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.