After the Dark – Part 23 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

Part Twenty-Three

Previous episodes here

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.”

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