After the Dark – Part 17 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

Part Seventeen

Previous episodes here

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.

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