We staggered back, as the rift in the ground widened, sending the remains of the archive crashing into the depths far below. The shuddering earth distracted Miqual, so at least his shots slowed. The third ray, however, being in the air was less susceptible. It refocused its attacks on the archivists, tracking them as they fled down the road. One of them was caught in its beams and erupted briefly in flame. The others vanished into more of the wrecked block. The ray returned its attention to us.
We had no place left to run. Though Miqual claimed that they wanted me alive, I imagined they would be equally satisfied with a documented kill. Relyan shoved me forwards, and we slid down the sloping road that led into the crevasse as it deepened and widened. We stood a chance of avoiding their weapons, but also increased the likelihood of our being crushed by the tumbling rocks and earth. Debris poured past us – up and down – as the subterranean mass of the archive was displaced. The ray above took to flinging beams at us erratically, anything to prevent our escape underground.
Abruptly we saw the source of the earthquake. Massive roots spiralled up out of the depths, dragging at boulders, and funnelling them up into the sky. Huge rocks flew past us, trailing cometary tails of soil, flying hundreds of feet into the air. That certainly distracted the ray. It was now swiftly receding into the air as the boulders reached their parabolas at ever greater heights. I tried not to think about the damage they would be doing to Brisingham as they came back down. As the ground tore even wider, I caught my first glimpse of white down in the deeps.
“They’re bringing the shuttle to us,” I said, jaw agape. I’d never cease to be amazed by the strength of the allforest.
“They must have been tunnelling into the rock for centuries,” Relyan exclaimed.
When we originally hid the shuttle, not all of that mass of rock had been present. We had collapsed a mountain into its neighbouring valley – resulting in the broad rocky basin that Brisingham was built on. The shuttle was concealed beneath as best we could, safe from any conceivable orbital scan and the weather. The plan would have been to blast our way out via a series of explosive charges that had been set to re-open the valley as a series of caverns to the west of the city, through which we could have flown the shuttle. But we’d have needed to get down there first. The alltree had done both parts for us, in another terrifying display of their power.
The trees dragged out and pushed the shuttle up from the depths. The ray evidently realised what was happening and swooped lower to eradicate our best chance for getting off-planet. The alltrees were prepared. The shuttle’s structure was solid enough to repel a few of the ray’s beams before doing real harm, even in its dormant state. That gave the ray time enough to become frustrated and dip into range of the allforest, which whipped out an immense rope of braided roots. They grabbed at the ray, wrapping crushingly tight around it. The ray’s engines flared to little effect in the alltrees’ grip. Unable to redirect their weapons on the clenched roots, they satisfied themselves with firing at anything, erratically vaporising chunks of Brisingham. While the trees held the attacking vessel at arms’ length, they finished extracting the shuttle. With a worrying crunch, the alltrees laid it on the remains of an adjacent road, as gently as I supposed you could with a few hundred tonnes of metal. With the way clear, they then ripped the ray from the sky, straight down into the now empty pit. The ray fired wildly, desperate to escape their obvious fate. Those beams lacerated the pit we were hiding in, bringing rubble down on themselves. They reached their destination with a gout of fire which exploded out of the pit. Searing heat washed over the crag that Relyan and I crouched behind.
Slightly singed, we quickly scrambled back out of the hole where the archives had once stood. The area had been decimated – the pit stretched over three city blocks, and around it the earth was churned as if by a giant having a tantrum – buildings shattered or upside down, road piled up in heaps, and everywhere littered with domestic detritus from the archive. All our history, scattered across the city. But we did have the shuttle. Despite its thousand year-long sleep, it still gleamed dully white under a thick coat of scratches, dents, and mud from below. A cascade of soil and stones tumbled from all sides, until just a fine, dry rain pattered down around our feet. The allforest roots unravelled themselves from the space vehicle and retracted into the pit. I didn’t expect them to tidy up after themselves, but I was concerned that the shuttle might not fly, and wondered if the allforest could fling us into space… it wasn’t a thought I wanted to see enacted. The shuttle’s shape was somewhere between an ovoid and a beetle’s shell. Usually it would be complete with legs extended to hold it off the ground, but the alltree had simply laid it on its belly. That did at least make it accessible.
The familiar dull roars of our enemy’s rays sounded in the distance. Taking out three of them had certainly gotten us some added attention. It was time to go. I unbolted and flipped open the manual hatch controls, and pressed my hand against the palm-reader. To my vast relief it flickered into life, sketching blue around my splayed fingers. Acknowledged, I could now pull down the handle that should release the outer seals. As I reached for the bright orange handle, a bullet bounced off the hatch by my shoulder. Miqual was, inevitably, still alive, and shooting. I heard Relyan cry out in surprise. I flinched, hunched in anticipation of further shots, but grabbed the handle hard and hauled it down anyway – we were too close to escape, and I wouldn’t be seized and taken off anywhere again. I’d been right to expect a further shot, but the feel of it tearing through my shoulder shocked me. The impact slammed me into the shuttle hatch, my blood bright on the shuttle’s patchy white. I half-turned to seize Relyan by the wrist as the hatch slid open with a sharp grinding sound that made us all wince. Even Miqual, who I could now see, involuntarily raised both hands towards his ears. I’d never been grateful for soil caught in hinges before. With the momentary distraction, I thrust Relyan through the hatch, and dived after her.
Another shot rang out, ricocheting around the metal interior. We hugged the deck, hoping it would just bounce back out. It was quickly followed by Miqual himself, who leapt into the outer hatch, rifle raised for another go. I was just beginning to realise how much it hurt to get shot, and struggled to push myself up the wall by the hatch. Relyan responded far more fiercely, spinning to her feet with a long, slender bar of metal she’d torn from the wall – the emergency key for unlocking the hatch manually – and she caught Miqual viciously around the jaw as he was mid-stride, with an appalling sound of cracking bone. He was flung into the wall next to me by the force of the blow. I reached my feet and slapped at the hatch close controls. It slid shut, with slightly less of an agonised shriek than before.
I was bleeding profusely from the hole in my shoulder, the wall and floor slippery underfoot. Relyan cautiously approached Miqual, who lay, also bleeding on the floor. His jaw was very clearly broken – the bone displaced, and already terribly swollen; blood drooled from between his lips, where Relyan had probably smashed his teeth. Relyan tested his awareness with a considerably gentler jab with the key. He made no sign of consciousness. She disarmed him, slinging the rifle over her shoulder, and removing a pistol from a holster at his waist. That taken care of, she turned to me.
“Well, that’s inconvenient,” she said, “you can’t go into orbit like that.”
Relyan was right – I would bleed horribly, and could even be enveloped by a bulging bubble of my own blood until I drowned in it. I hated my imagination for providing that.
“We need to get off planet, right now,” I replied, “let’s get into the ship and then worry about it.”
Relyan applied her hand to the inner hatch’s scanner. It glowed around her palm again and slid open, this one with no more than a little hesitancy, and it could be forgiven that for its first use in a millennium. As it turned out, I could walk, but twisting was fairly awful. It was “only” a shoulder wound, as Relyan helpfully pointed out. I had no intention of letting Miqual loose in the ship’s interior, unconscious or not. The best we could do was strap him into the emergency crash seats that unfolded from the wall. That might save him from the forces of take-off. Then we sealed him into the hatch. Soon Miqual would be unable to open the outer hatch either by palmprint because we would be in space, or manually, since Relyan had borrowed the release key to hit him with. The inner hatch was a simpler matter to override, and then block with that same metal bar. We would have to do something about him later, but we had bigger problems.
With Relyan’s arm around my waist we tottered along the wide corridor. The cockpit was our sole priority, and we burst into it with relief. I fell into one of the crash chairs that were arranged around the room in a tight arc, all facing a rotatable bank of screens and monitors. Relyan took the central chair, and dragged the control panel around to face her. While she tapped at the interface, I fumbled under my chair for the emergency kit – there were dozens of them scattered around the shuttle – and laid it in my lap. A fine layer of dust and grease lay across the chair, the box, everything. It was the only real sign that we had been gone so long. Despite that, it felt achingly familiar. My priority was to attend to my wound: I screamed as I tugged my shirt down over my shoulder, distracting Relyan, who gave me an annoyed look with thinned lips. I waved her away and tore open a compression bandage with my teeth. I laid it over the bullet wound and fingered the edge of the bandage to trigger its morphic properties. I held back another scream as it stretched out to encompass the upper part of my torso, and then squeezed until the blood stopped flowing. I’d need proper attention later, but for now at least I wouldn’t bleed to death. I gritted my teeth and cleaned most of the blood from my hands so I could help Relyan.
The panels indicated that we had full power, recently restored. Whatever residual energy we’d buried it with would have been long gone. I simply hadn’t thought of it – the blurry grasp of my former lives were still assembled poorly in my brain – I had fallen some way from my previous leadership skills. It was a miracle that the alltree must have accomplished by re-interfacing with the shuttle’s batteries, resuming one of their original functions – power supply. But we were stuck on the ground. Without our landing gear we were unable to immediately apply the vertical thrusters. If we did it flat on the ground they would just blast holes beneath us. We needed to get a little bit off the ground.
“Jenn, do you see that ray there?” Relyan pointed at the main screen which gave us the view directly ahead. One of the downed rays jutted up out of what I thought was once the theatre.
It took me a moment to realise what she had in mind.
“Well, it’s a bit like a ramp…” that was all I had time to say before she activated the horizontal thrusters, on the rear end of the shuttle.
They fired up, fast, and we set off, scraping across the rubble. There were many obstructions beneath us, all sharp and I feared we’d rip the shuttle open. Relyan didn’t allow us much time for that worry. Just as we started to snake from side to side, she slammed the thrusters to full and we audibly tore along the road. I gripped the arms of my chair hard enough to make my shoulder hurt, and Relyan pressed herself back in her seat. The ramp was upon us in moments, and we slid straight up it. Even as it collapsed under the shuttle’s weight, Relyan triggered the vertical thrusters and we spun into the air.
The ramp was at an odd angle, and Relyan had turned all the thrusters on as hard as she dared, so we began to turn even as we lifted off the ground. For a moment it looked like we might just flip over entirely, but Relyan managed to wrangle our shuttle with its conflicting velocities into a wide turn, taking us on a quick and unintentional tour of Brisingham. I watched her fearsome grin with a mixture of admiration and horror. Rays appeared above the city, and we swept by them. As soon as we evened out, Relyan steered us straight up, racing for the edge of the atmosphere, outracing the rays, crushing us into our crash chairs, and into space.
It took the allforest hours to wind its way all the way inside the strangers’ last colony ship. The huge forested vessel squatted on top