After the Dark – Part 24 (NaNoWriMo 2017)

Part Twenty-Four

Previous episodes here

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.”

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