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.