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.