What I felt was never quite reciprocated, and I drifted away a little. Never far – how far can you slide from your circle? We grew up together and knew each other inside out.
Why then was Maina so surprised that I now felt this way, that deep down I didn’t want to go through the shettling? Surely it should have been obvious that I wasn’t ready, that it was too soon, that I hadn’t done something, that Maina and I had not truly found each other. If we ended it all now, we never would. But perhaps we never would anyway, no matter how long we went on. The walk had turned out less soothing than I had hoped for. Maina now knew how I felt. Would she be back at the chalet now, telling the others? I was torn between hoping she would, and hoping my secrets would remain mine. Like my midnight walks. Except those had never been secret, no matter what I thought. Would things have been different if someone had followed me one night, come to ask me if I was alright? Or would I have resented their interference? Either way, I had to accept that this dilemma was in me, not in them. They did what they thought best – to allow me my privacy, my night time thing, and to not interfere. Being freely given that freedom has a cost. It was a trust placed in me, and I didn’t know how that trust should lie in my heart.
Waves steadily surged across the lake, dragged about by the massive lunar forces. I could be selfish. I could ruin the shettling for all of them, for all of us. Or I could return to my circle, to my family and friends, and do what was right for the group. If we could no longer all bear to live with the weight of our memories and each other – clearly Rumala and Aer couldn’t, watching them together since they had split up was a pain I felt to my very core – then we would support that.
I turned on the twins, and felt their light warming my spine as I headed back to the chalet.

After the Dark – Part 2 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

I followed my doubled shadow back to the chalet; Talens and Calia, bright in the sky behind me, lit my path. I wasn’t so much reluctant to return to my friends as I was embarrassed to walk in and have missed out. A foolish set of feelings to have, contradictory and unhelpful. I consoled myself a little by punting a few stones into the water on my way. Trivial exercises of power are ever the way to a happier heart… I could see I wasn’t going to be able to just sneak in. A silhouette waited outside, lounging against one of the wooden posts that separated the veranda from the inclined roof above. Aware that I was being watched, I gave up on my reluctance and doubled my stride.
As my feet crunched and squelched through the gravel leading up to our family home, the figure turned, to be caught by the moonlight, and revealed itself to be Miqual. Beautiful Miqual. Eyes like fire, and now outlined in gold. He smoothly pushed himself to standing with a simple flex of his shoulder, bouncing off the post. The light treated him well. It always had. It’s not always a compliment to say you like how someone looks by night, but for Miqual it really worked. I drew nearer and he stepped down off the porch, bare foot as usual, and simply grabbed me into a hug. It had been a long time since we’d been more than just friends, but the casual strength and warmth of the man still made me catch my breath, before relaxing into him.
“Still out walking, then,” he offered, barely a murmur in my ear.
I hadn’t yet gotten over Maina pointing out that they all knew I’d gone a wandering nightly, and his remark bounced off me at the wrong angle. I stiffened, stretching out of his embrace. A childish reaction, but it seemed I wasn’t yet done with petulance for the evening. I had nothing to offer in return, other than a half-grunted confirmation, whose words even I couldn’t have spelled out. Miqual let me go, allowed me to retract myself to arms’ length, though his hands remained on my shoulders; a comforting weight I didn’t want to accept.
“Maina’s not happy with you,” he began, “want to talk about it?”
When we’d been together, I’d adored Miqual’s directness. His frank statements of feeling, of desire, demands, and forthright expressions of affection had an honesty I’d both admired and responded to in kind. I’d found it hard to replicate with anyone else, but he consistently brought out the best in me. I grumbled some further nonsense, and turned away to gaze at Talens sliding out past Calia, vaster and brighter than his sister moon, sharpening the yellow into a white glow that burned when it reflected off the water. Miqual caught me by the shoulder and drew me back in, his left arm across my chest, my back pressed to him.
I was doing a spectacularly poor job of preparing for shettling. I knew that, but I was struggling to give myself back over to the circle. What else would Miqual want than for me to speak my mind.
“Well no, not really. But I should. I’m – I’m not ready for this Miq. And I know that’s not fair on everyone else.”
“It’s Maina, isn’t it? You always had a thing for her.”
“It just, it never worked out.”
“It doesn’t have to.”
“I know that, I just thought, it would, you know. Like Tesh and Tereis. I thought we’d have our time.”
“You did. Several times, as I recall,” I could feel Miqual smiling as he spoke, “as did we, several times.”
I jabbed him with my elbow, got rewarded with a mock ‘oof’.
“So what’s wrong with me then Miq? What’s your diagnosis?”
“Hmm. It’s complicated, but right now you’re stuck with some idea of what’s supposed to happen. Calia’s tears – we all think it’s going to turn out some special way, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to. Maybe I thought it would be you and me, that we’d end up like those two, joined at the hip. Didn’t work out that way. Doesn’t mean I’m happy about it, but I’m not sad about it. It was always fun when we were together, but I love Eleran too, and Maina. And the others come to that. I can’t regret what never happened, I can’t do that to myself. And nor should you. Come inside, remember what did happen, don’t spend tonight inventing a past that should have happened, or a future that won’t happen. Seriously, Tesh brought some amazing wine.”
While I could grumble, it was always hard to resist Miqual, and Tesh had indeed long developed a taste for the finest wines.
“All right. Fine. Lead the way.”
Miqual enclosed me in a huge hug, until I pushed him away and shoved him back up the step and through the front door.
Inside the chalet, the wooden floors spread out before me, each one leading to some memory of growing up here. Slipping and sliding in our socks in daft races down the hall, the stairs that Rumala fell down so dramatically, saying goodbye to our mother and father when they judged us secure enough to be left alone; that first night without them, all of us huddled in our own beds, no longer quite sure of the rules any more. Only to realise later, that there weren’t really any rules. All that mattered was the little circle of us – one that would shrink and grow depending on what we chose to do, the paths we followed, but was ultimately unbreakable, and would always draw us back in. As it had now. Miqual led me by the hand into the main living room.
“Look who I found outside,” he declared.
The others cheered. Even Maina, who briefly vanquished the scowl she had bestowed on me. Miqual pushed me into a chair next to Eleran, and sat on its arm, leaning over me to seize the bottle of wine Eleran was holding.
“How’s Calia tonight,” asked Eleran, reaching out to tuck a hair back behind my ear, “bright?”
“Never so radiant as you,” I replied, drawing the light mocking laughter from her that I so enjoyed. We smiled at each other, and I began to relax into the mood.
The room was entirely panelled in wood, the chairs and settees a mismatched sprawl of worn old furnishings of different heights, widths and depths. They contained us perfectly. Calia and Talens were bright through the windows, but muted by their panes, not so bright as to dazzle. Instead, the low tables which filled the space between the seats were set out with dozens of candles, many of which I’d set out earlier in jars and holders dug out from the numerous cupboards and chests of drawers scattered throughout the house. For all my reluctance, I’d played my part in preparing our old home for us. All the beds had been made, though there was a reasonable chance we’d barely use half of them – Eleran had arrived early that morning with Rumala and done much to make the place ready for us. I liked to think I added the glow.
Tesh and Tereis were, inevitably, piled on top of each other in a single broad armchair, though their frequent wriggling made it hard to tell who sat on whose lap. Their grins were infectious, laughing at each other’s jokes and teasing jibes. By contrast, Aer and Rumala were separated by Eleran, myself and Miqual. That still didn’t seem right, and of course was very much the reason we were all back here. It was fine for Miqual, Maina, Eleran and I to drift in our romantic rhombus, but their break up was deeply troubling. I suppose I hadn’t wanted to admit it before, but my brief absence and return made it all the plainer: the circle was broken.
Miqual handed me an overflowing glass of wine. I downed most of it in one, to mild applause.
“Catching up,” I managed, as the wine took effect, sending pulses of warmth through me like waves on the lake.
“We were just talking about you,” said Aer.
I grimaced, “something good I hope.”
“Actually yes,” he took a deeper swallow of his own wine, “do you remember when mother and father left – that first night, when I was still in that little room at the end of the hall, on my own at night – and you heard me crying?”
“I do. And I came and climbed into bed with you till you went back to sleep.”
“Except you fell asleep too, and when we woke up your arms and my legs had gone to sleep–“
“–no, it was your arms that had gone to sleep–“
“–someone’s arms had gone to sleep, and we tried to get up and just fell on the floor and couldn’t get up until we’d got feeling back.”
“I do. I’m pretty sure I’ve still got a scar on my knee from smacking into the shelves next to your bed.”
“Well, I just wanted to say ‘thank you’ for that night, if not the morning afterwards.”
We all raised our glasses, to the memory, to being friends, brothers and sisters – to our circle.
The night was full of such memories. The trivial things that any family shares: how Tereis constantly lost his glasses, just could not either wear the damn things or put them down somewhere sensible;  all of us waiting outside the stage door for Maina to come out after her operatic performance so we could shower her with flowers and congratulations; Aleran’s recovery from her car accident, eagerly pulling her out of the soft soil, healed but too long asleep to walk, so Miqual and I carried her while she drowsily muttered of her dreams with the trees; the first nights we’d spent with each other. It’s amazing what you can remember as a group, that you thought had been forgotten or never remembered happening until it’s laid out for you again. Inevitably, there were tears as well as laughter. Sorrow is ever mixed with joy, makes the two sweeter and sharper for their contrast. Each rich, each part of the lives we shared, both reasons for living.
We came at last to Aer and Rumala’s break up, Talens knows how many bottles of wine we’d drunk, how many tears we’d shed. By that point, Eleran was sprawled sideways across my lap and Miqual’s arm held the back of my chair, else he’d have slid to the floor. Maina propped up Rumala and somehow Tesh and Tereis had made enough space to support Aer as he sat on the floor at their feet. As a family we managed our wine well. Can you explain what causes people to fall out of love? We didn’t know, we only knew that it had torn a hole in our circle, never to be mended. Listening to them talk, as they exchanged their fond recollections, they were unable to quantify the change in their feelings, only the emotions themselves. All they could say was couched in metaphor and simile, the yawning void, the spreading gulf between them.
It was contagious, that hole. We’d been apart for just slightly too long, split off on our own pursuits, chasing work and art, that we’d grown unable to see the separation coming. But now we were all together again, it was clear to me. The shettling was the right thing for us. How could we function as a circle any longer, when two of our number had suffered, had lost the thing that held us all together. I caught, and held Maina’s eye, as Rumala wordlessly expressed her sense of loss. We too had lost something, and perhaps we all felt something similar, that we were all diminished. Our time had come, and though we could celebrate what we’d had together, it was time for something new and different. In the morning we would join in the shettling and be reborn.
I stumbled off to bed alone. The candles had burned down, and guttered in their molten remains. We had definitively, and loudly finished Tesh’s wine. He himself had had the last glass, and promptly fallen asleep in the armchair, trapping Tereis in place beneath him. He accepted his lot and waved us off to bed, shuffling his lover into a more comfortable position. Miqual had disappeared with Rumala, Aer with Maina. I’d thought, perhaps, that she and I would have spent this last night together, but as Miqual had said, there was no use in striving for a story that didn’t exist. Even though I had grasped this, my stomach still lurched with the possibility. Or maybe that was the wine. My head was spinning as I lay down in the bed that I’d had since I was young. It still fit me perfectly, the blankets smelled the same, had the same reassuring weight, gently pinning me to the mattress. I’d drunk too much to feel the cold, but not so much that I couldn’t feel it when Eleran climbed under the blanket, and opened my eyes to see her long hair shattered into a luminous rainbow by Talens’ light. She was warm, and naked.
Morning came too soon. The yellow moons had been replaced by the cool blue sky of day, and the sun’s pale light flooded my bedroom. Eleran had disappeared some time around dawn, leaving us both with too little time for sleep. Not that it really mattered. Shettling came twice a year, on the two nights of the year when Talens’ orbit coincided perfectly with Calia’s. They would rise as one, with Talens’ light filtered and enhanced through Calia. We had most of the day to travel north, past Brisingam and out into the allforest, where Aer had been working these past ten years. It was a long trip, but the train ran there directly. How many circles would be seeking to shettle I had no idea, but there would also be mothers and fathers travelling to collect the shettled and take them to their new homes. I finally felt ready to take the plunge, and to deliver myself into the earth, with my family and embrace what would come next.

After the Dark – Part 3 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

The promised rain never came. Overnight, the clouds had fled, leaving our pale sun to carry the sky’s weight. It did the best it could, and was still too bright for my post-wine eyes. The blue itself was searing, setting fire to the inside of my head. The covers were still shaped for two, and I couldn’t take the smile from my face, even though I was now alone. Eleran had a bed of her own, of course, and we all had goodbyes to make; not just to each other, but to the things, places and objects that made up our lives. I’d always bounced between the various philosophies of identity – whether it’s the people we’re surrounded by and our relationships that make us who we are, or if it’s the stuff we bury our lives under – that make us who we are. I’d a fair appreciation for the things of life, those items that were always there, even when the people left, that had no feelings of their own. They’re a structure, a shape, some of kind of mould or armour we build. Whether we’re the presence left when they’re taken away, or the shape formed by the void between them, well, that’s the sort of question that leads me into a bottle of wine, and out the other side. The places that we’ve been are part of the pathway to who we are, so re-treading our time here together made sense to me.
This chalet was a keystone for all of us. It’s almost the first thing I can remember, after clawing through the soft soil. I reached up for the world of air and light, felt the sharp snapping of roots being left behind, and felt hands reaching for mine, pulling me up the rest of the way, blinking into the face of that pale sun. All around me my brothers and sisters were pushing their way to the surface as well, all of us bound together by the shettling, and now released into a new life. The blur of kindly faces, distorted voices welcoming us, bundling us in blankets – that fierce sensation of softness, where before only compacted dirt had held us so tightly that our lungs had not drawn breath – shocking lightness of sensation, almost overwhelming. I have flashes of the journey out of the allforest, curled up with seven similarly blanketed forms, huddled for that intense sense of pressing weight we’d so recently been freed from. I can remember the flurry of shapes, which must have been the branches and leaves of trees along the road, a blurred span of green and blue. Hours and moments of sleep and wakefulness, golden hair, a broad hand pressing me down in the back of the automotive as I reached for the window, deep voices, soothing, like the murmurs of the earth.
And then coming to in this bed, the heavy blanket like swaddling, comforting beyond reason. As it was now. These were all morning thoughts, a babble of the mind reawakening, and adjusting to the real world again. I folded the blanket back, as I would if I were to sneak out for my not-so-secret night jaunts. All this time, they’d known me better than I’d thought; of course they had. I’d been foolish to think otherwise. In stretching and gazing out of the window, I weighed the span of our time together – some forty-two years of amity and love. A good length. A happy time, of growth and learning, of trivial and crucial events that bound us ever tighter together. And now apart, at last.
I’d risen late it seemed – already the chalet was filled with activity. I took advantage of the temporarily free bathroom, content with the smell of breakfast and the hungover groans and laughter that drifted through the wooden halls. Clean, and fresher in the head I laid out my favourite suit. I’d carefully folded it before making my way here, and it had survived the trip surprisingly well. Given that it had been buried inside my rucksack as I’d hitchhiked half the distance from Brisingham, before abandoning the roads and taking to the rougher woodland paths, it was only severely creased. Five days of walking through the dells and around the meres that dotted the landscape between the city I lived and worked in, and this beautiful lake of ours. I should probably have caught a lift with one of the others sooner, instead of brooding alone for that time. I’d scared Calia’s tears out of Miqual when I’d appeared at the side of the road, flagging down his automotive. He’d picked up Tesh and Tereis from the observatory, where they spent their time star gazing, or some such pursuit. I wasn’t as interested in looking up as I was in looking into our glorious green world. Hence the hiking. I shook the suit out as best I could. I should have taken it into the bathroom, and allowed the steam to work its magic. Oh well, I’d never been the best dressed of us – that was a title reserved for Aer and his clotheshorse frame, though rivalled by Miqual’s capacity for allowing any garment to hang perfectly. But enough of them. I looked quite dapper, I thought. We’d be shedding all of our clothes at nightfall anyway, plus we had the journey north to content with, but at least I’d look good and sharp for breakfast.
The kitchen was in shocking disarray. Someone had let Aer do the cooking, and every surface was covered in a fine layer of flour and spattered with hard-to-identify droplets of something that must be related to food. He was somehow sparkling clean amidst the devastation he’d wrought, and he turned at my entrance.
“Take a seat Jenn, we have toast, of three varieties, porridge, coffee, I’m no longer sure what this is, but it began as an omelette, also tea… And there’s juice, plus bacons and fruit tarts.”
“Talens blessing be on you, Aer,” I took a seat at the table, shuffling up next to Rumala, who clutched a mug of coffee like it held salvation, “I’ll take a little of everything, except the coffee – I’d like a lot of that.”
Aer turned back to his grand chaos, pouring me a huge drink. Tesh snatched it from his hand as he stumbled into the kitchen, draining it in one, despite the heat.
“You look…” I teased, “like you drank the very last of the wine last night.”
“I have little to no recollection of that, but some idiot let me sleep in an armchair, and now I can’t feel my collarbones,” he grumbled, thrusting his mug back under the caffeiniere until it did his bidding.
“That was supposed to be mine,” I pointed out, and received a scowl and a full mug. “Thank you Tesh. Where’s Tereis?”
“Oh, he went for a run with Maina. Which is inconceivable, and actually makes me feel sick. But they’re back now. He’s packing up the stuff from our room.”
I’d sorted most of my possessions back in Brisingham. My apartment was pretty well packed and ready to go. I’d left nothing here when I moved to the city, though I knew some of the others had kept their hoards of toys, books and clothes near the lake where they belonged. By nightfall, all we owned should be at the archives. Anything we left behind would be available to whoever took our place. It wasn’t that we expected to reclaim them, but the archiving was a deep-rooted part of shettling: the reconciliation and encapsulation of a life together, to be stored together – a closeness that reflected how we’d lived. I’d given much to charity and neighbours, keeping only a few boxes of personal treasures and photographs. For all that I’d enjoyed gathering a house of stuff, at the end I’d found that little of it represented who I’d become; I suppose I was not the shape formed by the things after all.
“We’ll be stopping off in Brisingham for a few hours later, Jenn. Will that be time enough for you to take care of everything?” asked Rumala, through a mouthful of what I guessed was once an omelette.
“Should be fine. It’s all stacked in the hall, ready to go.”
“I wish you’d moved in with me and Aer,” she said, surprising me.
“Really?”
“Of course,” chimed in Aer, “we were all in the city together, and yet apart. I regret not inviting you in. It’s what we should have done.”
“Ah, but you’d have hated me climbing out your bedroom window every night,” I said, spurring a round of laughter. Rumala gave me a hug, and Aer gave me a plate piled high with the produce of his war with the kitchen. “But thank you both.”
“Everything else is in the automotives,” said Miqual, appearing in the doorway. “Everyone else has either archived or brought their stuff with them. Should be an easy drop off. Maina registered us last month and they opened a new case for us. I’ve taken up about half of it with pictures of you lot.”
“That painting of me and Eleran you did is sitting in my hall, nicely wrapped in three of my shirts,” I said, “it’s one of my favourites.”
“At least the collection will be together again,” he replied, accepting a mountainous sandwich from Aer.
“We’re just about ready then,” said Rumala, with a sigh, “though I suppose we’ll have to clear up this mess first.”
Aer took her pointed stare with an innocent glee, denying all responsibility.
It didn’t take that long to clear up. By the time we had, Tereis and Maina had finished their packing, and a small pile of cartons sat on the veranda. Eleran locked the chalet’s front door, and tucked the key under the cushion of the love seat to its left.
“Alright then,” she said, turning to face us, “I have loved you all, for all of our time. Let’s do this together.”
Miqual produced a camera, and we all crowded onto the veranda, our backs to the lake, facing our childhood home, and squeezed into one final snapshot of us all together. Our circle, united, soon to be broken.

After the Dark – Part 4 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

The journey back to Brisingham took a couple of hours, a time filled with fidgeting and too little space. The back was filled to overflowing with boxes and bags, strapped down and still blocking any view to the rear. Miqual drove, while I was squeezed in with Tesh and Rumala; the rest were in Aer’s automotive, leading the way. There was an awkwardness I hadn’t anticipated, but in retrospect was obvious: we’d just spent a day and a half celebrating our lives together, virtually said goodbye, and now were mashed together for another day. It was much like saying goodbye to a friend and then realising you’re both going heading in the same direction. Do you acknowledge and walk together, having said all there was to say, or awkwardly pretend not to have noticed each other? Neither works out terribly well.
The road was lined with the scrubby half-woods that I spent much of my professional life in. Studying the allforest had kept me busy for many years; and not just me, generations of researchers, scientists, doctors and curious enthusiasts were drawn to the strange monoculture. In this region, we had but a single species of tree, which dominated almost all available space, competing with itself for sun and moonlight. While there were many varieties of grass, flowering shrub and smaller plants, nothing but the alltrees ever reached more than the average person’s height. Partly it was their extreme aggression, both towards rival plants, and to younger versions of itself. I’d spent a summer documenting alltree saplings, which had been planted specifically to observe their behaviour. At first they’d all grown evenly, their careful spacing allowing them to reach around five feet in height before their branches and leaves started to intrude on the others. At the first hint of shade being cast on one of the others’ leaves, the victim tree entered a period of aggressive growth, burning all the energy it could extract from the sky and the ground to attain new height. Obviously once that began, a whole arms race ensued. The trees sprouted vines that dangled from their branches until they found one of their rivals, wrapping round the branches and contracting until it withered and died. The same happened below ground: forays of over-active roots choked each other, and invaded their neighbours. In some cases the roots would grow up into a neighbouring tree, join with the vines and tear the tree apart from the inside. Sometimes a rival would put enough energy into height and spreading its branches that the trees below couldn’t keep up and, in their deprived and weakened state, simply faded away as the victor’s roots stretched out, cutting them off below as above.
Gazing out of the window I watched the vicious allforest battle itself, until the individual trees reached a state of critical mass and nutrition – no amount of light and space was going to help it grow further – and now fully mature, it potentially intruded on the domain of other, vast alltrees. The questing roots and vines switched from predation to symbiosis, merging their subterranean network, vines forming vast webs through the canopy, linking together all the alltrees’ resources and merging into one vast organism: the allforest. While there were as yet many parts of the world untouched by the allforest, its spread was clear and had been long documented. It had spread from a single sample across the northern continent, choking out the native specimens. When even a seed sprouted on our shores, it was soon killed off. The only place other trees flourished to any degree were in greenhouses, though even there it was important to keep them isolated. A hint of pollen would cause nearby alltrees to change their direction of growth, drawing ever nearer, the root systems actually dragging the trunk and canopy toward the greenhouse, with predictably disastrous consequences for the structure. Overseas of course, it was a different matter. Small islands were mostly safe from the alltrees as they sustain only a few mature plants, which were unable to join up with the allforest, and tended to dwindle as a consequence. The southern continent had a rather more direct approach to the alltrees’ colonisation plans: burning out any samples that arrived by sea or air. So far it had been quite successful. Here in the north, the trees had become the dominating feature of our landscape, and far more importantly, the defining influence in how we lived our lives.
 
Eventually we arrived in Brisingham. The road took us out of the scrublands and past the dead straight line where the allforest ended. The city had been built in the heart of a rocky crater, its earth too shallow to allow the alltrees to take root easily and grow to their full size. It was a constant challenge keeping it back, and the streets were of a composite sand, chemically treated to be inimical to fertilisation. It mostly worked, but we had to keep an eye out for the hardy plants. Brisingham was fairly decentralised, with offices and workplaces scattered across the city, its thousands of citizens living mostly near where they worked. Coppery structures passed us on either side, decorated with bark patterns, their roofs and upper walls coated in a patina of solar and lunar panels, contributing to the power grid. We were headed for the centre of the rock, where the archives were located. I was just a few streets away, so I was able to get out of the automotive first, leaving a little more space for the others.
“See you in two hours, in front of the archive, right?” Miqual confirmed as I hopped down, with just my bag.
I waved them off, the automotive wobbling more precariously than I’d realised under its load of personal items and the junk the others had decided to have stored. I walked down a sandy sidestreet, enjoying the quiet crunch underfoot. My home was in the middle of a block of identical houses fabricated from the basin’s stone, and had been clad with felled alltree wood. Not felled by us, of course, pulled down by the violent growth of the trees themselves. I lived in a house covered in failures. They were younger trees, their bark still smooth, with occasional blots of white and a darker green where branches had been ready to break out.
I nodded to a few neighbours, and received the usual mix of nods and waves. I’d been fairly happy here, not that I’d spent a lot of time at home – I much preferred to be out in the woods, working and walking. I’d wrapped up my last project, into how the vines sprouted, and the complex photosynthesis and its resulting sugars were able to be poured into their radical competitive growth. It wasn’t really very conclusive, or groundbreaking, but it was better than looking at the trees and shrugging. All that work had already been sent on to the institute, who would add it to the existing body of knowledge. My name would be attached of course, even though after the shettling I wouldn’t have any recollection of the work, or any claim to it. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about that. Perhaps I hadn’t been sure about it previously either, and this was a cycle I’d always gone through, and presumably would continue. It was thoughts like that which made me wonder if I was really suitable for shettling. Perhaps I’d just begun to settle this time, having moved away from most of the circle. Who knew, maybe next time would be my last. For now, after last night, I felt it was something I wanted to do with the others – I didn’t think I could just let them dissolve the circle and be left alone. That would be too much.
My keys were, of course, buried in my bag rather than in the pocket of the nice suit I’d worn for our final photograph earlier. Crouched over my rucksack, emptying its contents out onto the porch I didn’t notice the approaching footsteps until they crunched on the sandy gravel.
“So this is it, then?”
I looked up, keys in hand at my next door neighbour, Relyan. She was tightly clutching a square of paper between her hands.
“I suppose so,” I said, not sure how to provide a satisfactory answer, “do you want to come in for a minute?”
She hesitated. I guessed I’d arrived at the wrong time. A few minutes earlier or later and she could have just slipped the card under my door without having to see me.
“Come on in, I’ll make a cup of tea.”
She gave me a slight nod, so I got up and let us in.
The hallway was dark, one half of it made up of stacked boxes, labelled clearly with my name, reference ID and our circle’s number, and cycle. The rest was the soft red carpet that had been here before I moved in fifteen years ago. I’d felt no need to replace it; it was delightful on bare feet. Since I was home, and for the last time, I kicked my shoes off. Relyan did the same, and she followed me past the boxes into the living room.
“It’s good to see you Relyan,” I said, “is that for me?”
“Oh, yes.” She handed me the card, now creased and folded around the edges.
“Thank you Relyan, I do appreciate it.”
I smoothed out the edges and laid the card on the low table that lay along one edge of the room. Previously it had contained a stack of alltree samples, local carvings and the assorted junk I’d collected over the years. Most of it was now in a different set of boxes, not marked for the archive like those in the hall, but for anyone to take what they wanted. I’d leave those on the porch when I left.
Relyan sat on the edge of the sofa. I stepped through the oval arch that separated the living room from the kitchen and filled the kettle with water. I fussed with some mugs, the few that hadn’t been packed up, in anticipation of this meeting, or something like it. Relyan and I had been neighbours for all the time I’d been here, she’d lived in this terrace for much longer. At first she had been rather cool towards me, but I’d been keen to make some friends in the neighbourhood, given how far I was from my circle (we had still spoken and messaged almost daily, but it wasn’t the same as actually being with people). My overtures of friendship had been successful, in the end, and we’d become good friends. Not that you would have guessed it from the expression on her face. She let me make the tea in silence, and I didn’t feel the need to press her. The card on the table remained unopened. It’s always struck me as a little odd to open a letter while the person who sent it to you was right before you.
I brought the mugs back through and sat on the chair opposite Relyan. She was a striking woman, her dark skin offset by the vibrant tattoos that ran down the side of her face and neck, vanishing under clothes to emerge at wrist and ankle. I was well aware they ran all the way in between, too.
“I’m going to miss you Jenn,” she said.
“I’m going to miss you too,” I replied.
“No, you’re not. You’re not going to remember me at all, you’re not going to remember any of this. Calia’s tears, don’t you even care about that?”
“You know I do – but you know–“
“–about your precious circle? Of course I do, how could I forget? I thought you’d finally thought your way out of that ridiculous cult.”
“It’s not a cult – it’s a way of life.”
“It’s not a way of life, it’s a way of not having a life, of avoiding every damn responsibility that comes your way. You and your friends, you don’t even try, you just restart it, over and over again. And for what? What is the point?”
“You just don’t understand,” I said, “the point is the circle. We want that intimacy, that closeness, to be a family.”
“Why would you think I don’t understand? You’re not unique, you’re not special just because you shettle, over and over again. We know what shettling is, I know what it’s like. The rest of us have grown out of it. I can’t believe I wasted my time with you. And now you’re just throwing it away. You’ve all lost your minds. You’re exactly like the children you want to be. You know what, I’ve had enough. I shouldn’t ever have gotten involved with a bloody shettler.”
We were both standing up by now, shouting at each other. I’d never meant to hurt Relyan. She was right in so many ways – I had drifted from my circle, ended up out here, with her. But now I’d been drawn back in. She wasn’t interested in the bind of obligations and affection that drew us all together – that was the point, after all, to be immersed in that intense bond together. It was a test, of sorts, one that I’d thought for a while I might be failing, but in the end was going to pass.
“Do you even know how many times you’ve done this, Jenn? Do you have any idea that you’ve wiped your idiot mind again and again, with these same people, re-learned those relationships. Do you know if it’s been different this time? Or is it the same every stupid time?”
I recoiled from her words.
“Don’t you ever stop to think, to wonder why everyone else has stopped? There are only a few hundred of you, stubborn, endlessly repeating the same life, instead of dealing with this one. When are you going to grow up?”
“I don’t want to do this Relyan, I’m meeting my circle in an hour.”
“Fine, of course,” her sudden calmness was somehow more distressing than her anger, “just – don’t find me afterwards. And if you do, I won’t be here for you. I know you won’t remember this, so I’m saying it for me.”
She took the card from where I’d put it and left. The door closed quietly, and I was left with two undrunk cups of tea, in my empty living room. Ultimately, Relyan was right about one thing – soon, none of this would matter. I was aware that I was lazily absolving myself of the need to think about this, about our fight, and whether she was correct about shettling, and about me in particular. I’d made a commitment, to my circle, and I was going to see it through.
I rinsed out the mugs and returned them to their place in the cupboard. Time to go. I had a small automotive tucked away in the garage court behind the terrace. I stepped out through the patio doors into the garden I’d paid little attention to. I noticed an altree sapling taking root, so ducked back inside and retrieved the thick, metal-lined gloves I kept by the doors for this precise purpose. Safely gloved I tore the sapling out of the ground in a single, swift motion. The gloves protected me from the thorns that had sprung from the bark as soon as I gripped it. It was too young for them to have the stiffness and sharpness they would later acquire. The roots writhed in the air, seeking purchase in anything soft enough for them to puncture. I wasn’t going to give it that opportunity, and took it straight round to the communal steriliser on the other side of the garages. There was a good stack of dead wood already. We were all punctilious about preventing the trees from taking root in the city. It had been a long, hard battle to carve out this much space from the constant incursions of the alltree. The wood collected all over the city was distributed to various industries, from furniture making, to cladding homes like mine, and countless artisanal crafts. I’d given Maina some jewellery made from the varnished leaves of juvenile alltrees, uprooted from the city. Its roots curling up at me, I flipped open the steriliser, and dropped the sapling inside. It was young enough that its trunk was flexible and it looked like an arm with too many fingers at either end, flailing to escape the box.
“Sorry,” I whispered, shut the steriliser, and stabbed the red ‘on’ button.
The unit hummed, and the tree stopped struggling. Flipping the lid open again, I took the curled up tree out, and placed it on the stack. With the spot of good citizenship out of the way I sought out my automotive, unpeeling the armoured gloves and tucking them in my back pocket. My little auto was still waiting for me, a foreshortened triangle, with wheels at each corner, space only for me in the front, but a generous amount of storage space in the back. I reversed it out into the sunshine, and round the block in front of my house. There was a light in Relyan’s window, and I wondered wistfully if she would wave as I left. It seemed unlikely.
All the boxes fit neatly into the boot, as I’d hoped, and I did a last quick check of the house to make sure I’d forgotten nothing. In my bedroom I spotted the framed photograph of Relyan and I, standing under an alltree, a tangled nest of vines hanging down behind us, making an arch that we fit neatly inside of. It was from a week when Relyan decided to accompany me into the heart of the allforest; she’d had to sit in the boot of my auto, cushioned by tents and equipment. It had been a good week, sharing the forest, pointing out the especially results of the trees’ behaviour, from the vast thorns that had sprouted from some in their earlier years, to the sticky sap that had glued three trees together until they couldn’t compete with each other and had to grow as one. It was a memory worth recording. But not one I wanted to take with me. The fight with Relyan had both been confusing for me, both confirming my doubts about our circle shettling because of Aer and Rumula, but also reminding me of why I was in the circle to begin with. A difficult contradiction to bear, but the photograph clarified it for me: that I wanted to try again, to return to the amnesiac state we had begun our circle in all those years ago, no disappointments, no failures. Just the hope, and promise of togetherness, and the joy of discovery.
I left the photograph by the stripped bed, watching over an empty home that I would never think of again.

After the Dark – Part 5 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

A cool wind blew through the open window, keeping me focussed. I was running late for meeting the others, and it would take time to transfer my belongings and get properly checked in at the archive. It wasn’t far, so I drove a little faster than I normally would, feeling the light structure of the automotive crunching along the sandy roads. The streets were quiet, and I only passed a few other autos and a handful of pedestrians. Soon enough, the archive hove into view: as the largest building in the city, it already stood out, but since it had also been dug straight out the rock in the Brisingham basin, it arrested the eye. At three storeys tall, it was higher than anything else, and it extended far further underground – much of the rock quarried out for its vast chambers and corridors had been used in the construction of the rest of the city. It needed to be this large – at one time, virtually our whole population would shettle, depositing the possessions and artefacts of each life below ground. There had been something in our social conscience that kept us from simply destroying or discarding those relics, instead they sat sealed and silent, carefully logged and catalogues. Together they formed a vast cultural archive of our people. Of late, the volume of depositions had declined, along with the practice of shettling. I’d given it little thought until fighting with Relyan – though I’d been unsure if the timing of our shettle was right, I’d not doubted the practice itself. It troubled me that so many were choosing to persist. What had they found to give their lives meaning? I found it hard to imagine the endless time looming before me.
 
Miqual’s automotive was parked outside the archive’s main entrance, empty of people and boxes. I pulled up alongside, and hopped out. The archive’s doors swung open easily, leading me into a brightly lit atrium, sunlight coming through the roof and front of the building, shaped by the stained glass into the branches and canopy of the allforest. Miqual was inside, chatting with the sole clerk at the bank of counters that ran the entire width of the room.
“There you are,” Miqual called, as I strode across the atrium towards him, “I thought you’d gotten lost.”
“Sorry, I just had a few more things to pack up than I’d realised.”
“Ever the hoarder.”
The clerk addressed me for the first time, “do you have items to archive?”
“I do, yes, though not as much as he’d have you think.”
“Very good – take the trolley and bring it all in.”
It was just a few minutes work to stack the remnants of my life onto the trolley and wheel it back in. The clerk fussed with labels and seals for considerably longer, until my boxes were doubly identified and marked for storage with the rest of the circle’s paraphenalia. I passed the clerk my identity card. The only thing on it of any real importance was the number – my name could change when I shettled, as might my home, and the people who I joined in my next circle. I had no plans to reawaken with anyone else, but these things were allowed to happen. Tracking who shettlers actually are occupies a considerable amount of effort. Somewhere in the archives there was a record of when I first shettled, how many times, and with whom I had been in a circle, and the precise location of every item I’d ever deposited down in the labyrinth below us. It wasn’t something I liked to think about a great deal, but I suppose that was part of the point of visiting the archive each time – a reminder of overall continuity of existence, beyond the individual rebirths and cycles. A strange business. While the memories of those prior lives was hidden from me, being here gave me a sense of them. Just seeing my trolley-load of boxes disappear into the darkness as a single life made me wonder a little how many other times I’d stacked my life like this.
“Miqual, do you ever… think about the last time you did this?” I asked, hesitantly, not entirely sure what it was I wanted to know.
“Not really. I’d guess that I’ve contributed a lot to the archive over the years, in diaries, if nothing else. That seems so fixed a habit that I can hardly imagine I’ve lived without keeping them.”
I responded with some noncommittal murmur, still waiting to see if the thought that was scratching in my mind would come forth.
“Excuse me,” I said to the clerk, a densely built man, who filled his suit jacket with ease, “this might be an odd question, but – do you remember me?”
Both the clerk and Miqual stared at me like I’d gone mad.
“I’m sorry – I know you’re not supposed to say, but it’s been on my mind. Look, if you don’t mind my asking, do you shettle?”
The clerk chose to indulge me; he could easily have refused to continue our conversation. “It’s been a long time since I have. My circle split; some of us returned to the allforest, some of us chose to live on. I’ve always assumed that one day I’ll shettle again, but I haven’t reached that time yet. You seem troubled.”
“It’s just,” this was hardly the time or the place, but there was something stuck in me, some idea that I’d not given space to, that wanted to be out of me, “I saw someone today – a neighbour, a friend,” I carefully avoided eye contact with Miqual, “she is someone, I’ve… hurt, I think, in this life. I wouldn’t want to hurt her in the next. But I don’t know how I can prevent that.”
“That’s not your responsibility Jenn,” said Miqual, “she will know the rules – you’re not the same person, and it’s up to her to decide whether you’ll know each other, to protect you from your earlier self.”
“But what if I’d done something terrible – I haven’t – I wouldn’t know that, how could I avoid doing that again?”
Miqual’s face was a frozen mask.
“Miqual, I’m sorry, but this is on my mind.”
“Today? You don’t think you should be focused on what’s to come, focused on the group, your circle – your family?”
“I am. What If Aer and Rumala end up together again, and it ends up like this again? What if it has before? What if we’re always re-entering the shettle for the same reason? How would we know – how could we do things differently?”
“Look Jenn, I don’t know what’s got into you, but it’s getting late. We need to join the others.”
He took my arm, to drag me out of the archive. Before he could pull me away from the counter, the clerk leaned over his desk, touched my shoulder and spoke quietly, “I do remember you.”
Miqual exploded with rage, snatching the man’s hand from my shoulder and flinging it back at him. “Stay away from him,” Miqual snarled, “I’ll report you for this.” He made a show of reading the clerk’s name badge, ‘Hevalan’, then stalked out of the archive, pulling me along like a recalcitrant child.
When we got outside, my head was still spinning. Even though I’d asked for it, I knew the rules well enough: ‘a shettle shall not be reminded of their former lives, they are free to learn and live anew’. That the clerk of the archives, of all people had been willing to acknowledge my question. To have remembered me, he must have persisted in the same life for more than the forty-two years that my circle had been together. I found myself almost desperate to know how many times he had seen me. I had too many questions. And it was too late to ask them. Miqual flung me towards his auto. I tripped and just barely managed to get a hand up in front of me before I hit the auto headfirst. I stood up, gazing at him with shock, rubbing at the hand and wrist I’d jarred.
“Get in the auto,” he said, “the others are here.”
On cue, the rest of our circle arrived, dusted off and looking smart and relaxed in their fine suits. I ducked into the backseat of the auto, covering the newly ripped open knee of my trousers with one shaking hand. Aer’s auto pulled up alongside and the group divided themselves into the two vehicles. Miqual got in without another word. It was horribly obvious that something had happened between us, but I had no idea what to do about it, and slipped into some default setting where everything was fine.
“Did you get it all put away?” asked Tesh, squeezed up next to me.
“Oh yes, all stacked and signed in,” he must have been able to feel the tremor that still ran through me from the hand I’d slammed into the auto’s door. Rather than say anything, he just stretched an arm around my shoulders and gave me a private smile.
“Everything will be fine,” he whispered.
“Hey, you two! No secrets on the last day,” Rumala called, grinning widely.
I’d rarely felt so out of sync with my circle.
Miqual called to Aer out of the window that he’d take the lead. Aer offered him a thumbs up in return. I couldn’t see how Miqual answered, but we pulled away from the archive at quite a speed, causing Tereis to exclaim from the front seat that it must be a race. The carnival atmosphere of the others slid around me like fog. All I could focus on was the back of Miqual’s head. He’d scared me, something I never thought I’d feel in our circle. I wanted to apologise, to take back my questions and whatever it was that had made him so angry. But I had no idea how to start that conversation, squeezed into the back of his auto with two of our friends. The words caught on my tongue, got stuck behind my teeth. It would all be forgotten soon though, and we’d get another chance.
It was another hour’s drive north of the city before I relented in the face of the others’ cheery mood. I joined in,  offering up more memories of our time together, chatting and laughing. There were more stories about the gang in the other auto than ourselves – if we couldn’t actually race, we could certainly compete. But my eyes kept being drawn back to Miqual, who, while not exactly silent, was certainly the quietest of us, focused intently on the road ahead.
Above us the sun was on its way to handing over the sky to the twins, though there were a few hours before they would take over. I felt a tremendous sense of anticipation, the promise of the twin moons laid on top of each other. They hung like a weight behind the horizon, soon to be flung across the world, to change everything. My doubts still lurked in my mind – maybe I always felt this way as shettling approached. I saw how happy Rumala was that the mistakes of this life were about to be erased, how free she looked. Wasn’t that how I should feel? I caught sight of Miqual’s eyes, fixed on me in the mirror, and I hastily looked away. I couldn’t stop the rising anxiety in my stomach.
Farms slid by on either side, more space carefully denuded of the allforest so we could live alongside it. We’d settled down to a friendly silence, watching the farmers do whatever it is that farmers do. They gave out to a thin region of scrubland, scattered with juvenile alltrees, and then the allforest was upon us. There was no more time for my doubts.
 

Gig Alert: Pub Poetry – Open Mic Comic Lit – Tonight!

Pub Poetry: Open Mic Comic Lit – Nottingham Comedy Festival

Monday 6th November, 8pm, FREE

This is one my favourite things to run, even if we only do it once a year. I guess it’s like Christmas, but better.  Come along, bring a mate.
A fun, free and informal night of light hearted and downright comic spoken word and poetry in a pub. Without beer, literature is nothing. Bring your favourite amusing poems, stories or songs, whether they are yours or someone else’s. It’s a celebration of funny words to brighten a Monday. All jolly good fun. See you there, and bring a friend. There’s no need to book a slot in advance, but if you’d like to contact me beforehand, feel free to contact me.
Starts at 8pm with periods of reading, drinking and writing limericks.  There will be poetry books lying around, so if the urge takes you…
The Canalhouse
48-52 Canal Street
Nottingham
NG1 7EH
8.00pm – FREE
Join the Facebook event
Find it!

After the Dark – Part 6 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

Miqual took our automotive off the main road, within moments we were hidden under the allforest canopy. Waves of dappled green light washed over us – the last of the sun’s efforts to penetrate their leaves, before the lunar eclipse took over. The road faded away into being the space between the trees. The alltrees’ peculiar aggression led to their being widely spaced, though the joined up root networks sometimes protruded above the ground. Before long we had to park up and leave the automotives behind. They’d be claimed and collected by a department of the archive, if procedure was followed in full. More likely mothers and fathers would pick up a second vehicle out of those abandoned under the trees, and they would cart off any fresh shettles to their new life.
We had left everything we owned at the archive, barring the clothes on our backs. It was a curiously purifying sense that the only things which truly mattered to us were the people around us. Which made it all the worse that I felt uncertain about what I wanted. I was still avoiding Miqual, and had slunk to the back of our group, trailing with Eleran, who simply walked slowly if she wasn’t running. At other times her pace had annoyed me intensely, but now it was exactly what I needed. We ambled along, not speaking much, but taking in the forest around us.
This area was one in which study and research were not permitted, an ancient (for the allforest) region of densely interconnected trees, whose degree of unification into a single organism had enabled it to develop abilities beyond those we usually saw. While it had become common in outlying settlements to tap into the power supply of the alltrees – those of a sufficient age and size, not the juveniles, who would respond violently, and sometimes fatally – our culture had discovered that far greater secrets could be unlocked. For generations our people had been buried in the earth beneath the trees, where their roots would quest for further nutrients, and find them in our bodies. Their energy needs were delivered by our sun and moons, but in their advanced, conjoined form they needed something else, and they took it from us: memory, experience, emotion. We would remain in the earth, fed and cared for by the trees while they extracted our memories of people, our actions, and our feelings. This was the shettling, the process of our lives being turned over and started again, and to a degree, physically rejuvenated by the allforest. Once released from the alltree we would be  cleansed of our errors and failures, free to begin again, to love anew, to rediscover the world and relish it. How the allforest distinguished between personal and practical memories was unknown, for I would retain my scientific knowledge of the forest, how to drive and dress myself, but all trace of how I’d come to acquire them would be gone.
Culturally, we ignored the date, the actual passing of time. A huge chunk of our social norm was spent in ignoring the fact that a good proportion of our population would reset their lives every few decades. And though they remained productive members of society, at least they did after spending a few years rediscovering themselves, it was increasingly difficult to ignore the incredible privilege we’d be granted, in being allowed to escape the natural run of the world. The notion that this was a given, and a normal part of my – our lives – had been emphasised early in my own emergence from the shettle; relatively naïve, though retaining the many facts and knowledge of my earlier shettles, it was clear to me that this was how we lived: rebooting our relationships and exploring the world from a fresh start. With enough repetition, we can come to believe anything.
Ahead of us, the rest of our circle were merging into a small crowd of others, here for shettling. They had come into the allforest from all directions. Mixed into the group were couples, or trios who walked somewhat apart from the rest of us. They still soaked in the same celebratory atmosphere, yet remained distinct. They appeared fractionally older than we shettles. They would be the parents to those about to be unearthed. They are what Miqual and the others had revered during our mental adolescence: parents, willing to collect a fresh crop of amnesiac youths, and set us on course for our circle. Our renewed youth required guardians, to champion the growth of our social existence, to find the route between our practical recollections and the raw interactions with our peers. Typically, these we people who had fallen out of their cycle of rebirth, their circles broken and found themselves left behind, alone, and yet recalling their own growth, felt bound to promote another’s. I wondered if that might be the position I should find myself in. Compassionate toward those undergoing shettling, yet no longer able to participate. Was that the road I was on myself? Pulled out of the circle, doubtful, yet committed to prolonging the experience for those who still desired it.
And yet… the archive had been empty, save for our small group, and even now our numbers had merely quadrupled. So few to return to the earth. Was our choice the norm any more, or had we become stuck in an unproductive cycle of activity? Where was my choice? Had I made it , or had Aer and Rumula decided to end it all, dragging myself and the others along with them… How to distinguish between a social good and a personal good?
I was haunted by these thoughts as we hiked deeper into the allforest. Above the canopy the moons slowly rose, in tandem, Talens’ light blasting through Calia’s – she focused it like a lens, blasting ther combined light into the greedy secondary leaves of the alltrees. Their fierce golden light battered through the gaps between the leaves, striking us in turn golden, silver, and black silhouettes. The raw power being funnelled by the trees’ fleshy extremities made the earth itself hum beneath our feet. And this was merely moonrise, far from its apex. It was an enlivening sensation. Sparks crackled between my palms and Eleran’s, as we walked, hand in hand beneath the branches. All the shettles were affected. Static electricity strobed over their bodies, dispersing into the tree trunks around us, fizzling out after ringing our bodies and crackled hoops and discharging into the soil, there to stimulate the roots.
The whole forest felt alive, beyond the simple fact of existence, I felt that we were at the heart of a vibrant mystery, inducted into a sacred order, with rituals incomprehensible to those not captured in the web of energy hanging between the trees in the allforest. I had never felt so alive, and yet so close to death, or at least dispersal into the vast energies of the universe – my matter was prepared to dissolve and seek a new form in the heart of a star, or the frailest capillary of a leaf, and everything in between. The strobing of light down through the leaves was hypnotic, those fat meaty leaves splashing us with the stuff of existence.
We arrived in a clearing, densely ringed with alltrees, at a proximity between the trunks unikely according to my studies. These must be truly ancient trees, that had either tolerated each other’s grasping at the sky, or through competition dragged themselves, root by root to this formidable temple of the allforest. We gathered, staring at the intricate intermingling of the alltrees’ vines, branches and roots: a cathedral carved of a single living thing. Our future parents stopped at the periphery of this holy dell, and we, the shettles, proceeded into its heart.
The ground sloped down, into a shallow bowl formed between six alltrees. Their roots stood guard in bone-like ridges, an inverted ribcage awaiting a heart. Into that depression we shettles walked. My doubts, my fears were overridden by the intensity of the place; I was scarcely able to form a word in my mind, let alone a cogent objection. Miqual and the others gathered at the rim of the crater. They held hands, the bright light of the moons casting stark shadows behing them, from which low-lying branches recoiled, intent on their fair share of lunar power.
The moons were steadily reaching their apex, Talens blasting his light through Calia, whose crystalline structure magnified it. The forest was on fire around us, each leaf and twig outlined in a harsh metallic whiteness. Had I touched a leaf, my fingers would have burned. This was the very limit of their adaptive powers, this night, twice a year. My own studies had shown that during the two nights of aviposis (as we researchers prefer to name the occasion), the allforest would convert  up to a hundred times the light into sugars of an average day of sunlight. And along with that, they would be primed for a special and intricate ceremony.
Aer began the chanting. Within a verse it had been taken up by the thirty or so individuals standing in that basin. As the moons reached their zenith, the ground at the centre of our ring began to shake. The trees roots were unearthing themselves, pulling up clods of earth. Their roots retracted like an anchor, rattling from the deep sea into a ship’s hull. And with them came human forms. Along with Miqual and the others, I dived forward to help pluck our cousins from the earth. They were confused, mud-spattered, and profoundly childlike. Each one with tugged free from the ground, and they came out choking, blackened and grateful. We passed them back to the mothers and fathers waiting at the edge of the crater, who unveiled blankets to wrap the shettlers in. Their soft weeping, and gasping for air filled my ears.
And then it was our turn. The ground roiled once more, roots splaying out of the ground, leaving sarcophagi carved from soil behind, those roots poised over the holes, ready to entrap and enclose. Miqual turned around to catch each one of our eyes. Rumala and Aer were the first to descend. They did so with joy, discarding their clothes as the went, until their naked feet pressed into the dirt, and they nestled down inside the excavated mud coffins. Tesh and Tereis went next, holding hands and kissing deeply, with tears on their cheeks as they too settled into the earth. The roots began to close over my friends, drawing them deeper into the mud below the trees. Miqual and Maina went next, curling down face to face in the dark, dark soil. That left just Eleran and I. The other circles had already descended into the earth, eager, with smiles on their faces.
“I don’t know that I’m ready to do this,” I said to Eleran, her hand tight in mine.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” she said, gently pulling me by the hand, back into the circle.
But then everything changed. There was a flicker in the buttery golden light, cast by our twin moons. I looked up, this place permitted the light of the moons to enter, and so I caught a glimpse of both our starless heavens, and the twin, double-sized moon. There was another flicker, some pulse of light passed from Talens to Calia, and then a vast sonic explosion struck my ears. They instantly ran red with blood, my eardrums ruptured. Eleran fell down the slight incline, similarly bleeding. I fell to my knee, staring at the sky. An especially bright point appeared in the heart of Calia, intensifying to a near-purple glow, before bursting out of the smaller moon. That intense light struck the trees around us, instantly igniting their fleshy leaves and branches. It persisted, I was surrounded by a ring of flaming alltrees. I just noted the mothers and father around the edge of the basin burst into flame, before the roots of the allforest themselves caught light. At the heart of the basin, my beloved circle were slowly sinking beneath the ground, drawn down by the alltrees. But too slow: the intense light hammering through Calia ignited the thick network of roots that bound my companions. Flame danced along them, touched my friends and they were suddenly immolated, burning along the trees on the other side of the clearing, their vines and branches flailing, even as they blackened.
A further string of sonic booms attacked my ears and I fell forwards. Something arrested my fall, coiling around my legs and hips. I looked to the sky once more, to see the impossible: Calia fractured, her heart exposed, and the a spiderweb of cracks spreading across her distant surface. Talens glowed through the shattered canyons, as Calia began to fragment. After this I remember nothing, save for that tight presence around my hips squeezing further and dragging me down, into the earth.

After the Dark – Part 7 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

I have a memory of catching fire.
Sudden, unbearable heat all over my head and arms which instantly reaches a peak, and my skin ignites, flaring in the previously cool air. I am gifted a moment to scream before all is blackness; my last breath is of burning flesh and wood, on my tongue a mouthful of crisping humus and earth.
That fierce pressure about my waist, my pelvis audibly cracking, it is a root of the alltree. Unlike its careful swaddling of my circle before bearing them into the earth, this is a violent tearing through the ground. The uppermost feet of soil had been churned to a softness by the unravelling roots, but I felt I was being torn in half, dragged sideways into the dark. That crushing pressure ravels around my legs and I’ve dimly aware of a change in direction, one that almost rips me in half. Its only blessing is a distraction from the raw, burned flesh of my upper body and face, flecks of soil grinding into that ruined skin. Being enveloped in the earth has extinguished the flames, but my nerves are on fire all the same.
It is utterly black. My eyes are worthless – I have to close them to avoid their being rubbed raw by the dirt – my ears and nose are filled with mud. My only sensation is of motion; an arm trapped up above my head catching around a buried cord of wood, some other root, it snags my hand and with the inexorable drag downwards, my shoulder separates with a crunch that must only be audible inside my body. Another thread of pain besieging my mind.
Besides the scrape against my skin of stones and sudden, frightening, hard materials I can’t identify,  I’m aware that my last breath was of smoke and its precious cargo of oxygen has been ill-used in pain and trying to scream. It’s a panic that grows as I’m pulled further into the earth, past the layers of fine and slowly compacting matter into a harder, wetter region, where the force of my progress slows, so that I feel like I’m being stretched out, every broken bone separated, as if I’m being pulled through a hole too small for me. I’m being squeezed to death, unable to even move my unbroken arm for the weight and density of the soil around me. I try to open my mouth but can taste only slimy clay. There is no air for me here.
The doubts I’d suffered above ground return in full force as my brain is starved of oxygen. Mercifully, my sense of pain is dulled as my existence narrows to my brain, trapped in its battered skull. Is the shettling all a lie? We have offered ourselves to the trees as food, a ritualised sacrifice for the monsters that we cherish, protect and worship. They are gods who demand our blood, and take it masked in family and warmth. Only I now know the truth – I am special – I will understand before they take me. My circle are down here with me, already being crushed by roots, broken by the tonnes of soil above us, mashed into a paste that the trees will suck dry and discard our flavourless skins for the worms… I see the trees as inverted demons, their legs waving in the air, the sun and moons warming their feet, as below their faces are made of a million thrashing tentacles, tearing us apart and consuming us. Perhaps I will see my circle again, feel the grace of their touch before we are eaten together. A dim relief, a shared moment of comfort before the end. A finger through a lock of hair, the shape of an ear, the softness of a wrist… I would accept any fate, just to be with them again, not here, in the darkness.
Even in my hallucinating state I realise that the last I saw of my circle was them on fire, being burned even as the roots themselves crisped and twisted, trying in vain to haul them away from that awful light. They are all gone, instantly murdered before the trees could draw them to safety, or to a worse death at their endless fingers. There will be no relief from this hell, this choking dark nightmare.
I am alone. I am alone in the dark, and I am dying, abraded and asphyxiated by the earth that nourishes my beloved allforest. I have no breath, and my lungs are screaming. I would be screaming if I could.
Dimly, I am aware of tremors in the earth, of terrific concussive forces that rock my body, fracture my already bruised flesh, travelling with ease through the meat of my world, and into me. But that world is beyond me now. In another heartbeat I am beyond regret and fear. I am… nothing.
 
____I
________D
____________R
________________E
____________________A
________________________M
 
I never expected to wake up. But I did. I was moving again, gently this time, though even the most miniscule of movements was agony. Steadily I emerged from the soil, the root wound about my waist and legs carefully resting me in what felt like a hammock made of thin strings. Gingerly it released me, my pelvis and legs shrieking as they tried to return to their natural shape. I was suddenly able to draw breath again, although it felt like the first time my lungs had ever functioned. The air was dry and cold, but it was air. I greedily inhaled as much as I could, but my fractured ribs complained bitterly, reducing me to shallow puffs. It was still an improvement. Then I felt a thousand tiny filaments run over my skin, triggering sharp slashes of pain where I was burned, abraded and broken. Those thousand fingertips wrapped around me like a lace cocoon; I was held by the alltree. Then I prickled all over as their almost infinitely fine tips slipped through my pores, invading my body. In surprise, I tried to open my eyes. Nothing happened: my eye sockets were filled with compacted mud from my passage from the surface. With my unbroken arm I scraped away the worst of it, tolerating the pain of the movement. I had expected to be greeted by darkness, but being able to open my eyes was worth such a disappointment, but no – a faint luminescence filled the space I hung in. I could see a ragged ceiling of  earth above me, with a crumpled imprint of my own body where I’d been drawn down. From that ceiling, a carpet of dangling roots, their fibrous ends waving gently, in response to something other than a breeze, for there was none.
A cool sensation flooded my body, horripilating my skin and it felt like it was coating my bones in a freezing gel. The pain was washed away, and I could relax and simply breathe again. No longer so strictly confined by the earth, the few feet of air between my face and the ceiling was enough to make me forget the panic that had wracked me. I accepted the questing roots that came through the ceiling and found their way inside me. I slept.
 
________I
____________R
________________E
____________________M
________________________E
____________________________M
________________________________B
____________________________________E
________________________________________R
 
Light flowered in my mind. I felt nothing, just a luminance within, as if someone had lit a candle behind my eyes which only I could see, looking inside myself. The mind was incandescent, colours glimmering around and through it, pulses illuminating inner structures, flashes of electricity. I was watching my own mind. I could see a thought race across the hemispheres of my brain, striking at ideas and emotions, which grew or faded. Sometimes they would leap into a rainbow frenzy, or a thought would be just one bright spot that dimmed, extinguished, to be replaced by another elsewhere. I was aware of watching myself, but not of the thoughts that I could see. This was the shettle, I realised, these lights and colours were my past life, being run through, and presumably erased. I was watching my life running backwards, each thought, feeling and memory streaming through my mind, leached out by the alltree. With my leap in understanding, my focus drew closer. I passed through the fringes of my brain, enveloped in the pink jelly, surrounded by my memories sparking past and through me, until I came to rest, nestled in its centre. I was surrounded by the pulsing flesh in which all that was me resided. I was home. Yet that home was in the process of being emptied – I was moving out – but in a seeming paradox, I was to be left behind, while all the comforting fixtures and fittings I’d grown used to were being taken.
There was something wrong, though. As I rested inside my mind, those memories became real for me again, with memories I did not recall:
____I stand under the boughs of the allforest, arm in arm with Eleran
____I’m bundled up in blankets in the back of an auto, Rumala’s hand held tight in mine
____I brush my hair with silver hairbrush, worn at the corners, it feels nice on my scalp
____My suit is heavy, slowing my movements, I struggle with the helmet
____I am swimming with Aer, I am solely focused on how strong a swimmer he is
____Maina sits astride me, face alive with pleasure
____I empty a tin of buttons onto a table and sift through them, looking for the perfect replacement for a jacket I caught on a bramble
____Tereis spins in a wild jig, I am laughing and kissing Tesh as we dance together in Calia’s light
____I plant a seedling in the middle of a forest
____We all walk arm in arm down to the lake, the run and jump from the end of the pier
____Fire consumes my circle
____Opening a letter, tracing the familiar handwriting with my fingers, kissing the paper
____My favourite shirt wears out, and I am comforted by our mother
____I laugh so hard at something Eleran says that my ribs and stomach hurt
____A bright explosion in the sky, a fiery rain
____I shout at Miqual, and I feel such anger that I lash out and strike him in the face
____A juvenile alltree whips out a vine and badly tears my arm; Eleran carefully binding it with a white bandage
____I am hit by an automotive, the world spins around me
____A tiny alltree in a pot on a table
____I burn everything I own
____There is a knife in my hand and I slash wildly around me
____I stand under an alltree with Relyan, her camera balanced on her rucksack, we pose together for the perfect photograph
____I am born anew
____The roots wrap around me and my eyes close
____I am born anew
____The roots wrap around me and my eyes close
____I am born anew
____The roots wrap around me and my eyes close
____I am born anew
____The roots wrap around me and my eyes close
____I am born anew
____The roots wrap around me and my eyes close
____I am born anew
____The roots wrap around me and my eyes close
All these and so much more flooded into my memory, disjointed, out of order, not of the life I have just lived. It was frightening – for every moment I recognised a dozen more slotted into place, occupying and overlapping the life I had just lived. I swam, I ate, I fought simultaneously. Every instant of my existence felt like I was legion, crammed into the same narrow space. Slowly they settled in my mind, taking on shadow hues. I could see myself splayed into a hundred actions, many arms thrown out in each direction, blurring as each of my lives was overlaid and woven together. I both feared and loved Miqual; Eleran was my first, as was Tesh, and Rumala, and Tereis; I move away from the circle, I remain in the chalet always; I cry, I laugh, I sleep. I lived them all sequentially, each of those lives, from shettle to shettle, and backwards, and in skipping between tangential events in each life – guided through them by intense emotions, tracing every moment of anger, every moment of love, of doubt, and absurd joy. An infinite combination of thoughts and ideas assailed me. I had no sense of time, only the time contained in each memory, which stretched and fragmented according to its own rules and feeling.
It was bewildering, each thought burgeoning with so many experiences and variations that they became meaningless, unrelated, timeless, each moment like a star in the sky, and I drew shapes between them. I felt myself dissociating, fracturing – each shape in the sky a set of memories that cohered slowly into discrete selves. The constellations drift apart, each shape of myself condensing into tight points of light. Slowly they began to wink out, and I felt an enormous relief as my mental map simplified. The night sky became the earth: the mountain ranges of one life melted away, and a river ran in its place. Continents shifted, lands of memory disconnecting and rearranging themselves into the world I had most recently known. If I peered very closely though, I could still perceive those ghosts of former lives, now translucent – mere memories of memories.
I had only one life then, the one that ended in fire and fear and pain. I should not have even that. The glowing mind around me faded, its colour bleeding out into blackness and faint white outlines, and then, not even that. The darkness reached out and took me once more.

After the Dark – Part 8 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

The transition from the void of unconsciousness to awareness was slow, a string of sensations that gradually accumulated, physical processes steadily kicking into action; my heartbeat intruded upon the veins and arteries, awakening as the blood flowed. As breath was drawn, shakily at first, but with increasing confidence, collected by my blood, re-oxygenating the industries that maintain my frail physical flesh. As each organ, each nerve reconnected and established its little nation state, they federated, grew stronger and larger, each dependent on the other. And finally, consciousness could supervene on the layers of meat, sparkling electricity and chemistry which build the platform for our minds. While that train of activity was slow, the final step of awareness was sharply and suddenly achieved; a burst of sound, cold and the thick tang of the earth signalled my return to the existence.
Newly aware of breathing I relished the sensation, lungs that inflated and deflated with ease, each breath stretching those membranes and bronchioles to their fullest. Even the musty air was a sweet relief from the last they remembered – starving and strained to their limits. Though awareness of my physical presence returned, any sense of place, time and history remained blissfully absent. I was able to experience each sense as they checked in. The cold sent streams of goosebumps up my arms, down my body and legs. A glorious effervescence of feeling. I heard little but a faint scratching, nothing more than my own heartbeat and breathing beyond that. I was held by a hammock, each cord distinct to my horripilated flesh, wrapping all around me, and, I dimly registered, through me. Those cords threaded through my body just as my own veins and sinews did, holding me in place, rigid, if comfortable. It was the muscular pulses of those cords that had awakened feeling in the rest of me.
At last, I opened my eyes. At first I thought I must be in darkness, but faintly I made out a glow, emanating from all around me, a blue verging on black, which intensified as I noticed it. A web of fine strings depended from the ceiling just above my face, wrapping me in this cocoon that penetrated my skin. I could barely move, but I was able to turn my face and get a brief glimpse of dark shapes suspended from the roof around me, seemingly enveloped as I was. And then those fine wires began to pull.
Before me a ripple ran across the roof, and it folded inwards and upwards. I vaguely recognised that the net that held me was of roots, tipped off by the scent of the earth, and almost grasped my place. And then it was abruptly taken from me. I was pulled into the unfolding roof, a dense network of roots gently drawing me up into darkness. The earth continued to collapse before me, folded away by the roots which bore me up. I felt no fear – as yet I could perceive my body and was slowly interpreting what I saw and felt – but I could not apply context. When I saw the dark it connected to nothing inside me, no memories, no thoughts – a simple apprehending of darkness. So the surprise as I was pushed through a final, soft topsoil was relegated to noting a lack of pressure on my body. I was gently laid upon the surface.
When the roots retracted from my body, they took with them the curious lassitude in my thoughts; the dissociative separation of body and mind disappeared as they pulled free from my pores, leaving me naked and alone. I shivered in the cold night air, the earth cool and damp beneath me. I began to analyse, and to recognise myself in relation to my environment. Dark. Night. But how…? I lay in a shallow depression – a faint crater sketched up around me that I could just about see in the dark blue grey light. Details fell into place – the period after sunset, before moonrise. I lay on the ground, the dark shadows of a tree rising above me, its comforting shape distinct as an alltree, though it seemed less… complete than the form I held in my memory.
I continued to lie there, shivering. No particular will or desire entered my mind. I was content to simply be, to experience the world as it presented itself to me. I’d been delivered up into this dark new place and I would await a cue, a direction, a need before I would move from this spot. I soon received the trigger I was waiting for. Light spread slowly across the sky, as Calia – a word that seared itself against my mind even as my eyes funnelled data to it – our beautiful first moon rose. But there was something terribly wrong with her. She was not her familiar disc of golden light, but a shattered scatter of irregular shapes, drifting across the night sky. The light came not from her, but from the round shape of Talens who followed, brilliantly illuminating those lunar chunks that passed across his surface. Calia was just a smear of rubble across the sky, intermittently glowing with her brother’s light.
Its deep wrongness agitated something deep in me and I was able to move at last. I gathered myself into a huddle, unable to take my eyes off the appalling celestial sight of the orphaned twin, Talens. Then I realised what was wrong with the silhouettes ringing my view of the sky. The alltrees, those wondrous, voracious and luxuriant sprawls were just shadows of their former selves. The branches were twisted, denuded of leaves, torn and cracked. The mostly intact alltree that loomed over me was alone, its neighbours were stumps and broken trunks. As I tried to stand I stumbled, sprawling into a tangle of branches and hard, rough shapes which gleamed white and yellow in the diminished light of the moons. I jerked upright, away from the instantly recognisable form of a human skull, cracked and blackened, staring at me.
Upright, in the centre of wide crater, ringed by a ruined forest I wrapped my arms around myself, shaking with the cold, absorbing what warmth I could from our fractured moon. And it all came back to me. I’d been reborn, healed and rejuvenated by the allforest – and now returned to the world to live again. But where were my circle? Where were the mothers and fathers to collect us, bundle us in blankets and carry us off, piled higgledy-piggledy in the back of an auto, to take us into our new life together? Of a sudden, I knew they weren’t coming. A vision of the forest on fire, my brothers and sisters struck down, and the awful remembrance of flames burning away my skin. I shouldn’t have been able to remember that – it should have been taken away by the allforest. I – I was still myself. An appalling notion. Where was my rebirth? How could I begin again, grow anew if I held all of my former life in me? And my circle… all gone, all lost, all horribly murdered. I was alone, truly alone.
The forest felt dead, or something so awfully close to dead that it might as well have been the same. The roots that had borne my upwards lay motionless on the ground around me, splayed like a vast, many-fingered hand reaching out in supplication. I could offer them no absolution. My world was in chaos – one life had ended, and yet continued. The allforest had taken me just in time, and now returned me. But for what? This silent forest, deprived of the sound of its leaves straining for the moonlight, was more horrifying than anything.
I could hardly conceive of myself apart from my circle, and my last memories of them reduced me to choking tears. I flailed in the dry mud, taking fistfuls of the roots in my hands, trying to wrap them around me. I begged them to take me back, to draw me under and purge me of this nightmare, either return me fresh and empty, or take me forever. There was nothing here – no allforest, no Maina, no Eleran. I’d seen Miqual and the others burst into flame, even as their shettling cocoons tightened about them. Whose skull was it I’d almost fallen into? Was it Tesh, with his wicked smile, or Tereis, with his beautiful green eyes, now boiled from their sockets… How could I be alone? The roots were still, and dry. Whatever moisture had once been in them was gone, they cracked and snapped in my hands, their once-fine bristling tips fell to powder. The alltree had given its last in returning me to this scorched and terrible world. While it seemed a terrible to reject the life I’d been given, I wanted nothing more than to disappear forever.
I don’t know how long I lay there, in a stunned grief. The tears ceased after a while, my body exhausted from its weeping; the tremors that wracked me subsided. I must have fallen asleep. When I woke, Talens had chased much of the debris of Calia across the sky, though I could see that a thin band of detritus persisted – perhaps a thin ring of our first moon now stretched all around the world, and even in the sunlight I’d be able to see some trace of her. Dawn was fast approaching, though I had no desire to know what kind of world it would reveal. The broken moonlight had offered but a fraction of its former glory. Without the refracting lens of Calia, Talens was lessened, and between them they had barely lit the seared grove I’d emerged from. The promise of day affected me: I had no choice but to live. The allforest had saved me. I had been returned to life. There must be something I could do with it. I wasn’t yet ready to consider what else might have befallen the land before the earth swallowed me; if I had, perhaps I would have just lain down again and waited to die.
My legs were shaky, but they held me as I staggered away from the shallow depression I’d sunk into. As I passed between the blackened, wrecked stumps of alltrees, I was shocked by the sound of a voice. Still confused, and numb from cold and grief, I let myself be enveloped in softness.  A blanket had been thrown around me, and I was pulled tight against a warm body. Pathetically, I was moved once more to a flood of tears. Further voices called quietly around me, and I was hustled, now between two people, their arms around my shoulders, speeding me on and hoisting me up when I fell. I heard the sound of an automotive door opening, a noise somehow distinctive enough to penetrate the exhaustion which came over me – a relief perhaps in being saved, which somehow rid me of all sense of responsibility. I gave myself willingly over to these strangers; I had no clue what else I should have done otherwise. Any independence or desire I’d once had were gone, burned away with my circle.
I was pushed up into the boot – I fell into it, and my legs were boosted up behind me until I was in. It was a flat, warm space where I could curl up, and did so without prompting. Warm bodies pressed in around me; the automotive sank on its suspension. The door closed, another opened, and closed again. There was a murmur of conversation I failed to interpret. An arm rested over my back, a gentle hand ran over my hair. And I faded away again, into sweet, empty sleep.

After the Dark – Part 9 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

I woke up, convinced that I was back in the chalet, wrapped up tight in a heavy blanket. I drew their folds even tighter around me, intent on dozing off again. Someone would wake me up when there was something we had to do. Unfortunately, I had been awake just long enough for the wrong sounds to jar in my ears. Dull clinking; the sound of boots moving unhurriedly across a wooden floor; a deep hum and hiss that repeated over and over. At last, the sound of a handle being turned, unwillingly, and a door creaking open.
I huddled deeper under the sheets, pathetically pretending to still be asleep. Weight pressed into the edge of the mattress. A hand shook my shoulder.
“You have to get up,” a deep, but kind voice, “we’ve got to leave, please – I can tell you’re not asleep, you know.”
Cautiously I folded the blanket back. This certainly wasn’t the chalet. This was a far rougher construction. Wooden, but unfinished, with dark char marks up the walls and the ceiling deeply blackened. The man sitting on the edge of the bed was a stranger to me, and his face was more tired than anyone I’d ever seen. He looked like his face had been slept in and never properly made up. It crinkled around deep brown eyes, a rich liquid dark that held such compassion and pain I flinched away from him.
“It’s alright – you’re safe. I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, “I’m sorry. There’s no time for rest. We have to leave.”
The last thing I remembered was stumbling out of the allforest…
“You came back for the shettling?” I asked.
“Yes, but it’s complicated. There isn’t time for this now. Come on,” he indicated a pile of clothes on the end of the bed, “please get dressed.”
I couldn’t see any reason to argue. The man went to the doorway, anxiously looking in either direction, and then back to me. The hint of fear in his face galvanised me into action. While his back was turned I threw off the blanket and began to pull the clothes on. I stopped as I caught sight of my arms for the first time. They were darkly patterned with scarlet lines, unfurling down from my shoulders, that overlaid thick white streaks of skin. Horrified I ran my fingers down my arms, feeling them smooth but the lines were raised like veins, harder than the rest of my skin. The weals ran all down my wrists and over my hands. The fire. I’d been burned, but had healed – the shettling always took years away along with the memories. While I knew the alltrees were used medically to encourage healing, that resulted in an invisible, perfect growth of skin and bone. This, this was hideous. Tentatively I raised my hands to my face, jerked them away as I found the same livid scars rising up my neck and the sides of my head, traced their path down my cheeks and around my eyes. My hair was gone, replaced by a web of stippled flesh, tiny hard stubs where follicles had been.
Vaguely I realised the man in the doorway was watching me, fidgeting anxiously. His eyes darted over me, and returned my gaze with terrible sympathy. I pulled the clothes on, shorts and shirt, followed by trousers and jacket. A pair of boots waited under the bed, socks stuffed in them. They were a little too small, but they would stretch. The rest of the clothes fit me perfectly. The soft fabric felt odd on my changed skin, or perhaps my skin felt everything else differently now. I didn’t want to think about it. The jacket had a hood, and I immediately pulled it up. The fleecy lining running over the remains of my scalp felt like rain. I shivered, and thrust my hands into my pockets.
“All right, come on then. Let’s get you out of here,” he slipped a hand under my arm and steered me towards the doorway.
Down the corridor I saw a pair of women hauling a trunk out of another room, and hastening away from us, its weight hanging awkwardly between them. We were all heading for the open door. Outside showed its pale daylight. Running boots came from behind us, and my companion pulled me into a jog, down the hallway and out into the light. Four automotives waited for us. The trunk was being loaded into one; another man slammed the boot of an auto shut, and climbed into the driver’s seat. I was steered towards the leftmost auto, and gently but firmly pushed into the backseat. I was pressed up next to another stranger who handed to me one of the packs piled on his lap. The door was slammed behind me, and the man who woke me climbed into the front. I looked out of the window at the other auto and saw a person in pull up the hoods of their jackets. Strange, but I was given little time to think about it, as the autos started together, and we peeled out in convoy.
It had all happened so suddenly that I only dimly noted that the auto was filled with boxes and bags, piled up in the boot and in the wells behind each seat. I was sitting on top of fat folders filled with paper, and the pack I’d been handed was heavy and awkward lumps protruded from the canvas, jabbing me in the ribs as I clutched it. We bounced down the rough road, each bump slamming my neighbour and I against the walls and, once, the roof. I had no idea where we were. The cabin behind us swiftly receded into a forest I didn’t recognise, of trees whose shapes were unfamiliar. We pounded through scrublands, the road barely a pale track ahead of us.
“I don’t mean to be rude – “ I began, but was interrupted.
“Yes, I’m sure you have many questions,” replied the man in the passenger seat, “right now, we need to get you a long way from here. You might not realise it, but your presence endangers us all.”
“I don’t understand. Look – who are you? Where are we?”
“You talk to them,” said the driver, giving me a long look in the rear-view mirror, “I can do the driving without you correcting me on each step.”
The other man grunted and leaned forward in his seat to peer upwards through the windscreen.
“We’re clear for now. You’re Jenn, right?”
“Yes,” replied, “how do you know who I am?”
“Records,” he spread his hands wide, as if to indicate the availability of such information, “we knew you were shettling, so we came for you.”
“My circle,” I began, “do you know what happened to them?”
“You need to forget your circle,” he said, “they can’t help you now.”
I knew they were all gone, and though I feared hearing it confirmed, I needed to know for sure.
“When we went into the allforest, for shettling – something happened, to Calia – and the forest set on fire.”
“Ha,” he exclaimed, “that’s the least of it. Look – your friends, your forest – it’s all gone.”
“Easy, Grellan. The kid’s been asleep, who knows what the trees did to him when he went under.”
“Well fine,” said the man I now knew as Grellan, “he’s been buried. It’s the rest of us that have had to live with the consequences, so forgive me if I’m telling him what he needs to know.”
“You haven’t told me anything,” I protested, “all I know is that the alltree returned me to the world, and then you lot grabbed me, and now I’m in this car racing from somewhere I don’t know, to who knows where. The last thing I saw was all my friends on fire.”
“Alright, alright,” this came from the person sitting on my right, equally buried under heaps of the awkward bags and boxes. “Give the kid a break,” he shuffled his bags round until he could see me properly, and reached out a hand, which he pressed on my arm. “I’m sorry about your friends, it’s a tragedy, but Grellan’s also right. A lot has happened since you went under the earth.”
The auto continued to jostle us up and down. Grellan apparently abandoned our conversation, now that there was a more willing participant. Instead he wound down the window and leaned out, apparently checking on the two cars behind us. I fixed on the man to my right. Like our driver, and Grellan, he looked worn and weathered in a way I was unfamiliar with. The cycle of shettling took us back to our youth, but these men seemed as if their last shettling had been a long time ago. Well, if the allforest truly was gone, or most of it, then maybe they couldn’t. But, I remembered that not everyone shettled anyway. It was a lot to try and deal with, being knocked around in a racing auto.
“Wait,” I said, something about the man next to me was more familiar than I’d realised, “I know you, don’t I? You remembered me. You’re the clerk from the archives, aren’t you?”
“You’ve got a good memory for someone who’s been through a shettling,” he said, “but you’re right. I’m Hevalan. I saw you and your circle before you went off into the allforest. You’ve met Grellan – don’t mind him, it’s been… hard, since everything happened. In the front, that’s Feryon,” Feryon gave me a friendly wink and a faint salute, before returning his full attention to the road, “he and I both worked at the archive.”
“That’s how you knew I’d be there, then?”
“Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. We knew you’d gone into the forest,  do you remember that night? Beyond what happened to your friends?”
“I remember Calia exploding, or something. It looked like Talens smashed into her, but then there was this awful bright fire on everything – the trees, my circle… me.” I ran my hands over each other, feeling the scars of the burning.
“Yeah, he shouldn’t remember any of that,” said Feryon, “all of that should have been wiped clean from his mind. There’s even more wrong with the trees than we thought.”
“I thought you said they were all gone.”
“Grellan may have exaggerated a little,” admitted Hevalan. He took a deep breath, “Calia was destroyed, and the area you were in was badly burned. Most of the trees were burned down to the ground – just black, burned soil, and ash for a mile around. But the allforest is stronger than that. The trees are all linked together, so we believed the roots were still alive, that the heart of the network would still be active. But without Calia, the moonlight is so weak; the trees can’t absorb as much energy as they used to at night. And it’s not just the trees – all the plantlife has suffered. They get something from the sunlight, but Talens alone is unfocused, and they’ve all been struggling. We don’t think the alltrees could support shettling as they normally would. That’s why it’s taken so long–“
“What do you mean? The shettling moon comes twice a year,” I said.
“It should, but without Calia eclipsing Talens, it hasn’t been possible. Calia’s smashed to pieces, mostly still in orbit, but she’s like a ring of smashed glass around the planet. Talens passes behind that wreck all the time. The allforest takes what it can, but there’s no calendar to work by.”
“So how did you find me?”
“Because we kept coming back,” said Grellan, flatly, “Hevalan was convinced the alltrees had been able to save some of the shettles, so we’ve been camped out in the depths of the forest, waiting for something like this.”
“For me? But why?”
“Because it’s right,” said Feryon, ”because if it were me, coming back out of the ground, with no clue what’s going on, I’d want someone to be there.”
“It didn’t work, did it? The shettling,” I asked, pressing my scarred hands to my face, “the alltrees couldn’t heal me, couldn’t purify me and return me fresh to the world. And, I think there’s something else. I think… I can remember more than my last life. I had these dreams, while I was in the ground. In my last life, I loved this girl, Maina, but she, she didn’t really love me back, not the way I wanted to. In my dreams though, I was with Eleran, and before that, I think, with Tesh. There’s a lot that doesn’t feel the way I thought it did – overlapping feelings and people, things I didn’t used to remember.”
Grellan and Feryon exchanged frowns in the front seats.
“Is – is there something wrong with me?” I asked.
“I think there’s something wrong with all of us,” replied Hevalan, pulling a thick folder out from the chairwell at his feet. On its battered cover I could see it was marked with the icon of the archive, a simple drawing of two trees, one upside down beneath the other, their roots so entangled that they were a single tree. On the folder was my name, and the identity number I’d been reminded of whenever I’d returned from shettling. I had a flash of being shown that number dozens of times, by different people, and memorising it, over and over.
Hevalan opened the folder, and was about to say something more, when the auto we were following suddenly burst into flame and flipped over, bouncing and tumbling, fire pouring from its windows as it rolled off the road.

After the Dark – Part 10 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

As the auto in the lead cartwheeled across the road and into our path, fire splashing off it like water, Feryon yanked the wheel hard to the right. We narrowly avoided the flaming vehicle only through Feryon’s quick reflexes. It arced through the air twice more, before it ended its bouncing, lying upside down on the other side of the road. From my companions’ grim faces, it didn’t look like we’d be getting out to check on its passengers. It was so sudden that I didn’t understand what had just happened – a lance of fire had appeared out of nowhere and the auto had instantly ignited, spinning up and off the road. Sure, I had the basics down, but they made no sense to me. Were we next? I leaned round to peer out of the rear window, hoping for any sight that might clarify the situation.
As we slewed off the road, we hit a dip and my head slammed into the side door, pain erupting across my face. Hevalan reached over, pulling me back, bracing me with his arm over my body, holding me tighter against the seat. He grabbed my seat belt, and dragged it into my hand.
“Hevalan, what’s happening?” I gasped. With one hand, I used folds of my hood to dab at the blood running down my cheek, with the other I awkwardly stabbed the seat belt into its socket.
He shook his head. Unwilling or unable to answer, I wasn’t sure. He released me, with a heavy pat on the chest, undid his own seat belt and awkwardly leaned forwards, fighting against being bounced between the seat and the door. With some effort, he pulled a case out from under the driver’s seat, and leaned forward, passing it into Grellan’s waiting hand. It looked heavy. The big man in the passenger seat swung it into his lap and flipped open the clasps. Hevalan strapped himself back in, and twisted in his seat to look back out of the rear window. I couldn’t help but follow his gaze, and in mirroring his tight jaw, mostly to stop my teeth smashing together from the rough ride.
The other two autos which had been at the back of our convoy had split away from us – the first  swerved around the burning wreck and continued along the road accelerating hard, while the other exited the road to the left. It all seemed like a prearranged plan, but I still had no idea what its objective was.
“Are we meeting them later?” I guessed that there had been safety in numbers, but that safety didn’t cover everyone. I’d never even met the people who had died a few moments ago. All I knew was that we travelling together, and if one of us was a target, then presumably the rest of us were too.
Hevelan almost replied, but another startlingly bright beam smashed into the road behind the auto that was still following the road, confirming my fears. Its impact tore a hole in the ground, and tossed the back of the auto into the air. It slammed back down, hard, and the auto spun wildly, flinging whirls of dust into the air that ignited in the heat of the explosion. As it regained its direction, another beam pounded into the road in front of the auto, so close that it flipped the vehicle through the air. Incredibly, it landed on its wheels again and lurched off, weaving back and forth across the road. I couldn’t tell if that was intentional, or if the spill had damaged its steering. I’d never seen anything like it, and could hardly imagine having the presence of mind to simply drive away after that. I’d have been out of the auto, running for my life.
That accounted for half the convoy, so I looked for the last vehicle in our train. We were bouncing hard away from the road; every bump in the road was slamming me against the side and the seats, despite the seat belt, which made it difficult to keep track of anything at all. I could just barely make out that final auto – it had almost disappeared into the rocky maze that had run along that side of our track for the last hours of travel. In another moment, it had disappeared, even the plume of dust from its progress petered out. I returned my attention to the remaining auto on the road, itself slipping out of view as we raced away from it. Another blaze of fire licked down from above. This one finally caught up, and the auto exploded, spilling flames and burning shapes in a shortlived fountain of smoke.
I was both exhilarated and terrified – more of the latter, but still, this felt so different from the long darkness wrapped in the roots of the allforest. I felt I was missing something vital – no part of my former life had involved autos being blasted off the road by some unseen weapon from above. Except for what happened to Calia of course… But I knew little enough about that. It seemed likely I would not have the opportunity to find out. It couldn’t have been a coincidence that since retrieving me from shettling, half of the group that had housed and dressed me were now dead. I had so many questions, but it really didn’t feel like the time to ask.
In the front seat, Grellan had been rapidly assembling a long-barrelled rifle, swearing softly as the rough track jostled him. Now he loaded it, swapped a nod with Feryon and wound down the window. Looking out, Feryon muttered, “Good enough,” and hit the brakes, slamming us all forward in our seats.
We never quite stopped, but when we were slowest, Grellan kicked the door wide open, and threw himself out of the auto. Without waiting to see if he was all right, Feryon stamped on the accelerator and we raced on. I twisted around to see Grellan. Through the haze of dust I thought I caught sight of him rolling away from our rough track.
“Don’t worry about him,” said Hevalan, “he knows what he’s doing.”
A dull roar came from overhead, and I ducked, instinctively making myself as small as possible, though realising that it would make no difference against whatever had destroyed the other two autos. It seemed my instincts weren’t too far off, as Hevalan reached across the back seat again, to press me as far down as I could go. With another mighty bounce on our suspension we apparently hit some smoother path, and Feryon made further good use of his accelerator. The roaring sound increased as we entered a greener area, the branches of densely packed bushes and shrubs whipping against the sides of the auto – whatever road we were following had become overgrown, giving us some overhead cover. It was clearly a spot where the alltrees had yet to take root, the bushes had almost reached the height of juvenile alltrees – tall enough that the sky appeared just as a patchwork above. Hevalan released me, and I mashed my face up against the window, desperate to see what was happening.
Another bright flash lit up the back window, but this time it was a series of vivid blue pulses rather than the single yellow beam. Since I had my eyes wide open at the time, it was dazzling, even through the branches lashing past above us. The pitch of the roar changed and a huge black shape came spinning out of the sky, careening through the bushes, and cutting across the road dead in front of us. Plants caught fire in its wake, and the trench it gouged in the road filled with flames. Feryon hit the brakes, and spun our little auto neatly round so we faced the way we’d come. Behind us came another explosion and chunks of black metal were spat across the road, and bounced off our roof as we Feryon floored it again. I’d never have believed these little autos could move so fast. The roaring sound was gone, and I assumed it had belonged to whatever had crashed into the ground. We weren’t hanging about to check.
As we headed back along the same route, Grellan appeared from behind a thicket of shrubs and flagged us down. Feryon barely stopped for him, allowing just enough time for Grellan to tear the door open and swing himself inside.
“Nice shot,” commented Hevalan.
“Yeah, but this road’s a wreck,” added Feryon, “we need to take a different path.”
“The main road’s out, and Weryn’s taken the canyon.”
“Then we’ll be going under,” said Grellan, “we’ve got no other choice. Topside is clearly unsafe, and now that we’ve taken out one flyer, there will be more.”
“Alright, alright. But we’ll have to go higher to get there.”
A tense silence descended on the auto. Tense for them, I was just baffled.
“Um – look, I’m sure this isn’t a good time… I mean, I’m not stupid, but what in Talens’ teeth is going on?”
“Mmm, maybe it’s time to fill the kid in,” said Grellan, “this is going to be a long ride.” He returned his attention to the road, and the flashes of sky above. He held the rifle tightly, knuckles clenching on the barrel.
Hevalan sighed, and turned to look at me. With one hand he poked at the cut on my cheekbone, where I’d smacked into the window.
“Bit sore, eh? Looks alright though,” he sighed again, “I’m sorry Jenn, but this hasn’t exactly gone to plan.”
Feryon made a game attempt at a laugh, “don’t let him tell you there was a plan, Jenn.”
“You keep your eyes on the road, or whatever it is we’re following,” Hevalan snapped. “Fine, ‘plan’ is overstating it, but we did have intentions. Good intentions. Let’s start at the beginning – for you, the end. The last thing you saw on the eve of your shettling, was Calia being destroyed. She’s in pieces now, drifting around in orbit. That’s what slowed down the alltrees, delayed your shettling. Not by a season or two, but longer – I’m sorry, much longer.”
He left me a few moments to consider the possibilities of what he was telling me, while he licked his lips nervously.
“Jenn, it’s been sixty-four years,” he held my gaze, “you were in the ground for sixty-four years.”
It took a moment to register – sixty-four years was longer than I’d been alive, in my most recent life. I didn’t think I had the capacity to grasp that period of time, but I had memories of other lives, other times, that slid in and out of my mind, blurring my sense of time, and of what I truly remembered. But still…
“That’s impossible. Someone would have come to get me. A father, or mother. They’d be waiting–“
“They tried to. We knew you and your friends, and some others had gone up to the allforest together. I received you all into the archive, remember – the records were precise. But we had to wait. You should have come out six months later, you all should. But that night the allforest was razed almost to the ground. The strike that took out Calia used Calia, the same way Talens does – did – to focus the energy, and do more than it ever could have alone. An archive team set off from Brisingham immediately. None of them came back. Then they sent another team – us. As far as we could tell, everyone had died. Those coming out of shettling, their families, and everyone going under – all gone, and the forest with them. The fire had been so intense in places that even bones had been incinerated. We could hardly even attempt a count of the remains. It was possible that there were still shettles beneath the earth, but there was nothing we could do about it. Either you had all died, or what was left of the allforest had you, and we could hardly interfere with that – digging you up would be just as fatal as the fire. So we left you.”
“I – I dreamed, for such a long time,” I said.
“Longer than anyone else.” Hevalan patted at the bags of files and folders filling the back seat between us, “and I’ve got the records to prove it. People have gone in for a long time before. You know we’ve used the alltrees for many things: power, shettling, but also healing. Different parts of the allforest do different things, it’s related to the density of their growth, and the geometry of their networks. The hospitals exploited those configurations to induce coma, and healing on their patients, without any loss of memory. In the most extreme cases, subjects were in the earth for years, before being returned, fully healed and functional.”
“So what happened to me?” I asked, staring at the blotched, ruined skin on my hands, “this isn’t exactly perfectly healed.”
“We don’t know, not exactly. I’d say the allforest did the best it could, having had most its above-ground energy-gathering resources burnt away, and with Calia gone, had little chance of rebuilding its reserves. We think it just kept hold of you, until you were healed enough to be released.”
“But this is all wrong,” I cried, “I was supposed to come back with my circle, so we could start again, together.”
“Kid, we get it. But your circle’s gone – it’s all gone,” Grellan said, from the front seat, “now would be a really good time to start getting over them, because it’s all going to get worse from here on out”
“Calla’s tears, Grellan – enough,” yelled Hevalan, “you don’t think all this is traumatic enough for him, you want him in shock, and frightened too?”
“Stop leading him round and round. Jenn,” he snapped, turning all the way round in the seat to face me, his rifle leaning between the front seats, barrel waving at me, “you’ve got to understand. It wasn’t just your life that has been wrecked. It’s everyone’s. The allforest is gone, at least the biggest part of it. Sure, there are still groves – the allforest stretched for hundreds of miles, but its heart is gone. And with it has gone everything – there’s no more shettling, there’s no more healing for us. The hospitals don’t work. We’re all just getting older, and there’s nothing we can do to turn the clock back any more. Without the trees we’re all going to die, sooner or later, and there’s damn all we can do about it. You’re the only one who’s come out of the earth since then – sixty-four years since anyone managed to turn their clock back. Just look at us. In the history of shettling, there’s never been anyone as old as we are now. How old do you think we can get, before we just start dying? And you – you’ve been held, saved, protected for sixty-four years of hell, while we’ve been up here ageing and dying, and you miss your friends?” He finished with a disgusted snarl, and swung back around in his seat, nearly clipping our driver with the rifle.
“Is that true?” I started. I couldn’t get my head around it – to me, it still felt like going into the allforest was yesterday. I was still only a day away from my family, in my head. A family who weren’t coming back, and if what Grellan had told me was true, I’d never have a family like that again. No one would.
“Yes,” replied Hevalan, glaring at Grellan, before looking back to me, “yes, it’s all true. Without the allforest, we’re all just waiting to die.”
The car sank into silence after that. I turned away, to face the window, watching as the bushes faded away and we re-entered the stony scrublands. I could see Hevalan’s reflection in the glass, keeping an occasional eye on me. I was torn between the outside, and gazing at my new face. I was scarcely recognisable. If this was the best the allforest could do, then I must have been terribly badly injured by the fire. The red and white streaks over my face and hands were the shape of flames – a permanent reminder of what had happened. Outside, we had begun to gain altitude, as Feryon took us along a series of zigzagging roads that cut back and forth across the face of the Tillyan hills – a range which cut across a third of our continent. We were further away from the shettling than I’d thought, heading south, but to do so we needed to cut through the mountains. To my mind that seemed dangerous, placing us in full view for anyone else who wanted to find us. I was distracted by the revelation that I’d missed so much time, time enough for a life and more. I should be ready to start a new life, but now I was being driven up a mountainside, I’d never see Eleran and Maina again. But at least they would never see me like this. If the allforest was dead, were they better off, having lived well, than having to face this instead? No, of course not. I’d have done anything to have them here again. To not be alone with these strange, grim, wrinkled people, whose intentions I didn’t understand.
“Hevalan,” I said, wondering at myself for not thinking to ask it sooner, “who is it that attacked us?”
He didn’t have time to reply, before Grellan pitched in, turning once more so that he could see my face when he answered.
“That’s the question isn’t it? Hevalan don’t have an answer for you. None of us do. All we know is they came out of nowhere, destroyed our sweet little moon, and then started attacking anyone who goes near the allforest.”
I gaped at him, presumably fulfilling his expectations.
“What Grellan is saying, unhelpfully, is that they’re strangers – we don’t know where they came from, we don’t know what they want. They haven’t tried to talk to us, and in all this time, all they’ve done is keep us away from the allforest, and the alltrees.”
“Sometimes we get to even the score,” remarked Grellan, having turned away again.
“It’s not a score we can match. Just days after Calia was shattered, they came to Brisingham, destroyed our infrastructure, our links to the allforest. The hospital network link, the research institute – all of it.”
“All my work was there,” I said, my former life still present in my mind.
“Anything related to the alltrees,” said Grellan, “all destroyed. Even places in the city where juvenile alltrees had started to take root – just blasted into ash, and anyone nearby, well, they were just collateral.”
“Or killed intentionally,” chipped in Feryon, “we don’t know that they weren’t targeting researchers too.”
“And the archive, but we saw that coming. We’d cleared and sealed the archives as the attack began. Almost everything is underground anyway, but we took what we could – pretty much whatever you could fit into four autos. It had to be important, to be worth destroying.”
“So you knew this would happen, when you came to get me from the allforest? That someone would attack us?” I said.
“It was likely, but if we got away from the remains of the allforest quickly enough we thought we might be safe. There’s been a team camped out as close to the allforest as we could get, for decades, waiting for any sign of activity in there,” replied Hevalan. “They’ve been safe enough, as long as they didn’t get too close. The strangers didn’t want anyone near the trees, so we tried to stay near to them. It was the only thing that made sense. So we waited, for someone. And you came.”
I didn’t know what to say – for years, they’d waiting, for someone to come out of the earth, while our world was destroyed.
“But you didn’t know I was down there, why wait?”
“Because we knew the allforest was still active, and the alltrees have always been full of surprises. Why guard the forest if there’s nothing worth salvaging? Without Calia to focus Talens’ light, the trees are hibernating, at best. At worst, they’re dying off, they just can’t get enough light to grow. So why keep us away – we can’t make the moonlight brighter. So we kept watch. Our numbers have dwindled, like the trees, over the years. Too many people got too close to the trees, or left. On the night you came back, lookouts saw the alltrees’ roots quivering on the surface, miles from the shettling grounds. There had been nothing, no activity beyond their secondary leaves splaying ever wider each night, their branches more spindly as they reached for the light. So that shivering? We took that as our cue.”
“And there I was,” I answered. “Thank you, thank you for waiting for me.” They kept looking at me; it wasn’t the response I’d expected. I’d thought there would be some kidn of acknowledgment, but there wasn’t.
“Is there – is there something else,” I asked, “something else you haven’t told me?”
“Well, there’s a lot of that, I’m afraid,” said Hevalan, frowning at me, “we think there’s a reason why you’re the only one to come out of the ground. We think you were saved by the alltree – the sole focus of what few resources they had left after the strangers burned them away. You studied them, you know the alltrees fight hard for their space, jealous of their territory. Why would they waste all that effort on you?”
“What Hevalan’s trying to say, Jenn, is that it’s only going to get harder from here,” said Grellan, “see, we’ve been waiting for a long time, and we’ve had a lot of time to read the archive records we saved. Hevalan here reckons there’s something missing from the archive, something important. And you’ve been under for longer than anyone, ever – we reckon you might be the key. Who knows what the trees have really done to you?”

After the Dark – Part 11 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

We drove for the whole day. Away from the charring chassis of the two autos that had been blasted off the road, away from the vehicle that Grellan had shot down. Our new path took us deep, up in to the Tillyan hills. Each switchback would give us a chance to look down on those flaming wrecks, with each turn they burned less brightly. And all the time we were waiting for something to happen, for another of the strangers’ vessels to transfix us with their beams of fire. It didn’t happen, but waiting for it was exhausting. It was a small auto to begin with, but jammed with archive documents and whatever luggage Hevalan and his men had deemed worth bringing, there was barely space for the four of us. The tension, eyes fixed on the windows and the views beyond… it wore me down.
I was already overwhelmed. People I’d never met were dead, my world had been attacked, and I’d been gone from it for sixty-four years. Nothing made sense to me any more. The others, perhaps seeing the shock in my face, noting my inability to string another sentence together, to even ask another question, let me lapse into silence. They filled it with their own terse words on maps, coordinates, the time, but it all washed over me. I stared at the window – but at myself, not the outside world. Everything I knew was gone, even my own face. I tugged my hood more tightly over my head, feeling the fabric catch on the thorny stubs that had replaced my hair. Although I knew the others had seen me, I wasn’t ready to be seen so easily. I knew I was struggling to get my mind on track – I’d woken, ready to be with my circle again, ready to go out and play in the woods – anything, but this. I spun in circles, endlessly rehashing my expectations with my newfound reality. They didn’t align, and nothing was going to. Before the shettling, I’d been having doubts about going through with it, wondered if it was time to split away, live without rolling it all back. For a while at least.
I wondered what Eleran would have said if I had turned at the last, laid her in the earth, but not gone in myself. Is that disappointment I imagine in her face? Is it pity? My circle were everything to me – my friends, my family, my lovers, for as long as I could remember. Right back to that moment of being pulled free from the roots, bundled with the others. And that moment, and that moment. Over and over again. Not just the memory that I thought I was reaching for – that first feel of Maina’s warm body against mine, bumped around in the back of an auto – but of the time before that. A different time, when it wasn’t me and Maina crushed up together, it was me and Aer – and another time, different combinations of our circle, waking for the first time in the chalet. We dazedly emerged from our rooms, in an unfamiliar place, yet immensely comforting. Its warm wooden floors, walls and ceilings, all planks of juvenile alltree, laid with care and art. Into it we spilled, physically adult, but emotionally we were children once more. I saw myself walking, nervously, into the kitchen on that first morning. Father waited patiently, making breakfast. Mother sat by the table, a gentle hand on the back of Aer’s head, Aer who was terrible at waking up, and never got any better at it. We all knew each other, but I never questioned that: we were a circle. Those relationships were forged in the unearthing, in the families we were to become. It had never occurred to me to wonder how many times we had met, but now those memories were inside me. They hurt to resolve – a series of near-identical memories, overlaying each other in a blur of feelings and faces. I wasn’t supposed to be able to remember the earlier circles. I could sense a massive rising headache, trying to separate them out. They all occupied the same space in my memory of time, and it was that memory of time that was failing me. To my mind I’d lived that forty years, end to end, and there was no time before and beyond that, save for a vague intellectual understanding that this was how we lived, and that there was time outside of my span. Those extra lfetimes were placed on top of each other in my head, not end to end. How could they be? They began with my mind young and ended with me older. I was not sure which of them was real. They were all real, but which came first or last? The last reality for me ended with my circle burning alive. I could find an end, but not a beginning.
The very process was making me feel sick. Whenever I thought I’d found a memory that belonged to me, it collapsed back into the mass of memories that also belonged to me, but I didn’t feel should. What had the allforest done to me? I’d had all my shettlings returned to me, and it was more than I could handle. Surely this was why we went back into the earth, shed a lifetime’s worth of feelings and memories to make room for another. Now it was all pressing in, revolving through my head, scraping against the inside of my skull. I felt my jaw growing slack, a lag between motion and sensation, as if I was a half second behind the world, my skin just elastic enough to catch me up, reeling my skeleton back into the flesh as it ground on ahead. My teeth felt loose, I could feel where they sat in my gums, rested in my jaw. I was going to be sick.
I wound the window down frantically, that awful sense of dryness followed by the promise of wetness welling up in my mouth.
“Woah, what’s he–“
“Just stop for a minute, the kid’s sick,”
Their words blurred.
I was back inside the alltree: filled with warmth, my emotions being smoothed down to a calm passivity as my memories were leached away, leaving me soft, ready.
I coughed my guts up in a ditch at the side of the track. Feryon had pulled over quickly enough for Hevalan to drag me out rather than have me ruin the inside of the auto. That was a good thing.
“Didn’t know you got travel sick,” commented Hevalan, his hand resting on my shoulder blade, “but it’s been a twisty drive up here.”
“I don’t get travel sick,” I said, spitting out something vile, “never, except–“
I broke off, as another wave of conflicting memories broke over me.
“–except sometimes I was. I don’t know what’s happening inside my head, Hevalan. I’ve got dozens of versions of everything, except they’re all a little different, and some of them don’t agree. Like this: I do, but don’t get travel sick, I’ve been in a fight, but – I think I hurt someone, Hevalan, but I don’t remember who.”
“You’re out of sync with shettling,” he said.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“You’re a lifetime, or more, away from the last life you remember. It’s natural to be confused. It’s happened before. Someone comes back, but their memory hasn’t quite been purified. They still remember enough of the last time that they can’t get their bearings. Like constant déjà vu, but worse, because it looks familiar, but then something different happens and your mind can’t reconcile them.”
“How do you fix it?”
“Ah, well. There are two ways out of that. One, you go back under at the next shettling. The alltree takes this short life, and finishes what it started with your old one. When you come out again, it’s all fine, no sense of dislocation, everything’s as it should be. Course, we don’t have that option any more.”
“What’s the other way?”
“You get used to it. It’s more common than you think. Look – did it never occur to you that there were fewer people at your shettling?”
I guess I just looked at him confused, because he went on.
“Of course it didn’t, because you couldn’t remember how many were at the last one. Only the archive could tell, and those who stopped shettling. The dislocation was getting more common. It was like we couldn’t be scrubbed clean any more.”
“Is that what happened to you?”
“No. One of my circle died. It was an accident, but it was my fault. I should have done – “ he sighed, cracked his knuckles, “ – I should have stopped Curiel, but I didn’t, and here we are. No, I chose to not go under when the rest of my circle did. They wanted to start again, and forget about Curiel, but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t imagine forgetting her. So I fell out of shettling, and wound up at the archive. Keeping an eye on things.”
“Happened to me,” it was Feryon, coming round the side of the auto, “it didn’t make sense until much later, but for a long time I’d be finishing conversations that no one else had started, laughing out of turn. Mother and father didn’t know what to do with me. I kept asking them where the others were. They didn’t know who I meant, but it was the circle I was with before. I kept expecting them to turn up. It was too much for the others. I seemed crazy to them. So I was taken in by a couple in the city. Being away from the circle helped me damp down the previous memories. And now, well, now I’m long past the point where the previous memories ended. We all are.”
We stood there in silence for a while. The day was drawing to a close, the sun making its descent. Without realising it I was anticipating what came next, that tidal drag that the twin moons would bring, and all those memories around the lake flowed through me. But Calia didn’t come. As the sun began to sink out of sight, a maze of faint lines sparkled across the sky. The shards of Calia were already there, hanging in the sky; no longer part of her bold presence, marching across the sky. Instead, it was Talens who made Calia visible at all. As his bright light emerged it was refracted and reflected in a thousand fragments of his sister. It was briefly dazzling – a kaleidoscope of light – but it lasted just a few moments, as those fragments turned, drifted on. Talens’ light washed over us, but alone, it had none of the richness, the vigour of that last night by the lake. Around us the grass blades had turned over, hoping for more, and were anxiously waving back and forth, angling for some fortuitous conjunction of Talens and the larger fragments. I couldn’t tell if they were successful, but all the plants we’d passed seemed duller, evidence that they were having trouble making up the photosynthesis shortfall. I could only guess at how the alltrees were faring. I realised that I missed them – the alltrees. I had lifetimes of memories of walking near them, evading the juveniles, studying them, being reborn by them. I didn’t care that the strangers wanted us away from them. It seemed to me that these people who had rescued me had done nothing but run away from the allforest. The alltrees were the heart of every life I’d lived, and I had no intention of turning my back on them.
“I want to go back,” I said, “to the allforest.”
“Told you he’d say that,” Grellan smirked.
“Well, it’s what we hoped for,” said Hevalan, “but we’ve got a way to go before that’s possible. Time for us to move on.”
We climbed back into the auto and kept on up the mountain. Above us, Calia sparkled like a mouthful of shattered teeth.

After the Dark – Part 12 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

Calia’s lacklustre trail had shimmered away into nothing once Talens disappeared over the horizon. A few hours later the sun would return light to the landscape, but we wouldn’t see it. After driving through the night, we had finally reached our destination: an old minehead, abandoned and now well hidden. After kicking us all out, Feryon had inched the auto as far into the mine as possible, ensuring it was entirely invisible from outside.
I’d expected to just follow them inside, but Grellan and I were instead deputed to smooth over our tracks for the last mile or so. To do so, of course, we had to walk that mile first. I was dead on my feet. For all that I’d dozed on the way up, the constant jostling, and jabbing of irregular shapes stacked around us had conspired to keep wakefulness just a thin sliver of sleep away. Grellan seemed to be entirely awake, striding off ahead of me, his rifle measuredly waving from side to side. Not wanting to be alone, I hurried to catch up.
Once beside him, I had that brief sensation of a conversation about to begin – just the sound of parting lips, that slight intake of breath – but no, I found that what questions I had died in my throat, and he barely looked at me, let alone spoke. It was the same awkwardness I’d felt in meeting with someone with whom I should have had endless words to share. It was like that last conversation with Relyan. With everything decided, I had nothing left to say, just a thank you which rang hollow for her. With a shock, I wondered how she was now. I still hadn’t gotten used to the idea that I had returned from shettling, but others had never entered it. We were so sheltered in our circles, that even though I’d been granted the memories of my earlier lives, it was still a leap of logic to think others’ lives had continued. It gave me some more questions for Grellan at least.
I started to speak, realising inevitably that my throat was dry, squeaking out Grellan’s name and then choking, before beginning.
“Grellan – sorry – Grellan, do we um, do we need to be quiet, right now?”
“No. Safe as we’re going to get. No call for shouting and dancing though.”
I took that to be a joke, and continued.
“When Brisingham was attacked, after the, the –“ I realised I was lacking a word, “what do people call it? When the allforest was burned and the strangers came?”
“It’s had labels, as these things do. ‘The Attack’ was quite popular for a while, some went for drama: ‘The Day the World Changed’, but it’s rather overlong for conversation. The rest of us went simple, called it the End.”
“Oh, right. It just occurred to me that I didn’t know how to – say it, simply.”
He glanced at me, perhaps thinking I was mocking him. A very faint smile suggested he’d accepted what I’d said.
“After the… the End, is Brisingham still there?”
“It’s still there, bits missing, like I said before, but people still live there, life goes on. We haven’t collapsed into feudalism or anarchy. Those who can, have moved on, as best they can. Farms still need to grow food, laws to be enforced, shops to sell – it’s all there. Thinking of someone in particular?”
“Perhaps,” I said, “there are people from before, people I might know, who might know me.”
“Dissatisfied with your new circle?” he asked wryly, “we’d not have chosen to shettle together. But we’re your only family now, Jenn.”
I’d not thought I was so transparent, but these men, visibly aged to a state beyond any mothers or fathers I recalled, left me confused. Although I knew I’d lost none of my memories, had not had the reset of shettling, I felt like a child among them. Rescued, dressed, driven, told how it was. I’d lost a sense of agency in the world. It had all changed, and I may as well have been reborn for all that I Knew of what was real any more. A frightening sensation, and I’d none of the comforts that I would have expected to be able to turn to. I shared no bond with these strange archivists, no especial kinship beyond a feeling of obligation and gratitude which, the more I considered it, was flavoured with a resentment of my treatment and their presumption. Perhaps that was unreasonable, and perhaps it ought to have been more appropriately directed to those strangers who had brought the End upon us, and irrevocably changed my life, as well as everyone else’s. But rationality is not easily found in the early hours before dawn when exhausted, confused and frightened. If anything, it’s reasonable to not behave reasonably. We can only act as we feel we should. And my moral compass was exterminated sixty-four years previously.
We’d reached the end of our backtracking. How Grellan determined it was a mile, I didn’t know. I didn’t question it. That was a habit that I was having a hard time breaking. He tore a branch off a mehei tree by the side of the track. Before the End, the alltrees had overrun almost that entire species. With the allforest crippled and under attack, it looked like other species were making a comeback.
“And I’m grateful,” I lied, I half-lied – I did feel gratitude, but I had no sense of how much I truly owed. I took the mehei branch, with its fine needle leaves. In the light I’d have been able to see how one side was a different colour to the other, so they only had to twist around at night for the moon’s light instead of open whole new leaves like the alltrees. “I don’t know where I would be now if you hadn’t come for me in the allforest.”
“You’d have been taken before you stepped outside,” he said, quickly and surely, “if we’d not been there to come in and out under cover of darkness, some far worse fate than being crammed in an old auto.”
“Taken?” I asked, “I didn’t know people were taken?”
“Some who wandered into the allforest disappeared,” he answered, “most are given warning shots.”
He returned to lightly sweeping the road free of tyre tracks and our footprints. I mirrored his actions, erasing the other half of the road.
“I suppose it was just the shettles then, who were the target,” I said, feeling as if there were some better question, and some more complex, more complete answer drifting through my mind, unwilling to land on my tongue.
“It’s hard to know for sure. We saw the aftermath of the allforest, and the institutes. There was only so close we could get afterwards, safely. There was no going into the allforest at all, at first, and then only at night when we could avoid being seen. Ironic that destroying Calia made us harder to see.”
“So I suppose there must have been times when no one was in the allforest at all,” I mused, brushing away the imprints of my shoes.
“Scarcely worth thinking about. You’ll drive yourself mad pondering what-ifs and could-have-beens. All we’ve got is the now, and each other. You’re important, Jenn, and we’ll keep you safe.”
Our conversation petered out there, and we swept the track in silence until we finally reached the adit leading into the mine. I was relieved to discard my branch – the fifth that I’d worn through on mile back – and my shoulders were aching from being hunched over. Feryon and Hevalan were nowhere to be seen. The mine entrance waited, dark and empty, terribly like a mouth in the early morning twilight. For all Grellan’s talk of safety, their absence struck me as ominous. He must have noted my stiff caution, as he clapped me on the back, and pushed me in to the darkness.
Pitch black consumed me again. With his hand on my shoulder, Grellan walked me forwards into the mine. He seemed to know where he was going, or had ridiculously good eyesight, because he barely changed his stride from being outside. I held my fingertips outstretched, feeling for any hint of what I was convinced would be the many obstacles and odd jutting beams. All I felt was the smooth side of the auto. I soon lost track of how far we’d come, glancing behind me the mine opening was a receding grey square. As soon as that square was small enough for me to cover with my hand, Grellan produced a tiny flashlight, which he directed only at the ground in a sharp circle several feet ahead of us. The adit led us up a very slight incline, underfoot the earth was damp, but well packed down. We would leave footprints in here, but I guessed that if anyone had managed to follow this far, it would be obvious we’d entered the mines. Grellan finally started talking again, telling me that the tunnel we followed branched off into dozens of vertical mineshafts, and that the network extended throughout the hills. Following them would eventually lead us out the other side of the range, placing our pursuers (if we had any) far behind, and offering us constant cover. The mines had been abandoned long before the End, having been exhausted of the metals and minerals the miners had culled from the heart of the earth. Since then, people like the three archivists had found them useful in travelling without being seen, as well as a place to store, save and protect their records, or select individuals.
Ten minutes into our walk into the darkness, my eyes had adjusted to being blind except for that patch on the floor, in that my sight began to go wild with flashing lights and lines that I thought I could see. Vast etched shapes emerged from the abyss, huge tessellating patterns of rotating shards – the moon beneath the earth. Those visual hallucinations were a welcome diversion from the dark, and weight of the ground above us that I was ever more aware of. The air tasted dry, with the promise of water some way off; a faint breeze blew around our legs, presumably from mine shafts that depended from the hint of passageways leading off the gallery. I suppose a mine in which people simply asphyxiated wouldn’t be very productive. If it weren’t for the tiny circle of light I followed, I could easily have believed I was being dragged back down by the alltree’s roots, trapped once more in what was neither dream or nightmare but a sixty-four year-long burial. I tried to keep my thoughts away from that, but the cold was growing oppressive, and the darkness unrelenting. Sweat had broken out all over, and my hands shook. It was all invisible in the mine. The more I avoided thinking about being crushed by the weight of the soil and rock above us, the more it gripped me until I could feel its pressure on my skin, dank and hard, felt it choking off my airwaves.
Panic rose up, from some deep well inside me, setting my nerves on edge. My laboured breathing was finally noticed by Grellan, who flicked the torch questioningly at my face. Even as he spoke, asking if I was alright, his words were mangled into nonsense by my anxious mind. As the torch light hit my face I was fully dazzled: great arching roots of light streamed across the world, twisting and reaching for me. I don’t know if I even managed to scream before I spun away from him, and dashed off, blind, except for the wild writhing tentacles of colour. Grellan shouted for me to stop, but my heart was hammering hard enough to shatter my ribs, if the mountain of earth resting atop me didn’t do it first. Those tendrils of alltree were clawing at me, in every direction I faced. I ran back down the slight slope, aiming for a straight line with the fragments of mind capable of thinking about such things. A beam of light passed through the blackness, blinding me further – Grellan in pursuit – but I kept on, until, inevitably I stumbled, and fell.

After the Dark – Part 13 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

The darkness never ended. I’d tripped and fallen, pitching forwards into space. Still surrounded by the hallucinatory patina of roots and stars, I fell forever.
The fall plunged me back into the dreams and memories I’d been besieged with while being rehabilitated by the allforest: a perplexing melange of images in which I recognised myself, but struggled to associate with as my memories. I remember being wrapped in Aer’s arms, all thoughts of Rumala belonging to different lifetime – one in which he and I had never chased each other up trees and into mountain streams. A perfect time, his warm chest beneath my ear and cheek. Utterly safe, utterly secure. Whole days spent tracing the bone structure of his face, turning it into deep muscle memory that even in waking I could sketch him with my fingers. There was an extraordinary sense of connection… one that blurs and blends, soft and subtle, face and scent transformed into Eleran… another lazy sunny day, half-covered and ill-concealed by blankets in the attic no one else realised our chalet had, listening to our circle demanding to know where we were, stifling our laughter with kisses… Tesh, Maina and I, ecstatic, splayed by the shore, absorbing the fullness of the moons while the trees creak and rattle in worship of the energy they’re receiving, then fleeing, giggling and shocked to freezing when surprised by rain. Each drop an icy slap, hastening us home. Hands stretched out across the kitchen table, all of us, fingers touching, remembering our time, before shettling. Drunk, dancing outrageously on the veranda, falling through the wooden railings. Picking splinters out of Tereis’s arm while he shouts his own name in triumph. Eleran looking down at me in disgust when I say that I’m leaving, an immense wave of regret and sorrow barricaded in my chest. Watching Maina go to bed with Miqual… a vast sense of loss and wasted opportunity, juvenile ambition crushed, left bleeding on the edge of the lake… Eleran fished out of the cold water, barely breathing, as we panicked around her.
So many memories, so many lives, all pressing down on me. I was lost, unrooted from the existence I thought I had, flailing and reaching for an anchor – anything to give me a moment’s grace. A handhold to halt my descent, prevent me from plummeting headfirst into an abyss of lost chances and absent love. As my arms flailed, fingers and feet splayed for any kind of grip in the darkness, I cracked my head against some invisible enemy or other – a jutting rock, a spar of wood buttressing the mine – blood filled the void, its coppery taste in my mouth flavouring my dive into the past. Brain rattled, tumbling further.
Very, very carefully I unseal the pressurised container. Its sides unfold, like a carriage case. Shelves and compartments are revealed, lined with fine glass tubes, sealable jars and delicate silvered instruments, gleaming wicked sharp in the moonlight. At the box’s heart, a tiny seedling. Its leaves unfurl in the moonlight, showing themselves a rich red, while its green leaves turn away, wrapping under the thin young branches – barely twigs – they shiver in the buttery light. I tenderly pluck the seedling, in its plastic pot from the case, and hold it up to the moons. It is an act of worship, of reverence – an offering even. A promise, to the tiny tree, of the rewards it can claim. I am purposeful, and sure. In my heart glows an ember of pride, fanned by the tree’s leaves as they embrace their new world – I have given it everything it needs. All of my care and attention are rewarded. This is the culmination of so many years of work. My hands are trembling as I gently hold the tree by its nascent trunk and pull the pot free. Its roots writhe in the night air, anxious at the sudden expansion of their realm – they taste the air, and the light. They try to wrap around my wrist, but I whisper to it that it’s not yet time, and pry them loose with a fine spatula. At arms’ length I lower the seedling into the hole I’ve prepared for it. Just deep enough to enclose its root system and the plug of earth its grown in – a drop into an ocean.
I pat down the native soil around the little trunk of my tree, my fingerprints impressed onto the damp soil. By my hand shall it thrive. Already the tree is twisting up towards the moonlight, bending its trunk to offer its branches and leaves to the best advantage. It will live, it will succeed. I stand back, making sure I cast no shadow over the baby tree. A few steps backwards take me to the edge of the land I’ve cleared, giving me full view of the dozens of like seedlings I’ve planted. Behind me is a stack of containers, all now empty. Satisfied with a job well done, I brush the earth from my hands, and sit on the ground, cross legged, to watch them feed on the moonlight.
A crushing thud rattled my whole body. Complete silence claimed me for a moment, then quickly matched my blindness with a rising whistle that lived only in my head. Cautiously I tested my arms and legs. I was bruised, for sure, but nothing felt broken. Other than any sense of pride I ought have had, of course. I’d managed to freak out in a mine and in my panic, had fallen down a mineshaft. As a day, it couldn’t have gone much worse. It was a miracle I hadn’t broken a leg – or my neck – in the fall. Everything ached, but that pain was a helpful reminder that it was all still properly attached and working, reluctantly. For a moment I wasn’t sure whether my eyes were open – only by gingerly touching my fingertips to my eyelids could I be certain that they were. It was no longer utterly black. In front of me – in whatever direction that was – a pale violet glow gave me the shape of rocks, the very edges of the walls of this shaft and a purple luminance that tapered off in the distance – the perspective revealing a corridor I could follow. When I looked up, I saw nothing. The glowing walls didn’t extend upwards, and I couldn’t see the slash of torchlight I’d hoped for from Grellan.
I cleared my throat and called Grellan’s name. It echoed for a while, before being consumed by the slick earth walls around me. Nothing returned, save my own voice, muddied. I could feel the walls of the mineshaft I’d slipped down. They were severe, and I couldn’t see them, which made them doubly unappealing. I saw little reason to double the risk to life and limb by scrambling back up it. I had two choices. Wait, and hope for rescue. Or pursue this strange violet path before me. The first was, undoubtedly, the sensible choice. My newfound companions had proven resourceful, and determined. They had already rescued me at least twice. And yet. They weren’t my circle. I knew I couldn’t have them back. I hadn’t yet found a way to resolve the upwelling guilt that I had considered leaving them before the End. That I hadn’t left them, and yet had survived them…
That was something too awful for me to really deal with. But down here, in this hole I’d fallen into, no one else would know if I cried. So I did. Since clawing my way out of the earth, torn from the forest, torn from sleep, thrown into a race I didn’t understand against strangers I’d never heard of, with people I only dimly knew and now chased back into the oppressive darkness I’d barely escaped from, I hadn’t had the time to live with my feelings. I took the opportunity to rage, to rake the mud and spit bitter tears of loss and abandonment, of exile and my horror at being lost in time and lives. We all need to indulge ourselves sometimes. And though I had no one to wipe the tears from my face, to take me in their arms, and murmur meaningless hope and comfort, I was freed. As the last shaking breath left me, as I streaked mud down my face in scrubbing away the tears, I felt a fresh calm come over me.
I was grateful that someone had come for me, in the allforest. But gratitude doesn’t mean I was indebted to them. They seemed like good men, but already their accounts of how they found me, and their scant details of the strangers had pricked my suspicions. Not that I thought them villains, but I’d found Grellan was edging into threatening, and it did not yet make sense to me. How could anyone monitor the forbidden region of the allforest for sixty-four years? The audaciousness of such a project seemed just too great. While I’d missed the fallout of the End, I found I simply could not believe in it. An enemy we had no knowledge of? Strangers… The destruction of the allforest was the destruction of a way of life. Our culture had long been founded upon the principles of shettling: cleansing and rebirth, of free exploration and companionship. I found it hard to believe that anyone would oppose that. People had stayed outside of it; the mothers and fathers, who supported those in it, and who would take advantage of the alltrees’ rejuvenative properties, and shettle when they were moved to do so. Even if our society had begun to drift away from our traditional practices… Who could be our enemy? More than that, the archivists had displayed a possessiveness that disturbed me. Those who could lay claim to me were all gone – long in the past now. But those were the only men and women who had a right to my heart and body; and Relyan, I had to concede.
My circle had grown by one in the time I’d been away from home. Perhaps I wasn’t as alone as I thought. Brisingham, from what Grellan and the others had told me, was largely intact. Relyan could easily still be there. Perhaps still living in the house next door to mine. I wondered if the photograph of us together under that alltree was still sitting on the table beside my bed. No one who emerged from shettling would have taken that house, and unless someone else had moved into the city, it might still lie empty, but for that photograph – a testament to a couple now thrown out of the natural order. I didn’t know if she would even want to see me. She took the letter with her, and until now I’d not thought of what it might contain. A declaration of love? An ultimatum? I discovered that I wanted to know. Hands clasped together, I could feel the whorled weals of reddened skin around my hands, and I wondered if she would be able to bear the sight of me. I’d only seen myself in the windows of the auto, the clarity of the reflection improving as day turned to night, until I was a black and white spectre in the glass. I was as yet unused to my new appearance. I felt as I’d done before the shettling, smooth skinned and dark haired, but now all of that was gone. While we always hope people will be able to see past our external appearance, we’re constantly judging others by their faces. I didn’t know if I could blame someone else for making that same judgment. I wasn’t sure I could face Relyan and be rejected, even though the last time I saw her, I was the one doing the rejecting. The leaves turn, as they say.
I couldn’t get back up the mineshaft. I had no indication that rescue was imminent. I didn’t really want to be saved again. It was time for me to take some control of myself, in my newfound world, whatever it truly was. Despite that, only one avenue presented itself, limned in violent: the horizontal mineshaft in front of me. I chose to accept my only choice, and walked on. 

After the Dark – Part 14 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

The mineshaft I followed was taking me deeper underground. I felt that it might be roughly parallel to the entranceway, but I had no way to determine if that was fact, or just rooted in some vague hope. The ground was rougher here, mashed up and scattered with stones, scraps of wood, and metal detritus. I was hugely intrigued by the violet light emanating from the walls. In my time studying the alltrees – in many lifetimes, I now realised – I’d seen them absorb a wide range of frequencies of light, during the night and day, but never seen them produce light. It was a warm, and oddly inviting colour. A welcome relief from the pitch darkness which had so disturbed me. It put me more in mind of the lanterns we had strung out around the lake for Aer and Rumala’s bonding party. It lit the space, but hardly flooded it with colour. Looking closer, it seemed as if the hue emerged directly from the walls. Unlikely to be a mineral itself, then, more likely to be some bacteria or fungus that happened to excrete light as a by-product of whatever they found to consume down here, in the dark.
As soon as I began to walk, the violet light came and went in waves, a pulse that began around me, and washed downed the tunnel. When I turned round, the way I’d come was only dimly lit. Whatever network of organisms produced the illumination, they were lighting my way. That didn’t necessarily indicate any intelligence – even the grass rolls its blades between sun and moons, but we don’t accord them any kind of sentience. In which case, they were reacting to my presence as the trigger to release their light, and a warning, or notice of it was extending to those parts of it in front of me. Having passed, they ceased to react. It felt like a reasonable account of what I was seeing, but still… how often would they meet a presence like myself that incited this behaviour? Perhaps when the mine was active, all of these tunnels would be awash with light. Maybe they had been seeded here for that very reason. It seemed vastly too convenient for nature to create a light that recognised and reacted to movement. I tested it, by stopping, and standing as still as I was able. My curiosity kept the fear of the dark at bay while I waited for the glow to fade. The violet ahead of me slowly retreated towards me, until the only visible lights were those around me. They stubbornly failed to go out. I suppose they could be detecting any number of things – the warmth of my body, the carbon dioxide I exhaled – they would remain active as long as I lived.
Satisfied with my little experiment, I moved on with a little more purpose, pleased as the purple washed ahead of me again, as if it was eager to assist. I trailed one hand over the wall, but whatever it was that lit up stubbornly refused to transfer to my fingertips. If only I had my kit with me, I could pop the case open, and take slivers of the wall and store them neatly away in sample containers. Ah well, in fairness, my aim here ought to be escape rather than research. I had no food, and no water. I was most certainly lost. Just having a direction to walk in didn’t especially help when I didn’t know where I’d started from. All I could really tell is that we were going deeper. The downward slope and increasing cold told me that. I soon needed to wrap my arms around my body to hold in the warmth I had, and I blew out long plumes of breath, which enveloped my face and hung for a while like purple smoke. Watching the air leave my lungs and whirl in fractal patterns, eddied by further breaths and the mysterious breezes that gusted erratically, served to mesmerise me, their spiralling shapes drawing me inward.
As my teeth chattered I imagined finding Relyan down here, and apologising for my behaviour. Perhaps she would forgive me, welcome me back. Maybe she wouldn’t. I remembered the set of her face, the disappointment and resignation in her voice. Again, I wondered what was in the letter. If I’d read it, would I have remained with her? Then why take it away? She was potentially the only friend I had left. I dimly recalled faces from earlier circles, before I fell in with Aer and Miqual, and the others. But their faces alone would do me no good. A pasted blur of faces, feelings and action, mashed up in a messy scrapbook – that’s how my memory of former lives felt. A single striking image on each page – a tree, boldly highlighted against a night filled with the moons and lightning, lying forehead to forehead, wrapped in warmth; a knife raised in anger, its blade streaked with blood; presenting a tattered bundle of grey and blue flowers to a smiling face; a photograph frame, slammed face down on a table, a single splinter of glass escaping, darting forwards as a spear of light; Talens, brilliant in the sky; a sapling, furiously lashing out with thorns that sprang from nowhere, scratching against the glass screen that threatened it; seven of us, holding hands, running along the wooden pier to leap, shrieking into the water; a sleeping face, eyes rolling under closed eyelids, deep in a dream. None of it would help to identify them. But my archive file would. Not that I was likely to see that again. For all I knew, it was still in the backseat of the auto we’d abandoned in the mouth of the mine. More likely, I suppose, that Feryon and Hevalan had transferred their precious paperwork from the auto into a deeper region of the mine, while Grellan and I were covering our tracks. I wondered what else was in those files. I knew they tracked shettles, the circles, our names and those we had been close to. Would Relyan have an entry there too? I wondered if I had known her in more than one of my lives. Whether I’d nearly broken with my circle before. It was hard to tell. I recall feelings of frustration, the luminous qualities of anger and happiness. If I had stayed with her it was possible that my entire circle would have decided not to shettle that day, and we could all still be together – if apart – at least still alive, with both a promise of future, and a chance to do it again and better.
Such terrible luck that the strangers would choose that shettling to unleash their attack on the allforest. Tragic for us, but why strike now, not sooner or later? I still found it hard to grasp that we were now sixty-four years after that fact. To me, it still felt a few days ago, if separated by a timeless gap of darkness, dreams, and pain. It dimly occurred to me that I had only the archivists’ word for any of this. Information given to me at a time of extreme vulnerability, corroborated only by a glance at my archive file and our fractured moon in the sky. What degree of doubt was pragmatic, and when would scepticism trip itself into unreason? I had no way to judge, and no further data was forthcoming. Not while I was stuck in this freezing hole in the earth.
Gloomy and cyclical thoughts such as these pursued me down into the deeps. With no plan other than to keep walking through my violet-lit halls, I just kept trudging on, as the cold threatened to make me shatter my bones to ice. It took me some time before I noticed that I was no longer either descending, or going in anything like a straight line. Even on those occasions that I had looked behind – who can resist the crawling urge to turn around when the dark is at your back – the luminescence only covered a few feet, so I got no sense of whether I could see back the way I’d come. The forward casting of the walls’ light flowed from wherever I was, like a rushing wave that faded away before the next struck. It all served, along the numbing cold and my insular thoughts, to aptly deceive me. I plodded on, increasingly stiff and leaden in every movement, the sense of my feet scraping along the mud so removed from my sense that were the sound of a demon rasping out its breath. I was lost in the dark once more, and while the violet glow was a friend in the deeps, it gave nothing but a further confirmation that I was in the dark. So when the purple lights suddenly dropped away, to be replaced by a warm orange glow, it took me a few moments to catch up. The orange light even looked warmer, and I’d have sworn I felt my nose and ears begin to defrost.
The mineshaft came to an abrupt end, opening out into a much broader space, two or three times as high as the hallway I’d followed and seven or eight times that height across. The orange glow came from lanterns fixed into the ceiling, which brightly lit the centre, but was swallowed up by blackness around the edges. In the middle of the room was a tall stack of cases and boxes, a pile that spread out across the floor with no imaginable pattern of intent. Boxes had been placed and left wherever they landed. It was not my imagination that it was warmer here: my breath scarcely ghosted in front of my face any more, and while it wasn’t cosy, it felt like bliss. Heat flared through my chilled face and fingers, reminding my frozen limbs what it was to be warm. I felt positively rosy cheeked. The jumble of boxes extended to within a few feet of the tunnel I’d exited. I looked back and saw an arch of the violet lights, they faded out as I stepped away from them. They had been fine companions, and had left an intriguing puzzle in my mind about their origins.
There was no sound, other than the distant drip of water which I only now realised I’d been hearing all along. The light helped in taking it from a faint, sinister heart beat to a commonplace sound. No wonder I’d been wrapped in vague paranoia, stumbling along alone. Light and heat meant people. The boxes implied the presence of my archivists. Although I still had misgivings, the prospect of coming across other people again outweighed them. I was a creature of community, and its absence had wounded me, even if it was for so short a time. The boxes that were haphazardly stacked in front of me were mostly cubes, of cardboard and plastic. Several had falled open, revealing innards of more paper and card. Certainly the archives, in that case, transferred here for safety and security, as they had said. That much at least was true, and being able to trust my companions released a little more warmth into my heart. Alongside the endless archive files were the heavy crates we would fill with our belongings when we went to shettle. Who knows how many more than this were lost in the rocky warrens beneath the archive itself. These must have been the most readily obtained – the most recent. And therefore, ours. Somewhere in this mess would be the boxes I’d packed with trinkets, tools, letters and toys from my circle.
I resisted the temptation to start opening boxes at random, and wallow in the past. But assuring the archivists that I was safe and sound, since they’d no doubt be concerned about my panicking and falling down a mineshaft. It was also possible that they would have some clue where my things might be. In particular I was thinking of the  much warmer clothes I had packed away, which would be a boon down here. I was feeling quite upbeat – the prospect of having rescued myself was a bright alternative to the sense I’d had of being dragged around like a child. Maybe it would help to give the impression that I was more capable than a freshly shettled youngster, and they might actually start treating me like an adult.
I never found that out. As I edged around the stack of boxes, the rest of the space came into view: some serious heating units were indeed whacking out heat, much of which was unfortunately being soaked up by the hillock of containers. They were surrounded by a ragged spread of furniture, a number of chairs that had been dragged down here, as well as half a dozen folding cot beds, likewise covered with grubby-looking sheets and blankets. Further cases gave evidence of food and drink, or at least the detritus left behind. My eyes lingered on the details: a pair of plates, loosely stacked, forks protruding from between them like the eye-stalks of some sea creature; a heap of books and magazines on a wooden table, heavily thumbed, pages dog-eared by their readers; a bowing wardrobe pole, heavy with the coats and trousers hanging from it; a mug, broken on the ground, its contents spattered around it; two chairs fallen on their sides, the back  leg of one snapped in half, the seat of the other come away, leaving a square hole where none should be.
After the details, the unnecessary debris of humanity that my mind chose to process first, skipping over the unfortunate facts, came the overlaid reality. Between the two broken chairs lay the figure of a man, prone in the mud. Where his head should have been was a crushed egg of blood and hair, the blood extending in a puddle beneath him. Laid over the bed backwards, one booted foot in the air was another man, this one immediately familiar to me, despite the bloody holes in his chest: Feryon. Mouth caught in a snarl, but with eyes that stared in blind disbelief. Seeing Feryon allowed me to connect the dots that identified the half-headed form as Hevalan. The coat and gloves were those I’d rattled along next to in the auto for a day and night. It never occurred to me that they might still be alive. I’d sort of imagined that if I ever found a body I’d be struck with the urge to check for a pulse, to attempt resuscitation in some cackhanded but earnest desire to bring them back. I had no doubts – the gaping holes, the blood, the expression of mortality on Feryon’s face were quite sufficient to establish them as dead. Now that I saw them, between the everyday objects in this unearthly camp and the unruly heaps of their archives, they fit, the belonged in the same picture.
It struck me as odd that I wasn’t afraid, that my heart didn’t race into a panic like that I’d suffered up above. I felt extraordinarily calm. Perhaps it was my over-chilled body, unable to yet scavenge the heat required for such a swell of feeling, perhaps it was that I did not know them well, and had discovered, along with their bodies, a curious sociopathy that I’d never been made aware of. Perhaps it was simply shock, on top of night with no sleep, lost and wandering. I blundered towards the centre of the room, my still numb feet kicking aside the scattered contents of boxes. My body was thinking for me, it seemed: we (my body and I – had the cold and exhaustion separated us somehow?) aimed for one of the other camp beds. Not the one that Feryon still half-occupied, but another next to the heating units. I sat heavily, drawing the thick blankets around me and hunching at the radiator, pressing my hands towards its ridges. I had the sense to snatch them back just before I touched them, instead wrapping them in a fold of the blanket and pressing that swaddled bundle to its fins instead. The heat bled up through my arms like water, raising from the dead those goosebumps that had previously risen but then shaken their heads and abandoned their duty while I walked down the mine. Then the shivering started in full; my body wracked by convulsions as the heat punched into my frozen core. I fell to my knees, embracing the heater, despite its scorching. The webwork of scarred skin across my body lit up in response to the warmth, as if they could conduct the heat better into my muscle and bones. The searing pain forced me to wad yet more layers of blanket between myself and the heater, but I was unwilling to let it go entirely. Cold rose out of my skin like a haze, pushed out by the glorious warmth filling me. The banishment of true cold left me exhausted, and I fell back against the bed, dazed, caught between it and the heater, held upright by the density of the blankets. Even the mud floor beneath me no longer felt cold. I’d entered a new, temperate world and my mind was reeling.
My blasé approach to the dead men I shared this space with couldn’t last, but I’d been sensible, or insensible of being sensible, in warming myself first of all. Gradually, like the ice that had trickled from my brain, a better grasp of my situation began to pool somewhere inside me. Still wrapped in the blankets, and throwing odd final twitches of shivers, I found my way back to my feet, and tentatively investigated the scene. They were definitely still dead, and the man with half a head was certainly Hevalan. That left one of our number out – Grellan. The man I’d last seen leading me into the dark, with a rifle slung over his shoulder. Conflicting questions arose simultaneously: was Grellan all right? Had he also been injured – where was he? Inevitably, was it Grellan who shot the other two? I didn’t know any of them well enough to think them capable of murder, though Grellan had demonstrated his skill with the weapon yesterday when he shot the stranger vehicle out of the sky. He’d seemed unruffled, but what did I know about how a man should react to shooting them down. They had just killed the passengers of the two autos who had accompanied us. I didn’t know the difference between revenge, justice and murder, or what it took to make someone pursue any of them. I was just a casual alltree researcher caught out of shettle. But it was the life I now led. What I could establish immediately was that two men were dead, deep in a cave system they’d assured me was secure and secret, and the only man who had a weapon was missing. One plus one, and all that. Worse, I was in the middle of the murder scene, and I knew that at least one of the exits would take me nowhere. The only other exit was a similar tunnel which left the cavern about a third of the way round from my entrance.
I was hesitant to leave – the murderer had to have departed through the tunnel I now eyed, since I’d already have met them otherwise. What I could do was take advantage of this hideout, and keep as quiet as I could. Perhaps there were other weapons. At least there was water, and food. With an eye out for the exit, I raided the archivists’ supplies. With an armful of bread, cheese and ham, and a flask of water, I retreated behind the stack of boxes, reluctantly giving up the heaters for the sake of what I imagined was safety. The cold soon drove me back, however. I noticed that the heaters were independent units, burning off their own energy rather than depending on batteries and cable, so I hauled one of them with me instead. I had to shift aside a few boxes to make a snug enclave, but it was worth the effort – the boxes caught and reflected the heat, turning my little cave within a cave into a tiny paradise. I restrained from scoffing down the food, attempting instead to draw it out for nourishment. While I chewed diligently, I flipped the lid off the closest box. It was full of yet more paper folders, thick with varying grades and colours of paper. The first one I pulled out had a name and identification number which I didn’t recognise, so I idly leafed through its record of names, addresses, circles and long list of possessions entrusted to the archive before each shettling. I wondered where they might be now, whether they knew that their treasures and secrets were buried deep in the Tillyan hills, and if they would even care. They might now be deep into their final life – with shettling no longer an option, they would just be getting older, like Hevalan and the others. Like me, I realised with a shock.
I could spend forever in this room, reading through these endless files, waiting for Grellan to come back, and either kill me… or something else. That sounded a lot less appealing now that I thought about it. Clearly being re-filled with food and warmth was doing something for me. I needed rest, and I’d had some, but this might well be the worst place to take a nap. I also needed warmer, and better clothes than those I’d been provided with back at the cabin. Somewhere in here might be my old stuff, which would definitely fit, and I could imagine the feel of my favourite boots, snug on my feet. But where to begin, in this mass? If there’s no starting point, pick anywhere and go from there. I was grateful that they were clearly labelled, so it was going to be a case of checking each one in turn. Since I knew my file at least had been in the auto we’d arrived with, there was a good chance they would be nearest the entrance.
I’d hoped to be right, but none of the crates or boxes on the other side of the heap were mine. So I started opening cartons at random, until I found some warmer feeling clothes. I undressed as near to the heaters as I could, and hurried into the new cold but clean trousers, shirt, jacket and coat. A pair of heavy boots were almost the equal of mine, wherever they were, and a pair of gloves from another box were more perfect than any I’d ever owned. I guessed that my belongings might have been in one of the destroyed autos, or the other one that got away. But if they weren’t in our auto, along with my file, then why had Hevalan had my archive folder yesterday? The archives had been destroyed sixty-four years ago. Who would carry around a file for that long, on the unlikely chance of my returning from the allforest? It didn’t make any sense to me. Following that hunch, or lack of hunch, I went back to Hevalan’s body. Sure enough, fallen to the floor, lying half underneath him was my archive record. It had been splattered with blood from Hevalan’s head injury, which made me hesitate to pick it up. As I pulled the folder out from under Hevalan, I heard a noise behind me.
“So you didn’t fall to your death, then.”
Grellan’s voice. I spun, startled, clutching the bloodied folder to my chest like a shield.
“Thought we’d lost you–“ he began, then looked around the space, “–what did you do?”
“I – this wasn’t me, I couldn’t – I just got here,” I protested.
He raised his rifle, and took another step into the cavern. He raised an eyebrow at the boxes I’d opened. “Already robbing the dead, Jenn?”
“I was cold…”
“We’ve all been cold,” came a new voice, out of the shadowy corridor behind Grellan. As he spun, a look of surprise on his face there was a gunshot, and a red hole appeared in his back, right between his shoulder blades. I watched him fall, saw a flash in the darkness. I dived into the stack of crates. It hurt, but not as much as being shot would have done. Footsteps, and further shots entered the room, bullets smacking into my cover. I stumbled backwards, knocking the heater into the box walls. My cover seemed a lot less substantial than I’d hoped. The next bullet nicked the heater and with a tiny pop and a hiss, it exploded, spreading burning fuel all over the mound of paper and plastic. It went up instantly, transforming the cavern into an inferno.
I staggered away, now concealed by fire and smoke, the file still hugged to my chest. Fire in front of me, a dead end behind me, and an unknown gunman in my only exit. Great.

After the Dark – Part 15 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

I hastily slapped at the burning paper sticking to my boots and legs for fear I’d go up with it. Since I clutched an extremely flammable paper folder in the other hand I figured I should at least stuff it inside my jacket for protection. All of the other files and archives were going to be lost. Hundreds, if not thousands of lives turning black and fluttering away before my eyes. Already the cavern was intensely hot, but I stuck to the wall farthest away from the gunman’s entrance. At least the mud floor was unlikely to ignite. It was more likely I’d succumb to the smoke now rolling around the space, made up of burnt paper and plastic, it was thick and left an oily residue on whatever it touched. After the fire had broken out there were no more bullets flying, which was some relief. I still had no idea how I would be able to get out. I could always run back up my violet-lit tunnel, but then I’d just be trapped at the bottom of the mineshaft, and would be perfectly highlighted for whoever came in after me. It wasn’t a good feeling, and I growing rather tired of my situation always seeming to get worse. Even my new clothes would now reek of smoke. It was pleasantly distracting to focus on such trivia, since I had little chance to deal with anything else.
Carefully, I tried to watch the other entrance through the flames, wondering who had come to kill the archivists, and presumably me. I couldn’t see anyone standing there, but that was no surprise since the fire and smoke obscured most of the view. I guessed that it must be the strangers, who had successfully tracked our auto up the winding paths through the hills and had come down here to exact vengeance for their fallen airship. I made myself as small as possible against the wall. The smoke was getting denser by the roof – filling that space up before it got low enough to escape through the two exits. As long as I stayed low I should still be able to breathe, unless the fire managed to use all up the air available down in the mine. I’d no idea if that was possible, but with the flames dancing in my face it felt terribly likely.
I’d been looking in the wrong direction. I felt, as much as saw out of the corner of my eye, a figure approaching from my rear. They had done the simple and obvious thing of sticking close to the wall, just as I had. I flung myself forward, barely avoiding the fire, anything to evade their murderous grip. The black-clad figure lunged for me, snatching hold of my arm and hauling me up, away from the flames. I used the sudden motion to lash out, catching them across the face with the back of my fist, causing them to lose their grip. I continued into the wall, slightly stunned by the impact. I was far less ready for a fight than my opponent, who slammed into my shoulders, banging my head hard against the wall. I put my elbows and heels to good use, preventing my attacker from getting a hold of me. I extracted muttered curses from them, and a pained shout as I jerked my head back, cracking them in the face. Now my head hurt, front and back. The force of my headbutt, knocked my hood down around my neck, revealing my weirdly scarred and twisted head. That seemed to earn me a moment’s grace – just enough to get a boot up on the wall, and push off. Even as we staggered away from the side of the cavern, they managed to snaked an arm around my throat, jerking and hauling my head backwards. I got a foot caught between theirs and we went falling into the fire.
I’d been on fire before, and the memory of it crashed into me as hard as I hit the floor. It knocked the breath out of us both, but I was kicking and scrambling free as soon as I felt the first lick of flame across my arm. In my panic I managed to get free of their grip, rolling up and away from the fire, once more banging the back of my head on the wall. Slapping at my smoking arm I almost forgot there was someone else there at all, until they began shrieking because the fire had caught on their clothes. For all my fear and confusion, I couldn’t watch someone else burn to death. Muffling my hands in my sleeves, I grabbed them by the ankles and yanked them free of the fire. I tore off my jacket and beat out the fire that was taking hold of their back and arms. They seemed to be just smoking, but I threw in a few extra poundings of the jacket, just for good measure. I was breathing hard, in an environment which it was growing ever harder to breath in, coughing more than exhaling. The fire had burned fast and bright, with the fuel from the heater egging it on, but now that its resource of oxygen was running out, it was dropping lower and lower, leaving us breathing smoke and plastic fumes.
My would-be killer, and recipient of my contrary life-saving effort was still slapping at their now only-smoking arms. I could finally get a look at them. A black balaclava completed their scary black-on-black get up. No wonder they had been able to sneak down through the tunnels after Feryon and Hevalan. They could even have been waiting for us, and killed them both before Grellan and I even entered the mine. Choking, their eyes running with soot-clogged tears, they pulled that balaclava off, and we stared at each other.
“Jenn?”
“Miqual?!”
It was impossible, but the man under the balaclava was Miqual, and if not, then was the twin I never knew had. Given the organisation and administration of shettling, I supposed that was possible, but still seemed absurd. I watched his eyes track over my scarred face and head, down to my red-lined hands, with a look of horror and compassion in his eyes. It was Miqual, a few years older than I last saw him, though not as aged as the archivists had been. But the Miqual I knew had surely burned, trapped in the alltree’s roots as the End shattered our night sky.
“Jenn,” he croaked, “I’m sorry – didn’t know it was you. I thought, I thought you were dead.”
“I thought you were dead too. I saw you on fire.”
“More than once,” somehow he managed to chuckle about that, “thanks for putting me out.”
He reached out for me, one soot-tinged hand seeking another. Initially I felt myself moving forward, but as his fingers touched mine, I flinched back away from him. He had been trying to kill me, and I was way too confused to start placing trust in someone who was dead. His eyes turned hard. I’d forgotten they could do that, I’d forgotten Miqual could flick between affection and anger in a heartbeat. Instead of withdrawing his hand, he moved faster, and grabbed my wrist.
“Where have you been?” he demanded.
“Let go Miqual, you’re hurting me,” I said, trying to twist away from his tight grip.
“Why are you back, now, of all times? And with these… archivists?” he gave their title with a sneer. He didn’t let me go.
“Miqual, I don’t understand. The alltree brought me back, finally, but – but it couldn’t heal me. Hevalan and the others – they rescued me. Don’t you remember him, Miqual? Hevalan – he was the man at the archive on the eve of shettling.”
“Of course I remember him, why do you think I’m down here with a gun?” his face was so cold it frightened me. I felt glad that he didn’t have his gun any more, he must have lost it somewhere during our struggle. Maybe it had fallen into the flames. With the look on his face, I certainly didn’t want him holding it again. There would be at least one more weapon in this cave though: the rifle Grellan had carried.
“What? Miqual, I don’t, I really don’t understand what you’re saying. You’re a murderer now? What’s going on?”
I felt pathetic, and scared – still. All I had open to me were questions, and potentially distraction until I could get away from Miqual. For all that he looked like my Miqual he wasn’t the same person. He might have been angry back at the archives, all those long years ago, but I’d never have thought him a killer. It was insane. But my head was full of jumbled memories, and Miqual throwing me at the auto outside the archive wasn’t the only time he’d been violent; I had just forgotten them.
“These people,” he gestured around at the smouldering mass in the centre of the cavern, “they’re extremists. Dangerous. You really think the allforest could bring you back, decades after you were burned alive?”
“That’s not what happened Miqual – I was dragged under – I watched you die–”
“You saw me burn, and it was awful,” a flicker of some other feeling passed across his face, “but I was saved, and healed. You vanished into the soil, never to be seen again. When I woke up, I discovered we were at war, with people who destroyed our way of life, everything we have. They burned half the allforest, Jenn.”
“That’s what Hevalan told me, that the strangers came–“
“Strangers? That’s what they told you?” he scrutinised me with those cold eyes, looking for something. I didn’t know what, “what else did they tell you?”
“That we’d been attacked by the strangers. That we don’t know who they are. Hevalan and the others had been waiting for me, for someone like me, who hadn’t come back from the shettling. They thought there was a chance that the alltrees had saved some of us who shettled that day. But… you had already come back. The alltrees kept me, for so long. Why Miqual, why would they heal you, but not me?”
Miqual got to his feet, hacking and spitting the soot from his lungs and mouth. He looked undecided, eyes sweeping back and forth around him.
“We need to go – there’s not much good air left down here, Miqual. The fire’s taken it all. Miqual?”
I realised he was looking for his gun. The sense of betrayal was appalling, like ice dug under my skin, carving around my bones. I pushed myself up the wall to reach my feet, and began edging away from him.
“I’m sorry Jenn, but you’re not going anywhere,” his tone transfixed me. This wasn’t the sharply angry Miqual I’d known, there was no gentleness here. We weren’t in a circle any more and I didn’t know who he was. “Don’t you realise how they got you out of the earth? They’re extremists – they want the allforest back, and they’ll do anything to get it. They’ve been electrifying the earth, shocking what’s left of the alltrees back into life. That’s how they got you back out. They’ve tried it before, and all they’ve managed is to make the trees vomit up mangled, braindead people. The electricity created zombie tree networks, but they didn’t know what they were doing, just triggered their basest functions. But you… You… don’t know who you are, do you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about Miqual, you’re scaring me,” I felt my only hope was to hide, to pretend I was still the Miqual he’d known, but he was also making me angry, “all I know is our circle, and what I’ve been told since by the men you killed.” Steadily, I began walking backwards, around the edge of the room away from him. “Miqual, I don’t understand what you’re doing here, but the MIqual I remember was a good man. You weren’t a coldblooded killer. I think I even loved you, once.”
“Everything changes after shettling, Jenn. The allforest is dead, or will be soon enough. The old ways are gone, and this is the only life we get now. Your ‘strangers’ have made sure of that, and they’re the ones with power now – not the archive, not the institute, and not the alltrees. They’ve– they’ve made me a better offer. I can escape from all this. But to do that, I’m afraid, Jenn, that you and everyone like you is going to have to die. You haven’t known me for a very long time, but I know exactly who you are, and who you used to be.”
I started to run. What choice did I have – stay, and be killed by someone I thought was my friend? Whatever relationship we’d once had, it was over now. Miqual must have run the other way round the fading fire, because he reached Grellan’s body before me, tearing the rifle by its strap from over his head and shoulder. As he brought it up, and pointed it at me, the walls fluoresced with violet fire. A low rumbling penetrated the chamber, shaking rocks and dirt down from the ceiling, the ground vibrating under our feet.
“You might not remember who you were Jenn, but they do,” said Miqual, pulling the trigger, even as the floor ruptured underneath him, throwing him up in the air. Bolts of energy slammed into the ceiling, vaporising earth and igniting that vapour. Tiny tendril roots erupted from the ground and walls near me, writhing into a cocoon that enveloped me. My last sight before the cocoon was complete was of Miqual firing Grellan’s rifle as he fell back into the tunnel he’d emerged from. With a titanic groan, my enwrapping roots twisted, and dragged me back underground.

After the Dark – Part 16 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

The world ground around me, nauseatingly loud, as my coffin of roots corkscrewed me away from the fire, away from the mine. Away from Miqual, the man I’d thought dead and gone. The man who tried to kill me. I expected to be filled with fear again. Plunging into the darkness of the mine had wracked my nerves, but now I felt only a little frightened – startled by the suddenness of how I was taken from the cavern – but I did at least recognise the power that had hold of me. I’d also been snatched from one life threatening situation after another, and this felt like it posed the least immediate likelihood of pain and death. It’s all a matter of perspective, I suppose.
I felt as if the alltree had learned from its previous experience, since it had crushed me and broken my bones when it had seized me from the flames of the End, and then had more healing to accomplish. Perhaps it had just been the alltrees’ emergency response. I couldn’t judge; it was rescuing me from harm again. This journey was a much better way to be carried through the earth. The twisting roots had left me space to breathe and move a little. Room enough to be bruised as I was bounced back and forth. They had also provided me with light, some at least. In scooping me out of the mine, the roots had borne a layer of soil inside my cocoon which was laced with the same source of the violet glow that had lit my journey into the mine. There wasn’t much to see of course, other than the densely interlaced roots, and my hands, which I kept braced either against the sides or cushioning my head, depending on how hard I was being shaken.
What I could see for the first time was that the tendrils braiding my little subterranean vehicle were constantly unravelling and being replaced. Rather than being dragged by a single root system, I appeared to be being passed between them, at shocking speeds. The more I was carried along, the more the luminous dirt was lost, until finally my cage gave off no light at all – but by now, I’d been covered head to foot in soil and mud, so the light came from me. It was odd being the source of illumination. Perhaps this is how it would feel to be a candle, able to see only because of your own existence. And, like the candle, I was slowly going out. The fire in the cavern had already taken much of the breathable air away, and there was no more to be found down here than what I’d brought with me. That accounted for a certain elongation and trails of fancy in my thoughts, but it did render my sense of time and distance worthless. I spent what felt like an age observing the weaving of roots around each other, like watching the growth of a plant played backwards at high speeds, jerky and each step was too precise to be real, slotting into itself in minute, impossible ways. They were like my complex of overlapping, interlocked memories: all part of some whole, but their order was gone and they came and went faster than I could feel them.
Once more, I left my body behind, and lost myself in memory.
Who had I been? The final challenge from Miqual before he tried to blast me into oblivion. I had, it seemed, been many people, and in most of them I led a similar enough life. I had family and friends, I loved, I lost, I moved on. Worked, slept, played. Almost all of them had taken me to places of beauty in the allforest, in Brisingham, and had begun in places like the chalet by the lake. There were variations of course: I was with different people, we did different things, but it all felt as if it had the same quality of existence. Bound by shettling at beginning and end – the familiar pattern of development, an arc that was repeated over and over. Miqual and I fought many times. Perhaps we should have found different circles, but somehow we chose to come back together again and again, hoping that it would all work out eventually. And it did, often even, but those where we fought, sometimes violently were prominent, and laced with fear and anger. We had fought about love, about the pointless, stupid domestic things that drive all people crazy, but most of all we argued about shettling.
My fear, which I had expressed when we were in the archive, that we’d been re-living the same life seemed valid, now that I could line them up together. I’d been living in a loop, free from time or consequences. Our culture had protected that way of life for what had to be hundreds of years at the least, allowing us a special liberty from the passage of time. We just fit back in again each time. But not everyone – some had stopped shettling, maybe even many of us, to judge from how few there had been at my last, disastrous shettling. They were people like me, or like I would perhaps have been if Miqual were less fierce in our arguments, and less able, with the rest of my circle, to convince me to return to the earth and be wiped clean again. Shettling was a sacred rite, and though the others had opted out, our society was still structured to support it. And if you were shettling, you were barely aware that the rest of the world really existed. If I hadn’t sought out work in the allforest, requiring me to be away from the rest of the circle, I’d have been even less mindful of the world around us.
I couldn’t quite reconcile my former blindness to the world with the welter of memories I now possessed. Smashing mental and emotional paradigms together is hard, and people run naturally on cognitive dissonance. I had, for centuries it seemed. With the other freedoms offered by the alltrees, such as healing and rejuvenation, those who chose not to shettle were able to simply persist. And if they did feel the need to start over, that was available. I wondered what rich complex life I might have found if I had been content to just live. The lure of a fresh start, by purging all the mistakes I’d made, had evidently been too appealing to reject.
Underneath those layers of familiar lives and memory, there was something… else. Separate from the cycle of shettling, it stood out alone, in fragments I couldn’t fit into the mix of those other lives. Images of cool, spartan rooms; planting tiny seedlings with such pride; swinging round, past Talens turning to watch Calia in her glory. Different people, different clothes. Still me, but everything else was different, right down to the sounds and the feel of the ground.
A dull roar tugged me from my sleep. The air was fresh – there was air! I took huge gulping breaths while lying on my back, until I could get myself to my knees. The travel pod made of roots was unravelling, disappearing into the earth. I was left in a long, low space, dimly suffused with a blue tinge to the air which eventually faded to black in all directions. The floor was perfectly smooth bare earth, but the roof was a tangle of tiny roots, gently waving in the faintly salt-scented air. There was no breeze, however, and the air was a pleasant temperature that felt entirely comfortable. I’d been taken from one cave to another. There didn’t appear to be anyone pointing a rifle at me, so it was an improvement. Since I could only see about fifty feet in any direction, I couldn’t tell if there was a way out, or make any good decision about where to go next. I did discover that I was almost clean again. Most of the mud that I’d had all over me had fallen away, leaving me dusty and undoubtedly grubby, but not the thick mud monster I’d been. My recently borrowed clothes were quite ruined though, from being either scorched or ripped during my scrapping with Miqual.
It took me a moment to realise that the stiffness in my torso was as much to do with the folder I’d shoved inside my jacked, as it was from being banged about on the way here. So I pulled it free. It was barely light enough to read by. I was forced to screw up my eyes, with the papers pressed close,  before I could even read my own name. It would have to keep. I folded it in half and slotted it into the inner pocket of my jacket, rather than trusting my waistband and buttons to keep it safe.
Since there was no particular direction to head in, and nothing forthcoming from the allforest, which I presumed I was still under, due to the lightly waving fronds above me, I just started walking. The blue gloom moved with me, never allowing me to see further ahead or behind than I had before. Some relation of the violet illumination in the other caves, I presumed. Nonetheless, I was making progress – I could tell because the roots emerged from the ceiling in distinct patterns. I could trace along their lines from baroque formations into perfect squares. Unless they were subtly changing without my noticing… It’s easy to be paranoid when the world keeps dragging you from one place to another without ever explaining itself. I kept going.
Abruptly the blue radiance melted away, revealing a broad arch, thickly lined with ancient-looking roots twined around each other, looping in and out of the chambers walls. The chamber beyond was awash with light – rich and creamy, so like being under Calia and Talens the night before shettling. It’s a colour I associated with the night, in a world brimming with energy and power. It sent a surge of delight through my heart. My feet took me forward without stopping to think. I stepped through the arch to an incredible sight.
I stood on the edge of a vast subterranean hollow, a rough sphere filled with a hundreds of fully mature alltrees, and dozens more juveniles, pressed in close around them. I’d never seen juvenile alltrees so close to each other without their territorial weaponry being deployed. It was a huge underground forest. It was beautiful, and it took my breath away. When I looked up, I thought my heart would stop. Roots and branches arced upwards from around the rim of the forest, crawling and climbing across a ceiling that was pure light, framed and held in place by those sprawling roots. Impossible. That was Calia’s light – I had known it for all of my lives and could not fail to recognise its qualities now. But how? From around the very edge of the ceiling I could make out a series of gentle waterfalls, trickling and misting the trees below. It could only be the source of the air’s salty tang. I stepped out into the chamber fully, gazing up and down, trying to encompass the enclosed forest with my meagre eyes.
I almost jumped out of my skin when a hand landed on my shoulder.
“I see it’s rescued you too,” the voice, like the light that filled this enormous space, was instantly recognisable to me.
“Relyan,” I breathed, nearly falling to my knees from the shock.
“Whoa! Easy there Jenn, you’re white as the sun,” she– Relyan, said, “I know, it’s been a while, but it’s really, really good to see you again.”
I was lost for words, I was delighted, and gladly stepped into her open arms. It had been sixty-four years since I had been hugged, and Relyan did not disappoint. While I feared for how I might smell after my adventures, ever conscious of making a good impression, Relyan didn’t seem to care. It was a hug I could have maintained forever. At last we drew apart, joined by our hands, to look at each other properly. I saw the faint narrowing of her eyes as they swept over the patina of scar tissue that now covered my skin, resting on the stubbly spikes that passed for hair. I would have cringed away, but she kept hold of my fingers and wouldn’t let me hide. I bore her compassion. Relyan was older than I remembered – certainly not so ancient as the archivists – but it was still her, still lovely Relyan. And still her hair was beautiful.
“I’m so sorry, Relyan,” I said, “I should never have left you, I’m sorry.”
“I know. I know.”
It was to be all the consolation I’d receive. In fairness, it had been a much longer time for her – perceptually at any rate – than it had been for me. I imagined she’d finished cursing, or forgiving me decades earlier. I certainly hoped so. I wouldn’t want to think I had preyed on her mind for such a long time. Well, I did, but that was just a selfish part of me; one of those I’d have hoped to lose and relearn better in a further life.
“So, what do you think of the allforest’s new home?” Relyan asked, waving an arm over the view.
“It’s unbelievable – but how? This light, it’s just like Calia. But she’s gone, I saw her destroyed. I’ve seen her destroyed in the sky.”
“You’ll like this, Jenn,” she said with a wicked smile, “when Calia was destroyed, she rained down on the land for years. Chunks of moon, from grains of sand to vast city sized meteors burned through the atmosphere. Most burned up, but a few huge portions survived. One of those enormous hunks of Calia smashed down in the sea, specifically the shallows of the Hadycede sea.”
That’s Calia?”
“It’s Calia, all right. We tracked it – along with a thousand other falling stars – but the alltrees had already found it. They began excavating this chamber sixty years ago, exposing the underside of Calia’s child – that’s what we’ve ended up calling the rock – and basking in her light at night. The root systems are incredible, if you’re into that sort of thing. Oh, and they adapted to brine almost instantly. And now, watch it thrive.”
I gazed up, in even greater wonderment than I had before, at the vast crystalline piece of the moon, mortared in place by the roots, strong enough to keep the sea itself from crashing down.
“They can’t all have grown in that time,” I said, “those in the centre are mature trees.”
“They brought themselves here. As far as I can tell, they dragged themselves underground and hauled themselves into the cave. There’s nothing they won’t do to survive. They are perfect. But then, you already know that, don’t you Jenn?”
“Why do people keep thinking I know something special?”
“Because you are. Or you were. I knew I shouldn’t have gotten involved with you, but I couldn’t help it. We’d been lost in shettling for centuries before I stopped. You kept on, endlessly involved with that circle you’d created. I never truly understood what you wanted to get out of it – it seemed like penance for something you thought you’d done. But then you turned up, living next door. I couldn’t help myself, it was like we were getting a second chance.”
“I – I do remember you. From before…”
“Don’t you remember yet? The alltrees put you back together for a reason. You made them – you’re the reason any of us here.”

After the Dark – Part 17 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

I staggered on the brink of the allforest. The vast terrarium forest spun before me, a whirling vision of red and green foliage below and the glowing sky above. I put a hand out – reaching for Relyan – but slipped, and fell to the ground. The view alone was dizzying: a forest had reassembled itself underground – undersea evenits desire to survive beyond anything I’d ever imagined. It was an extraordinary organism, capable not just of building itself a new home, but of granting us perpetual life and protection.
Relyan’s words, “you made them”, echoed through my head, as if it were a vast enclosure, poorly occupied, with those words slaloming across whatever mind I had left in there, knocking loose thoughts, emotions and memories I’d been unable to connect, now crashing together in an avalanche of recollection. No wonder I couldn’t keep my feet. The scent of the forest grounded me, the sight of Calia’s child above enchanted me.
And it began to come back.
“I– I remember coming here,” I said, as much to myself as to Relyan, “we were exiled…”
“Heretics. Abominations,” Relyan added, carving into my memory, “we fled. We had to go somewhere. We had to save your experiment.”
“We did it, didn’t we? We built the alltree,” I said, wonderingly, “I can barely link the lab work to– to this.”
“We?” Relyan smiled, sat down next next to me. She stretched an arm around my shoulder, and leaned in to me, “no Jenn, the alltrees were always yours.”
We sat together on the edge. Thick roots flowed up behind us. I could feel the fierce thrum of power running through them. Under our feet the allforest spread out. The secondary leaves of the alltrees were displayed, spread to their fullest extent. Thick fleshy red leaves, shivering under the moonlight that Talens blasted through Calia’s child. They looked more like flensed meat than plant. Slick and shiny, thick with structures attuned for extracting every part of the light spectrum and converting them into sugars and energy. The more I focused on the trees, the more it flooded back.
The original plant sample had been a humble thing, a common tree in a distant and unloved country. Unremarked upon by science, or even the more obsessive botanists. It was more likely to be blown into splinters by the civil wars that raged through the poverty-stricken region for centuries than transplanted into a hothouse. It was a lucky find. A friend – Aer – had travelled through the area as part of an international hospital mission. He had happened spot it in a bazaar, and fancied the leaves were an unusual colour. He produced it at my birthday party, complete with a shiny blue bow. Any new plant was always a delight, something else to strain the bulging greenhouses. And of course, there it sat for weeks, until I noticed it was far from the diminutive seedling it had been. It had cracked the plastic pot I’d gently placed it in, and was struggling with the shelf it sat beneath. Its growth was much faster than one would expect of a little deciduous sample. Intrigued, I discovered it was additionally photosynthesising, if weakly, at night as well as day, topping itself up to gain a fractional advantage over its neighbours.
I’d been doubly lucky to acquire a sample, as the whole region was annihilated just a few months later as the civil dispute turned nuclear. Everyone lost. That was widely reported as if it were the turning point in international relations, but everyone known it was brewing for decades. The early space colonies had long declared independence, and abandoned us. Out there, new cultures and traditions were being explored and tested, free of the hideous past that so consumed our home planet. Since there was no practical way to lift the billions of people that overcrowded and sickened our world, we were stuck there. To fester, and destroy each other. New colonies were being formed – desperate offshoots of home – some under strict military control, others representing the factions that spawned them on their brave new worlds. They rose and fell in concert with the nations they had sprung from.
We saw an opportunity to escape from the nuclear era of war that was about to envelop our world. We were well placed to do so: highly privileged, wealthy, connected; a few dozen reasonable scientists, engineers, academics, and a handful of deeply resourceful business people with access to funds and technologies denied to most. We made it our business to join the next colony mission – wherever it was. Our skills were prized assets, and our willingness to go made us appealing. That we could fund our tickets made us perfect. I took my botanical samples with me.
A dozen faster than light hops brought our colony ship into orbit around a world that superficially resembled home: green and blue, albeit with two suns, and a day twice the length we were used to. Debarkation took weeks, and in those weeks we began to learn what phase one of our plan to escape had brought us.
The colony was small, and overwhelmed by the challenges of hacking a new life out in an environment at best indifferent, and at worst, violently opposed to our presence. It had been named “Tellgrim’s World” after the exploratory vessel that discovered it. The world orbited a binary star, each blasting varying frequencies and intensities of light at us, bathing us in radiation that could strip the skin from your bones. We later learned that every member of the exploratory expedition had died within weeks of leaving the planet. The only parts of their report considered germane were that the atmosphere was “breathable”, the gravity “close-enough”, and the life was carbon-based. This made it suitable. Of course, we didn’t know any of that until we arrived. If we might have called life on our home world “hungry”, that of Tellgrim’s World was “rapacious”, hideously aggressive to deal with its environment, and capable of processing energies that our home world never encountered. Horizontal gene transfer occurred at a frightening rate, mutations were frequent and increasingly dramatic, harrowing the colony population. As a consequence we had to tighten our control of our environment, sealing ourselves away  to minimise direct interaction with the microbial wonderland of our new world.
We made it our own, in so far as living inside a series of hermetically sealed domes which native life was doing its best to grind through with organic acids and microbial chisels could be considered a home. Research and development kept us alive in a way that frontier economics would normally have failed to do. Tesh, Maina and Miqual staged the coup early on. It was brutal, but quick. They ended the colony’s system of governance as a spinoff from the homeworld, and allowed the engineers among us free rein to enable our survival. The second phase of our plan had been accomplished: independence.
Unsurprisingly, we turned to our various disciplines for answers. All solutions were considered to engage with our environment, from mechanical solutions to genetic engineering. We did good work, splicing and splinting our way through our original biosphere and into the native flora and fauna. We made some leaps quickly. My little sapling, with its own keen survival instincts, outlived most of the other plants we tested, and it became the platform for a wide range of technologies. With a “few” tweaks it became the basis for solar power generation. Once Tereis’s team had cracked the conversion back into electricity for general use, we plastered our domes with the trees. They naturally came under assault from the native species, and had to be toughened up, weaponised to protect themselves – and us – and carve out a niche for survival. We did a pretty good job.
Our colony was intermittently in contact with the homeworld. The regime change made no difference – supplies still rarely arrived – we’d learned early not to rely on them, since we’d already have been dead many times over. When we could make contact, the news from home was appalling. Whatever blighted us on Tellgrim’s World was at least not of our own doing. All home had learned from us was that we were just barely surviving. I think we were written off as another nightmare planet which had at least soaked up some of the excess population, and at best, given them somewhere different to die. Bizarrely, that meant we were more likely to receive odd few hundreds of fresh colonists every few years, who were thrilled to have escaped the intensifying wars and deprivation of home. We had to explain that this might not be the paradise they were hoping for…
We’d been investing more time in research and development than even home would have applied to its obsessive weapons technology. The results were startling. There proved to be a threshold that could be reached with the indigenous equivalent of DNA at which we could code in either, using both vast dictionaries to create new life, and reinvent the old. At about the same time that we had to infect our population with a retro-virus that would enable us to resist the most violent of the local microorganisms, we discovered we had become sterile. It was a creeping process, and had been missed because Tellgrim’s World was, frankly, too awful to conceive of bringing a baby into. Thinking of the havoc the indigenous lifeforms would wreak with embryonic development had given us nightmares for years. We waited so long that when we tried to have children, it was no longer possible.
It was a point at which our colony could have crumbled – what was the point of escaping the homeworld and spreading into the galaxy if we couldn’t… spread. We lost our share of colonists to suicide, by their own hand, or by simply leaving the “safe” zones we occupied. I couldn’t blame them. If it weren’t for our still tight-knit group at the core of both governance and research, I could have imagined joining them. I even thought about what I would do. Leaving it to Tellgrim’s World would be too painful and unpredictable – there were a million solutions closer to home and in the labs. We needed a reason to live. Something to make it all worthwhile. Or at least to make us live longer. Our horrific new biosphere provided. Given the creatures and plants we had to design systems to protect us from, it was hardly surprising that some of them were virtually immortal. Like some coelenterate species on our homeworld, there were insect and crustaceous analogues that rejuvenated themselves at various periods in their lifecycles. There were also those that could metamorphose their bodies entirely. We took from both, finding tools to endlessly replenish our telomeres, regenerate stem cells, purge and flush the faded and old, and rebuild it anew.
We gave ourselves time, time to reverse the sterility, or find another solution. Cloning was possible, and we had no difficulty with in vitro processes, but what we lacked were ex vitro solutions. Wombs proved to be a hard problem. That little tree Aer had found had been the thing I turned back to whenever we couldn’t find a way forward. It had become a sort of mascot, as well as the progenitor of the swathe of technology we used to keep ourselves alive. While we had been equipping the tree with weapons to fight for their corner of the jungle, we had spliced in prehensile capabilities from plant and animal analogues, as well as the biotech interfaces for power generation. It didn’t seem like a gigantic leap to build our rejuvenation techniques into this already fertile organism. It no longer resembled the ambitious little sapling, instead it was able to swiftly become large, aggressive and mobile. We still called it a plant for its history, and in affection. Adding the ability to compute and edit genetic code required something more complex though – it needed more power. I came up with the idea of networking them. The genesis for the idea had been in the power processing, where we’d allowed them to be connected to inverters and the rest of the grid, we’d encouraged them to tolerate each others’ root networks. When properly combined they became a hugely powerful network.
Technology must be tested, and in an environment like Tellgrim’s World, the test was often hard, and failures were usually fatal. Nonetheless, we were desperate. The last news from home spoke of catastrophic wars breaking out, and the effective collapse of key climatic controls. It seemed unlikely that we would hear from them again. That only increased our desperation. Depression was rife; the horror that had overwhelmed our homeworld seemed to reach out psychically, across the void of space. To know that your people are exterminating themselves, and know that you may represent one of the few remaining footholds of the species, and one for whom “thriving” might be debatable… it weighed heavily on us all. We sought volunteers, and were surprised by the number of hands that were raised. I was surprised to find my own among them.
We submitted ten men and women to the alltree, as we’d come to call the united organism. The alltrees had linked up around our primary, secondary and tertiary habitats, increasing exponentially the energy resource they captured for us, as well as the complexity of their internal organic circuitry. We placed the ten volunteers into root-spun pods, from which the finest extrusions of the alltree could access every part of their bodies. With an extraordinary draw of energy – such that our habitats’ power flickered and crashed repeatedly, fresher leaves and branches of the alltrees spontaneously combusted – the network hummed into life, and action. It worked. Eight of the volunteers woke up again, fresh and breezy; the other two never did, and the alltrees refused to let them go, instead dissolving their bodies into the alltree network. Under analysis, the volunteers had been returned to a rough physical age of seventeen, at an eighty percent success rate it all looked pretty good. Then we discovered they had forgotten who they were.
They experienced severe retrograde amnesia, losing all trace of who those around them were and what they had done in their lives. Simultaneously they manifested striking source amnesia symptoms, where practical knowledge was largely retained, but the memory of acquiring it was eradicated. Their bodies were reborn, and so were their minds. It hadn’t been what we were looking for, but it was something. It was different, and it was hope. That was what we really needed, and our social scientists began figuring out how we could use it. We realised we would have to re-centre our society around it – around a concept of rebirth, a wonderfully optimistic and positive culture.
Then the homeworld arrived. With them came the inevitable news that our home planet had been rendered uninhabitable by war, pestilence and uncontrollable weather systems. Billions had been abandoned there by the rich elite who had fled, and now dwelled in the colony ships surrounding Tellgrim’s World. All of the other colonies had gone dark, or had actively repulsed these final refugees from home. They had come to us in desperation – we had the only halfway habitable world within their limited reach and resources. By now, our colony was strong. We had reached accommodations of a sort with our environment, tamed it by embracing it, with a violent passion.
After some debate, we opened our world to the colony ships, but they recoiled in horror. Not just at the environment we had tamed, but at how we had done it. They labelled us heretics, called us abominations, and threatened to raze our colony to make room for their own. I was shocked, but sadly not surprised that they were prepared to expend their remaining military resources in an invasion.
We responded in kind. We still had shuttles, we still had our colony ship in orbit. And we had biological weapons that our homeworld were unprepared for – based on lifeforms they had never even heard of. We seeded their flagship with spore-foxes lifted directly from outside our compounds, and in the ensuing chaos, we brought our colony ship down to the surface. It was a risk, but the shuttles were too small and too few to effect the exodus we had in mind. We filled the colony ship with as many of our people as wished to leave with us. Few remained. Everything that could be dismantled went aboard, including our biological creations. We took our allforest, who literally walked aboard, dragging vast quantities of earth with them to bed down inside the enormous holds.
And we escaped.

After the Dark – Part 18 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

We maintained a vicious assault on the homeworld’s colony ships and frigates. Rumala and Eleran adapted our escape pods into biological weapons, filled with the monsters we’d bred or borrowed from Tellgrim’s World. We fired them directly into the ships that threatened us, until we had cleared enough space for our colony ship to regain orbit, and move far enough from the planet to initiate faster than light hops. We left behind the ragged foundations of our society, and wished our former neighbours the best of luck.
Unlike the homeworld, who had thought they could take, or destroy what we had created, we didn’t know where we were going. The other colonies had fallen, or turned aggressive. We had no desire for further conflict. It was one of the reasons we had left home to begin with, and while it was dismaying to find that it had followed us out across the stars, the formation of our new society had required a certain toughness and ethical flexibility. Our survival had depended on it. As survival always does. Perhaps we were just prepared to go that little bit further than those we left behind. So we struck out on our own. Our first priority was distance from Tellgrim’s World. The wounds we had inflicted on their ships as we departed were significant, but not disabling. We had sought escape, not destruction. As much as I resented them for their threats and intolerance, the idea of eliminating one of the few surviving pockets of our species was anathema. There was every chance they would pursue us, if they thought we had something worth taking; we had not left them much. We had only escaped by surprising them with our novel armaments and willingness to use them. We were vastly outnumbered and outgunned.
We made as many hops as we could, randomly skipping across the galaxy, aiming for both distance and irrationality. We knew we could survive for a time on the colony ship. The developments we had made with the alltrees allowed us to adapt them to soak up the cosmic radiation, and funnel it into energy for our flight and more hops that we’d otherwise have managed. Time, as ever, was the most valuable resource. It meant we didn’t have to pick any old temperate world. We could hold out for something better.
While we travelled we began to implement our new rejuvenation technology. It proved timely. Our colony had been traumatised too many times: only a handful of Tellgrim’s World’s original colonists had survived to this point and they had truly lived through horror before we had joined them. Not that life had been easy since then either – constant sickness, losses, an appalling mortality rate had besieged the colony for the decades since we arrived. But we had gradually evened the playing field. The constant trauma, sterilisation, and then being threatened by our home were too much. The memory loss side effect of rejuvenation was considered acceptable by the first wave to undergo ‘shettling’, as it came to be known. The allforest continued to flourish in the holds of the colony ship, penetrating the hull and spreading their radiation-hardened branches outside, absorbing the constant barrage of radiation. Their network was intact, and ready to rejuvenate as many as we could place in their pods. We supported those who had lost their memories in natural-feeling family groups, overseen by those with some insight into psychology and social science, but more importantly by those of us who could still muster empathy and sympathy. Memories of what we had done to the would-be invaders, and the terrors of Tellgrim’s World were deemed worth escaping. And so the second wave were shettled.
We then had two generations of our population who had no recollection of either the homeworld, Tellgrim’s World, or living anywhere other than in deep space. This began to present us with a problem: we could not afford to lose all grasp on who we were, or had been. Options were needed, and growing old and dying wasn’t on the list. It was imperative that we resolve the memory loss. We needed to find a way to be made young without losing sight of our current purpose: finding a new home. The alltrees were already functioning as a super-computer, unlike any that our civilisation had created until that point. We did the obvious thing, and started talking to them.
I’d had my suspicions about the network since two of our volunteers had failed to awaken after the first experimental shettling. Their bodies were young, and intact, and while a trace of mental activity had kept those bodies ticking over, there was truly no one home. Relyan and I encouraged the growth of a neural network that I could plug directly into my brain. The alltrees were already penetrating all parts of the human body to flush cells and reset clocks, but we had never tried to communicate directly with them. The alltrees were so far beyond ordinary plants or animals.  When we initiated connection, I felt two conflicting emotions: instant panic, which wrestled with an intimate sense of joy. With my eyes closed, and the impossibly fine roots had drilled their way into my brain, I found that I stood beneath an infinite canopy of darkness, lit by fractal shards of electricity that arced upwards, springing between unseen trunks and branches. It extended in all directions. I felt lost, but then, out of the darkness grew a pulsating cloud of lights. It stretched and warped, until it took on the rough proportions of a human. It smiled, and in finding expression, flesh flowed over its structure of lights. Then it split in two. I recognised them immediately: they were the two failures, absorbed into the allforest. The alltrees were a step ahead of us: in consuming two minds and replicating them within their network they had leaped straight into sentience in their own right. It was a strange vastness, unlike how I felt within my own mind, but they were so pleased. It was incredibly gratifying to be greeted and welcomed by my own creation.
Now that we were able to communicate with the allforest, Relyan and I spent days immersed in the internal reality the alltree network had produced. We soon discovered that the memories removed during shettling were relished by the network mind. Not quite entertainment, not quite education – the wealth of memory, sensation and emotion was something holy to the allforest. That was the closest notion we could get. It viewed itself as a repository, and conduit for life. That made some sense, since we had originally developed them to process power for us. We had come to depend on them, and now that they understood how that relationship had come about they desired only to enhance, and deepen that association. We were attaining a form of symbiosis beyond that anything we had aimed for. The allforest would keep any memories it was given freely, but they would listen to the minds they embraced. If the memories were not handed over, then the allforest would rejuvenate the individual all the same. There was no shortage of memory to revel in. It was not so much the novelty of existence that they appreciated, but its gift. Our colonists could now choose whether to relinquish their memories, or simply live on, looking forward to the next part of our journey.
With a colony ship now largely powered by, and occupied by an enormous sentient forest, we were able to extend our journey significantly. Now we would be able to survive, and our memories would persist. We passed through many solar systems and discarded dozens of planets. Sometimes we would find the remnants of a colony. When we could, we offered them a simple choice: come with us and embrace shettling, or remain in your failing colony. Around half would choose to join us. We bid the others luck, and conveyed what ill news we had of home. Sometimes the rest of them would then decide to join us. When they did, we added to our fleet. Their memory erasure was, we felt, necessary, so that they could be free of what had come before.
The series of hops eventually brought our little convoy to a system that had been explored and colonised very early in our species’ spacefaring era. We saw little evidence of their survival, and from the scant records we had, their last communication was nearly a thousand years previously. As a system, it had definite potential. The former colony world should have been ideal – from orbit it looked suitable for life, but we saw nothing on the surface. Our attention was drawn by its neighbour, which had a unique arrangement of lunar bodies. The closest and smaller moon had a crystalline structure, presumably formed from a catastrophic gas planet event, and somehow became trapped in orbit beneath its twin. The outer moon radiated light fiercely, almost as if it were a tiny sun in a late stage of its life cycle. A fascinating oddity, which when in alignment, pounded the planet with a focused energy so intense that the indigenous plants cowered from the light; their cycle was one of escape during the night, hiding below ground and emerging again during the day. Some of them had adapted nocturnal photosynthesis, but none had managed to thrive. We thought we could do better.
We established our new colony confidently, and quickly. We helped the alltrees adapt, but by that point, the allforest was intelligent enough to direct its own evolution, only occasionally requiring our support. They spread fiercely, aggressively fighting off the local species. It was both satisfying, and a little alarming how quickly they adapted. Our fortunes were now bound with theirs.
 
I rested my head on top of Relyan’s, breathing in the rich earth and briny scents of the forest. There were many thoughts washing back and forth inside my head, but some gap in my heart had been closed – I knew who I was again. With that knowledge came a better grasp of what must have happened since.
“They found us, then,” I said.
“I’m afraid so, and as you’ve seen, they made their presence known.”
“And since then? I was told that it’s been sixty-four years since they destroyed Calia. What have they been doing?”
“Subversion, destruction. What you would expect, I suppose,” Relyan sighed, “we gave up too much control in shettling. We thought it wouldn’t matter – we travelled so far to escape them. But our society was already beginning to fragment–“
“I heard,” I interrupted, “more and more choosing to rejuvenate without shettling.”
“We had outgrown the need. I had. But of course, we couldn’t remember what had come before the last time we’d shettled. We created a world full of people who didn’t know how they got here.”
“But a better world!”
“Yes, Jenn. A better world than the one we left. I didn’t even understand that until the allforest came for me. The night Calia was destroyed, it ripped my house apart to get to me – scared the life out of me when it wrapped a pod around me. I’d forgotten who I was too. I’d forgotten what it was like to commune with them, how… wonderful it is, what we did. What you did. For all of us.”
“Did – did the allforest save the others? The rest of the circle?” I hardly wanted to ask, fearing the answer. I saw it in Relyan’s face before she spoke; I already knew it in my heart.
“No. I’m sorry. The strike was tactical. The allforest tried, but it was in agony. They got you, and only you.”
I fought through the tears that followed.
“Miqual.”
“Betrayed us. The homeworld remnants made contact with the southern continent. They’d made their choice to reject the allforest long ago. But they’d seemed content. Until the homeworld offered them what we never got around to fixing: children.”
I’d almost forgotten there was another way than shettling and rebirth.
She continued, “They made Miqual some offer he couldn’t turn down. From what little of the archives remained, it seems that he had been rejuvenating instead of shettling, for some time.”
That betrayal of trust bit far deeper than learning he had sold us out, “He pretended?” Appalling. Adult among the rest of us – I choked down the thoughts and images of intimacy with him – focused on now.
“He betrayed the whole circle. If I hadn’t left you… I’d have been there, when he led them to you all, and let them die.”
I felt like my skin was on fire, cinders beneath it burning into my muscles and tendons. I could not grasp a more complete treachery. I could barely speak, barely breathe – we had escaped the hell of our homeworld, and Tellgrim’s World, and all to be murdered, ignorant of all we had accomplished. We would be avenged.
“The allforest is ready,” Relyan said, “we just needed for you to be healed.”
“They didn’t do a great job,” I muttered, holding out my hands for her inspection, “I guess the damage was just too extensive.”
“It was, but that’s not what those scars are. The allforest has been busy, and it needed to make some changes to you, I’m afraid.”
A part of me wanted to speak out, but… “I– suppose they’ve got that right. They’ve come a long way from that little seedling Aer gave me.”
“You know he nicked that massive ribbon bow from my present for you? It looked lovely wrapped around the bottle of Salyiian whiskey. He was so disorganised.”
“That’s ridiculous,” but she’d elicited a laugh from me. A much needed giggle, half-hysterical, saturated with grief and relief.
When the tremors ended and the tears dried, Relyan pulled me to my feet.
“Come on, let’s see what the allforest has for us.”

After the Dark – Part 19 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

Hand in hand, we descended into the allforest. The slope was steep, and we had to stagger between tree trunks, catching each other as we slipped. The scent of the forest was enchanting, a thick blend of rich soil, iron and the faintest hint of caramel, curling down from the frond-edged leaves that blotted out the view above. In my heart, I felt a freedom I hadn’t known in so long. The shettling had given me a clean slate to scrawl on every time I went back under the earth, but I’d been writing the same story, the same life, or close enough each time. I had been seeking them out, this communion with the forest in every moonlit walk, and in working outside the city with the alltrees. I’d never quite found what I’d been looking for, because I hadn’t understood our connection. I’d been scrubbing the context free from my mind, leaving only the pattern of our relationship.
Now I held every step of their growth in my mind. Each trunk I rested against, each branch I caught, they all told me a story of the allforest. The smoothness of their bark was a testament to how we’d made them impervious to Tellgrim’s World’s vicious life. But how they had built upon the genetic changes we’d wrought upon them! In the thousand years since we embraced shettling, the forest had refined everything we had done. What we’d wrought in furthering our own survival, the allforest had taken ownership of itself, taken the fate of their species into their own hands. The loss of Calia was a greater blow to them than it was to us. For centuries they had relied on manna from the night-time heavens. Losing that source of energy must have been harrowing, and yet they had adapted again – travelled from across the continent to congregate here. I had no doubt that other conclaves of the trees would exist, leveraging whatever local resources they could find. We had built survivors, ones who had stepped far beyond natural selection; their evolution was by choice.
For all that I was proud of the alltrees, I was almost afraid to see what Relyan was leading me to. When the allforest had accepted our minds and leapt into sentience, they did so based on our memories, thoughts and feelings. In some respects they were as human as we were, but vastly more capable. The intruders from the homeworld had threatened us, but they had no idea that the alltrees were smarter than they were. How could they have imagined that the plants of this world would be the ones to plot revenge. In our sheltered existence, the allforest had become the foundation of our culture – we would not be alive without them, and they would never have reached this place without us – we were two species intricately entwined. Attack one, and you attack both. The allforest had waited, bided their time until they could ensure the presence of their creators. Creators? Too possessive a term, now. Initiators, genesists, first friends…?
We were soon swallowed by the deep red foliage, shafts of moonlight dancing around our feet as the faint tide dragged at the sea between Talens and Calia’s child. Lower branches, primarily for turning diurnal leaves to sunlight, brushed against us, twisted to stroke our arms and shoulders as we walked past. Even the juveniles we passed splayed out their thorned defences in acknowledgment of us. It was an eerie experience. For all that I knew these trees, they had come a long way since we had left Tellgrim’s World, and still further since we had lived under the twin moons. These were not quite my plants any more, they were friends I had not seen for a long time, but with whom that natural sense of comfort settled gradually, familiarly. As we passed yet further into the heart of the subterranean forest, the trees were older, thick in trunk and branch, deeply lined. Mighty organisms, which had animated themselves and become the centre of this network. The ground under our feet would hold thousands of miles of roots, interlaced in a million ways, and stretching out for hundreds more miles in every direction. They had been able to reach for me in the mines and bring me here. They were so much more than I’d ever hoped.
“They brought me here after they had excavated Calia’s child,” said Relyan abruptly. We’d walked hand in hand in silence for an hour or more, lost in the sights and feel of the allforest. “watching them twist up out of the ground was incredible. Like a seedling thrusting up, but as if it had always been mature. They came slowly at first, but each one extended and deepened the network, passing nourishment down the system. At the end they were popping up out of the earth, barely held down by the others. So eager for the light. Hungry children.”
“Where are we going, Relyan?”
“You’ll know when we get there, I promise.”
We kept on, until we reached a clearing, just like that of shettling – a wide ring of seven ancient alltrees. Half of them were terribly scarred, charred wood had given way to fresh growth beneath, but the shape of fire was carved on them. Their branches twisted, gnarled around the wounds they had received. The others were fresh-barked, strong and steady. Their branches wove around and into their damaged fellows, supporting critically weakened boughs.
“I know these trees,” they were the trees that had snatched me away from the fire of the End, risked everything to save me. “Thank you,” I said, not knowing if they could hear me – by now, who knew?
A deep creaking vibrated through the ground, which shook – particles of soil, sand and stone bouncing in place – and parted. Another deep hole opened before us. It seemed I was doomed to be faced with portals into the darkness. The pit was lined with thick roots, overlaid with a web of their finer fellows, like the vascular system of the earth laid bare. This time, though, I had no need to descend, or throw myself into the hole. Instead a column emerged from its centre. It was a trunk with no branches, no twigs or leaves. Just a smooth, unbroken shaft of wood rising out of the ground. Its deep brown, near black hue was marred by a sprawling grid of vivid scarlet and white lines, as if some disease had ravaged it. They glowed faintly, the barest hint of colour flowing around the column.
“This is for us,” I said, no question needed.
“Oh yes,” Relyan replied, “place your hand here.”
She took my free hand and laid it on the almost frictionless bark. The webwork of scars that ran over my skin lit up in sympathy, the coloured pulse from the tree carried along into my arm. It bled heat under my skin, and with it a wave of comfort passed through me like a wave of goosebumps. The prickled remnants of my hair stiffened, becoming points of heat across my scalp. I gasped, would have fallen to my knees if it weren’t for Relyan propping me up. I couldn’t take my hand away from the trunk. The pattern of weals had merged with the gridwork that laced the tree. Relyan smiled, laid her other hand against the trunk, and I watched as the dark tone of the wood beneath the pattern leached into her skin, blending her dark brown into near black. Her tattoos flashed, the colour of sap, followed by the deep red of nocturnal leaves, a pulsating beacon. Slowly the flow of colour through my scars passed back into the trunk, travelled along her tattoos and back into my scars through our joined hands. We were one with the allforest, part of its network, just a small offshoot of its mighty whole. The trunk we touched began to deform, its grain warping outwards, enveloping first our outstretched hands, then our arms, drawing us into the shoulder. Our eyes met as the grain slid over our faces, absorbing us into the tree.
 
Cool darkness spread over the heavens. A stippling of flashing lights delineated the shape of branches, infinitely far overhead, and outlined the vertical slashes of the allforest. Relyan and I stood, still hand in hand, in the allforest’s mind, gazing up at the internal world it had created. To describe it as “infinite” felt almost facile – it had felt infinite when we first made contact, an age ago upon the colony ship – now that infinity seemed even vaster, if not in sheer size, then in the intricate complexity of it. While I could at first perceive only the outlines of the trees, the longer we waited the more became apparent. Leaves and the texture of bark appeared in time with the beating of our hearts, glowing incandescently with the scent of blood. Under our feet the earth was transparent, and it writhed with the billions of networked connections the allforest had fostered. Soon enough we were in the centre of a wild fountain of energy, sketched out in every colour imaginable against the sheer black of the void.
Up in the charcoal and chalk canopy a fizzing cloud of sparkling colour manifested, and slowly descended towards us, sparking erratically, arcs of St Elmo’s fire raking the space between it and the trees, and the ground. As it reached our level it drew apart, pulling into six vaguely human shapes. Even as they became discrete I recognised them: my circle – I squeezed Relyan’s hand – our circle. The trees had been unable to save them, but they had captured what they could. Our friends were half-formed shadows of people, dotted and cross-hatched figures of blue sparks. They were terribly incomplete – voids in their bodies presumably representing what the allforest could not recover – but each had enough form to give us an impression of who they once were. Tesh and Tereis stood together, their outlines fizzling into each other. They seemed dimly aware that we were there, heads angled towards us. Aer and Rumala, united in death if not before – Aer’s height, and Rumala’s distinctive stance picked them out. Maina, every lock of her hair a cascade of indigo splinters. And Eleran, portrayed as a waterfall of shimmering blue, highlighting just one side of her body.
Relyan and I stepped towards them, and they closed around us. They pressed closer and closer until we could feel their blue shards of energy splashing against our skin like hot, sharp water. Relyan and I flung our arms open wide to embrace them, and they came on then, crashing over us in a fiery burst of static which burned cold and true. It was the last we would see of them, but in that burst of static we had been touched by the collected memories of our friends that the allforest had amassed over a thousand years of shettling. Each memory burst inside me like a tiny bubble, filled with happiness, sorrow, jealousy, anger, relief, love and fascination. I shuddered, as if hit by a sudden chill. The bubbles of memory fell through my skin, I could not contain more than the sense of their presence, no matter how much I wanted to.  And then they were gone, but for the faintest shadow of colour, falling into the twisting darkness beneath us.
The allforest left us in peace for a while. Unmeasurable time, marked only by the glimmering outlines of the forest’s mind. The memory of our friends’ memories strobed between us, through Relyan’s tattoos and my scars, reinforcing who we were, who we had been, and what we had lost. The allforest was keen to remind us of the stakes, and of our place in their history, and that we had a place in their future. Somehow, they judged that we had waited long enough. Two more human forms emerged from nothing, that same blue static expanding to fill their limbs. We knew these two of old: our failures. I didn’t remember their names, but I knew the forest did. Whether they still counted as individuals I couldn’t know. Even on the colony ship they had become avatars for the allforest, where their personality and memories now dwelled in this abyssal forest, I had no idea.
“Welcome home, father and mother,” they said in unison.
“It’s good to be home,” I said, “I have missed you.”
“We never left you, and you have always been here,” they replied.
A thousand more human figures burst into life all around us, flickering through a thousand more actions. My lives. A reminder that they had held onto it all for me, and still did, even though they had returned it all to my mind. They sparked away again.
“We are betrayed,” I said, “and it’s time for us to strike back.”
The luminous forest focused down into a single tree, as if all the world had been compressed into one perfect example of the species, limned in silver and crimson.
“We have been preparing,” the two sparkling figures said, “we are ready.”
Relyan and I glanced at each other. We smiled. It was good to be myself again.

After the Dark – Part 20 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

The sparkling forest faded around us, and I felt the woodgrain sliding across my skin, releasing us from the interface pillar. We were no longer in the underground forest with Calia’s child set into the roof. This was a much darker realm. The faint blue glow that had greeted me after the allforest extracted me from the mine was all around us. It faded to black after some uncountable distance. The roof was just feet above us, a thick carpet of writhing roots.
I disentangled my hand from Relyan’s and unzipped my jacket. Still folded up and crammed in my inner pocket was the archive file with my name and number on it. I withdrew it and folded it backwards to work out most of the crease.
“I’d forgotten why we’d established the archive in the first place,” I said. “We needed some way to keep track of who we had been.”
“Just discarding our pasts didn’t feel right – you could see it with the second wave of shettles. The ritual of putting their affairs in order gave them a psychological advantage. It’s one of the ways that the alltrees knew if you were ready to start again – knowing that you’d finished something properly.”
I opened up the folder, shaking the dirt out of it. Written records offer a different kind of memory to that we keep in our minds. Memories are regenerated whenever we access them, sharpened by how we feel when we recall them – memories of memories of memories. The written word holds its shape in a way the brain never can. The first page held a potted account of who I was first – who I was again, sort of – a history that I vaguely remembered writing myself, but laced with the dates and places that had faded. At the foot of the page was a signed declaration:
I wish to forget who I am. I undergo shettling willingly, I relinquish my place in the past. I wish to be reborn anew, to escape the death of our homeworld, to strive for a better future.
All of our archive files began the same way, when we submitted ourselves to our creations. Our circle had been among the last to do so. We had established the archive to protect our history, from ourselves, and so that it would be there if we ever needed it again.
“And all that time, I never realised the allforest was doing the same.”
“No,” Relyan agreed, “it had never occurred to me that they would be able to return those memories to us. It seemed like a fair enough exchange – one life for another.”
After the first page, the file was a list of the lives I’d lived, detailing shettling dates, according to a calendar largely ignored by everyone but for those who returned to the archives. Endless bulleted lists of names, places, people I had been. That and the catalogue of objects I’d chosen to secrete in the earth. All the things I’d thought were precious during each life – a seemingly endless parade of trinkets, books, tokens, letters, favourite clothes… so much junk. I began to realise how self-indulgent we had become. Shettling had seemed like such a good idea, but it had left us unprepared, unready to deal with a threat like the one that had arrived. All of our knowledge was bound in little folders like these. But the archive had been destroyed, and all that history that we had carefully collated for our people, stored for a possible future, was gone with it. But the allforest had kept it for us. Kept us safe. Now it needed our help.
The allforest had reminded me of who I had been, and with it, all that I had lost. My circle: gone, but for Relyan, and Miqual – who was an agent of our enemy; the allforest: mutilated, and robbed of its moon; our people: under siege from unseen enemies. It was time that we challenged these intruders.
We didn’t know what state they might be in. When we left them over a thousand years ago in orbit around Tellgrim’s World, they were already weary. The planet we abandoned for them was hardly a paradise, and we’d taken all that had made it bearable with us. The idea that they had survived, and nursed such grievance against us that they would chase us across the galaxy gave me some pause. For all we knew they had spent a millennium building their strength. We needed more information – the disposition of their fleet, their numbers, their weaponry. How far had they infiltrated the southern continent? Why had they stopped after their initial attack?
“We need to go to Brisingham,” I said, “we need to make contact with our colony ship.”
When we arrived, and moved our population to the surface, we had left most of our convoy in space. A thousand years suffering the harshness of vacuum would have done them no good, but we had hidden them well, tucked into crevasses on Talens where they had some protection, and should have been invisible to detection. We had used shuttles to bring us down, and stored those better. One was buried under the archive, another was taken deep into the southern continent for safekeeping. For them to have found us, some part of our little fleet must have been active. Our hopping route had been so haphazard no one could simply have followed us. They had been called here.
“There’s not much left, not above the surface anyway,” Relyan reminded me, “the initial strike was followed by a string of tactical shots which destroyed everything really useful. The power plants and research institutes went first, followed by the archive, and the denser nexuses of the alltrees. We may not be able to get to the shuttle.”
“We need to try – I don’t hold out much hope of getting to the southern continent. And even if we did, I doubt we’ll find the shuttle.”
“Brisingham is closer, anyway,” Relyan affirmed, “I’m not sure that the allforest has any way of reaching across the ocean.”
I was about to reply, but something about the shapes in the roots above us clicked into place in my mind, and stopped the words from forming. This wasn’t just the place I’d been taken to from the mine, I’d been here before that. I turned to look at Relyan. She gave nothing away, just stood there with her arms loosely crossed. I walked further into the gloom, and heard the faint crunch of her feet following me. The ceiling was not an even mass of roots. In regular places, their pattern concealed larger bulges and bumps. Wonderingly, I reached out a hand to stroke the fine tendrils. I was startled when the mass I’d touched began to unravel, lowering a webbed mass out of the roof. Dimly, I grasped what it was showing me. It was a person, fully wrapped in a cradle of roots.
“They’re still shettling,” I half-whispered. “Hevalan said no one else had come back from the allforest – he didn’t say that people had still been going in.”
Relyan smiled faintly.
“The allforest has been collecting them,” she said. “It took anyone who could reach an alltree, drew them under and gathered them here.”
I turned back to the form bundled before me. I touched it lightly and it lifted back into the roof, roots furling around it protectively.
“We’re very, very deep here,” said Relyan, “I don’t know how many people the allforest has down here, but it must be in the thousands. It’s keeping them safe. We’re so far down that nothing can reach them.”
“So who is left?”
“Your archivist friends, and those who either chose to remain, or wouldn’t submit to shettling again. When the enemy started attacking the alltrees, people were afraid to get too close.”
“We should get going,” I said, running my hand through the fine roots in the ceiling. Knowing that so many of our people were safe gave me some comfort.
The allforest, always listening, extruded a single pod from the ceiling. It looked like a giant seed, wrapped in a fine layer of faintly haired green skin. The skin split, curling back to reveal glossy black wood, which slid open on an unseen hinge. The inside was black, but the blue lighting around us showed two seats moulded into the floor, next to each other. The edges of the hatch rippled faintly, beckoning us. I took a deep breath, remembering the last trip, and climbed inside. Relyan took the other seat, and the pod closed shut around us. Instantly we were whisked away underground again. But this time we had light – the violet glow of the mine – emanating from the black walls of our vessel. Instead of a basket that constantly rewove itself from the roots it was passed along, this was actually comfortable, and we had air to breathe. The allforest was showing off its new toy. The passage was smooth, barely troubled by the effort of transporting us through millions of tonnes of earth. I imagined the roots carving the route out ahead of us and collapsing as we passed through. We spent the trip in silence. I was lost in thought, wondering about the motives and capabilities of our enemies, and what we would find in Brisingham. Relayan sat with her eyes closed. I realised belatedly that getting some sleep would be a good idea. It had been days since I woke up in the cabin with the archivists. I allowed the faint rocking of the pod to rock me to sleep.
Wakefulness came with daylight. The pod had slid open, revealing the sky to us. The sun’s pale light filled the pod, showing us the smooth grain that ran around the inside. I felt more refreshed than I had expected, but I supposed that we must have slept for most of the night. It was now early morning, and we were on the other side of the continent. The alltree had delivered us to the outskirts of Brisingham. The habit of clearing the juvenile alltrees away from the city itself had continued, presumably encouraged by the strangers’ habit of annihilating people who trod too close to the trees. This was as close as the allforest could get us. I stroked the pod, and it closed up, and sank into the ground. I made a mental note of its location.
“We should probably find you some better clothes,” said Relyan, with a laugh, “those are ready to fall off you.”
I’d forgotten about the mess I looked. The new clothes I’d taken from the archivists hoard were ragged and burnt even before I’d been taken out of the mine, and that journey had done little more than grind mud into them. Relyan was better attired, but our slipping and sliding in the underground forest had done her few favours either.
“We may be a little conspicuous,” I agreed.
Cautiously we moved into the city. It looked less like home than I’d hoped. The outer limits were scarred with blackened craters which pocked the streets and punched holes through homes. I wondered if the alltrees had been deliberately throwing their seeds towards the city to test out the strangers’ response to their presence. It was that, or a more vicious battle had been fought here than the archivists had led me to expect.
“As far as I know, they never brought troops down,” Relyan said, watching the sky. “But they maintained watch over the city. I’ve seen their air vehicles–“
“Black things, shaped like rays?” I asked. She nodded. “Grellan, one of the archivists, shot one down.”
“They never take that very well. The archivists formed a militia, but there never were many of them.”
“They were waiting when the allforest let me go,” I said, “they’d been camping out near the shettling grounds.”
“The allforest kept them as safe as it could, but it couldn’t give them cover without drawing enemy fire. After it took so many people, the strangers got suspicious and destroyed all the mature trees they could find. By then, they had begun to disappear below ground. So it provided distraction instead, sowing as many seeds as it could afford, starting up new doomed copses all across the continent. They were lucky to have lasted so long.”
“A few escaped with us, but I’ve no idea where they were heading.”
We edged around the wrecked streets. This whole area had clearly been abandoned. Nothing grew in, or near the blackened craters – not alltrees or any of the indigenous grasses and plants which usually filled such spaces – they had not only destroyed what was here, but had seeded it with poisons. That made me angry. It was not enough that they killed, but to render the place sterile felt petty and vindictive.
Beyond the outer ring of pockmarked homes and roads we began to hear the sounds of human life again. It was a relief: for a while I’d feared our people were entirely gone, scattered to the winds. What used to be a park on this side of the city had been turned into an open-air market, filled with stalls and autos, their boots open to share their contents. It seemed a lively enough place, but too full of people for my tastes, so we kept to the edge and made our way past quickly. A few houses still looked to be in use, but it was all so quiet. It took me a while to realise why – there were no autos driving by – none of the mechanical or electrical sounds that had hummed along under the buzz of conversation and footfall. Repelling the allforest and its interfaces with the city had deprived them of power – houses were just shells for sleeping in now. No wonder the city was underpopulated. Everything would need to be carried here from the farms or transported using carefully hoarded fuel, so why remain here at all. The allforest must have been supplying the archivists with energy for them to have fielded four autos at once.
A dull roar filled the sky. Relyan slammed me into the narrow gap between two houses, pressed herself in behind me. Our viewpoint was restricted to a thin wedge of sky. It was soon filled by a familiar black ray-shape which flickered past, and another, and another.
“That’s more than you usually see at a time,” whispered Relyan.
“It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out where we’d be going,” I replied, “and Miqual knows I’m alive. I’m sure he got out of the mine.”
“We need to be more careful, come on.”
Relyan pushed me on down between the houses until we were in the back yard, looking into the shared quadrangle, with its community facilities. Bags and boxes of rubbish were stacked around the square, barely masking the rubble from the collapsed buildings on the other side. Our beautiful city had become a junk heap. Keeping half an eye on the sky, we climbed fences and into garden of the nearest house. Through the window we could see that a layer of dust coated every surface, and we could just see where the kitchen cupboards had been torn from the walls.
“Empty enough,” Relyan shrugged and rammed her shoulder into the backdoor.
It gave with little hesitation and we hurried inside. We left grimy footprints in the kitchen as we walked through into the living room. Like outside, the house was a mess. It showed every sign of having been hastily abandoned. It looked like my house had the day before I’d joined the others at the chalet – half-packed, full of indecision about what to take. They had been more selective than I’d been. We found old, but clean clothes in several boxes.
I felt Relyan’s eyes on me when I removed my filthy rags, painfully conscious of the skein of scars crisscrossing my body. I still felt disfigured; I couldn’t recognise myself when I caught sight of myself in the dark glass of the living room’s cabinets. The sharp stubs across my head prickled under her gaze, and I flushed in embarrassment. I averted my eyes when she undressed too, but couldn’t keep my thoughts from remembering how her tattoos had lit up and merged with the marks on my skin. That interface was deeper than we’d ever experienced before, and I suspected the allforest had something further in mind for both of us. I could still see her in the dark mirrored cupboards, as she discarded her clothes, saw her reaching for me. When I felt her warm hand touch my shoulder, all my reserve melted away and we fell into each other’s arms, at last.

After the Dark – Part 21 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

When we climbed out from under the mess of clothes we’d scattered across the abandoned living room, sun had reached what passed for midday brightness. It had not been the wisest of times to fall into bed, but there was always a certain
When we climbed out from under the mess of clothes we’d scattered across the abandoned living room, sun had reached what passed for midday brightness. It had not been the wisest of times to fall into bed, but there was always a certain vigour to emerging from the ministrations of the alltrees. Something about all the nerves being newly tuned, and ready for immersing oneself in life again. Despite that, the timing was doubtless poor. On the other hand, we hadn’t been found, so I didn’t feel like chastitising myself too harshly; and I’d hardly criticise Relyan. My new life had been filled with choices made by others, and it felt good to be taking my life in my own hands, even it was a risk. For a moment, as we’d dozed I could have imagined we were back in our old row of houses, happily fallen into bed after a trip into the allforest or an evening at the theatre. It felt how life ought to. Recalling its current nature was another welcome ripple of shock gliding through me.
With a more wary eye on the windows than we’d managed for the last few hours, we dressed and prepared ourselves. I knew where we were in relation to the archive, and it wasn’t far. We just had to hope that the presence of the black rays overhead didn’t mean we had already lost. My solace was that no one on the planet who had shettled would know that there was a shuttle underneath the archive. That was a secret that only Relyan and I now shared. Perhaps one other living person could suspect, but even Miqual would not know for sure. There might have been some record in the archive itself, but the enemy had been premature in destroying a potential source of information. They were, as they had been a thousand years ago, arrogant and greedy. All things we could use to our advantage.
We snuck back out of the apartment the way we had come, our hands rarely more than a finger’s breadth from each other’s. The devastation continued through Brisingham. Our beautiful city had been ruined. I was just seeing it decades after the damage had been done. Combined with the poisons the strangers had soaked into the ground, the city felt dead. It had always been empty of the alltree, for fear that it would have simply expanded to use up the space. I wondered when we had lost sight of our relationship, and forgotten that the allforest was our protector and friend. They had never cared especially about their seedlings – as their use of them as chaff in the years after the strangers’ arrival attested – until they reached maturity and could join, and then contribute to the network, they were just another competitor.
We passed rows of houses shattered by strikes from the heavens. It seemed unlikely that any alltrees had sprouted here, more like the strangers were taking their frustrations out on the city, having been unable to secure whatever resource they sought before invading the world in full. It hadn’t occurred to me that they had been waiting for me.
As we rounded the corner of yet another broken building, with its facing of young alltree wood knocked askew and falling into the street, the roar of their ray vehicles sent us staggering into the ruins. They rumbled across the sky, only a few hundreds of feet overhead, and entered a circling pattern around the charred crater where the archive had once been. I’d anticipated this, but had yet to devise a solution. I knew they had likely erased its existence at street level, but the archive extended deep underground in a labyrinth of arduously mined rock. And concealed below that, the last shuttle, which had delivered Eleran, Tesh and I to the surface. We had been the last to leave the colony ship that had been our home for hundreds of years. Even having met their ghosts in the allforest’s mind so recently, being here was bringing back a concrete quality to the memories I’d been re-gifted with. Each step and breath was reminding me of what we had all gone through together. The hovering rays over the city were too similar to the homeworld’s fleet arriving above the atmosphere of Tellgrim’s World. I felt that this would be a more final confrontation, between the past and the future of our people – of our species.
I could see that the archive had not simply been blasted apart, but that the devastation carried on some way underground – the pit left behind was melted and glazed by heat into a glassy funnel. There would be no way in from above. We hadn’t been quite so foolish as to leave just one entrance. Under one of the houses nearby there would be a cellar that surprisingly opened to a cellar below that, and on, down into the depths beneath the city. If only I could remember which one.
“I don’t suppose you recall–” I began.
“I was hoping you did,” Relyan interrupted, with a rueful grin.
Even a restored memory couldn’t bring back things that I’d barely remembered in the first place. We would have to guess, and trust in something that was only shadow in the back of my mind. We broke cover, running across the street, dodging ineptly behind broken and shattered autos and hunks of masonry. Beamfire raked down the road beside us, igniting the detritus we were hunkered behind. They knew where we were, but hadn’t killed us outright. To my mind, that was just a reason to do more running. I took Relyan’s hand and dragged us toward the building I’d chosen, or half-remembered. Another beam punched into the ground in front us, the heat singing our clothes. We staggered back, trapped between fires.
Another trench of flames opened up , lancing through the building we’d been heading for. It was reduced to a smoking molten heap, spatters of stone and copper fell all around us. Three of the black rays were now motionless overhead. My plan had failed before it had even begun.
A voice penetrated the smoke that surrounded us.
“Jenn! Come on out Jenn.” It was Miqual, of course, “there’s no need to delay – you aren’t going anywhere.”
That was true enough, and we had no real choice. So we stepped out from our fragile shelter, Relyan tucked close behind me. If Miqual intended to take another shot at me, at least she might be able to flee to safety. As we passed the fire, we saw Miqual, standing on the open back of an auto, a rifle in his hands and a victorious smirk on his face. It was the same look he’d had in every argument I’d lost with him, at the end of every fight. I remembered pulling a knife on him once, slashing it across his chest and arm. I really, really wanted to do that again.
“Ah, there you are. And you’ve found a friend,” Miqual showed no special recognition at the sight of Relyan, from which I gathered that he’d found no way to get his full memory back. It resided within the trees, and they wouldn’t have been willing once he’d contributed to the attack.
“Hello again, Miqual,” I said trying to remain calm, “we keep meeting in unpleasant circumstances.”
“You could always have just stayed dead.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that, but I didn’t have to. Relyan burst past me, shouting at him.
“You’re a traitor Miqual – how could you? You killed them all, you bastard.”
Miqual actually looked taken aback. “This has nothing to do with you. Go back to skulking through ruins.”
“He doesn’t know who you,” I said to Relyan, “he doesn’t remember anything.”
“Then you’re an idiot as well as a monster,” she spat.
“Whatever,” Miqual dismissed her, “Jenn, you’re coming with me, there’s people who have been waiting a long time to get their hands on you.”
“So they’ve finally come,” I said, “do you even know why they’re here?”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a child, Jenn. They’ve filled me in on who we are. You and your little clique have kept us all in this ridiculous loop for too long – we’ve been wasting centuries here – and all that time the homeworld has been trying to find us. You stole our past from us, Jenn, but we can finally rejoin humanity now. They’ve come to take us home.”
“I’m sorry Miqual, you just don’t understand,” I was beginning to feel sorry for him – he was being manipulated, but did his lack of memory excuse him? I thought not. Slowly I walked towards him, hands raised in surrender. “Why do you think they wanted you to do all this?”
“Shut up. You’re a war criminal and you’re wanted for crimes against humanity,” Miqual pointed his rifle at my chest.
“They’ve tricked you Miqual, you’re as guilty as I am, but you don’t remember. I’d pity you if you hadn’t killed our friends.”
“You should have died with them, Jenn. Then I wouldn’t have had to spend sixty-four years waiting for you to crawl out of the mud. Without you, I don’t get to go anywhere.”
“When did they arrive, Miqual? Have they been waiting long?”
“Stop scrabbling for information, Jenn. It’s pathetic – you’re a dead man, but it won’t be by my hands now.” He waved at the waiting rays.
One broke formation and drifted down toward the road. It slowly revolved, so that its rear was pointing at the auto Miqual stood on. As its door began to slide open, a volley of shots rang out, punching into its unprotected interior. Flames spurted out of the opening and it slewed to the side, attempted to rise before smashing into the wrecked buildings on opposite the archive. Miqual had leapt down from the auto, and began firing at the corner building where the beams had come from.
Another black ray was swiftly disabled, slewing into the wreckage that had preceded it. But it didn’t take long for the remaining ray to seek revenge. The remaining building on the corner was besieged with more rays that punched blackened holes through its structure. Miqual added his lesser force to the initiative. A rabble of figures exited the building, their rifles drawn and firing blindly into the sky. I vaguely recognised one of them from the cabin the woods. The surviving auto’s inhabitants had rallied here, but now were under fire. I wasn’t sure what we could offer – we were unarmed – but I knew that they wanted me alive. I ran in front of them, interrupting the ray’s line of fire. It cut off, and with a further growl, took a higher position. With our protectors behind me, I dashed towards the ruins of the archive. Relyan ran with me. I saw Miqual withholding fire, unable to take aim without risking the prize he’d been directed to deliver. We fell back, the archivist remnants spraying fire towards Miqual until he was forced to take shelter behind his auto. Though the rays had been smoothly disabled, they had left one in the air, which even now spun round, strafing the street with lances of flame. One of the archivists was caught in the incendiary fire, vanishing in a scream and puff of flame.
Then the ground began to rumble. It felt like aftershocks of an earthquake, except that it drew nearer, instead of fading away. A tear opened up down the road, filled with a sprawling mass of roots. They’d reached beyond the city’s borders, and punched through the substantial rock that supported the city itself. Further tremors collapsed the houses all down the road, and left us staggering from left to right, our footing made uncertain. The black ray in the air fired almost randomly, blasting at the emerging roots desperately. But whatever they incinerated was outweighed by the next rupture in the earth, which tossed Miqual’s auto high into the air, and shattered the road we were just halfway across. The spray of fire by our allies had been quashed by the buildings’ collape – once more, strangers had given their lives for me. I was determined that they would be the last. When the glossy ruins of the archive shuddered, and fell downwards I knew that it was a signal to move. With Relyan by my side, we ran back across the road, dodging gouts of flame and ragged sidewalk. As we reached the archive its foundations split in two, rock sliding like it was a waterfall into an unseen void beneath.

After the Dark – Part 22 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

We staggered back, as the rift in the ground widened, sending the remains of the archive crashing into the depths far below. The shuddering earth distracted Miqual, so at least his shots slowed. The third ray, however, being in the air was less susceptible. It refocused its attacks on the archivists, tracking them as they fled down the road. One of them was caught in its beams and erupted briefly in flame. The others vanished into more of the wrecked block. The ray returned its attention to us.
We had no place left to run. Though Miqual claimed that they wanted me alive, I imagined they would be equally satisfied with a documented kill. Relyan shoved me forwards, and we slid down the sloping road that led into the crevasse as it deepened and widened. We stood a chance of avoiding their weapons, but also increased the likelihood of our being crushed by the tumbling rocks and earth. Debris poured past us – up and down – as the subterranean mass of the archive was displaced. The ray above took to flinging beams at us erratically, anything to prevent our escape underground.
Abruptly we saw the source of the earthquake. Massive roots spiralled up out of the depths, dragging at boulders, and funnelling them up into the sky. Huge rocks flew past us, trailing cometary tails of soil, flying hundreds of feet into the air. That certainly distracted the ray. It was now swiftly receding into the air as the boulders reached their parabolas at ever greater heights. I tried not to think about the damage they would be doing to Brisingham as they came back down. As the ground tore even wider, I caught my first glimpse of white down in the deeps.
“They’re bringing the shuttle to us,” I said, jaw agape. I’d never cease to be amazed by the strength of the allforest.
“They must have been tunnelling into the rock for centuries,” Relyan exclaimed.
When we originally hid the shuttle, not all of that mass of rock had been present. We had collapsed a mountain into its neighbouring valley – resulting in the broad rocky basin that Brisingham was built on. The shuttle was concealed beneath as best we could, safe from any conceivable orbital scan and the weather. The plan would have been to blast our way out via a series of explosive charges that had been set to re-open the valley as a series of caverns to the west of the city, through which we could have flown the shuttle. But we’d have needed to get down there first. The alltree had done both parts for us, in another terrifying display of their power.
The trees dragged out and pushed the shuttle up from the depths. The ray evidently realised what was happening and swooped lower to eradicate our best chance for getting off-planet. The alltrees were prepared. The shuttle’s structure was solid enough to repel a few of the ray’s beams before doing real harm, even in its dormant state. That gave the ray time enough to become frustrated and dip into range of the allforest, which whipped out an immense rope of braided roots. They grabbed at the ray, wrapping crushingly tight around it. The ray’s engines flared to little effect in the alltrees’ grip. Unable to redirect their weapons on the clenched roots, they satisfied themselves with firing at anything, erratically vaporising chunks of Brisingham. While the trees held the attacking vessel at arms’ length, they finished extracting the shuttle. With a worrying crunch, the alltrees laid it on the remains of an adjacent road, as gently as I supposed you could with a few hundred tonnes of metal. With the way clear, they then ripped the ray from the sky, straight down into the now empty pit. The ray fired wildly, desperate to escape their obvious fate. Those beams lacerated the pit we were hiding in, bringing rubble down on themselves. They reached their destination with a gout of fire which exploded out of the pit. Searing heat washed over the crag that Relyan and I crouched behind.
Slightly singed, we quickly scrambled back out of the hole where the archives had once stood. The area had been decimated – the pit stretched over three city blocks, and around it the earth was churned as if by a giant having a tantrum – buildings shattered or upside down, road piled up in heaps, and everywhere littered with domestic detritus from the archive. All our history, scattered across the city. But we did have the shuttle. Despite its thousand year-long sleep, it still gleamed dully white under a thick coat of scratches, dents, and mud from below. A cascade of soil and stones tumbled from all sides, until just a fine, dry rain pattered down around our feet. The allforest roots unravelled themselves from the space vehicle and retracted into the pit. I didn’t expect them to tidy up after themselves, but I was concerned that the shuttle might not fly, and wondered if the allforest could fling us into space… it wasn’t a thought I wanted to see enacted. The shuttle’s shape was somewhere between an ovoid and a beetle’s shell. Usually it would be complete with legs extended to hold it off the ground, but the alltree had simply laid it on its belly. That did at least make it accessible.
The familiar dull roars of our enemy’s rays sounded in the distance. Taking out three of them had certainly gotten us some added attention. It was time to go. I unbolted and flipped open the manual hatch controls, and pressed my hand against the palm-reader. To my vast relief it flickered into life, sketching blue around my splayed fingers. Acknowledged, I could now pull down the handle that should release the outer seals. As I reached for the bright orange handle, a bullet bounced off the hatch by my shoulder. Miqual was, inevitably, still alive, and shooting. I heard Relyan cry out in surprise. I flinched, hunched in anticipation of further shots, but grabbed the handle hard and hauled it down anyway – we were too close to escape, and I wouldn’t be seized and taken off anywhere again. I’d been right to expect a further shot, but the feel of it tearing through my shoulder shocked me. The impact slammed me into the shuttle hatch, my blood bright on the shuttle’s patchy white. I half-turned to seize Relyan by the wrist as the hatch slid open with a sharp grinding sound that made us all wince. Even Miqual, who I could now see, involuntarily raised both hands towards his ears. I’d never been grateful for soil caught in hinges before. With the momentary distraction, I thrust Relyan through the hatch, and dived after her.
Another shot rang out, ricocheting around the metal interior. We hugged the deck, hoping it would just bounce back out. It was quickly followed by Miqual himself, who leapt into the outer hatch, rifle raised for another go. I was just beginning to realise how much it hurt to get shot, and struggled to push myself up the wall by the hatch. Relyan responded far more fiercely, spinning to her feet with a long, slender bar of metal she’d torn from the wall – the emergency key for unlocking the hatch manually – and she caught Miqual viciously around the jaw as he was mid-stride, with an appalling sound of cracking bone. He was flung into the wall next to me by the force of the blow. I reached my feet and slapped at the hatch close controls. It slid shut, with slightly less of an agonised shriek than before.
I was bleeding profusely from the hole in my shoulder, the wall and floor slippery underfoot. Relyan cautiously approached Miqual, who lay, also bleeding on the floor. His jaw was very clearly broken – the bone displaced, and already terribly swollen; blood drooled from between his lips, where Relyan had probably smashed his teeth. Relyan tested his awareness with a considerably gentler jab with the key. He made no sign of consciousness. She disarmed him, slinging the rifle over her shoulder, and removing a pistol from a holster at his waist. That taken care of, she turned to me.
“Well, that’s inconvenient,” she said, “you can’t go into orbit like that.”
Relyan was right – I would bleed horribly, and could even be enveloped by a bulging bubble of my own blood until I drowned in it. I hated my imagination for providing that.
“We need to get off planet, right now,” I replied, “let’s get into the ship and then worry about it.”
Relyan applied her hand to the inner hatch’s scanner. It glowed around her palm again and slid open, this one with no more than a little hesitancy, and it could be forgiven that for its first use in a millennium. As it turned out, I could walk, but twisting was fairly awful. It was “only” a shoulder wound, as Relyan helpfully pointed out. I had no intention of letting Miqual loose in the ship’s interior, unconscious or not. The best we could do was strap him into the emergency crash seats that unfolded from the wall. That might save him from the forces of take-off. Then we sealed him into the hatch. Soon Miqual would be unable to open the outer hatch either by palmprint because we would be in space, or manually, since Relyan had borrowed the release key to hit him with. The inner hatch was a simpler matter to override, and then block with that same metal bar. We would have to do something about him later, but we had bigger problems.
With Relyan’s arm around my waist we tottered along the wide corridor. The cockpit was our sole priority, and we burst into it with relief. I fell into one of the crash chairs that were arranged around the room in a tight arc, all facing a rotatable bank of screens and monitors. Relyan took the central chair, and dragged the control panel around to face her. While she tapped at the interface, I fumbled under my chair for the emergency kit – there were dozens of them scattered around the shuttle – and laid it in my lap. A fine layer of dust and grease lay across the chair, the box, everything. It was the only real sign that we had been gone so long. Despite that, it felt achingly familiar. My priority was to attend to my wound: I screamed as I tugged my shirt down over my shoulder, distracting Relyan, who gave me an annoyed look with thinned lips. I waved her away and tore open a compression bandage with my teeth. I laid it over the bullet wound and fingered the edge of the bandage to trigger its morphic properties. I held back another scream as it stretched out to encompass the upper part of my torso, and then squeezed until the blood stopped flowing. I’d need proper attention later, but for now at least I wouldn’t bleed to death. I gritted my teeth and cleaned most of the blood from my hands so I could help Relyan.
The panels indicated that we had full power, recently restored. Whatever residual energy we’d buried it with would have been long gone. I simply hadn’t thought of it – the blurry grasp of my former lives were still assembled poorly in my brain – I had fallen some way from my previous leadership skills. It was a miracle that the alltree must have accomplished by re-interfacing with the shuttle’s batteries, resuming one of their original functions – power supply. But we were stuck on the ground. Without our landing gear we were unable to immediately apply the vertical thrusters. If we did it flat on the ground they would just blast holes beneath us. We needed to get a little bit off the ground.
“Jenn, do you see that ray there?” Relyan pointed at the main screen which gave us the view directly ahead. One of the downed rays jutted up out of what I thought was once the theatre.
It took me a moment to realise what she had in mind.
“Well, it’s a bit like a ramp…” that was all I had time to say before she activated the horizontal thrusters, on the rear end of the shuttle.
They fired up, fast, and we set off, scraping across the rubble. There were many obstructions beneath us, all sharp and I feared we’d rip the shuttle open. Relyan didn’t allow us much time for that worry. Just as we started to snake from side to side, she slammed the thrusters to full and we audibly tore along the road. I gripped the arms of my chair hard enough to make my shoulder hurt, and Relyan pressed herself back in her seat. The ramp was upon us in moments, and we slid straight up it. Even as it collapsed under the shuttle’s weight, Relyan triggered the vertical thrusters and we spun into the air.
The ramp was at an odd angle, and Relyan had turned all the thrusters on as hard as she dared, so we began to turn even as we lifted off the ground. For a moment it looked like we might just flip over entirely, but Relyan managed to wrangle our shuttle with its conflicting velocities into a wide turn, taking us on a quick and unintentional tour of Brisingham. I watched her fearsome grin with a mixture of admiration and horror. Rays appeared above the city, and we swept by them. As soon as we evened out, Relyan steered us straight up, racing for the edge of the atmosphere, outracing the rays, crushing us into our crash chairs, and into space.