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.
“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.”