When we climbed out from under the mess of clothes we’d scattered across the abandoned living room, sun had reached what passed for midday brightness. It had not been the wisest of times to fall into bed, but there was always a certain vigour to emerging from the ministrations of the alltrees. Something about all the nerves being newly tuned, and ready for immersing oneself in life again. Despite that, the timing was doubtless poor. On the other hand, we hadn’t been found, so I didn’t feel like chastitising myself too harshly; and I’d hardly criticise Relyan. My new life had been filled with choices made by others, and it felt good to be taking my life in my own hands, even it was a risk. For a moment, as we’d dozed I could have imagined we were back in our old row of houses, happily fallen into bed after a trip into the allforest or an evening at the theatre. It felt how life ought to. Recalling its current nature was another welcome ripple of shock gliding through me.
With a more wary eye on the windows than we’d managed for the last few hours, we dressed and prepared ourselves. I knew where we were in relation to the archive, and it wasn’t far. We just had to hope that the presence of the black rays overhead didn’t mean we had already lost. My solace was that no one on the planet who had shettled would know that there was a shuttle underneath the archive. That was a secret that only Relyan and I now shared. Perhaps one other living person could suspect, but even Miqual would not know for sure. There might have been some record in the archive itself, but the enemy had been premature in destroying a potential source of information. They were, as they had been a thousand years ago, arrogant and greedy. All things we could use to our advantage.
We snuck back out of the apartment the way we had come, our hands rarely more than a finger’s breadth from each other’s. The devastation continued through Brisingham. Our beautiful city had been ruined. I was just seeing it decades after the damage had been done. Combined with the poisons the strangers had soaked into the ground, the city felt dead. It had always been empty of the alltree, for fear that it would have simply expanded to use up the space. I wondered when we had lost sight of our relationship, and forgotten that the allforest was our protector and friend. They had never cared especially about their seedlings – as their use of them as chaff in the years after the strangers’ arrival attested – until they reached maturity and could join, and then contribute to the network, they were just another competitor.
We passed rows of houses shattered by strikes from the heavens. It seemed unlikely that any alltrees had sprouted here, more like the strangers were taking their frustrations out on the city, having been unable to secure whatever resource they sought before invading the world in full. It hadn’t occurred to me that they had been waiting for me.
As we rounded the corner of yet another broken building, with its facing of young alltree wood knocked askew and falling into the street, the roar of their ray vehicles sent us staggering into the ruins. They rumbled across the sky, only a few hundreds of feet overhead, and entered a circling pattern around the charred crater where the archive had once been. I’d anticipated this, but had yet to devise a solution. I knew they had likely erased its existence at street level, but the archive extended deep underground in a labyrinth of arduously mined rock. And concealed below that, the last shuttle, which had delivered Eleran, Tesh and I to the surface. We had been the last to leave the colony ship that had been our home for hundreds of years. Even having met their ghosts in the allforest’s mind so recently, being here was bringing back a concrete quality to the memories I’d been re-gifted with. Each step and breath was reminding me of what we had all gone through together. The hovering rays over the city were too similar to the homeworld’s fleet arriving above the atmosphere of Tellgrim’s World. I felt that this would be a more final confrontation, between the past and the future of our people – of our species.
I could see that the archive had not simply been blasted apart, but that the devastation carried on some way underground – the pit left behind was melted and glazed by heat into a glassy funnel. There would be no way in from above. We hadn’t been quite so foolish as to leave just one entrance. Under one of the houses nearby there would be a cellar that surprisingly opened to a cellar below that, and on, down into the depths beneath the city. If only I could remember which one.
“I don’t suppose you recall–” I began.
“I was hoping you did,” Relyan interrupted, with a rueful grin.
Even a restored memory couldn’t bring back things that I’d barely remembered in the first place. We would have to guess, and trust in something that was only shadow in the back of my mind. We broke cover, running across the street, dodging ineptly behind broken and shattered autos and hunks of masonry. Beamfire raked down the road beside us, igniting the detritus we were hunkered behind. They knew where we were, but hadn’t killed us outright. To my mind, that was just a reason to do more running. I took Relyan’s hand and dragged us toward the building I’d chosen, or half-remembered. Another beam punched into the ground in front us, the heat singing our clothes. We staggered back, trapped between fires.
Another trench of flames opened up , lancing through the building we’d been heading for. It was reduced to a smoking molten heap, spatters of stone and copper fell all around us. Three of the black rays were now motionless overhead. My plan had failed before it had even begun.
A voice penetrated the smoke that surrounded us.
“Jenn! Come on out Jenn.” It was Miqual, of course, “there’s no need to delay – you aren’t going anywhere.”
That was true enough, and we had no real choice. So we stepped out from our fragile shelter, Relyan tucked close behind me. If Miqual intended to take another shot at me, at least she might be able to flee to safety. As we passed the fire, we saw Miqual, standing on the open back of an auto, a rifle in his hands and a victorious smirk on his face. It was the same look he’d had in every argument I’d lost with him, at the end of every fight. I remembered pulling a knife on him once, slashing it across his chest and arm. I really, really wanted to do that again.
“Ah, there you are. And you’ve found a friend,” Miqual showed no special recognition at the sight of Relyan, from which I gathered that he’d found no way to get his full memory back. It resided within the trees, and they wouldn’t have been willing once he’d contributed to the attack.
“Hello again, Miqual,” I said trying to remain calm, “we keep meeting in unpleasant circumstances.”
“You could always have just stayed dead.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that, but I didn’t have to. Relyan burst past me, shouting at him.
“You’re a traitor Miqual – how could you? You killed them all, you bastard.”
Miqual actually looked taken aback. “This has nothing to do with you. Go back to skulking through ruins.”
“He doesn’t know who you,” I said to Relyan, “he doesn’t remember anything.”
“Then you’re an idiot as well as a monster,” she spat.
“Whatever,” Miqual dismissed her, “Jenn, you’re coming with me, there’s people who have been waiting a long time to get their hands on you.”
“So they’ve finally come,” I said, “do you even know why they’re here?”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m a child, Jenn. They’ve filled me in on who we are. You and your little clique have kept us all in this ridiculous loop for too long – we’ve been wasting centuries here – and all that time the homeworld has been trying to find us. You stole our past from us, Jenn, but we can finally rejoin humanity now. They’ve come to take us home.”
“I’m sorry Miqual, you just don’t understand,” I was beginning to feel sorry for him – he was being manipulated, but did his lack of memory excuse him? I thought not. Slowly I walked towards him, hands raised in surrender. “Why do you think they wanted you to do all this?”
“Shut up. You’re a war criminal and you’re wanted for crimes against humanity,” Miqual pointed his rifle at my chest.
“They’ve tricked you Miqual, you’re as guilty as I am, but you don’t remember. I’d pity you if you hadn’t killed our friends.”
“You should have died with them, Jenn. Then I wouldn’t have had to spend sixty-four years waiting for you to crawl out of the mud. Without you, I don’t get to go anywhere.”
“When did they arrive, Miqual? Have they been waiting long?”
“Stop scrabbling for information, Jenn. It’s pathetic – you’re a dead man, but it won’t be by my hands now.” He waved at the waiting rays.
One broke formation and drifted down toward the road. It slowly revolved, so that its rear was pointing at the auto Miqual stood on. As its door began to slide open, a volley of shots rang out, punching into its unprotected interior. Flames spurted out of the opening and it slewed to the side, attempted to rise before smashing into the wrecked buildings on opposite the archive. Miqual had leapt down from the auto, and began firing at the corner building where the beams had come from.
Another black ray was swiftly disabled, slewing into the wreckage that had preceded it. But it didn’t take long for the remaining ray to seek revenge. The remaining building on the corner was besieged with more rays that punched blackened holes through its structure. Miqual added his lesser force to the initiative. A rabble of figures exited the building, their rifles drawn and firing blindly into the sky. I vaguely recognised one of them from the cabin the woods. The surviving auto’s inhabitants had rallied here, but now were under fire. I wasn’t sure what we could offer – we were unarmed – but I knew that they wanted me alive. I ran in front of them, interrupting the ray’s line of fire. It cut off, and with a further growl, took a higher position. With our protectors behind me, I dashed towards the ruins of the archive. Relyan ran with me. I saw Miqual withholding fire, unable to take aim without risking the prize he’d been directed to deliver. We fell back, the archivist remnants spraying fire towards Miqual until he was forced to take shelter behind his auto. Though the rays had been smoothly disabled, they had left one in the air, which even now spun round, strafing the street with lances of flame. One of the archivists was caught in the incendiary fire, vanishing in a scream and puff of flame.
Then the ground began to rumble. It felt like aftershocks of an earthquake, except that it drew nearer, instead of fading away. A tear opened up down the road, filled with a sprawling mass of roots. They’d reached beyond the city’s borders, and punched through the substantial rock that supported the city itself. Further tremors collapsed the houses all down the road, and left us staggering from left to right, our footing made uncertain.
The black ray in the air fired almost randomly, blasting at the emerging roots desperately. But whatever they incinerated was outweighed by the next rupture in the earth, which tossed Miqual’s auto high into the air, and shattered the road we were just halfway across. The spray of fire by our allies had been quashed by the buildings’ collape – once more, strangers had given their lives for me. I was determined that they would be the last. When the glossy ruins of the archive shuddered, and fell downwards I knew that it was a signal to move. With Relyan by my side, we ran back across the road, dodging gouts of flame and ragged sidewalk. As we reached the archive its foundations split in two, rock sliding like it was a waterfall into an unseen void beneath.