The sparkling forest faded around us, and I felt the woodgrain sliding across my skin, releasing us from the interface pillar. We were no longer in the underground forest with Calia’s child set into the roof. This was a much darker realm. The faint blue glow that had greeted me after the allforest extracted me from the mine was all around us. It faded to black after some uncountable distance. The roof was just feet above us, a thick carpet of writhing roots.
I disentangled my hand from Relyan’s and unzipped my jacket. Still folded up and crammed in my inner pocket was the archive file with my name and number on it. I withdrew it and folded it backwards to work out most of the crease.
“I’d forgotten why we’d established the archive in the first place,” I said. “We needed some way to keep track of who we had been.”
“Just discarding our pasts didn’t feel right – you could see it with the second wave of shettles. The ritual of putting their affairs in order gave them a psychological advantage. It’s one of the ways that the alltrees knew if you were ready to start again – knowing that you’d finished something properly.”
I opened up the folder, shaking the dirt out of it. Written records offer a different kind of memory to that we keep in our minds. Memories are regenerated whenever we access them, sharpened by how we feel when we recall them – memories of memories of memories. The written word holds its shape in a way the brain never can. The first page held a potted account of who I was first – who I was again, sort of – a history that I vaguely remembered writing myself, but laced with the dates and places that had faded. At the foot of the page was a signed declaration:
I wish to forget who I am. I undergo shettling willingly, I relinquish my place in the past. I wish to be reborn anew, to escape the death of our homeworld, to strive for a better future.
All of our archive files began the same way, when we submitted ourselves to our creations. Our circle had been among the last to do so. We had established the archive to protect our history, from ourselves, and so that it would be there if we ever needed it again.
“And all that time, I never realised the allforest was doing the same.”
“No,” Relyan agreed, “it had never occurred to me that they would be able to return those memories to us. It seemed like a fair enough exchange – one life for another.”
After the first page, the file was a list of the lives I’d lived, detailing shettling dates, according to a calendar largely ignored by everyone but for those who returned to the archives. Endless bulleted lists of names, places, people I had been. That and the catalogue of objects I’d chosen to secrete in the earth. All the things I’d thought were precious during each life – a seemingly endless parade of trinkets, books, tokens, letters, favourite clothes… so much junk. I began to realise how self-indulgent we had become. Shettling had seemed like such a good idea, but it had left us unprepared, unready to deal with a threat like the one that had arrived. All of our knowledge was bound in little folders like these. But the archive had been destroyed, and all that history that we had carefully collated for our people, stored for a possible future, was gone with it. But the allforest had kept it for us. Kept us safe. Now it needed our help.
The allforest had reminded me of who I had been, and with it, all that I had lost. My circle: gone, but for Relyan, and Miqual – who was an agent of our enemy; the allforest: mutilated, and robbed of its moon; our people: under siege from unseen enemies. It was time that we challenged these intruders.
We didn’t know what state they might be in. When we left them over a thousand years ago in orbit around Tellgrim’s World, they were already weary. The planet we abandoned for them was hardly a paradise, and we’d taken all that had made it bearable with us. The idea that they had survived, and nursed such grievance against us that they would chase us across the galaxy gave me some pause. For all we knew they had spent a millennium building their strength. We needed more information – the disposition of their fleet, their numbers, their weaponry. How far had they infiltrated the southern continent? Why had they stopped after their initial attack?
“We need to go to Brisingham,” I said, “we need to make contact with our colony ship.”
When we arrived, and moved our population to the surface, we had left most of our convoy in space. A thousand years suffering the harshness of vacuum would have done them no good, but we had hidden them well, tucked into crevasses on Talens where they had some protection, and should have been invisible to detection. We had used shuttles to bring us down, and stored those better. One was buried under the archive, another was taken deep into the southern continent for safekeeping. For them to have found us, some part of our little fleet must have been active. Our hopping route had been so haphazard no one could simply have followed us. They had been called here.
“There’s not much left, not above the surface anyway,” Relyan reminded me, “the initial strike was followed by a string of tactical shots which destroyed everything really useful. The power plants and research institutes went first, followed by the archive, and the denser nexuses of the alltrees. We may not be able to get to the shuttle.”
“We need to try – I don’t hold out much hope of getting to the southern continent. And even if we did, I doubt we’ll find the shuttle.”
“Brisingham is closer, anyway,” Relyan affirmed, “I’m not sure that the allforest has any way of reaching across the ocean.”
I was about to reply, but something about the shapes in the roots above us clicked into place in my mind, and stopped the words from forming. This wasn’t just the place I’d been taken to from the mine, I’d been here before that. I turned to look at Relyan. She gave nothing away, just stood there with her arms loosely crossed. I walked further into the gloom, and heard the faint crunch of her feet following me. The ceiling was not an even mass of roots. In regular places, their pattern concealed larger bulges and bumps. Wonderingly, I reached out a hand to stroke the fine tendrils. I was startled when the mass I’d touched began to unravel, lowering a webbed mass out of the roof. Dimly, I grasped what it was showing me. It was a person, fully wrapped in a cradle of roots.
“They’re still shettling,” I half-whispered. “Hevalan said no one else had come back from the allforest – he didn’t say that people had still been going in.”
Relyan smiled faintly.
“The allforest has been collecting them,” she said. “It took anyone who could reach an alltree, drew them under and gathered them here.”
I turned back to the form bundled before me. I touched it lightly and it lifted back into the roof, roots furling around it protectively.
“We’re very, very deep here,” said Relyan, “I don’t know how many people the allforest has down here, but it must be in the thousands. It’s keeping them safe. We’re so far down that nothing can reach them.”
“So who is left?”
“Your archivist friends, and those who either chose to remain, or wouldn’t submit to shettling again. When the enemy started attacking the alltrees, people were afraid to get too close.”
“We should get going,” I said, running my hand through the fine roots in the ceiling. Knowing that so many of our people were safe gave me some comfort.
The allforest, always listening, extruded a single pod from the ceiling. It looked like a giant seed, wrapped in a fine layer of faintly haired green skin. The skin split, curling back to reveal glossy black wood, which slid open on an unseen hinge. The inside was black, but the blue lighting around us showed two seats moulded into the floor, next to each other. The edges of the hatch rippled faintly, beckoning us. I took a deep breath, remembering the last trip, and climbed inside. Relyan took the other seat, and the pod closed shut around us. Instantly we were whisked away underground again. But this time we had light – the violet glow of the mine – emanating from the black walls of our vessel. Instead of a basket that constantly rewove itself from the roots it was passed along, this was actually comfortable, and we had air to breathe. The allforest was showing off its new toy. The passage was smooth, barely troubled by the effort of transporting us through millions of tonnes of earth. I imagined the roots carving the route out ahead of us and collapsing as we passed through. We spent the trip in silence. I was lost in thought, wondering about the motives and capabilities of our enemies, and what we would find in Brisingham. Relayan sat with her eyes closed. I realised belatedly that getting some sleep would be a good idea. It had been days since I woke up in the cabin with the archivists. I allowed the faint rocking of the pod to rock me to sleep.
Wakefulness came with daylight. The pod had slid open, revealing the sky to us. The sun’s pale light filled the pod, showing us the smooth grain that ran around the inside. I felt more refreshed than I had expected, but I supposed that we must have slept for most of the night. It was now early morning, and we were on the other side of the continent. The alltree had delivered us to the outskirts of Brisingham. The habit of clearing the juvenile alltrees away from the city itself had continued, presumably encouraged by the strangers’ habit of annihilating people who trod too close to the trees. This was as close as the allforest could get us. I stroked the pod, and it closed up, and sank into the ground. I made a mental note of its location.
“We should probably find you some better clothes,” said Relyan, with a laugh, “those are ready to fall off you.”
I’d forgotten about the mess I looked. The new clothes I’d taken from the archivists hoard were ragged and burnt even before I’d been taken out of the mine, and that journey had done little more than grind mud into them. Relyan was better attired, but our slipping and sliding in the underground forest had done her few favours either.
“We may be a little conspicuous,” I agreed.
Cautiously we moved into the city. It looked less like home than I’d hoped. The outer limits were scarred with blackened craters which pocked the streets and punched holes through homes. I wondered if the alltrees had been deliberately throwing their seeds towards the city to test out the strangers’ response to their presence. It was that, or a more vicious battle had been fought here than the archivists had led me to expect.
“As far as I know, they never brought troops down,” Relyan said, watching the sky. “But they maintained watch over the city. I’ve seen their air vehicles–“
“Black things, shaped like rays?” I asked. She nodded. “Grellan, one of the archivists, shot one down.”
“They never take that very well. The archivists formed a militia, but there never were many of them.”
“They were waiting when the allforest let me go,” I said, “they’d been camping out near the shettling grounds.”
“The allforest kept them as safe as it could, but it couldn’t give them cover without drawing enemy fire. After it took so many people, the strangers got suspicious and destroyed all the mature trees they could find. By then, they had begun to disappear below ground. So it provided distraction instead, sowing as many seeds as it could afford, starting up new doomed copses all across the continent. They were lucky to have lasted so long.”
“A few escaped with us, but I’ve no idea where they were heading.”
We edged around the wrecked streets. This whole area had clearly been abandoned. Nothing grew in, or near the blackened craters – not alltrees or any of the indigenous grasses and plants which usually filled such spaces – they had not only destroyed what was here, but had seeded it with poisons. That made me angry. It was not enough that they killed, but to render the place sterile felt petty and vindictive.
Beyond the outer ring of pockmarked homes and roads we began to hear the sounds of human life again. It was a relief: for a while I’d feared our people were entirely gone, scattered to the winds. What used to be a park on this side of the city had been turned into an open-air market, filled with stalls and autos, their boots open to share their contents. It seemed a lively enough place, but too full of people for my tastes, so we kept to the edge and made our way past quickly. A few houses still looked to be in use, but it was all so quiet. It took me a while to realise why – there were no autos driving by – none of the mechanical or electrical sounds that had hummed along under the buzz of conversation and footfall. Repelling the allforest and its interfaces with the city had deprived them of power – houses were just shells for sleeping in now. No wonder the city was underpopulated. Everything would need to be carried here from the farms or transported using carefully hoarded fuel, so why remain here at all. The allforest must have been supplying the archivists with energy for them to have fielded four autos at once.
A dull roar filled the sky. Relyan slammed me into the narrow gap between two houses, pressed herself in behind me. Our viewpoint was restricted to a thin wedge of sky. It was soon filled by a familiar black ray-shape which flickered past, and another, and another.
“That’s more than you usually see at a time,” whispered Relyan.
“It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out where we’d be going,” I replied, “and Miqual knows I’m alive. I’m sure he got out of the mine.”
“We need to be more careful, come on.”
Relyan pushed me on down between the houses until we were in the back yard, looking into the shared quadrangle, with its community facilities. Bags and boxes of rubbish were stacked around the square, barely masking the rubble from the collapsed buildings on the other side. Our beautiful city had become a junk heap. Keeping half an eye on the sky, we climbed fences and into garden of the nearest house. Through the window we could see that a layer of dust coated every surface, and we could just see where the kitchen cupboards had been torn from the walls.
“Empty enough,” Relyan shrugged and rammed her shoulder into the backdoor.
It gave with little hesitation and we hurried inside. We left grimy footprints in the kitchen as we walked through into the living room. Like outside, the house was a mess. It showed every sign of having been hastily abandoned. It looked like my house had the day before I’d joined the others at the chalet – half-packed, full of indecision about what to take. They had been more selective than I’d been. We found old, but clean clothes in several boxes.
I felt Relyan’s eyes on me when I removed my filthy rags, painfully conscious of the skein of scars crisscrossing my body. I still felt disfigured; I couldn’t recognise myself when I caught sight of myself in the dark glass of the living room’s cabinets. The sharp stubs across my head prickled under her gaze, and I flushed in embarrassment. I averted my eyes when she undressed too, but couldn’t keep my thoughts from remembering how her tattoos had lit up and merged with the marks on my skin. That interface was deeper than we’d ever experienced before, and I suspected the allforest had something further in mind for both of us. I could still see her in the dark mirrored cupboards, as she discarded her clothes, saw her reaching for me. When I felt her warm hand touch my shoulder, all my reserve melted away and we fell into each other’s arms, at last.