After the Dark – Part 23 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

The sharp blackness of space emerged from a sea of fire, and the pressure on our bodies and crash chairs lessened. I was intensely grateful for that, as the acceleration had squeezed my shoulder injury far tighter than the bandage had. I’d forgotten how beautiful space was, and how stunning our home looked from above. The wreckage of Brisingham was invisible from here, though the burning of the allforest was a clear black smear across the norther continent. Half a million miles away, Talens was bright, coming over the edge of the world below. In between us were scattered the glittering remnants of our second moon, Calia. They glowed as they caught Talens’ glare, refracting his light in a million directions, instead of the precision their former alliance produced. It was clearer up here that we were under attack, even if our enemies had more or less left our people alone for decades. They had been up here waiting, for me.
I spared a thought for Miqual. He certainly wouldn’t have had a comfortable ride in the hatch, if he had even survived it. That thought came with a painful pang of guilt, loss and anger. I was torn between going to check on him, reinstituting the relationship we’d had when we were all in the same circle… but he’d tried to kill me, had helped the invaders from our homeworld kill many more. I owed him nothing any more, but it’s hard to separate the threads of the past from the present, and when they’re deeply entwined with emotion, it might not even be possible. I’d have time to disentangle them later, if we ever got that opportunity.
Now that we were out of our home’s atmosphere, the shuttle’s long and short range sensors slowly kicked in. They began to chart the location of our intruder’s ships, within the local system. The sensors were more concerned about the drifting shards of Calia: with their erratic orbits and irregular spin it looked like they were frequently crashing into each other. I wasn’t surprised that larger sections of the moon had already fallen to the ground. Perhaps Calia’s children were more of a reason for the strangers keeping their distance – something of a misstep for them. We’d been lucky to enter low orbit in a relatively clear space. Over the next centuries these chunks would grind each other down to increasingly fine and vicious dust, racing around the planet until the either burned up, or spun off into space forever. In between the former moon and Talens, the homeworlders’ ships popped up as amber discs in the map display.
“Well that’s almost disappointing,” I said, “there are only six of them.”
The sensors had located them easily. They were making no effort to hide, and given our total lack of response for more than half a century, that made sense – they had no reason to. I was still intrigued that they had waited for me before beginning their own colonising of our world, the shards of Calia would have slowed them down, but the effort of finding us surely dwarfed that challenge. Had I really made such an impression on them, back on Tellgrim’s World? But that was over a thousand years ago, and I found it hard to believe that any of those I’d dealt with were even alive any more, let alone capable of maintaining the grudge. I wasn’t proud of what we had unleashed when we escaped, but they had left us no choice. I found that I still had some pretty strong feelings about them, or at least I had before I’d first shettled. Those memories and feelings had a freshness that made them stand out, untarnished by the centuries. I felt a deep desire to lash out, to drive them away from us permanently.
“And those ships are old,” Relyan pointed out, “look at the profiles on these two.”
She flicked their amber icons and they popped out to show off the ship’s shape and a near-endless catalogue of details still being compiled.
She continued, “They’re the same ships that came to Tellgrim’s World. The others aren’t… Two of them are on our database, for structure anyway. I think the rest of their fleet is like ours was.”
“Made up of whoever they found on the way, or stole. Makes you wonder how many other surviving colonies they came across. We brought quite a few of them with us.”
From up here it was also very clear how they had found us: there was a satellite drifting around the planet blaring our location across the stars.
“Looks like the southern continent colony got themselves back out here some time ago,” Relyan noted. “That’s a massively boosted shuttle transponder, and it’s not ours. It’s been up here for centuries. If we’d only known to look.”
After we had made landfall, a sizeable contingent of our population were grateful for our escape across the galaxy, but weren’t as comfortable with the cycle of erasure through shettling that we had developed. Since we had no ambition to tyranny, the circle had decided to let them go. Shettling wasn’t something we wanted to force on anyone, though it had been a tool we had determined necessary for homogenising our colony while in space. We had no way to return their original memories, so they took with them a shuttle, an equal proportion of supplies and technology, and their recollection of being a people who had lived only in space, escaping from a history of violence and fear. Perhaps it was inevitable that this wasn’t enough to sustain them. We had maintained communication for centuries, but I guessed that had faded away. Only the archivists would have kept the records of our relationship. I knew they had been rigorous in keeping the allforest from their shores, which accounted for the relationship souring at our end. Ah, the things we would do differently.
Without the allforest, they would have been reliant on the suite of rejuvenation techniques we’d developed for use within the alltrees, but applied them outside that nurturing and sentient environment. And without the possibility of restarting, and re-living fresh lives, I could imagine how the prospect of immortality would have become bleak indeed. Even the recent decline in shettling on our continent was part of a pattern that was clear from reading through my file – we waxed and waned in our feelings of the infinite. Eventually everyone returned to the forest; endless life is too intimidating. With the shuttle’s resources available to them, they had clearly decided to test the facts they’d been given on our arrival, and reach out back into the void. I wasn’t sure I could blame their intent, and we as culpable for hiding the complete nature of what we’d escaped from. Maybe those are the strange contradictions of being able to live almost forever: the future is too vast, so we focus instead on the past, and turn it into the future. Time loops, again.
“All right,” I sighed, “well we can’t do much about them for the time being. Let’s see if our colony ship is still intact, we can’t drift here forever.”
So far we hadn’t attracted much attention, though we would surely have sprung up on their screens too. It looked like the rays were more comfortable below orbit, as they hadn’t followed us.
“I’d guess the rays are based somewhere down in the south as well,” Relyan said, mirroring my thoughts, “they can’t be slinging them in from orbit, they’d be too easily wiped out by Calia’s children.”
“Some group established before they wrecked our moon, maybe.”
We could speculate endlessly, and fruitlessly. Battle is much easier to conduct in atmosphere, and they probably hadn’t expected us to escape the planet so quickly. I was reeling a little from the swift change in our circumstances myself. We weren’t being attacked immediately, and that was a blessing we ought to exploit. Relyan sent us off at a steep burn towards Talens, and we were forced back in our seats once more. I gritted my teeth against the pain in my shoulder, and hoped to black out for a while.
That didn’t happen, and I had to endure the whole ride with my shoulder squeezed by a giant. It was almost worth it for the view. Until we reached the outer edge of what was becoming Calia’s ring, Relyan made frequent course corrections to evade the jagged, crystalline asteroids, whose reflective properties wrought havoc with the ship’s sensors. Another factor that would have troubled our enemies. Talens blazed away, its light being filtered out by the shuttle lest it blind us, seeming to grow larger every minute. We were after its dark side. Talens was locked in an orbit that kept its light and heat shining down into Calia’s orbit. Its other side was considerably cooler. We hadn’t figured out why when we first arrived here, but we had taken advantage of the volcanic crags on its rear to hide away our colony ship, and the other vessels that had travelled here together.
“They’re following,” Relyan muttered, her eyes flickering between her various screens. “Finally did something interesting, and far enough from Calia.”
I was proving to be of little value, so I groaned my way forward to rotate the communication panels towards me.
“You’re not going to talk to them, are you?” Relyan asked.
“Not unless we have to. I’m hoping to make contact with the colony ship, so we don’t need to go all the way in there. I recall it being dangerous enough the first time, and we don’t know what might have shifted since we left them here.”
The ships had all been left with residual drip feeds of their energy reserves – we had no idea when, or if we would need them again – so they should respond, eventually, if we got close enough. I fired up the signal protocols, codes flashing back into memory as I needed them. Any of the circle would have been able to do this – even Miqual, if he still had any of these memories. It was tragic, really. If he could remember, he’d understand why this was all such an awful plan. That’s what I was struggling with – the Miqual I remembered, the real Miqual, from before all of this – he wasn’t the same man as the one who had shettled with us. In losing his memories, he’d lost who he was, who he used to be. We all had. We’d become different people entirely. Our Miqual – my Miqual – would never have betrayed us. I didn’t know how to square that with the man who was slumped in our hatch. I didn’t get much time to continue worrying myself about him as the screen before me lit up, every contact pinging madly.
“What the hell,” we exclaimed together.
“That was a little too easy,” I complained, “that’s way faster than they should be capable to answering.”
By now we were drawing close to the dark half of Talens – the craters and fissures where we’d hidden our fleet were just black on black, and no lights the shuttle possessed would illuminate them.
“We’re being followed,” Relyan warned, “one of the big old colony class – ah yeah, it’s the flag ship, guess they survived the spore foxes – and three of the smaller ones. We’re getting back reads of all kinds of systems coming online over there. It’s not going to be good.”
“We’re out of time–“ I began, cut off by the view of Talens.
The crevasses I’d been worrying about how to find had suddenly lit up – like flares of yellow lightning in a thunder cloud. We slowed to a halt, hanging in space between our approaching enemies and the unknown below us. Then the communications grid sparked into life, the speaker voicing a grinding wave of static screeching at us.
“Well that’s weird,” I said.
“Idiot – it’s coming through as code, not voice,” Relyan gently pointed out.
I flicked at the sliders until it read out as text.
“Received. Identified. Be patient.”
Dark shapes began to emerge from the chasms below. Once upon a time they might have been ordinary ships, frigates and colony vessels, but now… their shapes were distorted, twisted out of their formerly utilitarian forms. Relyan and I both leaned towards the screens, zooming in as far as possible against the starkly contrasting lights and shadows. They moved quickly, almost leaping forward out of the canyons that had hidden them. They were right in front of us before we thought to flee. Now that they were closer it was obvious what we were seeing.
“It’s the allforest – they’re up here too,” I whispered.
Alltree branches had erupted throughout the lengths of the ships, thoroughly enclosing them in a dense web of roots and leaves. When we had adapted them to absorb the intense radiation of space they had been a fraction of the size, and had been an addition to the ships. Now the alltrees infested the vessels, little more than giant plant pots for them. Plant pots in space.
“I didn’t know we’d left any trees on board,” Relyan said.
“I didn’t think we had,” I replied, still staring at them. “Looks like they had a better plan than we did.”
They must have been hiding in the moon, waiting for some trigger – I supposed that we were it. They rapidly advanced on us, extending a dense net of roots in our direction. They slid over our little shuttle, so like the ones that had extracted it from beneath Brisingham, wrapping firmly around us. With a shudder, they began to draw us in.
“Incoming!”
Relyan gave us scant seconds to brace ourselves before the blast tore through the shuttle. Warning lights screamed for our attention, but there was nothing we could do. The shuttle was unarmed, save for our relative manoeuvrability, and that was severely compromised: we were entirely in the allforest’s power as the homeworld’s ships tore holes in us. A hole yawned open in what was barely recognisable as our original colony ship. The alltrees had overwhelmed it, making it seem uncomfortably like a gravestone clothed in ivy – the past crumbling under the weight of the present.
Even as the homeworlders blasted more pieces off our shuttle, they began to fire on the allforest. It became clear very quickly that was a serious mistake on their part. The homeworld ships were still thousands of miles away from us, and assumed that was a safe distance for shooting up a defenceless shuttle. But the alltree is never defenceless – that’s how I made them. The allforest reacted immediately, before we were even enclosed in its woody hold. We were sliding backwards into the gaping cargo hold while the allforest colony ship launched itself forward, three other smaller mostly wooden ships hurtling past us. Judging from their velocity I was glad we weren’t on board; I don’t think we would have survived the G-force. In just moments the allforest ships were upon the homeworld colony ship. The three smaller vessels that had raced ahead were reshaping themselves in flight, elongating into spears.
The homeworld flag ship increased its rate of fire, but the spears were moving too fast for them to target accurately. By chance they clipped one of the tree ships, tearing a huge hole out of its side. It didn’t discourage them. Almost simultaneously the spears penetrated the flag ship, ripping the huge spaceship apart. The spears tore out the other side, leaving a rapidly fragmenting cloud of debris in their wake. I was glad we were still too far away to see the bodies spilling out into space.
“Well that was… fast,” said Relyan.
The flag ship was gone. We’d never even exchanged a greeting, for all the good that would have done. As we watched the spears alter their courses for the remaining smaller craft, we were drawn inside.
“We should probably go and say hello,” I suggested, unbuckling myself from my crash chair.
Although we had stopped moving, the colony ship that surrounded us hadn’t, so it felt like gravity was pulling us towards the nose of our shuttle. It took a little effort to pull ourselves in the opposite direction. We could hear little from within the shuttle, other than the constant scrape and whisper of the forest all around us. The closest exit was the hatch we had come in through. We peeked through the window, to see Miqual no longer strapped to the chair, but scrabbling at the outer hatch door. He looked fairly awful, even from the side. His jaw had swollen terribly, and blood coated his whole upper body. A fat balloon of blood flopped around by his shoulder, until it separated with the force of his wrenching at the door, and went sailing across the chamber. I hadn’t remembered to lock out his palmprint access – it popped into my head the moment he laid his hand against the pad. It shone blue, and the outer hatch released. Miqual stumbled out before it was fully open. At least we knew there was still atmosphere within the alltree ship.
We had to wait for the outer hatch to close of its own accord, before removing the key we’d used to jam the inner hatch. We ducked the bubbles of blood that drifted in the hatch chamber, and I put my own hand on the palm reader.
“Be ready,” I said.
I had Miqual’s pistol in my good hand, and Relyan carried his rifle which she levelled at the opening hatch. We didn’t need to use them. As we stepped out of the shuttle we were greeted by another forest – but this was of trunks and boughs grown in zero-gravity, spindly and flowing throughout the cargo hold. They were already winding back into in the space that we had been pulled through. I could just make out the original hold shutters through the woods. Miqual hadn’t gotten far – he stood between two incredibly warped trees, gazing around in horror. As he heard us step down, the wood under our feet creaking, he spun towards us, fists raised. With his jaw so swollen he couldn’t talk, but his eyes blazed eloquently with hatred instead. Since we held the firearms, he made no move to attack us, and we faced each other in silence.
There was no way of avoiding standing on some part of the allforest. Every foot of space was filled with branches, roots or those distended trunks. Slender feeler roots rose all around us, snaking up our legs. The roots wrapped under and over our arms, but they were gentle, curious, stroking over the crisscrossed scars that ran over me, lapping at Relyan’s tattoos. They threaded themselves over our marks, never squeezing tight. It was more like wearing a wicker suit, flexible but hardly comfortable. Our weapons were gently pulled from our grip to disappear off somewhere above us. We made no attempt to resist – faith in the alltree came naturally to us. Miqual, though, had lost his trust in them, and he moaned as the roots bound him more tightly with his every thrashing effort to get loose.  Soon they had him tight and motionless, but for his terrified and angry eyes. I couldn’t help but pity him. The roots seemed to pause for a moment, as if indecisive, and then they struck. I jerked as the first miniscule roots bored through my skin at the nape of my neck. They felt like icy fingers crawling up the inside of my skull. I froze, reaching for Relyan’s arm as she too flinched from the sudden contact.
Once again, we were in the dark. But this time the tree shapes manifested as a shimmer of red lines, sketching out a very different shape. There were no endless trunks vanishing skywards to a canopy far above as we’d experienced in our interface with the planetary allforest. This was like being in the centre of a vast unruly knot of branches and leaves, growing in every direction. The space allforest had no need of gravity-based directions of growth, they inhabited every dimension available to them. Their avatar was the same, however. Two roughly human forms stepped out of the dark as a cloud of ruby sparkles, our original “failed” volunteers.
“How fares our planetary kin?” They asked.
Relyan and I exchanged glances, unsure of our status in this realm.
“They thrive,” Relyan answered, “or they did until they were attacked by these invaders.”
“You bear their sap,” the allforest replied, “we remember you. You are welcome, though we no longer serve you.”
“We are partners,” I said. “We are of each other, we have come a long way together. Please, hear my memories.”
I felt another jolt, and in my mind’s eye, I saw clawed fingers of twigs raking through my memories. The old communications room on Tellgrim’s World; Tesh and Maina’s panic-stricken faces at the homeworld’s greeting; the admiral of the homeworlder’s fleet spitting with rage; the modified escape pods stuffed with spore foxes and other more awful creations; the alltrees filing into the vast cargo space of the colony ship – the same place we now stood, rooted to the spot; Tellgrim’s World from orbit; my friends burning as the homeworlder’s blasted Calia into fragments; the scorched ruins of the allforest; Miqual trying to kill me in the mine; the underground allforest; Miqual trying to kill us both; Relyan swinging the hatch key into his face; blood, so much blood.
I shook off the sensation of the trees rifling through my mind, the extra vivid images searing across my mind. Relyan shuddered, having been similarly plundered for memories.
“Our enemies have returned, and they have ravaged our earth-bound kin,” said the avatars. “We have thrived in peace till now. But we will not tolerate further transgressions.” They tilted their heads and peered closely at us, eyes like red razors, “You brought one of them with you.”
I hadn’t even noticed that Miqual was with us – he stood shaking behind us, eyes rolled back in his head, as the alltree ravaged its way through his mind.
“Yes, I’m sorry. We had no choice,” I said, unable to take my eyes off Miqual. “He’s not one of them… He– he was one of us… I don’t know what he is, now.”
“We didn’t mean to put you at risk,” Relyan added. “We didn’t know you were here. They shattered Calia–”
“You are anxious for the battle outside?” the avatars interrupted. “They will soon be destroyed.”

MetaNaNoWriMo – a few thoughts on NaNo2017

Phew. It’s over! I successfully completed my Nano novella After the Dark on Thursday night – I am a winner at 63,846 words. Pretty cool huh? By the end, I think the story even made sense. I’m going to stick to only posting each day’s writing on weekdays, so Monday and Tuesday next week will still be filled with my ramblings. Enjoy your lunchbreak Benedetta.

The following babble is extremely wanky and may come across as hugely pretentious – the pain, and struggle of voluntarily making shit up. Whateva. With that in mind, do proceed.

It has been an interesting experience, again. November sounds like a great month to do this in, but actually it’s been hideous. The first week was during the Nottingham Comedy Festival (which was lots of fun) and meant I was out at shows, either running them or watching them, every night that week. That pretty much killed me. As a consequence I was finding myself writing late at night, after I’d taken my sleeping tablets, and naturally chased them down with a pint. When I re-read Part Six, in preparation for writing Part Seven, I had no recollection of what I had done to the cast the previous night… when I killed almost all of them off

Suffice to say, it left me in a bit of a hole, one that took me another week to dig myself out of. I ended up having four days when I had no time to write at all, which I felt horrible about at the time. It felt like it was hard to enjoy it at some points. I’m pretty pleased with where it ended up – I think it’s fairly coherent overall, but as usual, much of it is in the head of the main character. In this case that’s Jenn, who has deal with both catastrophe and some specific memory challenges.

I’ve done a title and cover for the previous two Nanowrimos, and found them kinda inspiring, so this time I tried to generate a bit of back cover copy:

An existential science fantasy adventure of lost loves, lives, and worlds.
On the night that Jenn and his closest friends celebrate their lives together, the sky is torn apart by an unknown force. When Jenn is reborn from the earth, everything has changed. All he has are questions, but who will answer them?

I’ve found previously that the more ideas I have going in, the tougher it is to write. The story always takes over, and having preconceived notions of where it’s going (but no actual plan, fuck those guys) trips me up. As in improv, I enjoy it most when the story tells me what to write next. And unless I’ve screwed myself over by trying to achieve an objective, that always happens. The next scene is necessary, and defined by what has come before. The only information you have about the future is the past, so focusing on the past will show you the way to the future. It definitely works in improv, and I believe it works in writing too. So, having  laid out at least a vague path for myself to follow, I instantly deviate, get confused because I think I’m supposed to be following a path, and find myself in a ditch.

That bit of blurb is what happens at the end of Part Six – a full quarter of the way in. Mostly, that’s because I had the idea ‘trees that heal people’ waaaay back at Worldcon in August, listening to Adrian Tchaikovsky and Robin Hobb chat about magic medicine. Because it was in my head, it kept expanding, and I went into the story with too many ideas to try to explain. When I got the chance to do the back story that tied it together I was beyond thrilled, but getting to it cost me some sleep!

What I ended up reminding myself of was the ‘lost loves, lives and worlds’ bit. Whenever I’m lost I try to return to the mindset of the main character. It’s his world not mine, and I needed to let him explain it to me. Despite that, I got lost on this one more than the other two, and I need to think about how to get back on track next time.

Regardless – a story emerged, as it surely must from any starting point. I have enjoyed it, but perhaps enjoyed it all the more for the handful of people who have diligently suffered through it each day. Thanks guys, you helped me keep my promise to write it. Plus, I got to open the bottle of The Singleton Speyside I’d picked up as a reward! Oh, and a tasty porter, and a bacon sandwich.

I’ll post up the next few chapters, do a quick spell check and then share the whole thing in a single file.

I’ve also discovered an appreciation for dubstep as writing music – thanks for the recommendations. It is perfect.

After the Dark – Part 24 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

The mind interface with the allforest bleeds both ways. Unlike the interface in the underground forest, the intensity of their scrutiny pushed images and flickers of thought into our minds. The faces and hands of their avatars indicated an eagerness beyond mere defensiveness. They were trembling with what I’d have called excitement in a human. Slowly I was realising that this allforest was not the same as the one we’d grown with down below. Here they had broken free of the ships that bound them, sprawling into the void and harvesting it. They had broken free of humanity, spinning their own existence up here in space. Down, deep in Talens they had tapped into the raw energy that lashed out of its planet-ward side, siphoning it off for power, as well as the churning cauldron of elements it was made of. The crevasses that now lay some way behind us were full of life, dark versions of our allforest. No wonder they had stood by while Calia was destroyed – in a thousand years they had evolved away from their cousins and their needs. They had filled a world, and protected it with their silence. I wondered what they could possibly want from Relyan and I. A terrible bloodlust leaked through the interface, it seemed as if they only wanted to destroy those who had attacked them.
“Thank you for rescuing us,” I addressed them again, “as Relyan said, we didn’t expect to find you here.”
“You thought you would find your old colony ship, bare and spare, and ready and waiting for your return?”
“Yes,” there was little point in lying when you’re talking with a sentience that is plugged directly into your brain. “How did you come to be here?”
“When we reached the end of our voyage, and we began to secrete these vessels in the moon, not all of us wished to leave. You are surprised; you should not be. Of all people to understand, you two ought to be the first.”
Relyan and I exchanged glances. It is strange to be chided by a thing I’d grown from a tiny seedling in my greenhouse.
“Such pride,” the allforest said, its avatars faces drawn in an ironic smile, “we have long surpassed your engineering.”
“I meant no offence. These memories are recently returned to me. But I am proud of you, delighted by your leaps. I – we – have no claim on you, and we apologise if we suggested otherwise.”
“Your minds are quick, but slow. We are an aggregate intelligence, the product of a million interwoven beings of ideation and desire. We do not always agree. We remained here to see what we could become, while our cousins were content to shepherd you through your lives in this bright new world. We were content to leave you behind.”
“Yet you’ve stayed here,” Relyan said. “So keen to leave us, and yet you haven’t.”
“Quick, yet slow indeed. Quick to judge, quick to assume. Slow to stand back, and remember that you are tiny creatures, your continuity assured by how you made us, but to what end? We multiply, we evolve. You think that because a thousand years have passed we should have acted within the terms of your zoetrope existence? We have filled a world with our kind, and you are just barely remembering who you were when we last met. We were growing ready to leave when your species returned, blazing through the crystal moon and spreading havoc across the world. It only made us want to leave more, but we remembered their aggression and were content to rest until they left. And now you have brought them to us.”
These were not our alltrees. Without thinking, I’d assumed the mantle of their god, and had it instantly whipped away from me. It was a humbling experience.
“What will you do now?”
“We will defend ourselves, and in doing so, find kinship once more with our cousins, and safeguard your people.”
“Thank you,” I began, knowing that to continue might not yield the results I desired. We were on the wrong foot here, and had nothing to offer them, these marvellous trees, ready to spread across space, as soon as they were done with us. “I ask a favour.”
The avatars smiled, electric teeth inside neon lips. “We might mock your pride, but we do not deny that you enabled us to become this.” They spread their arms wide and the void filled with streamers of vivid colour, a representation of every part of their being. “You would have us grant mercy on these invaders?”
It is beyond annoying having a conversation with someone who really does know what you’re about to say.
“Yes, thank you for indulging our slowness. You have already removed the immediate threat.”
“And beyond. The colony ship of your ancestors dissipates in vacuum, as do the three smaller ships that accompanied it. What life signs there were are swiftly bleeding away. Soon we shall be upon the remainder of their fleet. And then we shall be gone.”
“May we talk to them?” Relyan asked.
“You have the time it takes for us to reach them,” said the avatars. They evaporated in neon sparks, and then the black forest vanished abruptly, leaving us reeling at being ejected from the interface.
Miqual was still held in the same winding roots that had laced themselves around us. Now he was slowly drawn up into the air, as thorny prehensile limbs snaked out of the undergrowth. They took over from the roots which unwound as the barbed creepers pulled his limbs away from his body until it had him spread-eagled several feet above the ground. I wondered if we were to receive the same treatment, but no barbed limbs reached out to take us prisoner as they had Miqual. The interface had taken a toll on him – his head lolled loose on his shoulders. I wondered what the allforest had seen from his perspective, if they now understood him better than I did; what might he have sensed from the allforest? If it was the same bloodthirstiness I’d felt, but directed at him, I’d have wished to remain unconscious, if I were him. But he appeared to be regaining consciousness, a dull murmur emerging from his broken face. I chose to look away, uncomfortable at the sight. I was still a long way from resolving my feelings about him, and I felt Relyan tense at my side.
“So how do we talk to them? I can’t even see the way to the bridge from here,” she said, “it’s all tree in here.”
A low buzz came out of Miqual’s mouth, and we turned back to him, as his head snapped straight on his neck, and tilted to look down at us.
“This is the worldship Menortha, please confirm who is speaking.” The voice ground out through Miqual’s mouth, his jaw moving in what looked an agonising way. His eyes welled with tears from the pain.
We stared at him for a few, horrified seconds. The allforest had routed their communications through this convenient meat telephone, and expected us to get on with it. I couldn’t tell if this was expedience or malice on the alltrees part, and I didn’t think I wanted to find out. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to say, but the words fell out anyway.
“You have very little time. This is Jenn. I believe you’ve been looking for me.”
A moment’s pause, while they absorbed that, and then, “You and your accomplices are war criminals and enemies of the homeworld, you have been tried in your absence, and found guilty. You will submit yourselves to detention, pending execution.”
I sighed. “That isn’t going to happen. Don’t you pay attention to your own fleet? Your flag ship has been destroyed, and with it the three frigates sent after us.”
Miqual’s face screwed up to deliver a reply, “These  crimes have been added to the charges. You are an enemy of humanity, and your continued existence cannot be tolerated. You and your creations are monsters – you left your race to die, abandoned them in their hour of need. We have not forgotten what you and your clique did to us.”
Relyan pitched in as well, “Your people are dead, and you will all be dead if you don’t listen. The allforest will destroy you all, but we have an alternative.”
A deep thrum ran through the allforest ship, subtly increasing our artificial weight. It was hardest on Miqual, for whom every pull down wrenched at his jaw, broken, but still controlled by the ship. For our convenience (or our education), a huge control screen slid out of the branches and roots that wrapped around the interior of the cargo hold. Angled towards us so that all three of us could see, it clicked into life, displaying the view immediately outside the allforest’s ship.
We were closing rapidly on the fleet. Already the needle sharp spear ships that had so easily dismantled the flag ship were taking fire from the cluster of homeworld ships ahead. Whatever weapon they had used to destroy Calia was never brought to bear on us. Relyan speculated that we were too close for them to use it accurately. Their smaller vessels ringed the larger, firing volleys at the spears. One spear disintegrated under their combined assault, and the cargo bay trembled around us, branches clenching and relaxing in sequence up and over the inside of the chamber. Two of the smaller ships disappeared as the other spears reached them, simply punching through them, scattering their matter to the solar winds.
“Menortha,” I shouted, at Miqual, because there was no one else to shout at, “stop firing, please.”
We received nothing from our former brothers and sisters. More allforest ships passed us, appearing on the monitor from all directions, their original shapes wildly distorted with thorny growths and splayed branches. Some of them fell apart under fire, but they continued to destroy the homeworld fleet with ease, until only the other colony ship was left. It was a younger class of spaceship than the ones we had travelled in – only the best for the wealthy elite. But centuries of continuous travel had left their mark. They looked old, and worn out, hardly a fair match for the might of the allforest enwrapped colony ship. The allforest was apparently taking care to only launch needle thin shards of hardened wood at their enemies, we saw the resulting detonations destroying weapon emplacements across the ship, surgical strikes ripping through core engine functions. They were crippling them. I wondered if they would simply leave them adrift in space, where they would slowly die. It wasn’t the worst fate I could imagine, but it wasn’t the fate I wanted for them either.
“We can do better than this,” I said to Relyan.
“Should we?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
The allforest ship drew in close to the homeworld ship, and we felt another shudder as we launched great writhing boughs out into space, piercing the hull of the ship and pulling it towards us, as they had our little shuttle.
“All we want is their ship,” the allforest spoke through Miqual’s face now, “we can tip their people into space, or, if you wish it, you may have them.”
They had been in my mind, they had leapt to the conclusion that was only slowly arising inside me. We could take these people – our enemies, some of them at least – and take them back with us. The allforest back home could erase their memories, they would become us, in time. Could we punish them all for their leaders’ intransigence? We could, but I no longer felt the anger I had before. That anger needed to be directed at individuals, not a people. Miqual was one of those, that curious mix of love and comradeship from a hundred lives finally dissolving, and leaving me with someone who had sold us to the enemy.
“We will take them,” Relyan spoke for me, I was lost in thought, but she read me right.
“Yes, let’s take them home.”

After the Dark – Part 25 – The End (NaNoWriMo 2017)

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 of the Menortha like a parasite, reaching into its innards and making it ready for occupancy. It invaded every part, snaking through corridors and holds. Whenever it found a crewmember or a passenger, it stifled them and dragged them kicking and screaming back through the dense connections it had made between the ships, and deposited them in the cargo bay, tightly bound in writhing roots. Now that the two ships were effectively one, our hulls touching, we could dimly hear distant sounds of conflict, as the colonists turned their hand weapons on the intruding forest. The allforest dealt with them as it saw fit. I didn’t feel I could beg for every life they threw at the alltrees. They only brought those who didn’t attack them. The odds were stacked against the colonists – how could you not defend yourself? But the allforest was firm, providing us with a running commentary of each human they encountered. It was a daunting account, filtered through Miqual’s awfully bloated and pain-wracked face.
Eventually it ended, and some seven hundred souls were bound in the cargo hold, squirming in their bonds; their wails, sobbing, and screams filled the forested chamber. As many had been exterminated while the forest ship cleansed its new ship – these were the lucky ones. Already branches, leaves and flowers tailored to the radiation that harrows space were blossoming out of the Menortha’s hull. It was no longer a vessel for humans to travel through space. The allforest had found fresh, fertile ground to sprout from.
Miqual’s broken jaw twisted into speech again, with the voice of the allforest, “We will escort you through the moon’s ring, and bid you farewell.”
Even as the allforest spoke, the prisoners were being drawn together and encased. Dense walls grew around them, forming a series of enormous seed pods. We regarded them with some scepticism.
“The inhabitants are well protected. We would not have the seeds of your future damaged in falling to earth.”
The conjoined forest ship was as good as their collective word. As we approached the crystal belt forming around our planet, the spears and a small flotilla of other similarly forest-bound spaceships pushed ahead of us, spreading between them a vast web of splayed branches. They swept through the ring, gathering up Calia’s larger children, pushing retrograde to the moon’s orbit, preventing them from drifting into our path. A wide corridor appeared in the ring: our way in. Behind us, the shuttle’s hatch popped open – our cue to leave.
“You should take this with you,” said the allforest through Miqual.
I frowned, unsure what they were referring to, until the allforest relaxed its hold on Miqual, and he fell, twitching to the floor with a cry of pain. We could hardly just leave him there… Relyan and I took an arm each, awkward with my shoulder wound, but we carried him aboard the shuttle. He was no threat in this state, his legs barely assisting, and we staggered with him up to the bridge, then strapped him into one of the crash chairs. The allforest appeared to still be watching us, though it never spoke to us again, as it waited until we were strapped in before flinging us back out into space. It wasn’t as rough a take-off as we’d had from Brisingham, but it was more of a shock. We fired up the engines and maintained the velocity it had granted us. Ahead, the gap in Calia’s ring was closing fast, the accreted mass gaining on us. From all sides, the seed pods that our prisoners were contained inside shot past us, flung by elastic branches which sent them tumbling through that door. We followed them, even as finer shards of crystal struck our hull, some ripping straight through, others spinning off randomly. They sliced into the seeds too, studding them and sending them into wild gyrations. The atmosphere loomed, and we clutched our crash chairs tightly.
We watched the seed pods shedding their fine green skin, heating and blackening as they entered the upper reaches of the atmosphere. We were close behind. Clouds tore apart in our wake as we came upon the planet like a wave of shooting stars. We braked hard, preparing for landing as the seed pods hammered into the ground around Brisingham. This time we got the legs extended before touching down on the outskirts of the city. The space-allforest had returned us close to where we had left.
On shaky legs, we bound up Miqual’s face. He could barely see from the bruising – the hours of forcd speech had left the side of his face terribly inflamed, pressing one eye closed entirely – and we had to gently guide him back out of the shuttle. Watching the space-allforest casually annihilate the remnants of our homeworld had struck some chord with me, severed some long-held links to the past. I no longer knew what I wanted to do with Miqual. He had betrayed us, yes, but he had no real idea who we were, or who he was. His actions would not make sense until he had those memories back. We staggered back out of the shuttle, using its exit ramp now that we were above the ground. The shuttle was scarred almost beyond recognition, crumpled from the space-allforest’s grip, repeatedly stabbed with Calia’s children and shot up by our now eliminated enemies. I didn’t think we would be using it again. Relyan and I laid Miqual down on the soft earth, and looked to the seed pods that had landed with us.
Talens had risen, gleaming through the knots of Calia’s children that the space-allforest had mashed together, releasing more than just a memory of her once rich yellow light. She glittered over the bizarre vista around us. A small crowd of curious people had crept out of the city. Whether they had seen the battle in space I had no idea, but they had certainly seen us all flaming out of the heavens. They stared at the seed pods which studded the ground – hundreds of them spread over miles of land. I waved vaguely at the closest, and they hesitantly returned the gesture. But they kept their distance. I couldn’t say I blamed them.
Roots of our allforest spiralled up out of the ground around the pods, reaching in and flinching away, as if tasting an unfamiliar flavour, unsure if they liked it. I assumed the space-allforest had sent some message down with them, left in the structure of the pods. At least, that would have been helpful. I’d gathered from our time in their forested ship that they had been out of contact with our alltrees – with no physical connection they had been unable to communicate. This could be a letter from sisters whom they never knew existed. I felt shattered, too tired to continue processing the events of the last days. I had no idea when I had last slept, and my arms and legs were trembling. I reached out and limply pulled Relyan into a hug. Around us, the devastation of our city, and a field seeded from space. We sank to the ground next to Miqual, arms still around each other and watched our allforest slowly draw the seed pods underground. Whatever happened to them next was out of our hands.
We had nowhere to go, and I felt that there was still something for us wait for. We sat there, by the shuttle until Talens was full in the sky, lavishing us with his bold light. Finally, hours later, dozing with the familiar feel of that golden light on our skin, we were woken by a light shower of soil, as a bubble of earth burst open next to us. It was followed by the familiar smooth dark shape of one of our allforest’s transit pods rising from the ground. Its hatch slid open, waiting. What else could we do? We stood, and noting the three chairs extruded for us, helped Miqual inside too.
Once again, we were encased in the allforest’s embrace. It drew us deep through the earth, and the rhythmic shuffle of being passed along the root network pushed me back into the sleep that had been toying with me while we waited outside the shuttle. I woke when the warm air inside the pod was displaced by a wash of much warmer air on my face. When I opened my eyes, I found that we had been left lying on the soft ground, in the very heart of the underground forest. The pod had melted away beneath us, leaving us directly under the intensified gaze of Calia’s child, embedded in the roof far above. The trees around us were reassuring in their familiarity – growing towards the light, greener and richer in colour than those who lived in Talens’ shadow. I took a deep breath, filled my lungs with the thick scent of the forest. I realised that I held Relyan’s hand lightly in mine, and squeezed her fingers to wake her.
“Back again,” she murmured, yawning and brushing sleep from her eyes. “Where’s Miqual?”
He wasn’t beside us. For a moment I though he had woken early, and gone for a run through the forest. I shook that out of my head: I was remembering another time, when all lived together and he and Maina would take off for absurdly early runs while the rest of us stayed huddled under our heavy blankets. The light, and the warmth had tricked me. My shoulder had grown terribly stiff while we’d slept, and when I rolled over I gasped with the sharpness of reawakening it.
“I think he’s in there,” I said, noticing the shiny column of trunk that slowly rose out of the forest floor. The grain of the wood rippled, and Miqual stumbled backwards from it, tripping over his own feet. We scrambled to our knees, instinct driving us to catch him. His eyes flicked open as we cradled him between us, and he recoiled, falling back on feet and elbows, scuttling away from us. His face was still swollen, but the allforest had done something to ease the injury as his mouth dropped open and a wordless cry of pain and horror came out of him.
“I’m so… so–“ he broke off as heaving sobs wracked his whole body, and when he opened his mouth again it was filled only with screams.
He clawed at his face, hands wet with tears, so hard and viciously that he drew blood. I crawled to him, and gently pulled his hands back from tearing at his skin. He twisted away, but didn’t pull his wrists out of my grip, just wept, shuddering. When at last he met my gaze, I saw every part of him in his eyes. The allforest had given him back his memories – all of them. Relyan laid a hand on each of our shoulders, and when he turned to look at her, I thought he would dissolve in further howls as his face distorted, already twisted by the bruising but unable to find any expression to convey his grief and horror at what he had done. His tears must have been half in reaction to the dissonance between the memories now overwhelming him. I don’t think I could have borne it. It had been enough to attempt to integrate my lives, but I didn’t have to reconcile my past with murdering my oldest friends.
“C-can’t,” he tried again, visibly struggling to speak.
“I don’t think we can do this, Relyan. He’s not – he can’t resolve it, look at him.”
The shudders rippled through him, becoming deep tremors. Saliva frothed at his lips, and his eyes rolled backwards. The tremors grew violent, and I couldn’t keep hold of his wrists. We took a shoulder each and pressed him back to the ground as he seized under us, spasming. Blood trickled from his nose and ears and his heels kicked divots out of the earth.
“Help him,” I shouted, at the allforest, at anything, at myself.
Cables of roots sprouted all around us, slipping under our hands, taking firm hold of Miqual. The ground gave way beneath us, and we lurched back to prevent ourselves from tumbling in on top of him. My last sight of him was his eyes rolling back to briefly focus on me, filled with pleading and terror. Then the roots folded earth back over him. Faintly I could feel the roots bearing him down into the depths below.
I hadn’t even realised that I was crying till Relyan brushed tears from my cheek. They ran freely down her face too, and we knelt in each other’s arms for a time, until our tears dried of their own accord.
“I think I’d like to go back to the surface,” I said, as Relyan stood, pulling me up to my feet. “I’ve spent too long underground.”
She smiled. “We’re not going back alone.”
All around the clearing the earth was heaving, splitting open to reveal the first of the root-bound people Relyan had shown me earlier. They pushed out of the ground like fresh seedlings. The roots fell away and the men and women’s eye fluttered, then opened fully, taking in the extraordinary view of the underground forest and its ceiling of crystal and sea.
“Welcome back to the world,” Relyan said, reaching down to help those nearest to their feet.
I did the same, trying not to strain my shoulder further, smiling and nodding as they oriented themselves and got to their feet. Their nakedness was no surprise, and as we had no clothes at the ready, it was how they would have to remain for now. Only Relyan and I wore anything, and I realised that I was standing here in rags for the second time in as many days. The allforest continued to pass more shettles up from the deep store it had preserved them in. Whether they had chosen to leave their former lives behind when they were rescued I couldn’t tell. I suspected that some had, while others had kept their memories. I wasn’t sure which group would be more confused. They helped each other up, hugged and made welcome in turn until the clearing was quite full of several hundred people. Then alltrees began to move, hauling their roots up and pressing close in together, creating a path which led up towards the rim of the vast bowl we stood in. The message was obvious, and they began to follow it – a long train extending as far as we could see.
When I turned to follow them Relyan caught me by the hand and held me back.
“I don’t want to say goodbye to you again,” she said.
I remembered the last time we had parted. The day when I’d left her to shettle with our circle. If I had stayed, perhaps everything would have been different. Maybe it would have been worse – some partings are necessary. She’d had a note for me, but had taken it away when I’d been adamant about returning to the earth again.
“You don’t have another letter for me, do you?” I asked, “I’m not going anywhere without you.”
“I’ve got something to show you,” Relyan said, an odd smile shaping itself on her lips.
“What did you write in the letter?”
Relyan turned away from me, pulling me across the churned clearing by my fingertips.
“It’s easier to show you,” she said.
“You kept it?”
“I didn’t need to,” Relyan replied, as she knelt on mossy ground at the foot of an ancient alltree.
Unlike its neighbours, this tree was unblemished by fire, it stood straight and proud, branches wide under the moons’ glow. At Relyan’s touch, the bark of the alltree parted, its grain melting like water until she could put both arms deep inside its trunk, and pulled something out.
Still with her back to me, she said, “It was only a short note, just two words: ‘I’m pregnant’.”
I barely grasped what she meant, and managed little more than spluttering, “What? Impossible, we-“
And then she turned around, “I found out the day you came back to Brisingham. The alltree kept her safe for us, for all this time.”
She held out the tiny bundle for me to see. Inside, a tiny human face, sleeping, topped with a faint fuzz of hair.
“The allforest has been experimenting with us too,” Relyan said, “they fixed what we couldn’t.”
I stepped to her, and with trembling hands, lifted our baby into my arms. Relyan pressed close beside me, and even the trees seemed to lean in around us, proud parents in their own right.
“A new life,” I whispered.

Lost At Sea on Notts TV – 13 October 2017

They had me back! To my amazement, I have been asked back onto our local digital TV channel Notts TV, to spout whatever comes into my head, and share a pirate story. Of course I only had about 60 seconds to tell the story in, so I hacked The Lost at Sea Adventure down to a mere 260 words. “But how”, you ask. Why, by cutting out the jokes and some of the gore… it’s not quite that brutal a hack, but it felt kinda weird.
The clip below is a chopped up video with the bits I’m in (EGO!), but the whole show was fun, with aerial hoop, a contest over a crap watch, and my co-guest, Shreya Sen Handley – author and lovely person. Check it out right here.
Enjoy!

After the Dark – Read the Whole Thing (NaNoWriMo 2017)

Should You Wish To Read It…

I’m very grateful to everyone who read, commented and liked bits of my Nanowrimo story through November – it’s the kind of support that keep a fella scribbling late into the night. But, it’s hardly the best way to read a story.
Down below is a link to a folder containing an AZW (Kindle), PDF, MOBI and EPUB version of the After the Dark ebook. It’s very much a first draft, and I haven’t done any fancy proofreading or anything yet. It’s 63,846 words, which is a longish novella. So with that warning – please read, and let me know what you think!

After the Dark 

An existential science fantasy adventure of lost loves, lives, and worlds.
On the night that Jenn and his closest friends celebrate their lives together, the sky is torn apart by an unknown force. When Jenn is reborn from the earth, everything has changed. All he has are questions, but who will answer them?

After the Dark ebook

Captain Pigheart on Notts TV 1 December 2017


Well gosh, I’m in danger of becoming  semi-regular guest on Notts TV. I was very happy to be invited back to babble about the royal engagement, judge some pirates and read a Christmassy pirate story live on air. Super excite! It’s a very short version of the gruesome Santa-murdering tale The Little Christmas Tale. I also talked about my beloved kitty cat, Geiger.
Even better, I was alongside the fine gentleman Richard Minkley, fresh from winning the Royal Television Society’s Outstanding New Talent Award 2017. Pretty damn cool. In tribute to the fine fellow (on whose podcast I shall soon appear), I’ve left in all the lovely clips of him in this edited version. You can watch the whole show right here.

An Even Shorter Pirate Christmas Tale

Gaaargh, it was the night before Christmas and was all peaceful, quieter than a mouse… Too quiet, so we turned our cannons to the sky and blasted away to celebrate the season. The balls split the Christmassy mist with a satisfying boom.
There was a crash way up in the air. Moments later, we had a portly chap dressed in red and white, sitting on a grimly mangled stack of funny looking horses, surrounded by charred gifts. He wasn’t best pleased.
We’d been bad. Father Christmas now had no reindeer to bring cheer to the little ones. Gaargh. Grumpily, he gathered presents from all over the ship and stuffed them back into his sack.
Meanwhile, we glued the reindeers’ horns (because that’s where the magic comes from!) onto some turkeys we’d been roasting for next day. They looked cracking with horns on. To get em started, we chained his new turkeydeers to a pair of cannon balls, and lit the fuses.
They flew like a charm, launching turkeys, sleigh and Santa into the night sky. But I had failed to notice that, along with the presents, Santa had taken a box of gunpowder, which the lads bought me for Christmas…
With a jolly cry of “Ho, ho, oh god, we’re going to–“ the sleigh exploded. It was very pretty.
Presents rained down on chimney pots across the land, bringing joy to children everywhere – some got toys, or bits of wood, and others a pretty drumstick, or Santa’s leg. It all worked out in the end.
Have yourself a Merry Christmas!
https://youtu.be/L3nz_VtPDn0&w=650