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?”