The Crystal Forest
Alten Wege, the fourteenth planet to be settled by the human race, is known as one of the weirdest places in the galaxy. What is most frequently described is the feeling of walking out of the space port into its capital city, Landung. Even if you are expecting it, it is still startling. Visitors describe walking around chilly port and visiting its many restaurants and gift shops filled with local and foreign wares. They then describe the first two steps out of the door in one of two ways: 1. the temperature rises by at least twenty degrees, 2. you just stepped back two thousand years into the past. The people of Alten Wege don’t appreciate most of the technology that thousands of years of mankind have developed. They prefer to live by the old ways.
They separate themselves from the outside world as much as possible. Only government and medical officers have access to the interplanetary webs. It's rare that someone owns a personal computer; that is for the rich or the eccentric. Everyone has access to the planet’s web but the public computers are rarely used and many are in disrepair. They just barely meet interplanetary law’s minimum requirements. It’s a world that has no need for the convenience of micro processors, or the ingenuity that goes with them.
They prefer to live in wooden houses made by their grandfathers. Horses are their main way to cross the land. Their boats have canons that are aimed by eye and wooden masts that creek when the wind blows too hard. They are farmers living off the land, local doctors, involved mayors, small school house masters, and storefront shop-keeps who all prefer to live a life where everything and everyone are not so connected. The planet is a place where you aren’t constantly being prodded by a buzzing, or shrilling, device. Where you are not connected to someone else or to simple programs that requires your attention. It’s a place where the nights are silent and the stars can be seen from everywhere.
While, as a whole, all the other populated planets think Alten Wege’s people live an odd, but relatable, lifestyle no one doubts that the planet has quite possibly the most unique natural phenomenon ever recorded. It is called the Crystal Forest and it rests on the northern edge of the most southern continent on the planet. It lies just south of the town of Weld. Its size is unknown but is suspected to be hundreds of kilometers in circumference. They have no satellites to measure it. They once sent a team of cartographers to chart its perimeter but they never returned, and all rescue attempts found nothing.
The forest itself is made of meter-and-a-half thick hexagonal crystals that come straight out of the ground and go straight up. The shortest observed are a little under three meters high and the tallest seen are estimated to be five kilometers high. They are all arranged around each other somewhat neatly with an obvious grid pattern. No two crystals are closer to each other than two meters or further than five. At the beginning of the forest they are further apart and shorter and as you get deeper in they become closer together and taller.
Odd as all this is, it is nothing when compared to what happens when you enter. As you walk closer to the forest the sky begins to darken just the tiniest, almost imperceptible, amount. It has also been noted that if you yell at a person within ten meters of the edge of the forest they are far less likely to hear you. When you step between the first two pillars the the change in light becomes immediately notable. If it is the middle of day, when the sun is its brightest, the moment you walk through the pillars it feels like the beginning of dusk. If someone were to yell to you loudly, while you were there, from as little as ten meters away you would most likely not hear a thing. These things only intensify the deeper you go into the forest.
The forest has become a rather popular tourist attraction, bringing some travelers from earth itself. There is a fenced off section that people can enter without fear of getting lost forever. That, however, is not what forest cartographers are interested in. Since it was first discovered people have been going in, and not always coming out, in order to discover as much about the forest as they can. Some tried to scrape off bits of the crystal to be analyzed by people off planet but not even diamond could scratch it. If they weren't banned on the planet a portable mass spectrometer would have at least given them a starting point to understanding.The only satellite images of the planet were classified shortly after the world charter was made over two hundred years ago. Geologists have studied it. Anthropologists and archeologists have studied it. Physicists, chemists, and engineers have studied it. But without the technology that we all rely on, none have made much progress. Only cartographers have made even some sense of it.
The only reason cartographers have any success is because they frequently go into the forest and explore. They were the first to note the regular intervals between the crystals, the expanding grid pattern of them, the effect it has on sight and sound, and the only people to go in over a kilometer. They did, in all fairness, get there first. Now they are the only group that still goes past the half kilometer mark, which is 200 meters past the line of complete isolation, or as its commonly called L.O.C.I. (or Loki).
A few years after the team of cartographers that were sent to chart the continent did not return, presumably because of nasty weather, the remaining cartographers decided to reapply their efforts to going through the forest rather than around it. In the first year of exploration a twelve man team never returned. After that they lowered the number in a group to one. They were rather surprised at how successful this was and at how quickly it evolved. What began as people with ropes wrapped around their waists walking into darkness soon became men equipped with specialized tools and unique training.
John Feld, one such person, excitedly packed his bags. Its many individually marked pockets were filled with labeled items. He had missed the previous month’s expedition because of a twisted ankle. They wouldn't let him go in again until every other charter had passed their standard psychological evaluation in the month between, but he would not miss another chance. Line twenty-two had been his baby since he started work as a cartographer two years ago and he wasn't going to let someone else work on it two months in a row. During last month’s expedition his stand-in finished drawing the map up until the last post John had placed over six months ago. Which meant that it was finally time to go further than he had gone in before.
Line twenty-two was among the oldest of the one hundred fifty-seven lines still in service so it went in further than most of the others did. John hoped to changed that “most” to an “all” today. He had studied the maps from his substitute so traveling the uncharted section would be easy enough. He had also checked where all of his competition were in the process. Only one posed a threat to going in further than John ever had. He would have to go in at least another hundred meters in order to assure that his competition (line seventeen) would be left in the dust. Of course there was no real competition, no official one at least. This didn't stop John from obsessing about it all month. A hundred meters was, at best, a guess though, it was also a lot to do. He would have twelve hours to go as far as he could before coming back. He was expected to be back by the time he left the previous day. If he didn't return by then, they would send someone after you.
His bags fully packed, John left the equipment room. Today would be the day that he beat the record. Today would be the day that he made a name for himself. Today would be a good day. His least favorite part of any trip was always the beginning. His stomach would turn on itself over and over until he finally got underway. It was always a little past night fall when everyone left, to avoid the confusion that comes from the fast change in lighting, He always felt odd because he had slept most of the day leading up to it. The night before he always ate as many carbohydrates as he could and he never slept well at all. It was partly sugar but mostly nerves.
He checked in with the gate watch and walked quickly to the isosceles shaped, marker post pointing in with the number twenty-two inscribed on it, it was the only time the number was marked visibly. John quickly unfolded his walking stick to a meter and a half long and placed it on the metal rope line connecting this post to the next post five meters in. He picked up the torch he had staked in the ground and stepped into the forest. There was never any ceremony to it. They would have a meeting between the charters and the bosses and then the charters left to risk their lives. Sometimes they would hold parties for the more popular charters when they broke a record and new charters always got some form of celebration. John always thought of his first time leaving the forest as he entered it. He had almost gotten lost, but about two hours into the journey his training kicked in, and he knew what to do. It was an amazing feeling, walking back into a world with sound and light. He actually fell over when the charter who trained him snuck up behind him, as he was about to leave the forest, and yelled his name. He turned and there were all the senior charters laughing so hard and yet so quietly. They gave him the canteen that was on his belt at that very moment. It was inscribed in brail. It said, “Trust the line, not the head.” He smiled at the sentiment as his fingers rolled over the words.
As a matter of practice, and safety, John kept his walking stick pressed up against the line. Even though he wouldn’t reach Loki for another three hundred meters it was still getting incredibly dark. By the time he was a hundred meters in he could no longer see the stars or the moons in the sky above him and his torch’s light only traveled half as far as it should. He would, every other post or so, yell out as loud as he could. Near the beginning of each outing others might respond, with something unintelligible, but by the third yelling they couldn't hear each other. At one hundred meters his voice didn't even travel thirty meters. At two hundred meters his voice didn't echo off the crystals anymore and his torches light only barely lit the ground in front of him.
When he could no longer see the light from his torch next to him, he knew he had crossed the Loki. He yelled again. He couldn't even hear the sound of his own voice. He looked behind himself then in front, and there was nothing. He could feel the heat coming off the torch, the walking stick connected to the line in his hand, and the uneven ground beneath his feet but there wasn't anything else coming in. No other input.
In roughly two kilometers he would reach the end of the twenty-second line. According to the clockwork brail timepiece, on his chest, he had spent a little over two hours getting this far, travel in the forest was slow and better kept that way. Every time he wanted to move faster he would remember the story of a charter who had gone in and walked as straight as he could, but after a while he felt he had gone off course so he corrected himself. This happened over and over until he came out of an exit fifteen kilometers away from where he had started. He was lucky. Others had simply not come back.
He reached the two kilometer mark a little over four hours later. He groped the post to read the brail marks on the top of it to confirm how far he had traveled. He, while keeping the stick in contact with the line sat against the crystal closest to him. This had been one of his regular stops the last nine or so months. He pulled his bag out and grabbed his larger jacket, which was now getting to be winter gear quality. The temperature had been regularly dropping since he entered but his normal jacket hadn't been enough since the Loki and this was his third jacket layer. They had designed the jackets so that they all fit together perfectly, and could be added on top of each other as a charter got deeper in, while also not getting so thick that at the joints it hampered movement. There were also pants that were similarly designed.
After adding a layer he realized that this was the farthest he had been in without a vision. It never comes up for most people, but it is a regular occurrence for charters, or people who go too far into the forest. The brain doesn't receive enough input so it creates some. Just like a dream had while on opium or while in any sensory deprivation chamber. They are dreams had while conscious that you can interact with. Musicians had the habit of traveling past the Loki, in the fenced off area, and sitting down and waiting for them. They would dream the music they could never remember in the morning and leave all the more inspired. John only ever saw the fire. He only saw his family. He tried not to think about that disparity. It had caused more than a little bitterness over the years.
The first time he had gone passed the Loki he had expected something great. He knew he would see into himself and that he would see what he really was. He hadn't remembered a dream in years. So now he would. He would grow to understand himself better and even to like himself. Instead he relived the worst day of his life. The fire was so hot he could feel its heat but never touch it. It was just an illusion. He would see getting up that morning. He would see the home he loved in its most placid, perfect, ideal condition. His mom would serve him, and his brother, food while his father flipped pancakes and sipped coffee. He then would see it, and them, all engulfed in what he could only imagine as death. He shrugged it off. He didn't like to think about it.
He pulled out a specially made protein bar and took a bite. It was, as always, awful, but the baker in town had used more milk chocolate this time and that helped some. The cashews were an unexpected twist and maybe made the bar only bad this time. He had nine more bars and three hundred and twenty more meters before he reached the end of the line and had to start adding to it. Six more hours to go.
Feeling rested enough he stood back up and started traveling again. Maybe it was because he thought of it or maybe his subconscious truly did hate him, but as he began walking right next to him was his brother. Not the child version of him he frequently saw but instead a version of him who had actually grown old. John couldn't help but blame the day he had looked across the plaza near his home and saw a man who, from behind, looked like his brother only older. It had caused him to wonder what his brother would look like. “I guess my mind kept working on it,” he said aloud, not that anyone, including himself, could hear it.
“Yup” His brother responded.
“I even grew your voice. You almost sound like dad.” He half smiled, it was nice to hear that voice again, and then moved his walking stick, his life line, around the two hundred and five meter post.
“I think you mixed a little bit of mom in there too. Why do you think my hair would look like this?” he gestured to his light brown hair that had been cut to look extra long, for a man.
That was when John noticed that he could see in front of him. Not actually, of course, but the ground had turned into the wooden floor of the home he didn't like to think about. There was light but it didn't illuminate anything. There was nothing in the distance. This had happened before, the long reaching hallucination that was barren. As always he devoted most of his concentration to the walking stick and the line. “You never obeyed convention. I think you would have long hair because you would want to defy everyone else’s expectations.”
“I was ten. I would have grown up.”
“Prove it!” John’s smile dropped and he looked down at the floor.
His brother dropped his smile too, “Try not blame yourself more than you need to. Not that you don't deserve every ounce of disdain I have for you.”
“I bumped a table Thomas!” He breathed in “I didn't do it on purpose.”
“You’re rationalizing your guilt away.”
“I was eight. I’m not rationalizing anything. The lantern was over filled.”
“In one breath you deny your excuses and in the next you make more.”
“Go away Thomas.” John demanded coldly.
He did but the light changed from white to orange as the ground set fire. It never failed. Every single trip his subconscious found another way to torture him. John could endure it though. He had to. Maybe if he did this long enough, or well enough, he wouldn't be haunted anymore.
He stepped through tongue after tongue of fire until he reached his destination. Five hours until the halfway point, the ground in some parts had been unfamiliar so he had slowed again, but considering everything he made good time. He rested another moment and the fires subsided and the darkness returned again. He pulled the new lengths of line, his hammer, and markers out of his backpack. They weren't light, they were most of the reason charters had to go through strength training.
This was the most difficult part of the job. He could no longer trust the line, but had to make it instead. Over the next seven or eight trips, depending on far he got, he would have to verify his new line over and over to ensure he had gone perfectly straight. There were more than a few ways to do that. When dealing with flat ground the best way involved fully expanding your collapsible walking stick until it reached its full six meter length and aligning the first meter, note the measurement notches on the stick, with the previous section of line and following it, after hooking your new line up to the last post, and then placing your new post at the end of your walking stick. It was also important to make sure you labeled, with a metal brail stamp, which line this post belonged to and how many meters it was from the start.
He did a quick calculation to determine how much time he had left. It took him seven hours to get here so at least seven to get back plus whatever he had to travel along the new line he laid. He would have, assuming only two hours to travel what he had just laid, eight hours to spend on expansion. They looked down on tardiness in ways that made the most strict teacher look relaxed, so to avoid a pay decrease, or worse, he would make sure he had time to spare with everything he did. He drank a shot of the bitter energy drink they forced charters to bring with them to keep them alert.
After adding another layer of clothing, the fifth, he started the tedious work of moving forward in this isolation. The temperature had dropped below zero degrees making his travel all the more difficult. The bag on his back was almost completely emptied of winter gear. His surroundings lit up again. It was the kitchen where he played as a child. He was a child, except he was still himself at this age. His mother looked down at him, "What are you playing with?" He looked down at the model of his own home. It had a small flame growing in it.
John immediately had the need to hide the model from her. She wouldn't like him playing with that. He grabbed hold of the model with both arms and shielded it from her view with his body.
“Oh, ok,” she said hurt, "I guess I'll play with my own toys." She stepped away and began to dust the room that was now filling with smoke from the fire in the attached room.
John began to open his mouth to warn her but before he could a small bit of cold landed on the almost nonexistent amount of exposed skin on his face. His mother and burning home disappeared faster than it had arrived. The bit of cold stuck to his skin and was quickly followed by another. "Snow!" He yelled so loudly he thought he might actually hear it. He quickly wrapped the rest of his face. He even covered his eyes, it's not like he needed them. He laughed at his yelling and at the building situation. While the ground was frequently covered in snow he had only been in one snow storm before and it had almost killed him. Another problem was that the snow never melted. It never got hot enough for it to. If he laid line and it was covered that would be a problem. He wouldn't even be able to find his way back out. So all he could do was wait and hope it stopped soon. Hope that it didn't obscure his path back. All the while hoping that the typically pleasant snow didn't kill him.
The snow took forty five minutes to stop completely. Forty five minutes in which he had a panic attack every minute and calmed himself all in time for the next minute's attack. Until eventually it stopped, he had checked by ungloving a hand and feeling for falling flakes every once in a while. He had only lost most of an hour to it, not his life. Only two centimeters of build up. He let go of that tension as he started up again which was when his brother reappeared. He was young this time. His actual age this time.
"That's what you're good at isn't it?" He waited for a response that wouldn't be coming "saving yourself. That's the only person you think about? Just you. Aren’t you?" More silence.
John wouldn't be saying anything else. Not for a while at least. Maybe it was because he was busy and he didn't have time to indulge his guilt. Maybe it was because he was a masochist who wanted to take his brother's ceaseless anger. Maybe he knew that if he responded he would leave sooner, and regardless of the circumstance, he did love to see his brother. Thomas went on and on accusing John in as many ways as John could think of to accuse himself. Some of them hurt and others he had heard so often they rolled off him like they were nothing. After, what could easily have been, an hour John simply tuned him out.
He started thinking about his line and was impressed by his progress in spite of annoyances. He suddenly became glad that he wasn't on one of the lines where mold had grown over everything and made its charters have to cut off their sense of smell with nose covers and strongly scented liquids. Other lines suffered from a rodent, bird, and or insect infestations, which presented an entirely new series of questions like, "How could they adapt to living in this level isolation?”, "What does the smallest creature on the food chain consume?”, “Are these charters just imagining these creatures?”, and "How do they find their way around—if they even do find their way around?”
His brother began to fade from around him. So John broke. “What do you want from me?”
Thomas looked down at his brother and smiled wryly “The same thing you want from yourself. For you to feel bad about what you did.”
John stopped as he considered the words he spoke to himself, “Yeah. Thats true. I don't deserve to feel good about myself.” He stopped his work after staking another post in the ground and moved to the nearest crystal to rest for a moment. He kept his hand on his walking stick though.
“See that’s what’s messed up about you, John. That’s what I don't understand. How can you believe that. You lost everything you loved a long time ago and instead of picking yourself up and moving forward you laid down in the soot and wallowed. You blame yourself. I would get it if you felt sad from time to time, but you still harbor it. It’s been two decades and it eats at you like…,” Thomas stopped speaking.
“Like I did it on purpose, with malicious intent. Like I wanted them gone so I could be broken and interesting. It’s not like I can move on though. How would you even start to do something like that? I mean I think maybe the only…,” John stopped speaking.
“Is to…,” Thomas began as he watched his brother sit on the crystal.
“Just say it. I can’t do it. I can’t even properly think it.”
“Let go of us. Not forget us but remove us from your image of yourself. With us you are weighed down. Without us you can move forward.”
“And then you'll stop torturing me?” he pleaded.
“Then you'll stop torturing yourself. Then you'll have new dreams. Then maybe, just maybe though, you'll live something different when you come here. Maybe you'll be just a smidgen freer or happier or less tortured.”
“How do I do it?”
“By doing it.”
“You can maybe see why that is bad advice?”
Thomas shrugged and disappeared from before him.
Spread in front of John was his entire self. Every misadventure, every mundane moment, every meal, and every experience, big and small, floated in the air around him. Maybe more impressively, he saw and felt and knew them all simultaneously. In the center of it was a bright hot ball of floating plasma. Its surface wibbled and wobbled as its innards tried to escape its center and were repelled back to its center. It was him. His purest him, with millions of memories all attached by small strands of glistening string. The core was attached to three particular sets of memories by more strings than all the others. These three were anchored to the ground of the forest so that the ball could not move. Each memory had appeared like flames but in each of them was his family. Each a member and each a hindrance. At least in this form they were.
“I must be careful if I am to do this right.” He said not fully understanding what he was about to do.
Thomas and his parents appeared behind him. They smiled softly and nodded their heads in a approval. With his sword in hand he slashed at the bonds. Some of them shattered. As they did a short burst of relief over came him. Still some of the bonds stayed perfectly still. He slashed again and more disappeared but still not all or even most. Thomas came from behind him and put his hand on John’s hand.
“Not all of them. That would hurt you more.”
John shook awake, or maybe he just stopped. He looked around, he didn't see anything of course. His stick was still in his hand. He checked the time. He had slept for several hours. He had to go back now. He had slept instead of expanding more. He checked his distance (fifty meters added) and started back. Maybe it was his drowsiness, but he didn't seem to mind that he had not progressed as much as he had wanted.
As he walked the path back through the snow his little brother appeared to him. “I thought you would be gone?” John asked calmly.
“Nothing ever happens all at once. You know that. But you made steps. You made progress.”
Neither of them had anything to say for a long while until John’s curiosity had to speak up, “So what is this place?”
“The forest? It is everything. It is the source of all knowledge. It is the mind of an ancient civilization suspended in a technology far beyond ourselves.”
“No. I don't know what this place is any better than you. Why ask me? I am you.”
“I thought you might not be me, but some kind of communication.”
John shrugged, a little disappointed, and walked through the darkness until he hit the Loki. Then he walked through the light as it grew and finally he stepped into the shine of the stars and the reflection of the moon outside the forest, it was almost blinding, but he was still relieved. The air was crisp and he didn't hate the transition at all.