Stolen Skies – Part One (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

So there was a guy. There’s always a fucking guy isn’t there? Shouting his mouth off – drunk, obviously. I mean, we were all drunk. Why else would we be in a shithole bar at the arse-end of the space elevator? All the decent bars are up-sky, but they also cost more and don’t usually let you drink spirits by the half pint. Who the fuck drinks 25 millilitres of something? May as well measure your drinks by tablespoons. Anyway. Plainly the half pints had progressed to pints some time ago, and this big guy with a massive face (You know the sort: unnaturally large teeth, nostrils that swallow space and pores you could walk through. Fuck knows where they come from, emerging at twilight from a scabby old concrete bridge to piss people off who are quietly drinking in bars. That sort.) was sitting with half his body draped over the bar – a rare gift of being properly boozed up is that your bones don’t obey the laws of physics – massive fist making his sloshing pint glass of brutal moonshine look like your nan’s thimble, voice cranking up from loud to bellowing in the face of the luckless bastard sitting next to them. Guess who that was? Yup. Lucky me.

I’d only just returned to the bar for a round of drinks, stupidly failed to clock this prick meshing his ribs with the knackered wood of the bar, and placed myself right next to him. Now, I’m in no way saying I had not also had my fair share of moonshine (quite a decent greenhouse gin, actually, with overtones of radish and turmeric, very much the connoisseur’s choice), but I really was not expecting anything more than a refill of my glass and an extra couple for my mates. Instead I get this odious twat breathing hellfire over me, apparently not noticing that I was not the person whose ear he’d been bending moments previously. I assumed that poor fuck was bleeding from all orifices, dead in an alley. Lucky sod. So yeah, I got an earful of, “Them fucking Vaunted, fucked up our fucking everything, fucking alien bastards.” It wasn’t the swearing I objected to, obviously, I’m not nine. No, it’s the utter weary tedium that it shot through me. Like, I know. We all fucking know, mate.

I made my best effort to twist my own supple alcohol-sodden spine out of his path. And of course he leans in to press his point home, worrying that I’m perhaps one of those miraculous folks who somehow skipped the last twenty years, and I probably really need his revelatory bellowing. Now I’m not a big person; this guy’s easily twice my body weight, so you’ll forgive me for being somewhat physically intimidated, on top of being increasingly irritated with this fuckstick. Further twisting out of his grasp and the toxic exhalations singing my eyelashes I offered a gentle, “no fucking shit Sherlock”, with a fairly companiable nod to break the back of the sarcasm since I wasn’t actually looking for a fight. Or a conversation. Still, I got both. In my twisting, my jacket had pulled open, inadvertently revealing the service tunic underneath, which immediately identified me as “a fucking alien-loving motherfucker”. Cool, and in retrospect I should have changed out of my work clothes to properly immerse myself in this shithole environment. Only, it had been a very long month and me and my two mates had hopped off the elevator and straight in here, to maximise our chances of getting fucked up enough to forget that very long month I mentioned. Well, you live and learn.

Inevitably the tame ogre I was now saddled with took some exception to either my tone or the cool violet bar across the left breast of my tunic. Assuming the fuckwit could even see colour, of course. He might just have horrified that there were more colours than grey and the bloodshot red of his eyes. That was the first time he laid a hand on me, and not really wanting to make anything of it, I let him have that, since it was just a meaty paw on my shoulder. “You’re one o’ those fucking collaborator bastards aren’t you – fucking people like you make me sick. We’ve lost everything because of you lot. My mum died in the fucking dark and now you just do whatever they say.” Now, about a quarter of that was basically accurate: collaborator? Well, it’s complicated isn’t it. I guess, if “collaborating” makes you part of the Vaunted, and everything is the Vaunted’s fault, then sure – all my fault too. Since I take the view that actually the Vaunted’s actions are quite a bit more nuanced than that, I didn’t feel that explaining my own views to a drunk steroidal bear would be either productive or likely to end this unwelcome chit chat as soon as I wanted. Instead I made another mistake, and quietly said “I’m sorry to hear about your mum”. I genuinely meant that, but sometimes, after I’ve had a few drinks and some wanker is yelling in my ear, my tone can verge on the sarcastic, or so I’ve been told. He went quiet for a moment (it felt like an utter blessing – imagine if you could silence all such pricks by just expressing solidarity for their losses), and I took my eye off him because the nice barlady was returning with a small tray of glasses replenished from the bathtubs of gin out back. That was definitely a mistake, but looking back this was inevitable from the first drink this arsehole had taken that day, presumably as he rolled off his greasy sofa, one hand down his pants, with a burnt out cigarette dangling from his lip. I was literally about to buy this fuckwit a drink in hopes of maintaining the peace when it all went sideways.

I take strongly against people trying to glass me, even if their arms have the articulation and precision of a massive noodle. I may not be big, but I am quite nimble. Alas, since I was not looking at this fuckwit (I truly hoped they’d just ignore me and go back on with murdering their brain cells, but it’s a fond hope, and frankly, long experience of dealing with absolute morons should have taught me better), so I did catch a pint glass in the side of my head. It’s the shock that hits you more than the pain – or the blood, and for a half-second I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. By then, his toilet vodka was down under my collar, diluting the blood cheerfully dribbling out of my face. Absolute wanker. I avoided the follow-up fist, stepped backwards and kicked the guy’s stool backwards. That was mostly the end of the fight: the giant bell-end’s teeth stayed on the bar while the rest of him bounced off it. I was restrained from more than a couple of good kicks in his nuts by my mates who had leapt to my defence (gotta love a comrade in arms), and they took over so I could sit down and start pulling slivers of glass out of my scalp.

So that was that. We did at least get to finish our drinks and smooth things out with the landlady. She seemed a decent sort and was mostly grateful that the big-headed moron had finally shut up. We bought a round of drinks for the other luckless bastards near the bar who’d had to endure both the yelling and having drinks spilled over them. I prised one of his upper canines out of the bar as a souvenir of sorts and popped it in my pocket. The landlady was kind enough to dig out an old first aid kit. The antiseptics were all out of date, but barring something vile in the backwash I was pretty confident the moonshine would sterilise the wound. There was no point rushing off – as soon as the landlady had clocked we were “volunteers” she’d put the call in to the local garrison who’d be round shortly. No one messes with the Vaunted, no matter how gobby they might get when drunk, and consequently no one intentionally messes with us either. The downside of that is that we can’t really get into trouble without also getting into trouble with work. I was fairly confident this one was open and shut though – plain self-defence with a side order of putting the boot in to prevent further trouble.

The garrison detail were very polished and precise, expressing the exact right amount of regret that such incidents occur, ensuring the landlady had the appropriate details for putting in a damages claim, and equally conscientiously gathering the personal information about my newly toothless pal who was quite unconscious on the floor. It’s really not a bad outfit to be part of, even if some folks do consider us to be treacherous backstabbing bastards. I guess if your skillset is limited to fantasising about your sister and washing your hair with bacon fat (these are just guesses since our conversation hadn’t been long enough to establish this for sure, and it was highly unlikely this guy would ever be in the same timezone as me again), having a limited grasp of the new state of affairs was only to be expected. The detail ushered the three of us out of the pub. Scoro and Gex were permitted to continue their evening elsewhere, and they threw me a cheery wave as I got packed off back to the garrison. Something about still bleeding… The drunk got taken off in a separate vehicle, and it was some consolation knowing that their hangover would be easily matched by broken jaw and shattered teeth. That, and they’d probably be waking up on a one-way flight to a prison centre. The Vaunted really don’t like it when people fuck with their toys.

So that’s why I’m in medical, talking to you, my nice new friend. I haven’t introduced myself have I? I figured you’d probably read it upside down off the medical notes, but you do seem considerably more fucked up than I am. I’m Evanith, pleased to meet you. I’ve never met one of the Alometh before – big fan of your warships, by the way – they don’t usually let us plastics mix with the others. Since we’re waiting for a nice nurse to come around with some tweezers and tug out the remainder of these shards of glass from the side of my face, let me fill you in on what this massive clusterfuck has been like from our side. That good with you? If you can talk, I’d love to hear what you Alometh make of all this too.

I’ll start at the beginning: I was twenty years-old when the sky went dark and the Vaunted stole our whole world.

Stolen Skies – Part Two (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

In a lot of ways the End of All Hope, as it was dramatically put, was perfect timing for me and a bunch of other people. Twenty years-old with primary, secondary and tertiary education completed without once producing even the faintest concept of what kind of work and life that would lead to, I was already a bit depressed and anxious about the future. And then, out of nowhere these amazing astronomical reports started to pop up in the news. They were a welcome distraction from scanning through the endless screeds of employment “opportunities” available to a moderately well educated young man with no interest whatsoever in either working with people, grinding out tech in the nano-factories or fondling animals in hopes of extracting food from them. It was quite fucking bleak, watching the more self-advancing of my peers pick up corporate jobs which began by sterilising their brains and killing off their more endearing qualities (I jest, but not really… key to getting ahead in a company whose only purpose is exploitation and growth at any cost requires a pretty severe soulectomy, though they do promise that you can get it back on retirement), while I admittedly did the same via the cheaper route of really not good red wine and zygoptic vapes. God, I miss those.

Space: big, cold, murderous and mostly out of our reach. Though we had established a dinky little moon colony. I say “me”. Like everyone else, the major achievements of our species are always shared, as if my Sunday consumption of two bottles of wine that could stain marble pink added to the enormous effort required to conceive of, let alone build and launch a rocket. I mean, I did like explosives and fire, but then who doesn’t? Being able to blow up a beer bottle isn’t really in the same league. Nonetheless, “we” had stuck a rotating team of international heroes in a grim grey tomb under the surface of the moon (so they didn’t get instant full-body cancer from the radiation). Mars had proven to be painfully beyond the reach of even the most earnest billionaires. Thank fuck they didn’t just piss that money away on curing stupidity or anything. Somewhere between Earth and Mars are a few dozen metal cans with mummified astronauts clanging about. At least, I assume they’re still there. I’m not really sure what happens to orbiting objects when you take away one of the massive objects they’re orbiting. Not my field, as they say, but I guess they head towards the other thing. So maybe we did get to Mars, and even now the neat little atomic rovers that did make it in one piece are enthusiastically discovering traces of interesting life on Mars. None of that bacteria bollocks. They’re behind the times though, we’ve met proper life from outside our solar system, and they’re a lot more interesting than algae that only grows in the shade of a meteor’s arsehole. Notably, that failure to get (living) people to Mars isn’t a failure of “we the people”, that’s the failing of the fuckwit billionaire and governments that enabled them. We only take credit for the good stuff – fuck ups are specific responsibilities.

Now, a fuck up in space that was none of our fault – instantly interesting. I was in the habit of casually perusing the news in between pages of companies hiring humans to perform menial tasks, feeling truly one with the universe, and having a nice nap. With an eerie eternity of apparent free time looming ahead of me, I found the new space stuff tickled all the right parts of my brain. Somewhere between Saturn and Uranus – it’s millions of miles away so don’t get picky about exact distances, I can’t remember, and anyway it’s really the orbital paths we’re talking about – they’re fucking planets, they don’t spend their day lined up like they’re waiting for a pat on the head. So – somewhere in the hundreds of millions of miles between their paths, a hole had appeared. Yep – a hole in space, which if you think about it, is basically a massive hole already. “See the hole within the hole” was a koan to die for. Funny thing is, if you think about it long enough, you can kind of see it in your mind in a way that our astronomers couldn’t. They called an area of negative gravity – something that wasn’t quite there, but was big enough to push mass out of its way. In this case, the mass it was shoving was two huge planets, buckling their orbits and consequently fucking with the delicate and beautiful celestial mechanics we’re all familiar with from gaping incontinently at an orrery in a museum. Unless you think the world’s flat and the other planets are painted on the ceiling of a glass dome, in which case you’re an absolute tool and the last twenty years must have been truly terrifying. Or maybe not, maybe they think we got scooped up in a snowglobe and popped on god’s living room mantlepiece. Some people are just too depressing to live. Though that’s jumping ahead – spoilers, they did not all live.

Anyhoo. Quite the kerfuffle unfurled as our solar system began to show early signs of going right off its lovely Newtonian rails. Obviously I sat out one hundred percent of the debate and planning for this, being an unemployed wastrel, but having a passing interest in science, my continued survival and a ready supply of zygoptics, this was an utterly golden time. The few months of scientists freaking the fuck out and trying to get our battered coalitions of governments and corporations to first take an interest, second to understand it and third – to actually do something about it, was absolutely wild. Mostly because there was little we (the species) could do about it. We’d managed to kill every one of the people we sent to Mars, and Saturn is unbelievably further away than the little dusty red murder ball. So our chance of getting any human eyes out there was nil. We did have an nifty little array of semi-autonomous probes and stuff out there, plus a couple of wicked telescopes that were being trepidatiously turned upon “the hole” (not the best work of journalists and researchers there – an existential threat to humanity should really have a grander name, but then we had called our planet Earth so there was really little hope for us). Absolutely zero of the news was reassuring. Like, not one good thing. The very most optimistic statements were along the lines of “this might take several hundred years to fuck us”, the most pessimistic didn’t even bother with a timeline “we’re fucked, get used to it”. Well.

I found I was drinking a little less, reading more, and occasionally getting dressed. The drab little social housing unit that a good third of the population including me inhabited felt strangely bigger than it had a few weeks ago. I had the oddest sense of the universe and my world suddenly opening up with this news of imminent catastrophe. Perversely life was perhaps actually worth getting on with. Maybe it was the thrilling prospect that if I was really lucky, the several hundred years would turn out to be a wild over-exaggeration, and I’d never need to find a job at all. Maybe it was just discovering that the world was more than this shitball of a planet, so much of a shitball that we’d basically called it planet shitball (I can’t tell you how much this has always annoyed me, and continues to annoy me, especially since we gave all the other planets cool names: Saturn, Neptune, Mars… and shitball. Fuck’s sake. Imagine how embarrassing this is when you have to explain it to the other alien planets in our cluster – Eraptol, which is about as close as you can get it in English, means “Glorious Fountain” – no wonder we’re the cannon fodder), and there were infinite horizons beyond the bubble of our atmosphere.

There was a lot of panic. The usual doomsday cults rose and fell, but at least they had the decency to take their members with them. Literally no one had any good ideas about what to do. But don’t worry – it got much worse. Those wondrous telescopes, rotating in their Lagrange Points between Earth and our nearest planetary buddies watched this hole within a hole expand, and then stuff started to come out. That at least explained the negative gravity thing – there really was a shit-tonne of mass inside or behind the hole. So that chilled out a whole bunch of astrophysicist types who were a bit alarmed at the mass from nothing problem, while another lot got super-over-excited about where the hole lead to. That brought up all the brilliant ideas, like “how many holes does a straw have?” It’s definitely worth spending a few minutes on that one. In this case, the space-hole was a tube – and tubes only have one hole – a single long one that runs its entire length. To you and me, that means it’s a hole at both ends. Crucially, the hole goes somewhere, and wherever it went, well, that was now here. I can see why a lot of people stopped following the news at that point and got seriously invested in end-times activities like massive fires, weird sex things and immense quantities of drugs. But I was hooked. The pictures we got back were… strange. Our telescopes were really, really good, but they never truly captured the hole within the hole of space – sure you could use different frequencies of light and allocate colours, but they never seemed credible. Now there was something to see. It looked like frost forming around a drain. Not the most poetic simile, sure, but that’s what it looked like. Ice crystals flowering out of nothing. Except it wasn’t ice, it was shapes – all kinds of shapes, stuck together and possibly so small we couldn’t tease their individual shapes apart. So “space-ice” it was. Again, we’re not good at this stuff.

Endless speculation ensued. From both experts and idiots – the only two groups of people granted permission to air their views, and always in the interests of balance. For every intriguing idea about this being the first possible exit point of a black hole we were also gifted with a lunatic belting on about angels and god’s fury (sphincter, presumably). The debate was pretty feverish, and you could feel it in the street – most people got on with their daily lives, but compulsively checked the news (these were my people, though my daily life did contain relatively little to begin with), but there’s always a minority of folks who feel change with such utter intensity that it erases their ability to do anything or take in any new information at all. I wasn’t totally without sympathy, but come on. You’ve still got to walk the dog, take a shower – whatever the highlight of your day usually is. I really felt for the experts. It’s one thing to know a heap of cool stuff about what we already know, but to be then presented with an unprecedented cosmic event, which looks like it’s gonna be waaaay worse than the K2 event that scoured our dinosaur pals off the face of the earth, and then be expected to answer random questions at all hours of day and night, without sweating like the proverbial individual in a playground… Not an easy job.

But of course, that mere existential threat to (maybe) our children etcetera was wildly trumped when some bastard started sketching out the edges of vast net around the Earth. For all my love of observing absolute carnage on the news, that really did push the world over the edge.


Stolen Skies – Part Three (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

I was outside when it all kicked off. That was a bit of a shock in itself. Although I’d been finding the world that bit more stimulating since doom had begun hanging over us, that hadn’t made me race out to embrace nature or anything. I’ve always been quite content inside. It’s what we evolved instead of shells really, houses I mean. Sure, these were just the cheap social cubes, but I was pretty fond of mine. When the housing crisis had finally come to a head twenty years previously, something had at last been done with the thousands and thousands of empty buildings across the country. Folks had been begging their governments to do that for decades. Admittedly it took some cracking protests squatting in the houses of government, museums, shops, breaking into MPs’ homes and refusing to leave… Sadly I’d missed it, not yet having been born. Luckily we’re never more than a few years away from an extraordinary crisis that can only be solved through mass protesting and threats of (sometimes actual) violence before the wankers in charge will finally act.

Have I mentioned that our species was doomed well before a hole in space started kicking the planets about in our solar ball pool? The only reason this is relevant – and in fairness, it probably wouldn’t be if this was anyone else’s story… but it isn’t, so suck it up – is that when all the buildings got converted, they basically left them as they were and installed prefab units inside them. It had been recognised for a little while that ripping down a huge old department store to make way for a huge new department store was not just stupid, it was wildly disruptive, took ages, and had a quite shocking environmental impact. Eventually, we’d started to care about such things. So: my cube, with its subdivisions into bedroom, bathroom and kitchen living room was snugly fitted on the third floor of the old department store they didn’t knock down. My cube was pushed up against enormous windows, the front door opening out onto a warren of other similar cubes before leading down a gorgeous marble spiral staircase. Social housing doesn’t have to be shit, folks. Spectacular views, too. Those windows looked out onto one of the parks that had been established after people finally figured out that the shopping high street was irredeemably fucked, had always been somewhat pointless, and maybe, just maybe, it should be people living in cities, not just branches of Wanker Coffee and bars where a stabbing was cheaper than a pint.

Having a park on your doorstep is great, effectively a massive garden to wander about in, and in lieu of  much better to do I did a few hours each week on the (mandatory) municipal park team. Sounds fancy, right? This was mostly litter-picking in a nice green environment, maybe some weeding or pruning. Handing all that stuff off into the community had been another smart move. Maybe we weren’t as fucked I as thought. Anyway, nice sense of community spirit and all that, even if it was a requirement of the housing. So I was out of my cube, only partly out of my head on zygoptics, and armed with a huge pair of shears to hack back the hedges, roses and anything else that was aggressively invading the paths. The best way to protect nature is to destroy it. My kinda creativity.

So I had a pretty nice buzz on – zygoptics are perfect for this kind of activity. It was one of the few legal drugs that didn’t truly fuck you up, unlike alcohol’s constant assault on all the bodily organs, the delightful sounding popcorn lung and rampant cancer from the bafflingly still available tobacco and unregulated vaping. Instead it had a specific purpose. In the wake of Earth’s population far overwhelming any possible purpose you could put all that human meat to (yay for automation, and the rise of the nano-factories almost wiping out mundane jobs entirely), and the fact that people do need something to do, because we absolutely go slowly nuts and kill ourselves without a plan (see retirement, unemployment, being forced to live in poverty and so on), entertainment and social works like maintaining the parks, local environment and infrastructure had filled a fair chunk of that need up. It was amazing how many people really were up for learning a bit of plumbing or sparks to help maintain their housing units when the alternative was watching yet another soap opera filled with miserable fucks who hate each other ruining each others’ lives and calling it love. Hence my lovely shears (which I’d even bought myself, so invested was in brutalising the thorned bastards who attacked me when I wasn’t paying attention). But to make it all work, we needed to feel like a community.

Back in the old days, before society was ripped up, dumped outside the cities and taught to fight each other for every inch of concrete hardstanding at the back of your house, people used to know the names of their neighbours. They might even notice if your kids were wandering off onto a railway line to drink three-litre plastic bottles of white cider (which looked almost identical to the bottles of lemonade they were sold next to) and smash up cars, get pregnant and stab each other (or whatever kids did round your way). A bold nostalgia was reawakened for something no living person in our country had any memory of. Just telling people to sort their shit out and turn the music down when the little old lady next door asks you to, instead of shitting on their doorstep, has rarely resulted in anything productive, even if everyone does indeed agree that their shit should be sorted alphabetically, because don’t ever tell me how to categorise and arrange my shit – that’s my shit and I’ll shuffle it how the fuck I want. Ah, people. Popular social psychology did not have the answer, nor did the beloved nudge theory. We’re too stubborn, self-obsessed and unnaturally contrary for that to work.

No, what we needed were new and better drugs. So that’s what we got. Most drugs hadn’t been truly illegal since I was a little kid. The allure of something to tax had overcome the hand-wringing of the elite who felt that if you were poor you should fucking suffer it, and no one else should be having fun unless they’d worked for it, or more likely, inherited it and pretended they’d worked for it. One of the great things about the community reset was that it took so much wind out of those pricks’ sails. Also retaking vast swathes of their estates back into community ownership got some of the bastards to fuck off to their private islands which allowed cool stuff like huge, seagull-up-fucking wind turbines all over the shop. The pharmacologists and social researchers took note that what people usually wanted from their narcotics was to feel a bit better than they did usually, maybe a little more energy, and to briefly give less of a fuck about their grim existences. Even for the perpetually upbeat, there’s always the void peeking at you round a corner, waiting to mug you. The key was the “loved up, everyone’s ace” vibe of MDMA and its many clones. Take out the bits that leave you utterly mashed for hours and unable to string a sentence together without dancing like a lunatic, oh, and the comedowns and hangovers. They toned it down a bit in general and made it available in these neat little vape tabs, and let folks just buy them for whatever. Technically non-addictive. The effect was impressive: one person taking zygoptics on their own was just quite chilled and content, but its effect multiplied if the people around you were also on zgyoptics. It generated a feeling of unity, of community warmth and contentment. It didn’t strip away your higher brain functions, make you into a zombie, a stab-happy cretin, or a negligent parent. It didn’t kill mental illness or anything like that, but even for those who were suffering, this made society tolerable and for the most part made your neighbours into potential allies rather than irritating bastards who start a barbecue while your washing’s out. Harmony.

So there I was, zygoptically hanging out in the park with a bunch of other people wandering the paths, park-keeping, doing parkish things, feeling that general communal warmth, temporarily not thinking about the hole in space that was pushing two massive planets out of alignment and consequently all the others, probably going to either shove us into the sun or some appalling collision with another solar body that would be the end of everything – absolutely not thinking about that at all. It was one of those gorgeous autumn days where the morning light feels like marmalade has been smeared over everything, leaking through the slowly declining leaves above. I was about to lop off the top of an especially egregious thorn-bastard when the screaming started. Nearly cut my own fucking elbow off. Without being given direction, everyone in the park headed towards the screams coming from the open area in the middle of the park.

There we gathered, a rude assembly clutching an array of gardening tools as if they were beloved childhood teddy bears, plastic handles and sharp blades cutting into our clenched hands. I’m not really a screamer, but I definitely did the kind of audible gasp you only see in movies – the kind I was almost certain people didn’t really do. Our eyes were fixed on the sky, as the lush autumnal light cast through the familiar blue veil of our atmosphere dimmed. Impossibly vast shadows were falling across us – far larger than any cloud. We could only see the very edges by the sunlight filtered through the lines of a net being drawn over the sky. We soon learned that it was a net that had been cast around the whole globe. Sometimes in a crisis we feel like there’s something we’re supposed to do – somewhere to go, to hide from the falling sky. In this case it was almost like there wasn’t a sky at all any more. We were frozen there for minutes, a shocked peace which broke when the shears slipped from my hands into the foot of the elderly lady standing beside me. They were good, sharp shears. That proved to be our signal to scatter – off to contact friends and family, to check the news, to run around headless in the street, head down to the pub, or in my case, off to Accident & Emergency with the little old lady is inadvertently speared to the ground.

Having already had the threat of a hole in space, a lot of the usual conspiracy theories were being shouted less urgently than we might have expected. If there’s a big fuck off hole in space, then the next awful space thing probably isn’t a dastardly scheme by another country or loathed minority. Even then, we were beginning to pull together. All we really needed was a proper “other” to find true commonality across the brotherhood of mankind. Even as the old lady (Edithene, inevitably) hobbled down the road, her arm through the crook of my elbow, more of the sun’s glow was being occluded. It felt a lot like the beginning of an eclipse, which I guess it was, but without the startling sight of the moon turning black in the daytime, that lashing circular corona so bright it could almost be pitch darkness for all you could focus on it. This was more like being sealed inside a coffin – a huge spherical coffin, granted – but it felt like death. Edithine was quite gracious about the hole in her foot and blood-soaked sock. I was appropriately apologetic. We lived on opposite sides of the park and hadn’t previously met, but she was well-inclined towards me despite the mutilation, on account of my good manners and offer of some extra vapes for her nerves. I felt we were both in a fragile state of shock. A hole in space is miles away, but this was right in our back garden. Possibly front garden. We made our way to A&E through streets that had begun to fill with our fellow citizens who just stood there, staring at the sky. I was grateful for having stabbed Edithine through the foot because at least I had some purpose, though it felt like there was a cliff edge of panic waiting for me once I’d gotten her signed in and comfortable.

I left her there, eventually, in the tender care of a profoundly distracted doctor who was probably going to stitch up the wrong foot. The televisions in the waiting room had been nothing but emergency newsfeeds, minutely rehashing the utter vacuity of what we knew so far. That’s a bit unfair, but without an antagonist to hang the tale on, it was peculiarly dry of blame and regular partisan invective. We did learn that immense shapes had slowly appeared in near-earth orbit – words like “materialised” were thrown around, but in watching the playback from satellites and cameras on the ground, it was more like seeing a shape approaching slowly through the murk of underwater: a hint of a shadow slowly darkening and thickening into a leviathan heading right for you. Chilling. And now, the planet was right in the chomping line of those jaws as its teeth closed on us. It was an image I could not get out of my head, that we were being eaten by some fuck awful space shark.

Over the next week those jaws closed fully and its teeth became dense and real. We were plunged into a freakish twilight. The sun was gone. So was the moon, and the bleak little colony. There had been some talk of trying to get them home, but no one had known how much time there was, or if there was any point. A couple of space stations decanted their crews. I wondered if they thought they’d made the right call. On that first morning after the shell (as we came to call it, or, variously the “orb”, “Satan’s nutsack”, “snowglobe”, “Dyson sphere” (though that was just science fiction fans, and for them a debate raged about whether it could be a proper Dyson sphere if it wasn’t around a star – yep, that internal sigh you just felt is well-earned), and “force barrier”) completed itself, and no emanations from the wider universe could be detected – not the light from our sun, not the radio signals from the moon, nothing – for a while I could fool myself into thinking it was just much earlier in the day than I thought… but by three in the afternoon that was pushing it. Weirdly, it wasn’t completely dark – not just the general light pollution of our cities but the shell was itself translating light from the sun, or emanating its own dim light. Dim to my eyes, but apparently rich in whatever plants needed to do their thing. For them, it was daytime all the time. Birds went fucking mental though. Whatever frequencies sorted trees, wheat and algae was not attuned to the sensibilities of seagulls and their wank-dinosaur brethren. Endless screeching, impromptu murmurations, divebombing and hammering into windows made going outside oddly terrifying. They clustered around light sources, as did other beasts of the city – cats, dogs, rats… us. Noone wanted to be left alone in the strange meat-tinted gloom. Power consumption went through the roof: I hadn’t kept a light on while I slept since I was a little kid, but now I couldn’t bear the notion of opening my eyes into the dark.

The horrifying and incomprehensible events weren’t over though. Really, they’d barely begun.

Stolen Skies – Part Four (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

Life in the shell was fucking weird. Obviously, everyone was massively freaked out. The future terror of the space-hole had been utterly forgotten in the face of our novel imprisonment. Aliens had been a popular topic for lunatics and those easily led into ignoring reality. It was therefore a real shame to have to start giving them a hint of credibility. Not that any of their anal-probing little green or grey men had rocked up to claim responsibility or usher us into a planet-sized rectal investigation machine. If it was aliens – and it definitely wasn’t us for one, normal space stuff for two, then it really did leave very little alternative. Not that “aliens” is a small idea either. The loons thought they’d been buzzing our various aerial armed forces for decades and randomly abducting sad people who just happened to also suffer from night terrors (huuuuge surprise), but there had been no concept that aliens might turn up, pop the Earth in a shopping bag and not announce themselves. Perhaps that was the scariest thing – and don’t get me wrong from my generally warm tone – we weren’t just freaked out, we were terrified. Scared like a dog gets with fireworks, a deep soul-puncturing horror as everything we thought was real and important had been ripped away, tossed in  a fire and pissed on by a petrol-urinating god, whose main function in the universe was to offer perpetual fear up as if it was the peace and quiet we were all, deep down, looking for. What a dick. I feel as if we had an expectation that, should doom appear on the human horizon, whether by catastrophic flood, plagues of locusts or murdering all the first-born, someone would at the very least show up to tell us that it was happening. But no one did.

For days our scientists, politicians and media types were heavily invested in alternating between desperately trying to make contact with the shell (or whatever was beyond it), and impressing on us how hopeful our situation was, that everything was cool, honest, and in no way should millions of people around the world be actively rioting and trashing the joint. Humans: we sad, we break stuff. The instant collapse of global law and order did take me by surprise. In between bursts of soul-searing dread, and feeling that the whole thing was vaguely exciting I sank into a calm nihilistic state. My parents would argue that this was my natural state – an extension of stoicism into couldn’t-give-a-fuckism. It’s not that I didn’t care about things, I did, but I’ve got a tolerance level for extreme emotion that just cuts out after a while. It’s tiring. I’m sure others feel this too, but they suck at admitting it. I was still fairly cheerfully following accounts of our total failure efforts to make contact, not just with the shell-aliens, but also anything at all outside the shell. The moon colony was totally unavailable, we couldn’t see the solar system, the stars and moon had vanished, and we couldn’t even use those few satellites that were in near-enough Earth orbit to be trapped inside the shell to see or hear anything outside. Space is noisy, like – really noisy if you’ve got a bunch of giant radio telescopes scattered around the world. But they had fallen totally silent. All the cosmic racket of pulsars and stuff was gone. There was an undeniable glee too, in watching our politicians completely lose their shit. All pretense of genuinely being in charge was gone, and even the bastard trillionaire corporations couldn’t exert any influence beyond dispatching their private armies to shoot the rioters as they laid blame in every direction.

There was so much happening, so much batshit insanity as our entire population lost the plot, as did pretty much every animal. Zoos and nature reserves were not safe places to visit. Hell, even the park outside had become the focal point of a pigeon death-spiral, and no one was walking under the trees any more. The annihilation of our circadian rhythms, routines and sense of time had struck everyone. Even those mad bastards who live right up in the arctic circle and who had some practice with handling twenty-two, or two, hour-long days were feeling the strain. I think it was the colour of the sky. We’d gone from our daytime blues and night-time blacks to this harrowing red-infused grey. It was like staring at the inside of your eyelids with someone wandering about holding a candle in the background. Not a reassuring colour, no matter what paint companies had been trying to persuade us of for years. I like my greys with a hint of lavender.

Still, where would be if we let a little existential dread get us down, eh. On perhaps the third day since the shell had formed around us – I say “perhaps” because even though calendars and dates were obviously still functional, the general shell shock (I know – too perfect!) rolling through the population was erasing our sense of time properly passing – Edithine gave me a ring. Since my days generally revolved around a little light plant mutilation, enjoying the media channels and occasionally nipping out to the pub, the lack of visible days shouldn’t really have kicked me in the nuts so hard. But I’d fallen out of one rut into another, whose sides weren’t even visible. I’d made sure Edithine had my details after I left her in A&E to the tender mercies of their distracted doctors. That whole community feel, you know. As it turned out, her phone call was the absolute highlight of my day and very much the only guiding star I had available to me. She asked if I could nip round, as she was still hobbling and could do with a hand. I was out of the cube almost as soon as I got dressed.

It’s only a quick trip to the other side of the park under normal conditions, but as advertised, the fucked up sky had turned birds fucking mental, and I was rather leery of the foaming squirrels too. So I took the long way around, navigating the streets where trash was already starting to mount up as municipal services took a nosedive. Plus there was all the burned stuff from the riots that had kicked off. That had died down a little around here, but the news was still looking grim. I think our lot had smashed everything that was on hand which wouldn’t actually inconvenience them, like their own homes, or the maybe-haven of the hopefully-temporary murder park. Those poor birds looked knackered – it seemed like they’d been swooping a diving nonstop since the sun did its missing persons act, and they now stumbled about on the ground, or sat dazedly on tree branches, occasionally snapping alert to scream at something. Like me, quietly moving past. With luck the feathery devils would relax a little and not give themselves stress heart attacks or whatever birds have when they’re anxious. I tiptoed past the scorched entrance to a belowground storage centre – the smoke trails seemed to come from all way down deep inside, and the coal blackness was disconcerting. I exchanged tentative nods and waves with the handful of fellow park maintenance folk I spotted, but everyone had the same haunted expression and it made me want to get back off the street.

Edithine’s building wasn’t quite as nice as ours. Where ours used to be some kind of department store, this looked like it might have been a tools and home improvement warehouse. The grey corrugated walls stretched high overhead, with windows regularly chopped out of the bland exterior. No one in the foyer area downstairs, but there were a few smashed open mailboxes. I checked for Edithine’s number (thirty-three) and collected the remaining bits of post. Nothing fancy – one some kind of government circular that I got all the time reminding me to keep up with the social contract and not blow all my cash on drugs. The other was a rarity – personal correspondence. Virtually everything, barring the inevitable paper-based bureaucratic nonsense, had smoothly been added to our digital lives – all the easier to be immediately deleted. Letter writing had never quite vanished, it was always the subject of some fad, fashion or kink or other. The ultimate private repository for one to bear one’s soul directly with another person. Or you could just talk… Either way, this letter was worn and had come from half the world away. It was cute to think that Edithine might have a pen pal in this day and age. From the maudlin state of our neighbours, perhaps this was something we’d all be needing soon enough. I hopped up the steel staircases (a far cry from our lovely marble flooring) which had been installed between the stacks of housing cubes that filled the cavernous interior of the old warehouse. A hiss and the sound of pattering feet suggested that the space between and around the cubes had long been colonised by some of our urban pals. Probably cats, but families of foxes had been found before. All they had to do was stay relatively quiet and no one would give them any grief. It was very much frowned upon to kill a bunch of innocent animals just because they happened to live somewhere we hadn’t planned for them to be. In general, this was enforced quite rigidly – we’d spent too many years pushing wildlife to the brink of extinction, and kicking them out of the attic would just take the piss.

Edithine’s was three up and three along in the first stack of cubes. All I could hear from her neighbours’ cubes was the soft murmur of a TV programme, and the sound of someone crying. There was a lot of that about. The buzzer gave a gentle “bing-bong”, and Edithine opened her door. She ushered me inside, bustling as well as she could with a strapped-up foot. I dropped her post on the table by the door and followed her into the kitchen unit. I liked her place. Photos and pictures covered the walls and almost every item of furniture had a throw or excessive knitted doily draped over it. After some further reassurance that I hadn’t managed to sever anything too important between her metatarsals, I helped shunt seemingly every piece of that decorated furniture into a slightly different configuration. That done, Edithine invited me to sit for a moment and have a cup of tea. It’s well established that nothing is a greater reward for humping chests of drawers around than a cup of tea. Settled, and wettened by the tea, Edithine finally got down to business. We’d chatted a little about how baffling everything felt, and how overwhelming it could feel. She had a refreshingly compatible outlook to mine, taking the view that in the absence of such answers, you really did have to just keep on carrying on. Setting fire to the nearest bus might make you feel better for five minutes – after all, everyone loves a good burn – but the next day you’d be very frustrated because you couldn’t catch your bus to work. It was her next question that kicked my legs out from under me: “so, what are you going to do about it all?”

I hadn’t been looking for an additional parent or grandparent. (Despite my apparent malaise, I had at least checked that my parents weren’t either joining in on burning their cube complex down, or adversely affected by their neighbours attempting the same. They were fine, thanks for asking.) I wasn’t sure what I’d done that might have inspired such a question. Half a dozen possible responses circled in my head, and I had enough of a filter to not outright swear at the lady. I was spared the look of disappointment on Edithine’s face when I inevitably revealed my general apathy and unsuitability, not to mention utter lack of status or connections that make any sort of difference. The news was on – no one turned the news off any more – and our eyes and ears were drawn magnetically to the announcement. The tide had stopped coming in, or out. The vast bodies of water on our world were just sloshing back and forth, no longer held to their usual schedule. The reason? The moon’s mass was no longer dragging the oceans as it whipped around the Earth. We weren’t just unable to see the moon, it wasn’t there any more. The most likely reason, according to the panicky sweat-faced professor being interviewed, was that the Earth was on the move and we’d left the moon behind. First imprisoned, and now kidnapped? Fuck.

Stolen Skies – Part Five (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

I stumbled back to my cube in a further state of shock. Somehow, the englobement of our entire planet hadn’t struck me as hard as it evidently had other people. Probably a deep psychological insensitivity of some kind that my parents likely talked about behind my back all the time. I suspect it was a matter of permanence: things change all of the time, and if you freak out about every little thing then life must be a truly exhausting experience. I’m… not good at remembering what things were like before – I tend to dwell in the present. Doing so requires a little mental trick of readjustment I guess, in which my brain tricks me into thinking that whatever there is, right now, is basically how it’s always been. It’s not great for looking forward either, note the completion of three stages if education without a single thought for what the future might hold. Well, now it holds being trapped in a massive space-bollock and vanishing into the abyss. Perhaps I was right not to waste my time fretting about whether I’d like to work in a bank or in tweaking the tits on cows. But you know, that blithe unawareness of time passing can only go so far. For me, discovering that moon was gone turned out to be the key to unlocking a minor breakdown of my own.

I’ve always liked the moon. It’s good isn’t it? Waxing and waning and bumbling around the world, focus of myth and adventure. Shit to live on, quite good as a staging post to get people killed in space. More importantly, it was always just there. I could cope without the sky – I can go days without going outside. But the moon didn’t just exert its gravity against the Earth, it had some traction on my heart (metaphorically, obviously – if it was dragging blood around my circulatory system I’d be properly fucked). As a winsome, directionless teen (as opposed to the winsome directless young adult I became), I’d rather enjoyed gazing at the moon in all its pale glowing glory. A lantern on a dark night, a cold slice of bitter lemon reminding me that the world was indeed real and I should really interact with it, a big beaming face telling me the world was fucked but OK. And now… the future was catching up with me – no moon was suddenly a really big deal and the world positively vibrated around me with horror. I’d made my excuses to Edithine and staggered out of her cube block. The burnt out random crap in the streets and unemptied bins made sense: why do anything now? The world had changed irrevocably – probably – and there was no going back. I don’t know if you’ve ever badly fucked something up, a conversation, a bad decision – something that went wildly awry from your expectations. When that’s happened to me, it’s a physical and mental horror that the world and all my predictions about what happens and what people might do have proven to be utterly wrong. It’s like taking my mental model and hacking it to bits in front of me, and the butchery races backward through time, undermining all my previous thoughts and feelings. If this was wrong, then was I wrong every time, or have I just been dumbly lucking my way through a hopelessly fucked idea of reality the whole time? Because it’s not just that something has changed or gone wrong, it’s that sudden grasp that it could all have gone tits up at any moment, and what’s really changed is that the smiley-faced umbrella that shielded me from The True World has just been ripped apart by a hail of all-too-real micrometeorites. Or something. Many metaphors may apply. That’s just the mental and emotional turmoil. Physically it’s like being horrifically travel sick: my whole body feels like its vibrating and my organs are climbing over each other to escape out of the nearest convenient orifice – surely anywhere is safer than this misguided meat suit. Makes my teeth feel loose and like I’m sweating inside my skull.

Consequently, I was not at my absolute best when I left Edithine and like an absolute brainless moron took the convenient shortcut through the park between our buildings. That was another mistake. They used to say that the full moon drove people mad and made wild claims that murders and stuff were higher when the moon waxed large. Total bollocks, obviously – as someone once noted, you’re never more than two weeks from a full moon. However, I can absolutely assure you that the total absence of a lunar body makes people utterly batshit.

I was numbly vibrating my way along the path that winds through the trees (nice mix of birch and sycamore), likely muttering to myself and maybe even drooling a little with the psychic shock of our little shitball planet being flung out into the cosmos. I was not prepared for the sudden shower of magpies and other feathered fruits of the air falling from the trees like a shower of sharp, tickly bastards. Vaguely funny now, absolutely terrifying then. They were plainly enraged, scared out of their minds, just a flail of feathers and stabbing beaks. I batted them away, eyes squeezed tight to keep them safe, even as I could feel the blood welling up on my face and arms. They may have weird hollow bones, but you still have to strike them pretty hard to keep them off you. Also, I couldn’t see them. I have many good excuses for being defeated by city-dwelling birds. I made it through the feathered gauntlet and tumbled out along the path into one of the larger open areas. The birds seemed to be hanging back in the trees, as if the leafy boughs gave them the shelter that the sky could not. Wincing at the scratches and lines of blood across my arms and hands I tentatively fingered my face, came away with more blood. But still had both eyes: win. I rather regretted opening them. The middle of the park was some kind of bloodbath orgiastic murderthon. Dead birds scattered across the grass, a badger who appeared to be alternately eating its young and biting chunks out of its own fur. Cats and dogs stalked through the dead, pausing erratically to rip up some of the corpses and sometimes each other. In the flickering lamp light it seemed like a nightmarishly strobing horror film. I kept to the edges of the trees as best I could, trying to keep my distance between the murderbirds and the murdermammals. But of course, there were people in the park too.

I was ambushed before I’d fully circled the clearing. A pair of arms wrapped around me, swinging me about and tossing me into a broken wooden bench. It was only halfway fucked before I hit it – no one would be using it again. From the heap of shattered arms and back, I peered up at my attacker. He looked like he probably worked in a bank, or somewhere equally soul-destroying, before apparently taking vows of woodsmanship and tearing half of his clothes off. A long gash ran down the side of his face and neck, and I assumed he’d also travelled via the bird road. He was breathing heavily and had a worryingly unfocused look in his eyes. They’d taken on a cloudy brightness, and in the gloom caused by the faltering lights and the red-grey backlighting of the shell, they gleamed like cats’ eyes. Whole lotta fuck no right there. He wasn’t alone either. A woman, similarly bedraggled, lurched out of a hedge. It would have been comical, except I’d seen a lot of zombie movies when I was younger, and I saw that she was holding a kitchen knife, and that it – and she – were spattered with blood. I reckon the scariest thing was that neither of them said a word. I was tentatively hauling myself upright when the woman went for the man. Leaped in some ghastly, boneless way that propelled her knife-first into his neck. He thrashed and moaned a bit, but that was the last he’d do before falling to his knees and then onto his face. Well. I gave up on getting upright and settled for scuttling backwards on my hands and feet through the splinters and snapped wood. Alas, that caught her attention, yet, rather than come at me, just swayed on the spot. She had to turn into that irritating, flickering light before I could see her face clearly. Middle-aged, smeared makeup, eyeshadow turned to goth serial killer (or at least spree killed – I don’t like to leap to conclusions). Her eyes, glazed like the man she’d just stabbed, floated in their sockets, slowly rolling round to look at me. I must have managed some sort of protest, and effectively too, because she stopped halfway through taking a step towards me. She looked down at the man dead on the floor and I swear a tear rolled down her cheek before she made eye contact with me again and stabbed herself in the throat.

That got me moving, albeit with a massive splinter piercing my forearm. Didn’t slow me down any as I scrambled properly to my feet, tripping over the bench ruins, and did my level best to run like fuck through the park. I wasn’t deeply familiar with watching people die (though I’m sadly unable to say the same nowadays), and it had the electrifying effect of dislocating my earlier shock and replacing it with a quality adrenaline charge that saw me out of the park in no time. Without that boost I certainly wouldn’t have been able to vault over and around the other human bodies I encountered scattered in and out of the foliage. The street on the other side was deserted. The smell of burning was in the air again, and the road had a haunted feel – like it had seen some shit but didn’t want to talk about it, not without half a bottle of whiskey inside it. Hands shaking I hauled open the door to my building and into what I fervently hoped was safety. Once back inside my cube, I locked the door and dragged the heaviest items of furniture I had to block it solidly. Then I painfully extracted the massive splinter (or shard of bench – I’m not clear on when a stick gets small enough to be a splinter), but it came out with relatively little bother. Adrenaline’s good like that. I dabbed at the gashes on my arms and gently at the smaller rips in my face and neck with some cotton wool and antiseptic. That hurt more than being attacked by the little bastards.

Looking fractionally less like I’d been in a knife-fight with mice, I dug out the whiskey I could have shared with the street, hunkered down on my bed by the nice big window, and huffed zygoptic vapes like a damn steam train. I stared at where the moon should have been – I mean, where I guess it would have been, usually I just look up and it’s somewhere around, not that I knew exactly where it would be on any given day – and shuddered. I thought about the bodies in the park, and the killers turned victims of themselves. I put a call through to the emergency services, but just got hung up in a queue. Not a great sign. Eventually I left a message on their exasperated voicemail. I didn’t expect that anyone would be getting back to me soon. I flicked on the news and it was nothing but blood and fire. If I thought we’d lost the plot when the shell appeared, I don’t know what this was. Mass hysteria? Either way it looked pretty fucking awful. The wardrobe in front of my door looked nice and sturdy. I added a chest of drawers.

Big exhale. Slow inhale. The vape went down smooth, the whiskey smoother. In the grey twilight I accidentally spilt whiskey on my hand, which hurt like a motherfucker. Belatedly I then thought of ringing Edithine. No answer. No data is a lot worse than bad data. In this case bad data would have been something like “someone’s broken into my cube” – actionable information. Maybe the phones were down, maybe Edithine was out, maybe she’s been murdered by some non-moon-crazed psychopath. Fuck. I guess I could try again later.

Stolen Skies – Part Six (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

The loss of our moon and the chaos that resulted from it pretty much set the tone for the next twenty years. Not that we had any concept that it would be a full two decades before we got any answers, or even learned what were the right questions to ask, as well as who to ask them of. It was all pretty grim. I never did get to check on Edithine. The day after I was attacked in the park a fire swept through the east side of the park residential area, and those old warehouses vanished in the flames. That wasn’t by any means the worst of the fires either. Honestly, it was too bleak to even try to give a  blow by blow account, but I guess I can give you the highlights. I like you Alometh – good listeners. I didn’t know that before. I hope it was less awful for your lot. Humans truly went to pieces. There were several different dimensions to the collapse, and like any good shape, each edge was sharper than the last and cut the others still more deeply. While I tended my new scratches with a dwindling supply of antiseptic and whiskey, the world went to shit.

When the shell came up, it looked like the plants would be OK, as the shell emitted some useful radiation along with the dim light – about as bright as the sky used to be on a heavily overcast day at the end of the day in late November. And red. I’ll never forget that colour. Of course, I’d seen grass and trees and houses and everything during both night and day, but getting used to them in a meaty twilight was a different matter. The lack of daylight already affected millions, with seasonal affective disorder – that multiplied by the whole population. We thought the light was OK for plants, because they could still photosynthesise, but it didn’t penetrate the oceans as it once had. The land-based plants struggled on, but certainly didn’t thrive. If we thought people were badly affected by the grim light, animals didn’t even get an explanation of where the sunshine had gone. Whole species slumped and vanished in a matter of years. People stopped going to work, getting up, stopped having babies, started joining death cults, started killing themselves and each other.

We made it worse, obviously. The world’s various militaries and more insane governments took exception to the shell and took aggressive measures to see if they could pierce it (a stupid fucking idea, and that’s why it gets no successful “we”) with everything from handguns to nuclear weapons. Short answer: they didn’t work. Long answer: they successfully plunged the southern hemisphere into a (relatively) mild nuclear winter, rather adding to the fucking nightmare scenario we were already facing. Now billions died, directly and indirectly as the skies and seas were poisoned. By the end of the twenty years, climatic changes, nuclear fallout, freezing cold, famine, disease, the inevitable wars that resulted and multiplied from each and every ones of those individual disasters, profoundly fucking up the remaining northern hemisphere. Within a decade we were truly on our knees, only those of us fortunate enough to live in the north and well inland saw any continuity of existence. Still, they were all excellent drivers for technological advancement – some still consider this to be a fair trade. Radical leaps in solar energy, improved nuclear power, turbines that could cope with the freezing weather and utterly fucked up global climate. Since we’d wrecked the outside world, we turned inward, those of us who were able made the inside into the new outside, with daylight lamps and roofing over vast areas of land to give us back an ersatz sky.

Bet you’re wondering how a screwup like me got through all that. Skin of my teeth, mate. Luck has been by far the defining force in my life. After the fire, an especially perky group of community leaders got organised, contacted all the previous park maintenance gang (“hello, yes please save me from spiralling into depression alone in my cube”) and took decisive steps to clear the park up, remove the bodies and get the wildlife back under control. It was a big job, but you’d have thought was kinda trivial in the grander scheme of things. We started off hooking up thousands of those daylight bulbs, strung right around and across the park. It took a while, but eventually those fucking birds stopped attacking us (I flinched at the sound of wings for ages), and after we’d found the last of the corpses and dragged them off to the municipal mass-graves, the park started getting back to normal. It’s OK: they identified them and then aquamated everyone. It’s a fascinating process, basically boil in the bag human body that you then shake the hell out of. Vastly smaller ecological footprint, and you end up with a big bag of ex-human fertiliser. There were a lot of bags. We never found out how many of the early victims of the End of Times got recycled into our food, but after a couple of years of brutal catastrophe after another, we really didn’t care as long as there was some chance of rice or printed meat. Anyone who had been involved in this kind of action got you on a government list as a non-fuck-up who might be useful. I’d finally found a use for some of my education, assisting in the logistical operations to proceed with enclosing the town and establishing local power sources. Fascinating work, and an amazing distraction from looking up at the cooked meat sky and despairing of what the hell was going on.

Distraction proved to be key. Eventually I got lifted out and assigned to another programme tangentially related to my tertiary education – the creation of virtual environments. There was no way that doming a bunch of cities would fix enough people’s heads. Thankfully this was a project that got underway before the worst of climate disasters caught up with us. As it was, I got placed in the testing department for a whole new generation of virtual reality. It had never truly caught on,  despite (like Mars) the billionaire’s determination to make it real. Basically, no one wanted to wear a headset to talk to their friends or twat about in a crappy environment. This was much cooler. Some university researchers had been busy hacking the brain, as you do. Their solution to the hardware problem was to eliminate it. We all dream every night, we’re perfectly capable of generating our own worlds and hanging out in them. The trick is that they tend to be a bit random, occasionally terrifying, and we’re not properly conscious in them. Those all turned out to be fixable problems. Sure, a few hundred people got permanently trapped in nightmares they could never escape from, some guys were never able to sleep again, and a mere handful just died screaming. I saw a bit of that, and it wasn’t good… The technological challenge was inducing a controlled dream state while awake, which was repeatable and stable enough that you could expand your own world into one that other people could enter. The dreamer retained control of their dream, and set the limits for others to come in and interact. A big stupid VR headset was out. The earlier experiments involved cutting subjects’ heads open and plugging gear directly into the brain. Not ideal for a commercial rollout. There were endless challenges, but we (yeah, I’m claiming this since I was involved… a bit) mowed through them over time.

It was a desirable product. The outside world was becoming more fucked on a steep upward curve (if fucked-upness counts as an upward trend), so our only hope was to pretend we had a better world we could retreat into while we all waited to die. Sorry – it’s how it felt a lot of time. Life on Earth came perilously close to being utterly unfeasible. On the plus side, those countries idiotic enough to launch the nukes suffered quite brutal coups, from their own citizens, often backed by neighbouring states. Do a dumb thing, get fucked up. A hazy global alliance formed to deal with the billions of displaced people before they all just died, to allocate and reassign materials, and pool resources on projects like this one. Other cool stuff that I wasn’t involved with: nano factories repurposed to make food; the genetic ark that captured the genomes of almost every living and recently extinct species, as well as the means to bring them back; linked to that, viable human cloning although it never did get implemented; deep sea farming; some kickass cancer treatments and telomere repair. And of course, the elimination of money. The billionaires had utterly failed us, and capitalism fell apart when there were enough hungry and desperate people to uncover, penetrate and eliminate the wealthy enclaves. It wasn’t socialism that replaced it (the unimaginable horror!), but a compassionate pragmatism that reallocated resources instead of hoarding them. The whiskey wasn’t as good, but you can’t have everything.

The dreaming project was good for me too. As something of a lifelong daydreamer, or someone who evaded reality at every opportunity, the prospect of dwelling in my own virtual dreamworld was really appealing. Sure, we fried a lot of brains to get it right, but when it worked it was amazing. One of the keys that unlocked it was, inevitably, drugs. Humanity’s had a long and awkward history with narcotics. For millennia, we used them to either reveal the essential nature of the universe (or make us feel like we’d revealed the essential nature of the universe, and as an internal construct, that’s almost exactly the same thing), but then got massively freaked out by them, rejected them, and tried to stop anyone from using them. Try banning antidepressants and anxiety medication when the world is literally burning around you and there is no future for your species. Exactly. Drugs like zygoptics were a perfect solution for calming the subject and encouraging the kind of mental plasticity in which you could build a world stable enough to map and share with others. Once we got behind shoving a massive plug in between the hemispheres of your brain, it started to take off. The next wave of experiments leveraged zygoptics along with ingesting a nano-parasite that made its way into your brain and built the interface right inside your head without any invasive surgery. Sure, that didn’t go perfectly in early tests, but the results were at least interesting. In earlier times, there would have been a lot more animal research, but they had now been designated as either food, or critical environmental resources. In any case, the human brain is so vastly more complex that even those of our closest relatives that, combined with being unable to get comprehensible verbal and emotional feedback from a rabbit or monkey, human testing was the norm from the get go. Being a subject came with a certain amount of compensation – both in terms of accommodation and material benefits, and that is was something to do that kept you off a floodplain or out of a radiation zone.

I got my nano implant in year twelve, part of the final wave of testing. It was unlikely to fry my brain, and I was sick of the sight of the sky, the smell of our burnt air and the hopeless look in peoples’ eyes. It was almost ready to be rolled out to the general population when yet another disaster befell our beleaguered species. The Earth’s rotation had slowed to a dead stop, and even though we no longer had day and night anyway, that lack of spin, combined with the loss of the moon’s mass was slowly being felt. The lack of tides was weird enough, but those forces that had controlled them also had an impact on the movement of our tectonic plates – an extra push, an extra pull. It was theorized that without those pressures, the shift of critical plates was affected and they pulled apart just enough to trigger the violent release of a hundred undersea volcanoes. After that, the global alliance could only move its attention from crisis to crisis, and neat little projects like ours was abandoned. I and the others in the programme, both test subjects and workers immediately set about constructing our own dreamed realities. We called them our Ownworlds.

Stolen Skies – Part Seven (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

In those awful years of gloom and despair, I thought about the Moon a lot. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the poor bastards stuck in their ready-made tomb when the Earth was englobed. The lunar colony (a glorified research base and launching post for further exploration) had been established thirty years earlier deep inside one of the lava tubes that riddle the Moon, from its wilder teenage years when it was still turning into the vast hunk of dead rock that we gazed at affectionately and bizarrely ascribed feminine qualities. We’re such a weird species. I bet you Alometh guys don’t randomly assign genders and Alomethy properties to stuff. Not to worry, you can fill me in later.

I have to say though, you really don’t look good – not your natural shape, obviously, I’m no Returner – I hope there’s a doctor coming to sort you out. Not that the Alometh look normal. They couldn’t be much further from what we’d think of as people if you tried. Imagine, if you will, sentient walking broccoli. That’s basically it. The trunk of their body is like soft tree bark, which splits and bifurcates in a similar way to tree branches on Earth, except that its roots are five sharply pointed legs with high knees. A bit like spider legs, I guess… but chunkier and less irrationally horrifying. It’s hard when aliens are properly alien! They seem to have as many arms as they need at any given point, just sprouting more leg-like limbs through their trunks which split into as many digits as they need. Fantastic engineers – those finger tips can get down to near-nano scales so it looks like they’re furry whiskers on the end of a stick (probably makes a cracking duster too). Their “heads” are the real broccoli-alike bit. Unlike our skull-based noggins, the top of an Alometh trunk opens like a flower, and from what I’ve been told, they can even close that flower like a hood, and protect all the bits inside. The bits inside are an eruption of waving stalks, each tipped with a wet-looking ball (I’d love to know the Alomethi terms for their body parts, as this is so imprecise it would be embarrassing if they read it) which contains their sensor hubs – like a combined eye, ear and tongue all in one. Plus they can see (or taste?) infrared and all kinds of exotic rays. Someone told me they can see x-rays, but that sounds like bollocks to me.

Anyway, this dude did not look good. He was slumped in a chair, by which I mean his root-legs had sprawled over the seat and had its legs in a death grip. Kind of sitting, at least. His (I’m ascribing fucking gender to it, like the stupid, limited human I am! Which doesn’t make a lot of sense for a species that appears to reproduce asexually, splitting off clusters of sensory organs that sprout into new individuals. Pretty cool.) – their head and its broccoli spray of eye-sticks had obviously taken a pretty bad hit – a big section looked like it had been ripped out, or bludgeoned into paste. That was all black and dead-looking, with an especially grim oily black gunk oozing out of it. Blood, or sap, or antifreeze or whatever fills up an Alometh. Since they don’t breathe, or blink, or even move much if they’re not busily engaged in activity I couldn’t really gauge whether it was sleeping or just ignoring me. But being in hospital sucks, and there was no television in here and it felt rude to just vanish into my ownworld and leave it on its own. I’m sure I’d have wanted company. Of course, I’d also been absolutely caning bathtub gin for hours and had recently been glassed. A concussion was not out of the question. So I kept going with my story – who knows, maybe the sound of my voice would be the thing that helped it keep a handle on existence. Yup.

So – the Moon. By the end, they reckoned some twenty thousand people lived up there. They’d burrowed into the moonrock and had all the stuff you’d need in a colony: homes, factories, cops, farms, and all the industrial tech to support the Mars missions and dispatching probes and drones off out into the depths of the solar system. That’s where all the satellites and things that spotted the hole in space were launched from. To be honest, we’d almost forgotten about the hole in space. If we can’t see it, it’s easier for it to slide from human memory. We had been quite distracted by far more immediate threats to our collective survival, many of them regrettably self-inflicted. We’re a dumb fucking species. Although the lava tubes kept them safe from radiation, and they had a few big bubbles of ironglass which did a good job of filtering out those cancerous rays, they mostly lived underground. They had no beautiful blue sky, just the stars in space which held a hallucinatory brightness and clarity with no atmosphere in the way. They did, of course, have something perhaps better than the Moon to look at – they had the Earth. A full quarter of a million miles away from them. The petals of the shell appeared like a whale through a mile of seawater, dim and formless at first, becoming an ever-more massive shadow until they came close enough to be horrifyingly solid. From the Moon they may have been visible sooner, like the petals of a carnivorous plant emerging from the void to snack us up.

They were never truly independent either, or at least they’d never had to be. Regular shuttles from the homeworld kept them topped up with whatever you couldn’t chemically crack out of regolith and rock. Oxygen wasn’t a problem, and neither was water so maybe they stood a chance on their own. Maybe. But I think about the Moon cast adrift as the Earth was hauled out of its orbit. Maybe the Moon was tugged along beside it, or was it so sudden that the little satellite was left bobbing in our wake, just rolling along in a wobbly version of Earth’s orbit until some larger solar object snared it in their gravity well. They’d been left behind to content with the Hole in Space disrupting the solar system, pushing the larger planets out of alignment, sending them all into a new dance which would ultimately end up with them either flung out of our solar system, or crashing into each other. For all that half of our horror was not being able to see beyond the shell, our Moon colony would have been able to see it all. Home abandoning them, the familiar track of the Moon around Earth suddenly upended, their future even more unknown than ours. I wasn’t sure if it was even safe to have kids on the Moon – the reduced gravity really fucked up a person’s bones and organs, despite the heavy gyms and mandatory exercise programmes – and without that firm downward tug that we’d evolved with, what would that do the development of a foetus? Bleak and desperately sad thoughts. But they were smart, probably some of the smartest people humanity ever produced. If anyone could survive alone in the void, it was them. Yeah, I like that better. Maybe they didn’t all just die cold and alone.

Focusing on someone else’s trauma and nightmare can be a fantastic distraction from our own, and ultimately, distraction was the name of the game as the Earth drifted (we guessed – with zero insight into the world beyond our little shell, it was only by the loss of the Moon’s mass that we even deduced that we might have been moving at all), soared or was just hurled by some massive alien god for the amusement of its cosmic hound. In the latter case, I strenuously hoped that we’d get lost in the long grass and the space dog would give up and eat a space duck or something. Along with the thousands of others who’d received their ownworld nano-parasites (not a great marketing ploy in retrospect, though it accurately described how the unit functioned by drawing power directly from the brain’s own electrical system and growing ever more deeply into the folds of the cerebrum, burrowing deeper into the parts of the brain that manage imagination, reality, memory and sensation, the better and more fun term bandied about amongst those early adopters like me was oneirocyte), I turned inward, away from the seemingly ceaseless disasters of our bubbled world.

The sensation of building your own world is strange and complicated. First, you’ve got to learn to dream through the implant. It takes a few weeks of going to sleep normally and dreaming to engage the oneirocyte. Think how nebulous and slippery your own dreams are when you first wake up in the morning – a vague sense of having been doing something, a haunting image that you can’t quite bring into focus. The oneirocyte’s first job was to identify the state that came before that, and add all its contents into your standard set of memories. Effectively, I began to remember every dream I had – I didn’t just remember my waking life as usual, I began to remember everything that happened when I was asleep, with a much higher degree of retention. Daily activities aren’t all encoded in memory – we might recall the outline of a day’s engagements, maybe the contents of a few conversations, but most of that’s lost, or retained as a kind of logical process: I know that I had breakfast, so I’m able to regenerate the idea of having eaten, and maybe it really was like that. This is the hard part of memory – for most people, most of the time, memory is false. That’s perhaps too strong. It’s accurate, but it’s incomplete, and only really exists when we remember it, and worse, that memory when we re-remember an event overwrites the previous remembering. We’re usually only remembering whatever we remembered last time we thought of a memory, emphatically not the original memory. That’s why our memories change, lose parts and get new sections added in, either by someone else reminding us of extra details, or adding them ourselves through accident and emotion.

My brain was busy establishing a connection between my perception of reality and the strange, haphazard realm of dreams that I inhabited erratically at night. I began to see why some of the test subjects couldn’t stop screaming or never slept again (and then went mad and died, “mad” here being the non-technical term for being unable to distinguish dreams from reality). We don’t naturally remember all of our dreams. It’s been long-established that dreaming is related to laying down long-term memories. Something in that melange of nightmares sifts our day to day existence for things worthy of keeping, though quite how that decision is made is unclear and the results evidently vary wildly, as you’d expect without a conscious choice going into. The oneirocyte was skipping that stage of decision-making, and keeping everything. When I woke up, the memory of walking through a night-forest where the trees were made of weeping swans was as immediate and direct as what my cube looked like first thing in the morning. The feedback loop of reacting with horror or shock at certain kinds of memories was one of the triggers for the oneirocyte to define the boundary between dream and reality. It was a little hit and miss, since our world was chock-full of horrifying things. The advice from the research team was to avoid the news and other emotional shocks during this learning phase, unless you wanted to encode the real world into your ownworld. You could sort that out later, but ideally you kept those parts away from each other.

I hadn’t appreciated how exhausting it was to wake up knowing that I’d been asleep, but to have all those dreams stacked up alongside the knowledge that I’d been asleep. I knew that I’d spent the day with Scoro and Gex, back working on a regrow project (a fancy way of saying “gardening”) in the dome city we’d wound up in. It was a good diversion from thinking about the previous night’s dreams, and since all three of us had the oneirocyte it was handy to share the experience. Especially since we didn’t have the opportunity to be sealed away from the world in a medical setting like the earlier test subjects had been. Our progress was necessarily taking in more of the outside world than the scientists would have considered wise. But in addition to that long day of fighting with plants, I knew that I’d also flown briefly through an empty moonscape littered with bones; had a lengthy and confusingly erotic journey through the inside of a waterfall where I explored the furniture and opened every draw in the mermaid’s house (not a euphemism, I don’t think); sat silent and quiet in my childhood bedroom listening to the sound of the shell around the Earth creaking in the night; spent an age trying to find milk in a supermarket where all the signs were misleading; been chased by a shadow; punched a buttercup and been fined for reducing our community’s genetic stock; and so on…

But slowly the oneirocyte integrated itself into my conscious and unconscious mind, and I began to dream lucidly, gaining mastery over the realities my sleeping mind generated. Soon I could stop dreams, restart them, change the background, the emotional overtones and weird subtexts, choose what I would dream about and start choosing elements that would repeat nightly. I’d return to a dream memory from weeks before and extract a smell or a texture and place it in a new dream. It was intoxicating. Speaking of which, we were huffing zygoptics like never before. They were the enhanced vapes which the oneirocyte programme had developed that enhanced the sense of cohesion and unity. Very helpful for drawing the elements of a dream together and not being afraid of what else might be lurking in one’s subconscious. That was the only part I really struggled with. If the dreams were as real as the true world outside, so were the nightmares.

Stolen Skies – Part Eight (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

We were never intended to remember our dreams. Ideally they let us process our day to day experiences through oddly muddled pastiche of memories and metaphors. They have that peculiar dual quality of feeling strange and affected in retrospect – like watching Nosferatu in your local church’s pantomime – yet during the dream it felt perfectly natural (even if the dream was shot through with curious emotional notes). Being gifted perfect recall of dreams while the oneirocyte integrated fully into our minds began to seriously undermine our sense of reality.

Gex, Scoro and I would spend as much of the day as possible in our cubes – working on the programme had ensured that our cubes were all together, and the cube complex was tucked away on the quiet side of the domed city, away from the manufactories and the processing portal. The latter was a kind of airlock that kept the cold, often poisonous air out of the city. It also kept out those luckless fuckers who hadn’t yet gained admittance to a dome. The compassionate pragmatism of the early days of the disaster had been profoundly strained by the logistics of the climate emergencies we’d been repeatedly plunged into. Cities had been closed up and shut down. Thousands had been taken in and found a place to live, but the nuclear winter and the environmental fallout of our englobement had left tens of millions on the move, choking through the hell we’d made our world into. We stayed as far from that end of the city as possible. The vast refugee camp spread a third of the way around the city, sheltering in the lee of the dome. We had lost count of our surviving population, but it wasn’t looking good. Vast programmes of work were directed at building shelters for those trapped in the toxic environment, even though its results would be too late for too many. A dense network of tunnels, old mines, drainage and underground carparks had become home to many more than could be squeezed into the cube habitats of any city. It wasn’t just that we wanted to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that none of this was happening – of course we did, we were in the fortunate group who had been ensconced in a dome when it all went to maximum shit, embedded in a programme prioritised “for the good of humanity”. Honestly, that sort of thing can make you into a bit of a wanker. It was also that the nature of our ownworld realities was sensitive to outside influence, certainly while the oneirocytes were still figuring out which part of our experience was real and comforting and which was imaginary and terrifying.

I was in the early stages of constructing my ownworld, selecting elements from both my recalled dreamworld, my memory, and my imagination. In the ownworld it didn’t matter which was which, I could create an underwater realm where I could breathe water as easily as air in the real world, populated with historical artifacts and talking furniture. If I wanted to… When Gex, Scoro and I met up in the evenings, huddled inside one or other of our cubes, we’d vape and talk about our dreams. Normally, someone describing to you their dream was invariably the most tedious of conversations – filled with private symbology and painfully banal details. What seemed bizarre and fascinating to one person was dull as the proverbial ditch water to another. But we were plumbing our dreams for detail, attempting to connect with those structural metaphors that our unconscious minds used and reused. They were the hooks that the oneirocytes would use to drag our unconscious dreaming minds into the real, conscious present, and allow our conscious awareness to inhabit our dreams. So, endless talk of why a particular flower, the height of a staircase, the ceaseless presence of a dark figure whose fingernails were teeth, were keys to forgotten memories and the underlying structure of our self-awareness was vital for us, though we’d have sounded like lunatics to others. Meeting together also served a few other critical functions: remembering to eat, for one. In my dream I’d feasted for hours, but in the real world I’d barely swallowed toothpaste, but my stomach’s expectations were being fed as much by the dreams as by reality. We literally had a checklist: have you eaten, have you washed, have you drunk anything, do you remember where you are…?

We’d become detached from reality, focused inward to the exclusion of all else. An alarm would shock me out of the half-dream semi-waking state that the oneirocyte had produced, wandering through a desaturated landscape in which I slowly grew marble trees. They grew so slowly, but they gave the constant impression of upwards writhing motion – a soothing, continuous winding. I’d lurch from that back into the somewhat grubby cube, unaware that I’d been pacing back and forth in the living room kitchenette of the cube, knocking papers and junk over. We learned early not to leave anything sharp or dangerous lying around after Gex somehow embedded a kitchen knife in her thigh and had spent the afternoon bleeding till our alarm snapped her back to the world, covered in blood and freaking out. These were only some of the reasons that the initial research had been lab-based, with observation rooms, medical staff and an enforced structure. It didn’t help that night and day had fucked off over a decade ago, and our circadian rhythms were only partially supported by having lights come on outside on a regular timetable. The oneirocyte’s integration disabled some core functions like paralysing the body while we slept, and that was going to continua to be a problem until we could access the switch for paralysis ourselves. Much, much safer when strapped down in a laboratory.

I staggered from my waking dream to the door – checking the list on the back of the door: “Are you dressed? Then go next door.” I was dressed. The dream and real were overlapping and I’d gotten dressed in my ownworld, generating a pair of white trousers, shirt and gloves there. Here, I’d apparently found analogue clothing in my drawers – scruffy, well-worn cargo trousers, ragged band t-shirt and my favourite  shoes. Close enough, and a seemingly trivial but significant shift In my ownworld development: I’d briefly inhabited both realms simultaneously. The extent to which that was possible was highly limited – I could walk forever in my ownworld, but unless I started opening doors in the real world, there was a limit to how far I could walk without falling down stairs or crossing a road. Theoretically, processing the dreamworld as a replacement for the real world was possible, but the variables between the two were so vast that this wasn’t actually very desirable. I didn’t want to walk into traffic while striding across my dream plain or explore an imaginary cave while climbing out of a fifth floor window.

Even in walking the very short distance between my cube and Gex’s, it felt like I was walking in two worlds at once. It’s impossible not to dream of the real world sometimes, and since the corridor between our cubes exists in both realities, I could feel them both. The corridor was at once short, comprising a dozen cube doorways and simultaneously a seemingly endless tunnel that arches off into the distance, rising high into the sky. I staggered a little with the vertiginous effect of dream overlaying reality and slapped my hand against the entrance buzzer of Gex’s cube. I was pretty sure it was Gex’s cube. It was Gex’s cube: she opened the door and laughed in my face.

“I can’t tell if I’m dreaming any more,” she laughed, “come on it. Scoro’s already here.”

Gex waved me in. She was wearing just an old dressing gown, it’s grey flannel wearing out along the arms, near threadbare by her wrists. Scoro was slumped in an armchair, one hand on his forehead, the other clutching a mirror which he was staring into.

“Fuck, I forgot the food,” I said. Gex shook her head and steered me toward her kitchenette where a stack of freeze-dried packages was spilled across the counter. Guess it wasn’t my turn after all. I took over the important business of shoving them in a microwave and gathering up cutlery.

“It’s getting worse,” Scoro said quietly. “I’m not sure if this is what I look like now.”

He was still looking into the mirror, a frown creasing his face. I offered him a bowl, which he accepted and three of us sat in silence, eating, making occasional eye contact and generally gazing about like stoned idiots. This was the most real part of my day. After eating we chatted about our experiences – like Scoro and Gex, I too was finding that the edges of reality had frayed quite badly, but we were all making progress in creating worlds that we could re-enter whenever we went to sleep. It was the bleedover of dreams into the waking world that was causing us problems. After finishing the bowls of noodles, Gex had cracked out a new box of zygoptic vapes, and we’d resumed vaping together. Harmonising, unifying. If we were struggling to disentangle reality individually, perhaps the zygoptics would provide a way for us to support each other.

“I saw a door today – in my ownworld,” said Scoro, “I didn’t put it there, and I don’t remember dreaming about a door just standing in the middle of nowhere.”

“I dreamed a door in my ownworld too,” Gex replied. “Wooden frame, black door. No handle.”

I’d seen that door too. Just a glimpse, between the marble trees as they wound their way infinitely upward. There one moment and gone the next.

“How did the door feel, Scoro?” Gex asked, leaning forward intently.

“Warm…” both Scoro and I said together.

“That’s the same door,” Gex said, “it kept shifting about – that’s how I knew I hadn’t dreamt it into existence. It was like being awake when the dream memories overlay reality. But in the ownworld it never feels like that – I’m laying out elements intentionally.”

“Agreed,” I added, “the oneirocyte can separate dreams from reality in the ownworld, but it seems to be struggling to do so in the real world.”

“Wasn’t this the point where subjects started to go mad?” Scoro asked, eyebrow raised.

“Well, yes. But in fairness, they went mad at every stage when it went wrong.” Gex reminded us.

Something was adding an element to all of our ownworlds – it didn’t feel dangerous. Its warmth felt inviting. It just needed to stay still long enough to be opened.

“What’s on the other side?” I wondered.

“Maybe it’s a symbol – maybe this is the clean break between ownworld dreaming and reality that we’ve been looking for, it’s a dream metaphor for dividing dream and the real. Next time it shows up, I’m opening it.” Gex’s eyes were gleaming – a shine from the zygoptics added to the strange sleep-addled states we were living in.

“Alright. Let’s all do that.” I proposed, “But let’s stay here tonight – together. We should be close, since we don’t know what’s happening.

We all agreed to that. Scoro and I went and fetched mattresses and bedding, and the three of us dossed down on the floor together. Mattresses pressed up against each other’s, hands loosely touching. We willed ourselves into the dreamstate for the ownworld, and the real world vanished around us.

Stolen Skies – Part Nine (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

Sometimes there’s a door. I can see it out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn to face it, it skitters out of the way, vanishes in a blink of my mind’s eye. Its presence somehow relates to the state of my mental readiness to acknowledge a clear cut between dreamworld and reality. I’d been living in a confused combination of the two for months by this point, the process exacerbated by the lack of medical care and non-clinical setting. Maybe, just maybe, going rogue on an experimental nano-parasite hadn’t been the best plan. It had all been going so well when the three of us were living together. Those days after we started exploring our ownworlds in each other’s physical presence were intense and powerful. Being together enhanced the unifying effects of the zygoptics and encouraged the implanted oneirocytes to communicate with each other.

My white world of towering marble trees had taken on colour at last – eddies of breakthrough reality spinning in the space between the trees’ roots, new objects rising out of them as they spun. I decorated my forest with furniture, finding comfort and beauty in form and function. Half furniture warehouse, half dream woods I guess. Colour pooled more densely and sank into the ground to reveal deep lagoons of crystal clear water which the trees daintily stepped over, forming vast smooth bridges of white, living stone webbing across the newly formed spaces. As the trees continued to twist and rise ever higher, they sprouted branches which webbed together, filling the empty white sky with intricate patterns which surged and twisted as I watched. I was directing all of this, further breaking the mould of my dreams with conscious choices. I realised it was a cold world, and added warmth – a trio of hot moons that slowly drifted across the sky, casting an orange light through the ceaselessly shifting, interweaving patterns of the branches above. It felt calm, and restful. All except that doorway which eluded me through the trunks. Once I saw it at the bottom of one of the pools, and dove in. But it was gone when I broke through the surface of the water. Bloody thing. I’d catch it eventually, or it would be ready for me to catch it. In the meantime I continued to add detail to the world – texture, scent, and tentatively – sound. Even as a kid I’d found white noise restful: the distant hum of machinery, the hammering of rain and approaching thunder. The problem I encountered is that in a dreamstate things have to make some kind of relational sense. In the real world, I can just have a machine playing sounds, but in a dream a sound with an unidentified source became a point of anxiety – an unseen presence generating its own distortion through the space. I didn’t want it to be raining all the time, and I didn’t want to stick a massive washing machine in the distance for its soothing churn and rattle. I stuck with the water noises, and added a thin layer of cloud that only rained on the lagoons, leaving the paths and branches dry and easy to walk around. It misted into a kind of low fog that clung to the ground, fading the distance and creating a weird sense of claustrophobia. No good. I couldn’t leave it silent though. I’d just start imagining noises, and their origins. Better to provide definition and clarity in the ownworld. Unanswered questions and answers without questions made it feel fragile and tenuous, as if it was just a thin veil that something else could find its way through. For a place defined by the imagination, it really didn’t help to let your imagination run wild. I had managed to make it stable though, and could reenter it at will when I fell asleep, visualising a short corridor that I and my friends walked down, each choosing and opening our own door which reliably led to the dreamworlds we’d created.

Finally, I caught that damned door. I’d been walking along the endlessly winding branches high up above the clear lagoons, their rich texture and feel beneath my bare feet creating a deep meditative state of peace and relaxation. I happened to look up as a dark shadow intruded on my peripheral vision. Right next to me, hovering over empty space hung the doorframe. Dark, with a plain wooden door in the centre. I reached out, felt its warmth and its own sense of rightness, even though it was hanging above nothing in my ownworld. I reached out, pushed it open and walked through. A moment’s dizziness as space whirled around me, my delicate pale world vanishing, and I found myself walking out into the heart of an ornate, gold-spattered cathedral space, The door was behind me still, exactly as I’d seen it my ownworld, except here it half-covered a stained-glass window, just jutting out of the panes. This wasn’t the real world – I’d travelled into another ownworld, but whose?

A dull roar echoed around the vast vaulted ceilings, announcing the presence of something. It was hard to focus on at first – I’d wandered into someone else’s dream and I felt my brain stutter, as if it were trying to keep up with this alternative interpretation of this other’s mental playground. Then, with what felt alarmingly like a damp snap inside my head, it all came into focus. A huge wooden and brass lion was striding down the nave. Wood creaked, metal joints clanged and pistons hissed as it approached. The head of the lion was stunningly beautiful, immaculately hammered into a haughty expression. And riding on its back… Scoro, wearing a long golden dress whose train tailed off alongside the massive lion’s. With a grin, he hailed me and slid gracefully off the beast’s back.

“Welcome to my ownworld, Evanith. I see you found the door.”

I turned and vaguely waved at the door – it was still there, clear and fixed. Which suggested this portal between our ownworlds – our very minds – was established now.

“I like what you’ve done with the place,” I said, eyeing the spectacular golden interior of the cathedral, “more religious than I’d expected.”

“Nah, never believed in that stuff, but I love the architecture. Come on, let me show you around.”

He hooked his arm in mine and we walked off out of the church into his ownworld. Outside the cathedral, arches and arabesques sprang from the ground, leading the eye into yet more church-like structures that arced up into the sky. It was beautiful, and I started as suddenly a flock of tiny silver bird-things erupted out of one of the cavernous buildings, soared into the sky and began a complex shape-shifting with their combined bodies, a murmuration that filled the blue sky above. I hadn’t seen a blue sky in so long, hadn’t even conceived of putting one in my own dreamworld, that tears sparkled immediately in my eyes.

“I know,” said Scoro, squeezing my arm, “I think it’s the right blue – at any rate, it’s the blue I dreamt most often. It feels right.”

“I went for white…”

“Of course you did. Now, I found another door as well as the one in the cathedral. Come on.”

We ambled through a tunnel made of twisted golden columns. Halfway down it, another door stuck awkwardly through the side of the tunnel at an odd angle.

“I don’t know if we’re going to be able to move these doors, but this one’s really fucking up the symmetry,” I noted.

Scoro leaned up and pulled the door open. We stepped through into darkness.

It seemed like we were underground. The darkness was split by red light that bled through cracks in the walls around us. It took a little while before our eyes became attuned to the imaginary darkness, and again, that damp snapping sensation in my mind before the walls around us took proper shape. An infinitely regressing array of cogs, pistons and wheels within wheels – like we inside an enormous automated puzzle box. The walls clicked and whirred, vibrating with the impression of leviathan mechanisms grinding away all around us. Abruptly the walls unfolded around us, shapes flipping in and out of existence as they creased away behind and inside each other, the dark underground space revealed to be more like a box that we were standing inside. And beyond the box, a red heat filled everything, steam rising gently from the ground that appeared to be composed of circular slabs of onyx, near concentric rings of white and black stone, all of which were rotating at subtly different rates. And between the larger slabs, yet more, smaller stones, all also revolving. It stretched out before us for what seemed like miles. The grinding and whirring continued, presumably driving this endless field of motion, producing the steam that rose out from between the cracks. Strangely, when we walked forwards, the motion of the stones switched to match our direction of travel, though it made looking down a weirdly vertiginous experience.

“Well, this is nice–“ Scoro began.

“Boys!” Gex interrupted, rising up out of the spinning shapes on a column of pure black, motionless at the top as it corkscrewed out of the ground.

“What the actual fuck, Gex?” I asked, gesturing at the realm of perpetual motion she’d created.

“I dunno, I guess I find it relaxing. Couldn’t find a way to get the nice white noise background without some actual machinery to make it.”

She’d solved my problem, but it wasn’t a solution I fancied implementing in my ownworld.

“The doors work – we’re in,” said Scoro as the column supporting Gex shortened itself until she was deposited neatly on the onyx floor before us. “Pretty cool, right?”

We could hardly stop grinning. The months of work while the oneirocytes integrated themselves into our brains, and into each others’ had worked. We spent some hours playing in the new worlds, seeing if we could affect each other’s worlds – we could, but only with explicit permission, and those revisions could be removed in a heartbeat. What we could do though, was change what our friends were wearing when they entered our ownworld. A rapid switching of jeans, togas, nothing, swimsuits and absurdly fancy dresses had us in stitches. We quite lost track of time, trying to build a space where our ownworlds intersected, but it was proving tricky to establish a common visual vocabulary for the interface. It was as I added a series of gothic lampposts to the path leading up to the intersection from Gex’s world that it occurred to me to wonder how long we’d been in here. Usually we interacted with the oneirocytes as part of the normal cycle of sleep and waking, but of late we’d been able to step instantly into sleep without being tired, and set alarms that would disturb our sleep enough to either jolt us into wakefulness, or could be translated into the dreamspace as a warning – an eruption of black swans, the dimming of the moons, something. But we’d had nothing, no warning, no trigger. Time in the ownworld can be a lot like dream time, both endless and tightly compressed so that an entire adventure can take place in a few seconds that felt like hours.

“I think we need to try and wake up,” I said, “did we remember to set an alarm?”

Gex paused in her erection of a huge clockwork tower. Scoro put down his shovel.

“What made you think of that?“ Gex asked.

“Um,” I’d felt something, a shudder that ran through me, “I got hungry?” I wasn’t sure, but now that I was looking for it, there was a sensation there – a continuous shudder, something shaking.

“Yeah,” said Scoro. “I feel it too, it’s like a deep pulse, I feel it here–” he pointed to his chest, ran hands down his torso and thighs, “it’s all through me. I didn’t notice before.”

“We need another door,” Gex said. “One that exits the ownworlds.”

The ownworlds are strange – we can create simply by thinking, but as humans we’re so used to interacting by touch that we tended to reach out as if wielding tools, or casting a spell. Gex raised both her arms as if conjuring, and a whirlpool of blackness emerged from the ground beneath our feet, flowed up and into a semi-circular black shape hanging vertically in the air. Scoro leaned in, touched it with a finger and gold coruscated out from where he placed his fingertip, like frost crystallising on a window. With a sweep of my hand I bound it in white marble, and the black centre melted away to reveal another plain wooden door. I reached out and pushed it open.

We emerged into chaos. Half the roof of Gex’s cube was gone, black wetness had poured through the hole, soaking the mattresses we lay on with filth. The air tasted of ash and a chemical burn. I jerked upright as I realised the corridor which was visible through the shattered door was on fire. High above us, we could see the sky through a huge crack which ran down the whole cube complex. The dome was broken, and a swirl of toxic clouds was seeping in. We pulled each other upright, adjusting to the shock of emergence into the real world. Despite the obvious distraction, my stomach was a tangle of hunger. I snatched up a jacket from the sofa, which had so far avoided the crap staining the floor.

“What the fucking fuck…” I managed, kicking down the broken door. The cubes on the opposite side were gone, and the fire was lapping up from the floors below us, and we just looked out over a city in ruins. The eastern side of the dome had been shattered, cracks running up right along its arc. The city was half on fire, filled with noise. There were figures moving in the ruins, marching maybe. Military vehicles ground through the wreckage and the gloom erupted in sprays of livid tracer rounds that pounded into the figures advancing through the ruins.

“Great,” said Gex, “another fucking war.”

Stolen Skies – Part Ten (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

The inevitable had happened, as it always fucking does. The oppressed, the ignored – those left to fend for themselves in the toxic ruins of our world – had finally had enough. The fall of compassionate pragmatism and the vain rays of hope that had coloured the early years of the shell had been torn apart by mankind’s extraordinary capacity for cutting off our own nose to spite our face. Not being able to smell any more was the least of it. The environmental instability had put an impossible weight on the surviving nations of the world, and the powerful alliances that had emerged in the wake of the nuclear attacks on the shell had been overwhelmed. Good works were still being done, but they were too little to save the hundreds of millions who drowned, starved and fell prey to the maladies that spawned most readily in the womb of disaster. We’d been lucky, so unbelievably lucky to have been far inland, at an appreciable height and in a well-resourced country. For a long time – years – that had been enough to insulate us from the catastrophes beyond, and of course, for the last months we had  been purposely hiding away from the grim reality that bound all of us. And now it had come for us. The waves of migration across the globe, fleeing the collapsed southern hemisphere had at last reached us in the far north. No matter that eighty per cent or more of them were thought to have perished enroute, that remaining twenty per cent or so was a body of humanity greater than the population of our countries. The borders and barriers, and ultimately the domes that we’d ensconced ourselves in, simply collapsed. Collapsed under the weight of desire, of hope, trauma, loss and despair. Sheer desperation had moved these people to travel thousands of miles, watch their loved ones die, see their homes vanish beneath the waves or the choking smog. What was there left but to keep going? I couldn’t fault their drive, or their desire for revenge. And now our remaining military were busy killing them.

I stood in the ruined cube block, swaying on the edge where the corridor floor fell away into fire. Watching as the army moved through the streets, mowing down our fellow humans, then being overwhelmed in turn, vanishing in glaring explosions and distant screams.

“Well that’s all fucked then, isn’t it,” Scoro spat, “what could possibly come after this?”

It was hard not to agree. However, by a simple check of the clock we discovered that we’d been out of the real world for nearly three days. We’d almost become lost in the ownworld, like those poor bastards who never did wake up until they finally died. At the least we needed some food before we considered our next steps. The building had clearly been evacuated before the explosions and fire gutted it. Even now the inky rain through the dome was putting most of it out. It didn’t look like we’d be any less safe than we already were in the next hour or so. Gex checked her messages, and indeed there had been a general emergency alert and evacuation order two days previously. We’d slept through perhaps two days of civil war without even noticing. It was a rather chilling reminder of the privilege we’d had in escaping the world, and its incredible dangers. The whole building could have collapsed, or we might have been burned alive and never even noticed till we just snuffed out of existence in our ownworlds. The evacuation had been from the near side of the dome, a full day ago. There was an excellent chance that we’d been left behind in a warzone. Brilliant.

We ate, packed what we figured was worthwhile: heavy clothing, spare boots, respirator masks, more food, water, as many vapes as we could cram into our bags and a pitiful handful of mementoes. Seeing that we couldn’t afford to take most of our personal articles with us, we each stood guard while the other two took a few minutes to take their memories of their beloved things – photographs of friends and family from before the End, favourite books, soft toys and childhood junk – and recreate them in their ownworlds, where once remembered, our oneirocytes could preserve forever. So we left home surprisingly complete, all things considered. The physical artifacts would burn to ash and acidic paste, but it would live on more perfectly in our minds. We were about to seek out a safe exit from our crumbling dwelling when Gex darted back into her cube. She returned a moment later with a super-secure case, armoured and marked with the logo of the Oneiric Institute where we’d worked and received our parasites.

“Wait, is that–“ I began.

“Oh yeah,” Gex confirmed, “I nicked a full case of oneirocytes and their base matrices when the institute shut down.”

I was agog. Inside that case – if it was indeed full – ten thousand oneirocyte initiators, and the means for them to self-replicate.

“Good job the city’s fucked. They’d kill you for stealing that lot.”

Properly unlicensed medical nanotech which had been sitting in a wardrobe or wherever for six months. Definitely a hanging offence, and yet… the thought of it stirred something in my heart. A hint of hope? Perhaps. It was swiftly knocked out of me as we made we our way down through our cube block, climbing through broken ceilings and stairways that twisted and swung out over gaping holes in the dark. Our best bet was to head for the evacuation rally point. We didn’t expect there to be anyone left, except perhaps a skeleton crew of military personnel (who may, or may not be fascinated to see the case that Gex had squirreled away in her rucksack), but we might be able to catch up, or perhaps scavenge further supplies.

It took us most of another day to cross the city. We spent as much time in hiding as we did running, crouched against the gunfire and the elements. It’s depressing that no matter how much food and water we ran out of, we always seemed to find more bullets. The evacuation site was deserted except for half a dozen soldiers who almost shot us, despite our shouting that we were residents and to please not shoot us. They seemed incredibly stressed and like the last people in the world who should be holding guns. Apparently the defence of the city had gone massively tits up when the outsiders (their words) rocked up with a bunch of tanks and the military wreckage of a half a dozen countries between here and the south coast. They had little hope for their colleagues who had ventured back into the city to check for other residents – it had been three full days after all. When they declared that they were pulling out, they offered to take us with them. We’re not complete idiots, so we gratefully accepted and together we all headed off out into the real, undomed, world in a massive articulated military transport that felt as much like a tank as an anti-luxury caravan. Six of them, three of us. No remaining chain of command, and they’d lost communications with the evacuating forces a day earlier.

We soon drove through the mess that was left of the evacuation. Looks like another group of outsiders had been approaching from the opposite direction, and the convoy had been caught out by them. It didn’t look good. Gex, Scoro and I took it in turns to go under and spend time in our ownworlds, continuing to shore up the interface between our worlds that we’d developed. While that could seem like a massive waste of our time, it was a welcome break from being bounced back and forth in the webbing seats of the caterpillar (as the soldiers charmingly named it). There was absolutely nothing for us to do. The soldiers were arguing amongst themselves about what to do, and who was in charge. They did not solicit our opinions. They were also giving us some looks that I didn’t feel great about. They were on the run, and we could easily be construed as unwanted baggage. Only one of us would go under at a time, and the other two would keep an even closer eye on our possible saviours.

To drop back into my ivory-toned world was an extraordinary relief. The rocking and shaking of the caterpillar fell away and I just lay on the ground for a while, watching the trees weave their complex branch patterns. After our three day exploration of the doorways, what we needed more than anything was a more solid link to the real world. It was all good and well fucking about in here, but if we died out there because we’d failed to wake up then it was all just a little bit pointless. What we required was a trait unique to the real world, but was an absurd ever-morphing property in dreams: time. Our oneirocytes and brains were rooted in the real world though – our dreams and the ownworld were features that emerged from those physical connections, even if they themselves weren’t truly physical. Supervening boundary effects if you will, between the real and the imaginary. My brain anchored me here and my brain was well acquainted with time, or certainly it was used to reading clocks. I just needed to pick something that my body was temporally acquainted with, since time might be real, but it’s a subjective property most easily measured with an external object or source, like a neat atomic clock, counting off half-lives. I needed one of those. And found it, in the oneirocyte, which was a bit like having a computer in my head, albeit one made mostly of my brain. I could get it to detect the speed of electrons moving in my brain, powering my thoughts and the connections that generated my sense of self and existence. All I needed was a construct in my ownworld to represent it. I considered all the classic clock options – a massive sundial, a grandfather clock. Perhaps a cuckoo clock… nothing I’d want to smash into pieces.

Eventually I settled on a simple carriage clock which I embedded in the interchange, with its spiralling metal coils and doorways that symbolised the union between our worlds. Each hallway that led to a door was connected, and into that soft metal tissue I placed the simple wooden carriage clock, with its old-fashioned clock face. With a flick of my finger it began ticking. Inside the time ring I inset another ring showing the date, just in case we really got carried away. Not that we’d need to consult the clock directly. By embedding it in the physical reality of all of our ownworlds we’d be conscious of time, whether we were intentionally speeding it up or slowing it down. It shouldn’t be possible to become lost in time as we had been before. The others would understand what I’d done as soon as they returned to their ownworlds. Instant learning and information sharing were just some of the advantages we had by accessing each other’s mental landscapes.

I was just preparing myself to wake up and leave my tranquil trees and lagoons when I felt a disturbance. In the distance, between my trees I could just barely perceive a ripple through the dusty white earth, a ripple that became a wave, that turned into sound as it reached my trees, a deep fluting noise that drowned out the gentle susurrus of the twisting trees and the low clouds dripping into the pools. So loud that it made the ground vibrate, so deep that the trees shook and my vision split, like a migraine, except instead of simply fracturing my vision it was more like someone had smashed a hundred stained glass windows and randomly reassembled them. Rather than a single whole picture, I had a glimpse into a hundred – a thousand facets of reality. Reality, or dreams? I couldn’t tell. Each glimpse was impossibly tiny, like peering through the weave of a curtain into a darkened room, or out of the stone in somebody’s ring, swinging as they moved. And through it all continued that deep fluting sound, disorienting yet somehow familiar. I knelt on the ground, where the sound had knocked me down, shuddering with the overwhelming volume of images to process. As I knelt there, with my head in my hands the – I hesitate to call it music – the “note” changed, downshifted and changed, filtering through a thousand voices until it became one clear voice. It said, “Come.”


Stolen Skies – Part Eleven (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

The voice came from everywhere, with a devastating clarity that rang through the trunks of my marble trees, sent waves across the tranquil pools and it struck me like a hammer. It’s one word “come” vibrated through me. This must have been what it felt like when angels spoke directly to man – contact with an unknowable force. As the word slowly faded – not a thing that a single word ought to be able to do – I picked myself up off the ground, brushed dust from my hands and legs, then remembered where I was and simply wished myself clean. This I did absently, because all of my other senses were focused intently on detecting the source of that Voice. It had come from all around, seemingly from all points in my ownworld simultaneously. I’d have been tempted to say it came from outside, but that’s a meaningless statement. There’s no “outside” to a dream, it doesn’t take up space in the universe, doesn’t extend into the real in any meaningful way. My dreams only exist inside my mind, or rather inside the field generated by my brain. A dream takes up the space that a memory does. Except, that wasn’t entirely true anymore. The oneirocyte had spread by now through almost all my brain, wrapping it in an artificial layer that supported my dreams and ownworld – perhaps they did have more physical reality than they used to…

“I need you,” I called, lost in my own thoughts. If I’d been thinking clearly, less overwhelmed by my recent experience that my mind was simply labelling angelic in spite of all my profoundly sensible and atheist tendencies. I certainly hadn’t thought to do what I just did.

Scoro and Gex sprouted into existence before my eyes, twisting up out of nothing into their full-fledged ownworld selves. They both looked shocked.

“What the hell Evanith?” demanded Gex. “Did you just summon us into the ownworld?”

“What…” I failed to begin, “…I needed you…”

I’d called and they’d come. I’d ripped them straight out of reality into the ownworld – not even their ownworld, they were in mine, standing in the white dust. Gex in her usual shifting coat of gears and red light, Scoro in his long, vaguely ecclesiastical get-up. We wore what fitted with our created environments. I’d gone simple: basically white and a little light grey.

“You shouldn’t be able to pull us in like that,” said Scoro, “what did you do?”

“I just called…” I tried again.

“I heard thunder, your voice. Blinked, and I was here with you,” Scoro replied.

Well, more new things. Great. Again, if I’d been thinking properly I would have been more concerned about what was happening in the real world – it had only been a few seconds (the many benefits of having time newly installed in our imaginary domain), but in that time both of my companions had presumably just collapsed in the caterpillar. Hopefully they’d been sitting down… and that the soldiers weren’t going to freak out too badly. I filled them in on the Voice. Yeah, I’m going to have to capitalise it. You’d understand if you’d heard it, be grateful I’m not fully capitalising it. It wasn’t a voice like any you’ve ever heard. Probably, that’s assuming it was truly unique to me, and not a universal experience of the numinous, in which case maybe you have heard and felt like this. Cool.

“Well what the fuck does it want,” Gex was pacing anxiously, kicking up little puffs of dust, “you can’t just bust into someone’s ownworld, especially not uninvited. You seems to have the ‘inviting’ part down though Evanith. Are you sure it wasn’t part of you?”

A cheery thought. It made sense: given a lack of personal experience of the matter, I’d always have been happy to write off this kind of deep semi-religious experience as something internal, some facet of the mind tricking us into communion with a deeper part of ourselves, or a separate part we’d never spoken with. It also hinted at fracture, a rift in the mind between conscious and unconscious parts. The opposite of what the oneirocytes did. They pulled those aspects of human experience together so we could apply the conscious to the unconscious and vice versa. If there was a hidden part of my mind, then it would be here, in some form. The form of a massive Voice saying “come”? The fuck was I supposed to go in that case – deeper inward, lose myself in the ownworld? I was beginning to freak out a bit. I’d signed up for mental unity, a community of minds with Gex and Scoro, freedom from the fuck-awful world outside. Instead the city I lived in, had worked in, was gone. We were in the back of a truck with a bunch of terrified trigger-happy soldiers (or so they’d claimed, who knows how easy it is to wear combat fatigues and grab a rifle? Oh, paranoia is so not a good look on me!) Everything I’d hoped to escape from was rather contingent on it still being there to escape from. And now I might be reaching that point where oneirocyte subjects totally lost the plot, psychosis emerging from the broken barrier between wakefulness and dreams, unable to separate an imaginary voice from myself or worse – recognise myself as the author of my dreams. Fuck.

I’d evidently been letting at least some of this train of thought ripple across my face – my imaginary face in the ownworld. I blinked. It wasn’t just my face. My marble trees had sped up, their upward writhing accelerating, branches and twigs flickering above in the light of the three moons who were pulsing alarmingly. This was my mental health directly affecting my dreamed world – mood into structural artifacts. Rain lashed down on the lagoons from their clouds… I saw, rather than felt Gex’s arms go around me. For a heart-stopping moment my viewpoint was god-like – I saw everything simultaneously in my ownworld, saw Gex wrap herself around me, Scoro reaching for my hand. I was so high up, above the trees, above the moons, looking down on my little domain. I perceived its shape: a dome and I lurked high in the firmament, the angelic viewpoint – a newfound sense of omniscience, awful in its utter completeness. It felt like my mind was rushing outwards, every fold in my brain unravelling as it occupied every inch of imagined space in the ownworld, my mind pinkly wrapped around its shape. The ownworld became a literal snowglobe inside my brain, and it shook. Dust and the tiny figures below danced as my mind rattled the dream. The trio stumbled, fell, clawed themselves back to kneeling, clutching at each other. I could see myself, eyes rolled back in my head, limbs trembling spastically as Gex dragged me onto her lap and Scoro tried to stop my fists from battering at the ground. It looked like I was having a seizure. A seizure – in a dream? Unimportant, my presence in the dream was just one aspect of the dream. My view was that of the oneirocyte, that’s what allowed me to look down – every element in this ownworld was equally me, just as much as the walking avatar that I’d assumed, felt, believed was me in the dream. But of course, we dream all of the dream, and all of it is produced by us, not just the tiny facet that looks like us. I slowed the convulsions of my homunculus below, and regarded Scoro and Gex. I wasn’t dreaming them, they had intruded from their own minds via the oneirocytes which we’d been working so hard to integrate. Not all of this was “my” dream. And then I saw it…

I gasped, sat bolt upright, jerking out of Gex’s surprised arms.

“I saw it all – I saw everything,” ah good, the sounding like a lunatic continued as I woke up, kind of, if you could call switching from an omniscient view in the world I had created into the viewpoint of a tiny mote in that dream. My friends evidently agreed – neither looked at me in a way I’d call reassuring.

Gently: “Are you alright Evanith?”

Soothing: “You gave us a bit of a scare there.”

Calming: “Just breathe for a minute.”

All the things that we still weren’t getting about the ownworld and our interactions with the oneirocyte. We didn’t need to breathe here, we didn’t need to limit ourselves to wandering around in these replicas of human form.

“We’re all of the dream,” I said, as my role of idiot prophet rolled on without any conscious effort on my part, “I’m the trees and the air.” For fuck’s sake. And yet I felt – what’s the opposite of tongue-tied – raving, mysteriously loquacious, incapable of just coming out with the words without wrapping them in mystical bollocks. My friends are good friends, and a good friend tries not to let their friends go fucking nuts, especially inside their own dream.

“Cool, cool,” murmured Scoro. The trees had slowed their frantic growth, rain fell normally on water. I was calm now.

“So… you alright?” That “so” drawn out seemingly endlessly, laced with both kindness, care and sarcasm. Thank you Gex, clearly it’s what I needed.

I tried again. “The dreamer is the dream.” Nuts. Again. “I saw everything in the ownworld – all of it, all at the same time – from above! I felt the oneirocytes.”

That got their attention, a proper word, not just quasi-religious muttering.

“You want to expand on that?” Scoro asked, clearly more comfortable dropping into a research role.

“We’ve underestimated what we can do here, and what the oneirocytes are letting our minds do. We’re more than simply ourselves here.”

So saying, I let my human body dissolve, flashed upwards into the sky like a rainbow being fired out of a cannon, and then I saw it, written in the patterns of the tree branches. I could only read it from above. With a sharp intake of breath, from somewhere – the memory of breath I guess, since I’d just abandoned the part of me that might be able to breathe – I re-instantiated my dream body between Scoro and Gex.

“Ignore all that – well, some of it anyway, we’ll figure it out,” wide-eyed, but calm now. I wasn’t going mad: “it was a message, someone’s given us directions. It’s written in the forest.” And so it was, what I’d seen from above was literal map coordinates formed in the shape of the twisting branches. “We’re not alone in here.”

It was someone else, someone who also had an oneirocyte parasite in their brain. The connections that we’d made with each other, possibly even the interchange between the trio that we’d been building had let a door open to someone else. We hadn’t even considered that we might be able to reach the ownworlds of others who had experimented with the dreaming technology. But we knew they were out there, somewhere. When the programme had shut down, most of the subjects and researchers had been removed, redeployed, gone. It was only us and a handful of others that had been left behind in the massive logistical reshuffle that followed. Someone else was out there, had found us. They were calling for us, and they’d given us directions.

“What should we do?” asked Scoro.

“Go to the coordinates, obviously,” Gex retorted, “one: it’s people with oneirocytes, which is bound to be interesting, two: it’s somewhere to go. In case you’d forgotten, we’re currently stuck in a caterpillar in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to go.”

All good points. Ah, fuck. The caterpillar. The real world. We’d been gone for a little while… We opened the door in our heads that leads back to the grim, grimy, dark real world, and opened our eyes. The first thing I saw was the barrel of a rifle in my face, then it reversed and everything went dark.

Stolen Skies – Part Twelve (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

I hate how much I keep waking up, you know? Waking up’s supposed to be a good thing – we wake from a nightmare, become enlightened with an inner waking, but in my experience it’s shit. You wake up and it’s just another fucking day to get through. Falling asleep is the part I want, that wonderful sliding moment as your brain switches off the real world, and all the darkness and doom fades away, just for a few hours. But it’s something, right. I’ve always felt like I could sleep for a million years and consider it time well spent. Because the true horror is the waking up part, as reality comes crashing back into place. It doesn’t even have to be a bad reality, though if you’ve been paying attention of course, you’ll know what a ghastly fucking mess the Earth was. No moon, no stars, basically no night time. Or day time, not really. Just that gloomy grey meat-soaked glow instead. Environment: fucked. Society: fucked. Population: fucked. And that last hadn’t finished declining at this point either. So, the future: fucked. Yeah, lots of good stuff worth being wide awake for. No wonder we were so into the oneirocyte idea, and as it turned out, we weren’t the only ones. I gotta say pal, you do not look well at all. We’ve been here hours, and I mean, I don’t know what that stuff coming out of your face is – I hope it’s OK to call it your face, don’t want to offend you or anything, I’m just vaguely kinda excited to meet an Alometh is all. And my face isn’t getting any better. I’m pretty sure there’s a bit of glass that went right into my skull. Feels all itchy up above my ear. And numb, yeah, I guess that’s the shock right? No one takes a pint glass to the face without their body getting a bit upset and struggling to reframe the whole thing as all cool. Maybe I should go and find us a medical professional… No? Well, if you’re sure. I mean that was definitely a nod you just gave me. Yeah. Alright, well I guess I’ll just keep going then.

So where was I? Yup: so waking up is an absolute fucker and I resented it every single time I opened my eyes. This time though, this was going to be different – I’d received a message, inside my head, telling us where to go. We were lost and hopeless, and this was definitely the best thing to have happened since… Well. It had been a while. I shouldn’t have been so keen. Waking up will fuck you every time. A new day is always going to be a lot like the other days and we’d had thirteen years of days just getting worse, so really what the hell was I expecting? What I wasn’t expecting was that this day would begin with a gun in my face.

My face was a locus of pain, exactly how I imagined it would feel if someone smacked me in the face with a rifle butt. And there it was, or rather the other end of the gun looking straight at me, or me at it. Its single super-long eye reminded me of the early arguments about the Hole in Space and whether a hole had two ends or just one, or was just one really long end. Of course, this was actually the second time I’d woken up with a gun in my face, except this time it seemed like I might have a concussion. Plainly I should be paying some proper attention here, but my mind kept slipping back to the Hole in Space. How long had it been since that had popped into my head? It seemed like a thousand years ago, so far from being the present threat that everyone had feared it was. Maybe it was still a huge threat, but we had no clue, wrapped up as we were and being hauled (maybe) god only knows where. Made sense that it had rather dimmed as the prime motivating factor for freaking out on planet Earth, but I couldn’t help wondering if forgetting about it was that good a plan. What if we were just being dragged towards it, and the shell would split open, spilling us straight into the hole? I repeat myself, but it bears repeating: waking up is a fucking nightmare.

Thankfully I was distracted from my concussive ruminations by another soldier pushing the barrel of the rifle to one side and kneeling down to shine a bright light in my eye.

“Yeah, nice. Now he’s got a fucking concussion,” in apparent remonstrance to his fellow soldier.

I discovered that I was sitting on one of the bunk racks that lined the central portion of the caterpillar vehicle.

“Um, can we not do that again please,” I managed, gratefully taking the offered bottle of water. My hands shook as I twisted off the cap and poured the cold, sweet liquid into my mouth. So good.

“Got questions for you. You’re going to answer them, or we’re going to start shooting your mates,” the formerly nice man who’d given me the water indicated my friends on the other side of the cabin, their hands tied together in front of them with a third soldier standing over them holding an all too ready rifle aimed right at them.

“OK. Can I– can I just ask one question first?” I stammered, “what just happened?”

That seemed to throw him off his stride a little, Corporal Lindsmane – his name snapped back into place, aided no doubt by his handy little name badge and a vague collection of rank – seemed as if he were about to reject my question out of hand, but recovered and continued with a new mix of interrogation and information.

“One: who the fuck are you people? One minute you’re asleep and the next so are your two mates. Looked like they just blacked out – you see that black eye?” He indicated Scoro. I nodded appropriately, “that’s from bouncing his head off a cupboard as he went down.” I winced, it was exactly what I’d hoped hadn’t happened when I’d managed to summon them into my ownworld. “Then you have some massive seizure and all the fucking lights in the caterpillar started flickering and turned off. Then you woke up and started yelling. That stopped when Markels knocked you out, somewhat hastily,” he turned a frosty look on Markels who was pointing the rifle at my friends rather than me. “So, we’re wondering now just who the fuck we let onto our caterpillar. Who are you? What are you? Who do you work for? And what the fuck just happened?”

Four questions: a slight challenge to organise for my rattled state, but even concussed I recognised the high stakes we’d somehow reached and had no desire for us all to die.

“We’re government medical researchers,” (basically true, but all three are decent buzzwords to use with a military oriented towards supporting a nice stable authority structure, and killed at least two of the questions), “but we got trapped, separated and left behind when the city fell.” I really didn’t want to mention the oneirocytes, that would just sound crazy to someone not in the project. “But we’ve got a message – I know where we should go next.”

He looked less than convinced. “A message? Something you could have mentioned when we set out?”

“Ah, no. Just got it – before your man over there hit me in the head.”

Gex chipped in helpfully: “We’ve all got comms implants,” before Lindsmane successfully glared her back into silence.

“Yes,” I added, “comms implants. They’ve been offline, the conditions out here are bad for signals.” This was certainly true. We knew the soldiers had been continuously trying to make contact with anyone after we’d passed the wreckage of the evacuation train. No joy. The state of the atmosphere and drifting clouds of oddly irradiated fog played merry hell with radio transmissions. “But headquarters,” (probably), “finally got through – very violently. They must have been blazing out the signal and that’s what happened to us – overload. One of the risks of having tech implanted in your skull.”

This was all pretty plausible and I managed to shut myself up and let Lindsmane chew it over. I could feel a real desire to keep chattering, anything to fill the space between us and the guns with anything other than bullets.

“All right,” Lindsmane ground out. “What’s the message?”

I gave him the coordinates, one of the other soldiers – Cheshblum? – gave him a map which unfolded from a little tablet out into a lit-up plastic sheet six feet across. Between them they matched up the numbers with the reference grids.

“Two hundred miles, north-north-west. What’s there?”

I didn’t have a good answer for that, partly because I had no idea where that was, or who was calling us. Honesty, then. “We don’t know. Only a handful of people have access to this technology, so they’re on our side and they have the resources to reach out for us.” Hopefully I was making us sound fairly important, though not so important that we couldn’t possibly get left behind.

“Yeah, we’re going to need a bit more proof than that before we go haring off into fucking nowhere halfway up a mountain.”

That was fair. I had nothing for him. Gex did though. She looked at Scoro and me, then spoke. “Corporal,” she started politely, “if you can get my bag – the big one with the red straps – we’ve got what headquarters are looking for. There’s a case in there, it’s got a sphinx on it.”

Linsdmane jerked his head and a Cheshblum headed off to the rear of the transport. I fell under Lindsmane’s gaze once more.

“Sir, there’s a case here alright,” Cheshblum returned holding the case of oneirocytes that Gex had nicked from the lab, passed it to his corporal. Lindsmane looked at the stylised sphinx on the front: “the fuck is that supposed to be?”

“It’s a sphinx: human head, lion body with wings, snake tail.”

He grunted and flipped the catches on the case. It was one of those cases with cool lights inside that come on when you open them, so it bathed his face in a gentle blue glare (not purely aesthetic, but anyone who’s worked in medical technology knows the value of making the artifacts look impressive, the light was actually a UV barrier, killing any microbes that drifted into the case. You don’t fuck about with brain-implanting nanotechnology, unless you steal them and implant them illegally, obviously).

Abruptly his sceptical attitude changed, and all the rifles came down. “Project Tutu,” he said out loud, “even I recognise that. Apologies for the bang to the head, sir, we’ll get you where you need to go.” He snapped the case shut and pressed it into my hands. “Get those cuffs off them. We’re moving out in five minutes.”

With that, the soldiers filed out of the cabin with typical military efficiency and an apologetic nod to me from Markels. I let out a deep breath and gingerly pressed my hands to my aching face.

“What the actual fuck?” exclaimed Scoro in a hissed whisper. I flipped the case round, shining blue light into his face. We’d stopped noticing it, but of course “Project Tutu” was stamped on every item inside. Tutu: ancient Egyptian god who protected dreamers from demons and other nightmarish things in their sleep. It hadn’t occurred to me that the project name would be recognisable, but of course it was a military programme. After the various collapses that had shaken our society, everything had military involvement strung through it. And we had worked on the project, that was certainly true. And maybe whoever it was that had sent us the coordinates would remember that. With a bit of luck they might not even be annoyed that we’d stolen a case of invaluable brain tech and tried it out ourselves.

With a roar, the caterpillar burst into life once more. For the first time in a long while, things were looking up, or at least not quite so down.

Stolen Skies – Part Thirteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

I’ve never been much of a country boy. I appreciate it in the abstract, obviously. I’m glad it’s there, in the same way I’m glad there’s a bottom to the ocean, but my presence in it has never been very important to me. I guess we’d been stuck in the dome cities for too long. The caterpillar truck ground its way along the road network towards the mountains in the north-west, and I have to admit, things didn’t look quite as totally fucked as I’d expected. My last exposure to the great outdoors had been five or so years ago, though it’s honestly hard to tell, what with days having fucked off a while back. I wasn’t the only one who had lost track of time – most of us managed to divide our lives into roughly twenty-four hour slices. That was so hard-coded into every social practice and industry that we were kept on that track even if we lurched through them with irregular sleeping patterns and a constant sleep hangover. But actually counting the days? Why bother? I’d definitely had a feel for it in the early days. Weirdly, whether we were occupied or not didn’t seem to improve or  damage my sense of time passing more. For years I’d been heavily involved in various programmes (thank you municipal gardening team), and that had saved my life and others by giving us focus, and in that focus distracting us from the world going to hell around us. In between those projects, there were breaks of course – a few days here or there mostly – notably the lengthy-feeling (I think) gap before we got moved to Freshwater (the optimistically named city where Project Tutu was underway). All those periods of mostly free time are like elastic in my mind – they could have lasted days or months, with nothing to separate the hours from turning into weeks. I remember the sense of relief that came whenever the next assignment came. Relief that there was purpose. Not hope, that hadn’t felt part of the equation since the nukes, when I’d finally realised that even if our situation was overwhelming and possibly hopeless, we sure as shit were going to do everything we could to make it worse. Purpose, routine, structure. I wonder how many people completely fell apart without those in the shell years. Anyway, this is exactly why structure’s good – you’re busy and even if it doesn’t keep you from circling the abyss it gives you a little nudge away from the edge every day. What I was trying to tell you about was the last time I’d been outside, before Project Tutu.

Back then we’d been using the train network, which worked pretty well still and was heavily used for industrial transport, smashing clean through the grey outer world. We’d been pressed up against the windows to see the sad-looking trees and fields. They were still going, reluctantly. The crappy light emitted by the shell kept them alive, but it didn’t look as if they liked it. There was still some agriculture, despite most of it having been moved inside, and there were large communities living out there too, in the non-domed towns. Caravans and trucks arrayed together, roofed over with patchworks of tarpaulin for added protection from the weather, tents looking like they were barely clinging on. The weather had become confused. Climate change had been underway for decades, but fucking up the seas by taking away the tides had knackered the gulf stream and that wonderfully mild nuclear winter had between them rearranged the clouds and weather patterns. Clouds of sometimes murderous rain swept around the world, randomly poisoning the earth, periods of heat and miserable damp cold erratically tortured the poor bastards living out there. We saw animals – the hardiest of sheep, occasional horses and colonies of haggard-looking crows and magpies.

We even saw children sometimes, playing in the camps. That was a rare sight anywhere. Despite our make-work and projects, something inside our species had said “fuck it” and the birth rate had declined spectacularly since the shell enveloped us. All the usual fears about the future being a worse place for our children had previously been kicked down the road – have a kid, it’ll probably be fine… Now? It really didn’t feel like that. Seeing those kids wasn’t just rare, it was soul-searingly depressing. Well, accidents happen I guess. They were still a highlight of any community, but no one wanted to the be the one that actually had them. What I remember most about being outside previously was the rain that started coming down after we’d been on the tracks for a couple of hours – it was a long trip – grey rain on a grey sky. Like the world had turned black and white, we’d been somehow knocked back in time a few hundred years and this was the best approximation of the real world that humanity could manage any more. The sense that we were travelling into the past gripped me, and didn’t let go until we debarked in Freshwater. I’d stopped looking out of the window before then. We all had. No one even glanced at the glass, or looked backwards as we trooped off the train. No wonder we were ready for Project Tutu and a brighter future of turning inward and forgetting about the grey, poisoned world outside.

This journey was different. For one, the caterpillar truck was a real beast. If the roads went where Corporal Lindsmane thought we should go then we used them. We ground down those roads, the neotarmac crumbling after a decade of acid rain and hard wear. Not much in the budget for road gangs these days. With a relentless eye on our direction, if a road veered away then fuck it, the caterpillar just ploughed ahead through open countryside, up hills and straight through a small river. It wasn’t a particularly comfortable ride. Lindsmane and his little mob of soldiers were back on mission. They’d properly perked up since we’d had our little tiff. I wasn’t certain whether it was having had a chance to work out a little military paranoia, or if having an actual mission had sorted them out. But they were focused and the vague air of unease around them had faded. And we’d given them this purpose. I wasn’t entirely comfortable about that. I’m not sure if you’re supposed to commandeer a squad of soldiers and this ridiculous monster truck just because someone sends you a message in a dream. I was very glad we hadn’t tried to explain that part to Lindsmane and his men. They seemed so genuinely happy that I didn’t want to spoil it for them. Or get us all shot in the head and dumped on the roadside. If I’m honest, the latter was certainly the greater motivator for me.

We bounced around in the webbing bunks, feeling rather travel sick. There was a distinct lack of windows, and although the soldiers would tolerate us hanging about near the cab and the rear of the vehicle, they got a little tetchy when we stuck around for too long. So we lingered there as long as they’d let us, soaking up the best anti-travel sickness medicine there is: looking straight out in the direction of travel and never once looking at anything that has words on it. I always got travel sick in vehicles with wheels, or worse, anything on water. Vile business. Begrudgingly, Cheshblum confessed that he sometimes suffered and had some kick-ass motion sickness tablets he was prepared to share, just so long as we all fucked off and left him alone to do the driving. Considering that these might be the very last tablets he’d ever have, we were appropriately grateful and promptly fucked off as requested. He wasn’t wrong, they were quite impressive. Gex, Scoro and I had tentatively agreed to stay in the real world until we got to wherever it was that we were going. The soldiers had been badly spooked, and again, we didn’t want to get shot by freaking them out. Plus we’d lied to them at least a couple of times, and keeping that to a bare minimum would in theory reduce any awkwardness when we reached our destination. So instead I endured reality as the tablets kicked in and that awful dry-mouthed, teeth loose in my skull sensation diminished. Eventually we fell asleep, the motion of the caterpillar finally proving to be a physical lullaby.

It had been weeks since I’d dreamed normally, wandering through the random association of my mind catching up on the last few days of trauma and unwanted excitement. I saw the door in my dream that would allow me into my ownworld, hanging over me at a peculiar angle before it was carried off by a massive owl. Dreams, you have love them. I was woken up by a buzzing sound followed by Lindsmane’s voice: “ETA approximately thirty minutes.” I’d missed the caterpillar beginning the ascent, though now that I was awake the gradient was apparent. I hustled forward, using the regularly spaced handholds to pull myself up to the cab. We were following some rough track, which seemed like a good indication that we were indeed going somewhere.

“No checkpoints, no signs of life so far,” Lindsmane commented as I grabbed onto a ceiling bar. “But we’re getting close.” He pointed to the map spread out around him, the hologram making it look as if he was a god rising up from beneath the crust. I didn’t have much to say to that, just nodded and kept looking out the windscreen. There was something coming. Even though I wasn’t in the ownworld, I could sense a pressure behind my head – some weird effect of the oneirocyte and ownworld that my brain clearly new couldn’t fit inside my skull, so it was projected somewhere behind me, like listening to music that’s been recorded so it sounds like it’s moving around behind you. I was very tempted to pop in and check, but we’d know soon enough.

That thirty minutes could have been a million years. The track wound around the sides of the mountain (mountain by our standards – in most countries this would be a big hill), spiralling us ever higher. Finally we were there, and received the reception that Corporal Lindsmane had been looking for: more soldiers. I guess it’s like being in a family: our squad had been lost in the woods, but they’d blundered back out, straight into mum and dad’s back garden. Even though there were guns pointed at us, our soldiers looked delighted, in that focused and professional way they had. There were twelve of them that I could see, both in front and flanking our sides. We’d rolled up into a much better maintained area. I’d have called it a forecourt if it was a garage, but this was a little compound of fences and razor wire, big fuck-off towers with lights on the top and more soldiers. Behind it all, a huge dark hole into the mountain. In the gloom I peered up through the top of the windscreen. Further up the mountain were more shapes, something like big radar dishes, perhaps an observatory.

“Stay here,” Lindsmane said, adjusting his hat (probably a cap or something with a proper name – beret?) and clambered out of the cab to say hello. But the new soldiers weren’t very interested in him. I mean, they were friendly enough in that military way. Lots of nods and salutes, but no big hugs. They were intent on who else was in the caterpillar. I gave them a tentative wave through the window. That appeared to have been the right thing to do: more nods. Lindsmane was back in a couple of minutes, declaring that we were in the right place,

“They’re right keen to see you lot,” he said, with an appraising look that felt like I was being measured up against some notional ideal. Perhaps against whatever mental model he had of a scientist (something I’d avoided calling us, because we really didn’t give that vibe at present). The soldiers in front stepped aside and signalled something unseen. The caterpillar lurched back into life and we drove into the mountain.

Stolen Skies – Part Fourteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’d much rather have a getting to know you conversation outside in the open air somewhere nice. My last choice would have been driving into the dark heart of a mountain. Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers. As the last hint of what passed for daylight inside the shell faded away, I felt the sheer weight of mountain above us, like someone was leaning hard on my shoulder, breath harsh against my neck. It felt like forever before the caterpillar slowed, ground to a crunching halt. All I could hear were our own held breaths and creak of the vehicle. Someone was being needlessly dramatic, but of course this seemingly endless moment was just an instant. And then the lamps switched on and we were bathed in the happy warm glow of electric light.

Now we were inside a building within the mountain proper – concrete floor, walls and ceiling. An inner man-made cave. Corporal Lindsmane said, “Right, this is your stop sir.” And we all hauled our bags onto shoulders and trooped out to meet our saviours. Lindsmane was crisply greeted a superior of some kind – more chest, shoulder or collar arrows no doubt – and with a nod, he and his people vanished through a set of doors. They looked very chipper, no doubt eagerly anticipating a proper military-style bunk somewhere in their near future. I took a moment to catch my bearings. This was a huge room, the caterpillar was parked neatly in the centre of a grid of yellow stripes that fanned out to be framed in a series of squares and rectangles. Damned if I know what that was about other than someone who was a tad over-enthusiastic with their painting set. Inset into the walls were a series of huge double doors and some smaller ones like those Lindsmane had gone off through. There wasn’t anything helpful in the way of signage – if you got this far you either knew where you were headed or you weren’t going any further. The last was backed up when I raised my eyes to the gallery that ran around the room some fifteen feet or more above. That was quite well populated with gun-toting soldiers and what seemed to be a few casual onlookers. Those rifles weren’t exactly trained on us, but they gave the powerful impression that we could be their target in a split-second. Cheery. We waited a moment in those rather austere surroundings before a set of the big double doors separated and cool blue light flowed into the room.

Out of the blue came a small deputation, and the words, “My foot still hurts you know.”

“Jesus fucking Christ. Edithine?” I  stammered, nerves making me a little swearier than I’d usually be when I thought I was meeting new people. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Hello Evanith, it’s been a little while since we did some gardening isn’t it.” Edithine looked great, especially considering it had been at least thirteen years since I’d last seen her.

“Nearly twenty, actually. You’re not the only one to lose track,” she said. The slight limp (yes, I still felt bad about it, even though I probably hadn’t thought of her name in a decade) was smoothly disguised under the cleanest suit I’d ever seen and really sharp hair styling. It certainly made the three of us look like an absolute state, dust and black-stained, unwashed and bedraggled.

“Well, you all look like shit,” she continued, “but we can see that sorted. Come along, we’ll get the three of you settled and cleaned up, and then we can get on with the work.”

Scoro piped up, with some of the questions  we all had: “Um, great. Couple of thoughts… who are you, what is this place and generally what the fuck is going on?”

Edithine smiled broadly, utterly ignoring her aides who seemed keen to get us all off to a shower. “I’m Edithine Charbroly. Before your friend Evanith knew me, and stabbed me in the foot with garden shears I was head of biotech at Charbio. I’d retired, but the world fell apart and they re-recruited me to lead Project Tutu. That’s how I know you’ve used the parasites, and that you were never on a list to receive them.” A wry eyebrow at our mix of surprised and guilty expressions, “So that’s interesting for starters. We think you’ve managed some leaps in the tech that are worth studying.”

“That was your voice in my ownworld?” I asked.

“Sort of. Mine was the voice you heard, projected by all the others.”

“Others?” (It was that sort of conversation.)

“Oh yes, we have almost all the parasite users here with us. You’ll meet them later. But first, I really must insist that we get you decontaminated. We operate a clean environment in here and honestly I can see the filth sticking to you all. Come along.”

Question time was over. Edithine set back off into the bluely-lit corridor. We followed, tailed by the rest of her team. The light was the same as in the case, UV sterilising us and the air we walked through. Edithine disappeared through a door at the end of the hall, and we were ushered into a different room coming off the side.

“I’m Velrent Hest, Edithine’s chief aide,” declared the round little man who accompanied us. He directed us to dump our gear on a series of benches. “Honestly, we’re probably going to burn all of your clothes and bags, but if there’s anything you need you should extract it now and we’ll send it off for cleansing.”

I couldn’t really justify keeping anything in my bags – ratty clothes, food packets and a couple of books. Hest spotted me wavering over the bag of zygoptics: “No need to worry about those, the project will give you all you need.” I dumped them on the bench with the bag. Scoro had made a small pile of keepsakes and a tablet which Hest indicated he place in a tray, ready for processing. As an afterthought I tossed the books in with them. Gex was being a little more circumspect and reluctantly pulled the big Project Tutu case out of her rucksack. Hest was all over that.

“We thought there might be a missing case, but project relocation wasn’t as clean and neat as we’d hoped. In the modern chaos there were things lost,” he rested heavily on the word “lost”, “how fortunate that you found this.”

Yes. Gex somehow avoided her ears turning red and Scoro subtly covered the awkwardness with a coughing fit. I was fairly sure we’d be expanding on this conversation later, but it seemed like we weren’t getting shot for treason yet, and that was a good enough outcome.

“Showers, scrubbers, decontamination, then clothing await,” Hest said, directing us towards the cubicles at the back of the room. “Please place all of your current clothing in the bins provided.”

We obviously weren’t the first guests to rock up, I assumed everyone went through this if they left and returned to the facility. We each took a cubicle and closed the door. They audibly locked behind us, which sent a wave of alarm down my spine, but they probably didn’t want to go to the bother of washing us if we could just go straight back out. The bin was a slot in the wall which I fed my coat, boots, now ripped trousers, shirt and underclothes into. I vaguely hoped for some acknowledgment, or maybe a hint of flames, but it just snapped shut. Next, the showers. This was a kind of bliss I hadn’t even considered. The water felt slightly acidic, accompanied by more of the familiar blue light, but it was hot and plentiful. The only cleaning agent appeared to be a lurid pink slime which smelled exactly how something you described as “chemical-scented” should. Skin tingling and soaking wet, I pushed open the next door after the shower turned itself off. This part was less good. The scrubber was much what I’d hoped it wouldn’t be – instead of a friendly loofah it was a room seemingly made up of nobbly rubber human-sized vaginas. With a bit of an inner sigh I squeezed through, and Christ it was a tight fit. The “scrubber” felt like being compressed through wet sandpaper. If I thought my skin tingled after the shower, this was more like feeling abraded as the rubber scraped all the moisture off my skin and had a good go at removing my hair. Decontamination followed, which was the blue lights but very intense so I had to keep my eyes tightly closed. When the light went off and I could open them again I felt incredible gratitude at seeing a nozzle marked “moisturiser, use all over” in the wall. Gloopy goodness took much of the recently-skinned feeling away and the next door opened to a changing room with an array of near-identical clothing hanging on hooks. Not a lot of opportunity for personal expression here, with maybe three variations on dark grey trousers, t-shirts and shoes. With a size for everybody, I got dressed again and went through the final door. There Hest waited with a handful of lanyards holding ID cards which he distributed as we emerged, sore but clean – cleaner than I think I’d ever been – into the next phase of our lives.

“Onwards,” Hest guided us out of the “welcome centre” as he called it and into the project headquarters properly. Bedrooms first, purely for orientation purposes, then the canteen where he left us for twenty minutes. This did feel like the Project Tutu we’d remembered, with its long racks of benches and tables and carousels of food and snacks (I always think there’s an important distinction between those two somehow), drinks and cutlery. We dug in. I don’t think we’d eaten much more than noodles and other dehydrated foods in the months that we’d been training our oneirocytes (or they’d been training us – symbiosis I guess), so this was a real treat. Some of this was definitely actual chicken for one thing, and I’d never tasted pasta without a tang of ash since the shell came up. Oh, and tea. Something the soldiers had bafflingly little of although I could have sworn the army ran on the stuff. It felt a bit like being on holiday. The cream-coloured walls, tastefully decorated with commercial landscape art and the food all lulled us into a sense of relaxation that had been absent for so long.

“Do you think they’re going to fuck us over about that case?” asked Gex, as we clutched our precious cups of tea.

“Only if they’ve really missed it. I mean, it wasn’t the only case, was it?” Scoro replied.


“OK. Cool. Well – the important thing is we brought it back, and only used like three of the oneirocytes, so there’s tonnes left over,” I said, “and Edithine was never vengeful, not even when I dropped those shears point-down in her foot.”

“You used to garden together?”

“Yup. Back in the olden days before the shell. Municipal landscaping. I thought she was dead – there was a fire, and I never found out if she was OK or not. There’s something kinda nice about meeting someone I used to sort of know way out here.”

“If it means she doesn’t have us all killed, then I am thrilled you have a pal here.”

Hest turned up shortly after, so we downed our teas and followed him onto the next part of the tour. This involved innumerable corridors, glass walls showing us more people dressed like us lying on beds and tapping computer screens with vague frowns on their faces.

“Ongoing testing and work with the parasites,” Hest commented, “I expect you’ll find what we’ve been doing quite interesting. I’m very interested to hear about your experiences with the parasites, too.”

“Do you mind if I ask,” Gex piped up, “But do you have an oneirocyte too?”

“Oneirocyte? Cute. Yes, everyone here except the soldiers have undergone nano implantation.”

“How many is everyone?”

“There are just under five hundred parasite subjects here, including myself and Doctor C – Edithine.”

“And what are you doing here?”

“Why, saving the world of course,” he said with slight surprise, “what did you think the parasites were for?”

Well, that shut us up for a bit. At last we turned yet another corner and Hest led us into a small lecture theatre where Edithine waited by a small tray containing a jug of water and some glasses.

“Thank you, Velrent,” Edithine said, dismissing our tour guide. “Please, take a seat–“ she gestured at the front row of well-worn plastic fold-down seats “–glass of water?” We all vaguely nodded and duly received a little glass of achingly cold water.

“I want to be clear from the start about what we’re doing here, and why you’re here too.” Her bright eyes bounced over each of us in turn, enveloping us in some social contract we’d not previously been party to. “When the nano-parasite project began, we were exploring the potential of unlocking the human unconscious and making it subject to the same discipline and rationality of the conscious mind. As you know, since you were supporting the project, that had a certain failure rate, which reduced as we improved the parasites and their interface. What do you think the project goals were?”

We hadn’t expected a question and answer session. I’d settled in for a good set of explainings, but I was happy enough to venture a guess. “Establish a deeper and more experiential virtual reality environment for education and entertainment.”

“Not bad,” smiled Edithene, “that’s almost exactly what we told the subjects we were doing.”

Seriously, fucking scientists.

“In fact, we’re aiming for an interface that can unite human psyches, enabling us to create environments that can be shared, cohabited and ultimately used as vessels to escape our corporeal forms. In short, this planet is dying, we can’t survive the continued environmental damage. The human population has declined by nearly ninety per cent in the last twenty years of darkness. That’s an estimate of course, but global surveys show near-total loss of habitat and life in the southern hemisphere and most of the northern. We don’t have very long left, and if we want humanity to survive at all, it’s not going be in these meat suits we’re wearing. Our future lies in the networks of nano fibres that have infested our brains. We’ll be able to extract the totality of human conscious and unconscious experience from the flesh of the brain into the parasite, then transfer the parasites into a nourishing support environment where we will persist indefinitely, with no break in awareness or identity.” She gave us a few moments of stunned silence to take that in before adding, “cool, right?”

Stolen Skies – Part Fifteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

Our peaceful little ownworlds were the first step towards ditching the human body and becoming digital intelligences uploaded into a weird net of black nanofibers stored in a bath of nutrient gel for all eternity. Well. It wasn’t quite what we had expected, but I also hadn’t expected such a gloomy prediction of the future of the human race and our sad little englobed Earth. Edithine left us and gave us some time for it to sink in. I think the thing that got me most was how damn cheerful she and Hest were about it. I guess if you’ve been working towards this goal for a while it suggests you’re on board with the hole ditching the meat suit thing, but it was a bit of a shock to run into for the first time. It’s not like I’m especially in love with the corporeal me – one knee is pretty dodgy and I’ve not been delighted by the general process of ageing, or the wear and tear from nearly twenty years of living in the gloom – but I do like being able to walk around and do stuff. Of course, the argument was that we could do that equally well in our ownworlds, where we need never grow old, ill or die. I mean, I got the idea, but I knew there was a difference between those two states of reality and ownworld. How far did you have to go before that barrier broke down entirely? We’d lost track and nearly forgotten to wake up, but I didn’t feel that was because we thought we were already awake, we were just really into dreaming… And maybe that is the same thing. Half of human experience is being involved in things, focused on some aspect of our lives, whether it’s work or gaming or lying comatose on a bed. If they feel inescapable, perhaps they are. But surely knowing you’ve got an option to get out changes things. I like options, even if I don’t use them. If the option of being alive in the real world was going to become unavailable, and from Edithine’s – Doctor C’s – account, it sure sounded like Earth was just a few years from being uninhabitable, then sure, oneirocyte upload and transfer might be the best future available.

Fuck, what would you do? I guess the Alometh got through this whole damn shell business better off than we did. I heard you guys just dropped into some kind of hibernation state when your planet got scooped up by. Sounds cool. Hard to imagine: did you all just freeze as the sky went dark, or was there a census and collective decision to sack it all off? And how long could you have lasted? I guess you can, like, stick your roots in the ground and suck out nutrients really slowly and keep yourselves ticking away super-slowly in the background. Would your lot choose to abandon the real world? Would I? If it came right down to it… maybe. As a last resort. Back then I wasn’t ready for the idea that it was last resort for humanity time. Hope is a weird fucking beast. Even when you think it’s fucked off at last, ground down till you haven’t even considered hope for a decade or more, when someone tells you that it’s all over, I found it was still flickering inside somewhere. Unloved, untended, just waiting for a reason to illuminate my insides with that strange tingly fire. Does it do anything on its own, hope? I feel it flicker, but what can I do to tend that flame when I’m a powerless meat suit user? Perversely, I could give it life in the ownworld. Unexpectedly, something inside said “yes” to the oneirocyte endgame, even while the conscious me was struggling to wrap its head around the lack of a human future. Man, I hope you Alometh aren’t like us. We’re a pain in the fucking arse. It seemed like there was still a way to go before I’d fully integrated my conscious and unconscious worlds.

The next days brought testing, meeting a lot of new people and many we remembered being on the project before. That felt like a lifetime ago, though it could only have been a year or so. Doctor C was most interested in our experience in integrating the oneirocytes “in the wild” as she put it, lacking the proper laboratory environment. They’d kept trying that, but subjects tended to grow mad, lost in the space inside their heads, unable to rationalise the experience, or trapped outside their heads, unable to sleep or dream. Neither was conducive to continued existence, and were regrettably unavoidable. We’d had a good idea of what we were getting into, which had doubtless aided our progress, and even though we had certainly had a few dodgy months where we were on the verge of snapping, something about working together as a trio had been effective at balancing us out. The fact that we weren’t trained in how to integrate our ownworlds or travel between them absolutely fascinated Hest. I got the impression that he’d love to crack our heads open and see what was inside. Thankfully they had deep visualisation engines and scanners that could analyse the oneirocyte’s progress at winding themselves deeply around the folds of our brain, and even better, they could read the oneirocytes directly. The whole gameplan was to be able to link and network the oneirocytes together, so they weren’t black boxes with unreadable and incomprehensible processes. Hest argued that it should be possible for us to mentally map the vast unspooled web of the oneirocyte within the ownworld itself and visualise the exact current state of our own minds. Sounded a bit too fucking meta for me, but I could see how that would be vital for the massive transition to another kind of life that they were talking about.

The bond between the three of us was strong, and Doctor C wanted to see the interchange we’d built. Other subjects, Doctor C and Hest included had found ways to travel into each others’ dreamworlds, but the connection between minds was difficult, if not impossible to force. Consent of some kind was required for us to enter each other’s personal spaces and the oneirocytes appeared to be working a little beyond their specification in enforcing that. I figured that this was actually a very good thing – I couldn’t imagine wanting any old fucker to be able to just rock up inside my head. So we embarked on experiments of course. The new zygoptics felt different to those we’d been sucking down back in the city – a period that was receding fast in my head – these were clearly more powerful, and I felt the tug and time lag of it gripping my mind, trailing slightly behind my body until I lay down and re-entered my ownworld.

It had been a few days since I’d been into the ownworld. Previously we’d been inside several times every day, often for whole days at a time. I was enormously relieved to find it still ticking away all by itself. I’d nursed a terrible fear that the trees would have tumbled, the pools dried up and I’d find myself in a bleak wasteland, lighter but equally grim as the outside world was to become. But it wasn’t. My trees still spiralled upwards and a warm comforting glow enveloped me. I wandered about, wondering what I should think about making my ownworld into if it was a place I’d be living in forever. We’d developed our ownworlds as places to visit and explore, knowing that we had a real world to live in – these were our safe dream spaces, not homes – not exactly anyway. I guess I’d need a house… and a bed for my mental body. Would I want to sleep while I was in here, already sort of asleep? There was a lot to think about, but potentially an infinite amount of time to do it in. God damn this was going to be strange. I was idly sketching shapes in the air that a house could look like, a treehouse perhaps that hung between the massive boughs overhead. I couldn’t imagine being in an ownworld forever on my own – at the least I needed to start thinking about sharing the space, which I could do through the interchange, but it wasn’t like living next door to each other. Man!

Then I remembered why I was here, right now, and what I was supposed to be doing. The ownworld has its own allure, and I wondered if the new zygoptics were doing something different to my perception of inner and outer space, making this the one that was easier to think about. A slightly paranoid thought to linger on later… For now, the plan was finding a way to make contact with Doctor C’s oneirocyte (I wasn’t going back to calling them parasites like the doctor did – we’d be parasitically living inside them if all went to plan, and no one likes being called a parasite). Last time she’d managed to use the population of dreamers here to boost her voice and send a message to my oneirocyte, who interpreted it as an angelic voice and scribed the coordinates for this facility in the fabric of my ownworld. She hadn’t actually entered it though, and the experience had rather fucked me up for a while. So while it looked like it might be possible to brute force an entry into someone’s ownworld, it probably wasn’t a good idea. Taking inspiration from the interchanges between Scoro’s Gex’s and my ownworlds, I started to imagine a way of extending a hand beyond the boundaries of my mind. Visual metaphors are good: we’re very visually oriented creatures, and language is hard-coded into our brains, so we can juggle oblique concepts that slyly refer to real things through very shady and suggestive images and ideas. I decided to build a telephone. We hadn’t had such things in the real world for longer than my parents had been alive, but I’d seen pictures and the concept was solid. I added a tall, round table made of dark wood, glossily polished, rising out of the ground like it was another tree. On top I laid a neat little brass handset and receiver, with an old-fashioned dial. I couldn’t quite remember how the dialling thing worked, but in my ownworld I gave it the possibility of reaching outwards and imagined the path the oneirocyte might take, imagined its black spools of nanofibers extending outwards from my skull into a vast web that all the other oneirocytes might have access to. Then I dialled for Doctor C.

I let it ring for a while, a soft ringing buzz that almost sounded like a bee. Somewhere inside my head the oneirocyte was making a connection, somehow triggering those inbuilt networking features that I didn’t fully understand. Then there was a click, and I heard Doctor C on the other end. “Did you just make a telephone?” she asked, somewhat incredulously.

“Sure,” it had seemed like the right idea at the time.

“Alright. I guess it works. Can I come in?”

We’d come this far, and although I was a touch anxious about bringing Edithine into my ownworld, that was what we were here for and the whole purpose of this exercise. It felt OK. Now I had to do what Gex, Scoro and I had done semi-instinctively and give Doctor C a way in. I could feel that hearing her voice was on an oneirocyte level and she wasn’t actually here yet, couldn’t perceive any aspect of my world just as I couldn’t perceive hers. Safe, non-intrusive contact. A useful thing, in my opinion. Now I need to give her a door. Christ, how many doors would there be in the end? Hundreds, thousands? Where would I keep them all? I faintly imagined a city made of nothing but doors, which of course is sort of what the real world is exactly like… That was a thing for later. For now I sketched the outline of a door, put Edithine’s name on my side and carved my name on hers. Then I pushed. Now that I was aware of what I and the oneirocyte together were doing, I could feel the door making contact in a way that I hadn’t before. The appearance of Scoro’s and Gex’s doors had been a surprise, something we had to find a way to make real in our ownworlds. Doctor C evidently already knew how this part worked, because the door solidified, the colours filling in a way that gave it four dimensions instead of three, and it opened. Doctor C stepped through.

Only it wasn’t Doctor C as I’d seen her minutes before in the lab, this was a younger version of herself – still clearly Edithine, but thirty or forty years younger, but with her grey hair replaced by dark brown, her slight limp caused by my inattention also gone. She fairly sparkled.

“Thank you Evanith,” she paused, taking in my appearance and taking time to turn around and take in what she could see of my ownworld, “this is fascinating. You’ve found entirely new ways to communicate between ownworlds.”

“You don’t use doors…?”

“Why would we? These are mental constructs, they can be anything, even just a desire to travel. And I’ve never seen a world like this.”

I gave her a little tour. Her attitude perplexed me. Was this so different to what the project had been working on? We’d built dreamworlds for ourselves, but it sounded like they had been doing something else.

“It’s a bit… austere,” Edithine said as we skirted one of the lagoons, while she ran her hand along the constantly twisting bark of a tree, “why don’t we pop into my ownworld for a minute, then we can have a chat back in the outer world.”

So saying she led me back to her door and we went through. I was beginning to realise that I didn’t know Edithine in anything like the way I knew Gex and Scoro. I didn’t fundamentally trust her in the same way, but it was going to be OK, right? Right?

Edithine’s door opened into a perfectly ordinary room. For a second I thought we’d returned to the real, or “outer” world as the people here called it. But we hadn’t – Doctor C was still young, and I was still in my usual light clothes and bare feet. My toes sank into the carpet. Doctor C took a seat in the comfortable leather armchair next to a window and I gazed around. It was a study, or library or cosy office. Desk, bookshelves, pictures on the tastefully decorated walls. It was just like being in a real room. I went over toward Doctor C and looked out of the window. Outside it was snowing, and the sun filtered through the snowflakes, lighting up fields and countryside.

“Want to go out?” Edithine asked.

I thought she meant return to the real world, but instead she stood up and did something. I could feel her doing something to the fabric of her ownworld, and the room twisted, inverting until suddenly we were standing in the snow just outside the window of her study. I gaped, turned back to the office wall which was just one of hundreds of buildings scattered in an arc before me.

“Welcome to the ownworld Evanith. This is where we all live now.”

Stolen Skies – Part Sixteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

Project Tutu had created a shared ownworld, in which people had their own individual spaces contained within in. They’d been working on almost the direct opposite of what we had made for ourselves. We’d built dream environments, places to wander and find peace – there would be more to come, but we’d been focusing on the connection between dreams and reality. Why build a direct version of reality when it sucked so damn hard? Edithine’s team had a very different approach, one that had been coordinated from the top down, with none of our “wild” creation away from the project confines. They’d been building a cosy idealised version of a real world that no longer existed. I didn’t know whether it was always snowing there or if the seasons changed… surely they’d change. Snow is gorgeous and great, even though I barely remember a version of it that wasn’t grey and mildly radioactive (snowball fights and snowmen had been a really bad idea for such a long time that it sounded more like a punishment than a bit of childhood fun), no one wanted it all the time – who wants a cold nose and to be unable to leave the house without wearing gloves? It’s a high bar for acceptable weather, I know. Still. I stood there in the snow, in my light white clothing and I could feel the cold. Plus I had bare feet and they were now standing in an inch of so of crisp crystallised water – they hadn’t gone numb yet, but plainly it would be on the cards if we stayed long. Whatever ownworld synthesis I was in now, it felt really real. I was sure that if I’d been here long enough, that nagging awareness that only recently I’d been somewhere else would fade away and the certainty of this realm would be embedded in my mind. I’m not certain why that gave me such a visceral sense of alarm. This was the whole point of the project, the reason that the oneirocyte in my brain existed at all, and even I hadn’t realised it when we’d implanted them, this was the plan for the future of our entire species. Acceptance is a long road, and our minds like consistency and to able to make predictions about reality that we can later verify and confirm that we are indeed living in a rational world that won’t suddenly fuck you up by surprise. I wasn’t as far down that road as I’d casually thought – once more the divide between conscious and unconscious. We can immediately accept a fact, but it might take much longer for us to believe it, if we ever do.

So I stood there in the snow, my toes going pleasantly numb as I soaked in the feel of this united ownworld, this renovated slice of Earth. There was something inherently magical about the redux of the world we hadn’t seen since before the shell, and yet I missed those more fantastical aspects that Scoro, Gex and I had each developed in our dreamworlds. When I mentioned this to Doctor C, she wasn’t exactly dismissive, but plainly felt I was being shortsighted.

“To imagine that the unconscious is just a kind of dreaming is understandable, but wholly inaccurate. Dreaming is the process by which the conscious becomes embedded in the unconscious, and where the unconscious – ideas and instincts that sit behind our awareness yet drive it in ways we can’t quite realise when we’re awake – gets to test those concepts, and if found usable and relevant, are passed on into the conscious awareness. It’s not dragons and fairy castles – that’s just a dream, singular. Dreaming is an enterprise that the whole mind is involved in. The nano parasites let us put that process in harness, using it to access the fundamental memory structures of the brain and replicate them in a stable environment that we can return to again and again. Further, because the parasites are, in a sense, one single sprawling web through our physical brains, everyone infected with the parasite can travel within that environment, create within it and add to it. Fantastical elements are inherently destabilising, because we recognise that they don’t fit. Placing an elven ice palace in this place shatters the illusion and undermines the establishment of a new consensual reality.”

“So how do you decide to add new stuff? Like–“ I struggled to think what you could add to a place you were just living in, “–I don’t know, a new tree or something?”

To her credit, Doctor C didn’t actually laugh at me, but I did feel like I was asking impossibly childish things – I felt truly lost in this ownworld in a way I hadn’t ever felt in mine. “Consensually – we treat this as the real world, so town planning is a real thing here. The only thing that differs is how we actually create those new elements. No one’s imagining a seed bank, going to get those seeds, planting them and watering them to make them grow. While that would be realistic, it also wastes the advantages of being in a mental realm. We can agree where, in your example, a new tree might go, have a group who decides what it’s going to be, who then dream it into being. Design teams, if you like. Some people are especially good at moulding with imagination. You three have created highly specific and precisely realised ownworld environments, they’re plainly rooted in the physical world, they’re just not very consistent with it. Nothing in your realms could be added here without challenging the sense of reality here, but on their own terms they appear to match themselves. It’s that consistency that keeps the mind going. In the real world we can turn a corner we’ve never walked down and find a whole new street, new trees, new people. It doesn’t usually send any tremor of incongruity through us, because it fits, it all makes sense with what we already know. Human senses are malleable and easily deceived – it’s why people are powerfully disturbed when they encounter phenomena they can’t explain, even if it’s entirely the result of their senses being tricked. Ghosts, for instance. No reason whatsoever to think they’re real, but combine the eternal worries of humanity about just ending at death with sadness, regret, poor lighting, tiredness and the peculiar effects of light and shadow, and boom: ghosts. And with that, the real world crumbles a little, or becomes deeper if you’re prone to fantastical notions, but either way it makes less sense, because the idea that some people might live on to haunt individuals and places is profoundly out of kilter with literally everything else in the world. And that sense of detachment spreads, creating subgroups convinced that the world isn’t all there is, fracturing unity and consensual reality. So we can add a tree, or change the season, sometimes instantly if we wish, because it is an understood law of this reality that such changes can occur, and we all understand how that is done, so the fabric of our world is maintained and enhanced by adding elements according to consensual processes. We call this combined ownworld the Unity. It’s where we can all be together once more.”

“But adding a dragon would really fuck that up, even if people decided they wanted a dragon?”

“If everyone,” heavy emphasis on ‘everyone’, which made me begin to suspect that ‘everyone’ wasn’t precisely each individual’s choice, “consented to the addition of dragons, then yes, we could add dragons.” I admired how Doctor C managed to make ‘yes’ sound exactly like ‘no’. She continued, “but you can’t just ‘have’ dragons. Where do they live? Where did they come from? What do they eat? What other animals are they related to? Are they dangerous? If we have dragons, do we also have to have unicorns, goblins and elves? An entire hidden sideworld of the fae, a fantasy we cultivate and maintain just so that we can occasionally have a vast scaled beast flying across the sky?”

Clearly I looked a little put out.

“There’s room for fantasy in a personal way, of course. In the real world, our experience is tuned and mediated through our senses, which all vary somewhat. You’ll be familiar with the idea that many of us perceive colours slightly differently – ‘red’ isn’t necessarily ‘red’ for everyone – and the same is true of what we attend to, those things that we’re primed by our minds and experience to pay attention to. Some never notice clothes, or the sky, but invest their interest and attention in minutiae – spot birds to the exception of all else. We can do that here. We all have our personal spaces, and as long as those features of our spaces don’t intrude on everyone else’s shared reality then it doesn’t present an issue. Come, let’s return to the outer world.”

She did that thing again, and the world folded back around and we were standing in her cosy wood-panelled study, the snow continuing to fall outside. My feet were dry, but still cold. Consistency wasn’t all that, I thought. We stepped back into the real world.

I opened my eyes to a calm quiet room, all cream walls and ceiling. I was lying on a comfortable bed, a couple of rungs up the ladder from a hospital bed, with added comfort and reassurance. Next to me Scoro and Gex were also waking up. We’d been left together for now, which I was immensely grateful for, because to be honest, the more time I spent with Doctor C talking about this shared universe, the more anxious it was making me.

“So,” I began, “how was that?”

Scoro looked uncomfortable. “They don’t seem to like our ownworlds. We don’t have cosy little chalets.”

“Hest said my engines wouldn’t fit in the Unity,” Gex said. She seemed on the verge of tears. “said they wouldn’t make sense, would upset the reality that had been established.”

This wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I’d hoped that the others would have had more… positive experiences than mine. Not that it had been awful – we’ve all had mad ideas that have been rejected, that’s all part of life. Wild fantasies that get killed off when they meet reality head on. But that was the real world – why should we encounter the same resistance, the same flat “no” in our dreamworlds? That might be their point, but it didn’t have to be ours.

They didn’t give us long to chat, or fret or whatever. Hest and Doctor C, plus the other aide who’d been with Scoro and whose name I don’t think I ever managed to learn, entered our suite together and took seats while we remained sitting, half-reclining on the beds. It wasn’t especially comfortable.

“I know you’re all finding this strange,” Doctor C started, “and that’s no surprise – you’ve been lost all on your own, struggling to make sense of the nano parasites – sorry, you prefer ‘oneirocytes’, don’t you – the oneirocytes embedding themselves in your brains. By lacking the structure here, you’ve gone in an uncontrolled direction. As you probably recall from the pre-relocation of Project Tutu, this is where many of the failures occurred, severe reality dysfunction as an interior world became so wildly at variance with the real world that the subjects were unable to remember which was which or to be able to make conscious choices anymore. The lack of executive direction is a genuine risk, and one we’re keen to keep from occurring to the three of you. Together, you’ve achieved a remarkable degree of stability, despite the quasi-fantastical nature of your ownworlds. Now that you’re safe with us, we’d like to integrate you properly into the Unity. But that’s for tomorrow and beyond. For the rest of today, we encourage you to meet other members of Project Tutu, chat about the Unity and who the people in it are, relax and get some rest. The work we’re doing here can be demanding, physically and mentally – but you’re plainly strong enough for that!”

I didn’t feel unstable. Or I hadn’t until we started exploring the Unity and the people in it. As Doctor C had suggested, we spent the remainder of that day wandering through the various common rooms. The facility seemed endless, but the people were nice. Everyone was interested to meet us and seemed genuinely pleased to have found us wandering about in the real world. At some point we’d wandered out of white walls and carpeted floors into a more comfortable area that had nice leather chairs and more thoughtfully decorated, as if folks might actually want to spend time in it.

“Well this isn’t so bad, is it?” Scoro suggested. The people were nice, even if the world they’d built together was… not so much dull, but ordinary. The entire experience we’d had with oneirocytes felt extraordinary; gaining power over our dreams was thrilling and intense. It wasn’t knocking about in a version of the real world. We’d asked lots of questions: did they eat, sleep, use toilets in the Unity? Eat: yes, if they wanted to, sleep: not really – that was still being worked on, it might just kick you back out into the real world, use toilets: why…? For all that Doctor C described the Unity as this consensual reality, there was a lot of reality missing. I guessed they could always work on that, make it bigger as time went on. I couldn’t help but think of my ownworld, which I’d imagined from the start as infinite – trees that went on forever, with an unlimited amount of space for me to eventually populate with dreamstuff and aspects of that life which would make me happy.

I noticed a shimmering in the corner of my eye, like I’d gotten an eyelash caught under my eyelid, splitting the light oddly. I blinked hard to get rid of it, and it switched to the other side – a shadow made of light, just out of view. “Gex, I think there’s something in my eye,” I said, shaking my head a little. She leant over, peering into my eye as I held it open. The light shadow was in her eye, a glowing rectangle drifting in her iris. A door…

“Motherfuckers,” I exclaimed, “we’re still in the fucking Unity.”

Now that I’d thought it, I could see it. Real, but dull. Gex and Scoro could see it too. We’d been drawn out of our ownworlds into the Unity, stepped through doors that we’d invited into our realms. Absolutely fuck that. With an effort of thought, the glowing door materialised properly, half over the doorway that had led into this room – my reality supervening on this one. But getting back into our ownworlds would just give us our own environments. We needed to be back in the real world, because who knew why we’d been tricked into thinking that we’d woken out of the Unity. Previously we’d only ever woken into reality from our personal ownworlds, but that was partly why we’d built our interchange – a mini-Unity of our own I supposed. And if we had managed that, we knew how it felt to leap back to the real. Let’s just brute force it from here.

“Give me your hands,” I told the others, and we held hands in a triangle while I thought about doing the opposite of what I’d managed when I yanked Gex and Scoro out of their waking bodies into the ownworld while we were slogging over the wastelands in the caterpillar. At least this time no one would be banging their head. I ignored the door, and instead imagined tearing a hole in the air of the room we stood it. With a sound that vibrated through our imaginary bones I ripped a chunk out of the Unity and we spilled back into our meat bodies. Which were lying down on very similar beds to those we’d thought we’d woken up in before, except these were completely horizontal, and we were surrounded by beeping machines and half a dozen white-coated people stood over us, scalpels in hand, reaching out for us.

Our waking up was clearly not expected. Hands lunged for us. Behind the surgical masks over their faces I recognised Hest’s eyes and treated him to a solid kick in the face. We surged up out of the beds, surgical gowns falling away from our otherwise naked bodies as we grappled with our deceivers. There was a wide glass wall at the end of the room that our feet pointed towards, and even as we wrestled, kicked and punched (with gratifying results), I saw the figures in there included Doctor C and a number of other serious-looking individuals, heading for the adjoining door. We were about to be overwhelmed, even though Gex had gotten her hands on one of the scalpels and was viciously lashing out at her attackers. She got one, and a gout of shocking red blood sprayed across the room – she’d nipped an artery in the guy’s throat. That froze everyone for a second, and then they surged forward again, bolstered by the numbers from outside. It didn’t look good – they’d almost pinned Scoro down as one of them frantically prepared a syringe of what could only be very bad news. I’d grabbed hold of some monitor or other and was wildly smashing it on anyone who came close, but there were too many of them. Angry, frightened, I reached out instinctively with my oneirocyte, seizing the other tool I had at my disposal.

I saw through two sets of eyes: in the real world we fought against these white-coated bastards, blood spattered, cries and screams as Gex freed Scoro by stabbing another fucker in the back; in my ownworld the trees twisted fast around me, dust danced and hovered in a bouncing pattern off the ground. Scoro cast a look at me, feeling the presence of my ownworld around us all. Then I twisted again, doing what I’d done to Scoro and Gex, and wrenched every one of our assailants out of the real world. And into my ownworld. Their bodies fell immediately, lots of nasty head injuries for them to deal with another time, and we were suddenly the only people awake. I returned my gaze to the ownworld where they’d all arrived simultaneously. They gaped at their new surroundings – all of them, from Doctor C to the guy with blood pumping out of his throat, all in their white coats. I’d given them no time to reconcile themselves to their usual ownworld appearances. They were in my ownworld now, not their Unity. And I was well fucked off. Gex and Scoro were beside me, all comfortable in our mastery of this realm. Futilely, the scientists and surgeons decided to attack, ignoring their environment in favour of retaining their own unified, consensual reality, as if this was still a surgical suite where they could finish whatever they’d started. But they had no power there. With a thought I set the ground shaking, knocking them off their feet, the trees bending toward them with sharp lashing branches. A pit opened in the ground beneath them, like a mouth leading into the abyssal deeps under my ownworld and they began to tumble in.

“Fuck this,” Gex exclaimed, and with a mental twist of her own the dark engines of her ownworld reared up through the hole I’d made, razor sharp cogs and steam, the glowing red between them hot and issuing a scorching hiss. They spread out, like someone had splayed open a huge clockwork maw, and snapped shut around the sprawling intruders. The engines and the Unity scientists vanished into the hole.

The three of us snapped back into the real world, chests heaving, eyes wide and gazed down at the bodies around us. Not one of them appeared to be breathing.

Stolen Skies Meta-Nanowrimo 2022, 1

Metananowrimo Stolen Skies

36,144 Words

That’s so far! I’ve been thinking about doing a metananowrimo post since I started writing this month, but it’s been a busy time, and… I haven’t. I find it useful to reflect on the creative process though, so here we go…

I’ve written almost nothing for the last three years, since falling out of my Nanowrimo story in 2019 after just four chapters of Waiting for Silence, about 9000 words in. Although one reason was the busy November making this really, really hard to fit in, I’d also begun a story that I didn’t want to keep writing. I think it has the beginning and promise of a good story (by the standards of a novelette written with no planning or editing in a single month, y’know…), but I was painfully aware that I’d set myself up to tell a story that was about a younger character trapped in a spaceship with an older character who had abused them (and was now dying in the room next door). It’s a story and a subject that I do want to tackle at some point. But it’s really fucking hard to bring myself do it because it’s just too close, and however well the counselling and years have taken in my brain, it’s always gonna be a sore subject, especially when I’m projecting it into a trapped character who has to deal with it, and that I have to think and write about every damn day for a month. Too much, at the time at least. I’ve done better thinking about this stuff more recently – for our mental health podcast We Are What We Overcome, we talked about a number of diary entries from when I was in counselling that are about just such things. It’s very weird to listen back to, and the preparation for that was a little scary. Maybe I’ll be able to finish that story after this one!

November is always frantically busy for me, with Nottingham Comedy Festival putting the kibosh on establishing a regular writing routine in the evening (too many fun things!) and the approaching end of the year always seems very demanding. Basically, not my fault… I’ve been telling myself that my desire to write has faded now that I have a much more creative and fulfilling job in publishing, and that sates my need to write. Plus, improv is all making up stories and being creative, so I’m quite well stacked with stuff that makes me happy. As I’ve gotten further and further away from that last story I’ve found it weighing on me more heavily that I haven’t been writing, plus I have a couple of friends who regularly pester me about it. I very much appreciate their support and daily reading of my Nanowrimo stories as I publish them each day. I’d almost fallen into the idea that I had no more stories to tell, that I’d forgotten how to do it (that last one might be true). But that’s nuts – I have notebooks full of story ideas and scraps of pages that I’ve written. I’d just gotten out of the habit of doing the thing.

I need an idea goddammit

I knew I needed a seed idea, something to get me started. Swimming is my quiet time and is a useful space for reordering the old brain, compiling a to-do list and promptly forgetting it as I get out of the pool. But I did have an idea, which will come up in Stolen Skies eventually, honest. It felt like a cool idea, but it also didn’t feel like enough, so I spent a few hours anxiously flicking through those old notebooks to spark my imagination. I found an old story idea – just a couple of sentences – about the Earth being englobed and moved to another part of the galaxy. Not a detailed idea by any means, but combined with the other, secret idea it felt like just enough. 

I’ve been making a conscious effort not to take this too seriously or try to go all hardcore as I’ve done before, hitting 5k a day and finishing the story by mid-month. I just don’t have the space, and as it turned out I didn’t even get to start the story for a few days, and have skipped a couple of days when I needed to. I feel quite chill about it, and only got round to updating my Nanowrimo profile a week or so ago. I’ve found that writing in the morning is the best time, which seems to be like the best way to get exercise over and done with before the rest of the day kicks in and obliterates that happy blank state. An hour of scribbling before work has me climbing out of bed far more readily than usual. I’m back to caning out about a thousand words in thirty minutes, which feels good.

Cover images

Oh yeah – the important business of getting a title and cover together! It’s a useful focusing tool as I’ve found in previous years. This year I started with The New Stars, but realised that I’d half-inched that from Tim Pratt’s fun Axiom series. That mutated when I started thinking about cover design. This year I’ve used the full version of Dall-E Mini’s AI illustration tool. We messed about with a lot in the run-up to our last Improvised Star Wars Show at Nottingham Playhouse last October. It’s fun to play with, and I gave it junk like “exploding moon and lurid stars”. The results are not terrible, and it gave me the better title of Stolen Skies. 

Sounds like writing

I like a good writing soundtrack, and this time I wanted a particular mood to get into the character and story with. I’m listening to a random shuffle of the three incredible trip-hop albums by Portishead, Palm Skin Productions’ Remilixir, and Venetian Snares’s stunning album Rossz Csillag Alatt Sz​ü​letett. All mashed up together it’s distinctly dark and beautiful, with a hint of menace and lasting trauma. Perfect!

Keep up with Stolen Skies right here.

Stolen Skies – Part Seventeen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

Fuck. We stood there, breathing heavily. That had taken a bit of a turn. We were surrounded by bodies, limbs flung out and tumbled to the ground wherever they’d fallen when I tore their conscious minds away. It was the opposite of a peaceful-looking death for them. Still, the moment of peace and quiet gave us a chance to look around and figure out what the fuck was going on. It was certainly possible that we’d over-reacted, though I was a little torn on that: if we had over-reacted, then we were definitely murderers, stupidly working through a situation with violence that could have been fixed with five minutes of honest conversation – and I didn’t want to think I was that kind of person. Even as I thought that, I could hear the corollary: “I’m not a violent person” in quiet italics in my head. Ah fuck. We might have just killed the last best hope for humanity, though that didn’t really ring true either. No one who’s doing the right thing tricks you into believing in their world and then tries to do surgery on you. That’s not normal. That’s not OK. High-stepping over the white-clad bodies nearest to the bed I’d been resting on I saw that the tools of their trade were scattered across the floor: scalpels, clamps, worrying salad tong-type things. Ah, neat little electric saws. Nah. It looked a lot like they had been aiming to cut our skulls open. A lot of the guilt that was excitedly building up in my chest dissipated when I realised that. Behind each of the three beds in the suite were complicated-looking boxes, more like miniature terrariums, half-filled with a gelatinous fluid and with weird fibrous grey structures that looked a bit like plants, if you were especially committed to the terrarium metaphor.

“Looks quite a lot like they were gonna cut our oneirocytes out and stick em in these tanks, doesn’t it?” murmured Scoro.

My companions looked equally freaked out – we’d come here looking for some kind of safety and hope, and all that had been comprehensively fucked.

“Someone was a bit too keen to get us into the Unity,” agreed Gex. “Makes me wonder… I mean, do you think we were special somehow?”

“Doctor C–“ who was lying right there in the doorway, lying peacefully bent over the body of some happily anonymous surgeon-type, quite dead, “–thought we’d done some unusual stuff with our ownworlds, but it seemed to be the opposite of what they were aiming for.” I shook my head, poking the gel stuff in the tank with my finger. It had the texture of what I imagined it would be like to poke your own brain.

“I guess we all wonder what’s in each other’s heads sometimes,” Scoro said. He seemed fractionally more upbeat than I felt, and added, “I really didn’t like being in the Unity.”

Hard to argue with that, unless you really did think it was the future of our species. Which we might have just fucked up, even if we did it in self-defense.

“Have we just killed the human race?” I asked.

“Feels like a lot to lay on our shoulders. Lots of blame to go around,” said Gex, stepping over the bodies towards the exit. “These fuckers for a start.”

I was still staring at Doctor C – Edithine – imagining her in her younger incarnation inside the Unity, a newer brighter version of this human body. Fuck it. I followed Gex, and Scoro in making way through the wreckage of the room.

“We really need to find some way out of here. Someone’s bound to be along in a bit when they fail to rock up with our brains in boxes.”

“Yeah… Quiet though, isn’t it?” Scoro noted. He was right. Apart from the low hum and occasional gentle beeps from the machinery we’d largely knocked on the ground, it was deadly silent. We hadn’t spent a lot of time awake here yet, but in the tour that Hest had given us (now lying slumped against the wall, head with the fine looking bruise spreading over his forehead, chin resting on his round chest, eyes open, staring, no one home…) we’d seen lots of neat, clean facilities, but hadn’t met anyone. Even our quarters were quiet. I’d paid it no mind. It was such a fantastic contrast to being penned up in the caterpillar that the relative silence of gently buzzing lights was a real treat.

“Weird. There’s got to be another way out of a complex like this – no one builds just one door. Plus, that would be super-useful since the only door we’ve seen so far is loaded up with soldiers. Can’t imagine they’d be cool with us swanning after wiping out the projects executive committee.” It wasn’t a great situation to be in, even if it was better than having our brains cut out. I’m not even sure how we’d get back to that big entrance – there were a lot of locking doors the way we came.”

“Cool. Makes you wonder if the soldiers are only outside. None of them came in here – our lot with Lindsmane went off through another door. Bet they’ve got billets, or whatever they call them tucked into the mountain too, but their job is to cover that entrance and exit, not fuck about with what the scientists are up to. Need to know, and all that.”

Gex was probably right. Hopefully. While we could play tricks on individuals (and even groups, now) with parasites, we’d be in serious trouble against anyone with a weapon, or training, or even just two people with a brick and a glass bottle who lacked oneirocytes. Exploring time, then. We looted the bodies first – not like proper looting, we weren’t after gold teeth or anything – but I don’t know what else you call it when you start rooting through corpse’s pockets for keys and security passes. We came up with a fistful each of keys and cards.

The room adjoining the surgical suite that we’d been able to see through the glass wall was another couple of walls filled with equipment: computers, monitors, baffling displays labelled “interior”, “engagement”, “independence” and more besides. There wasn’t much for us in there, just knocked over chairs and the one guy who hadn’t made it through the crush into the suite when they went for us. He was dead too. I’d just grabbed everyone nearby who wasn’t Gex or Scoro. I had lots of questions about the oneirocytes and these newfound extensions of its functions, but unfortunately we’d just killed everybody who might have been able to answer them. Another door happily opened onto a familiar looking cream corridor. Familiar, but not actually one we knew since they all looked the damn same. It wasn’t even like a hospital where they try to overcome its terrifying maze-like qualities by painting stripes on the floors and walls to guide you. Nope, like everything here the corridor went on for ages and had plenty of unmarked doors leading off it. It remained eerily quiet.

We started trying doors, all of them. It felt very strange leaving a roomful of bodies to go and systematically root through their house. I didn’t like feeling as if we’d broken into someone’s home, murdered them and then sought out all the valuable electronics and first day cover collections. We could at least be quick. Many of the doors opened onto similar pairs of rooms as those we’d left, or storage rooms half-filled with cartons and crates. Some of them were less than half full, which made us wonder just how long the project had been running, and what stage it had been in when we arrived. Doctor C said she’d been seconded to the project right at the beginning, just after the shell came up. It had been a live project since at least then, and there was no reason to think it hadn’t been underway since long before that. We’d only joined as assistants a few years ago, just before they packed in the testing phase. There were more rooms. Always more fucking rooms. Someone had fun burrowing into the mountain and making this weird hive. Finally, at the end of that corridor there was another door that led to stairs, and an elevator. Now, call me paranoid, but the fuck was I getting into an elevator. That must have been how we got up here – the room we woke up in definitely wasn’t the one we went to sleep in, so they must have wheeled us out and up to the “surgery hall” or “butcher suites” or whatever they called this place. We had the choice of up or down. It seemed to make sense that up was where we’d likely come from – who builds a secret lair in a mountain and builds upwards? No, you put the door at the top and the cool shit as deep down, safe and secure as you can. Did Smaug make a nest on top of the mountain for all his gold? Exactly. So down we went, anxiously eyeing the stairs above in case anyone did appear. But it was still quiet, and grew unnervingly so the more time we spent here. Going down felt darker, even though the lighting was exactly the same. I imagined that extra weight of the mountain above us and could see where people got claustrophobia from – it wasn’t grabbing me by the throat or anything, but it was there – an anxious little squeeze on my lungs and heart. Well, the sooner we found a way out the better.

The next floor was similar to the one above, but with additional meeting and conference rooms, more storage, more lack of people. Down again then…

Bingo. Of a sort. We had to flip through the cards until we found one that would work: Doctor C’s. Even Hest’s only got a polite beep out of the door, but together both of them swiped across the sensor made the door swing open. And into another fucking nightmare we went. This wasn’t a hall of doorways this time. The door opened onto a cleanroom antechamber, loaded up with closets containing white clean suits, sprays, gloves and all that useful stuff. There was neat little airlock that led into a much darker space beyond. We couldn’t quite make out what was in there. I eyed the suits speculatively.

“You must be joking,” Scoro said.

“Kinda,” I said, “But I feel like I want to know what was going on. There’s no one else here. So what’s behind that door?”

We all grumbled a bit. Even I didn’t really want to go in, but the curiosity was overwhelming. We’d put these oneirocytes in our heads to experience what Project Tutu had told us it was for – create your own virtual world to hang out in and escape this grey world for a while – but now it was clear that they’d had other ideas, and they’d just made us kill to stay free of them. “Made us kill”. Yeah, I know. Already rationalising our actions, but how does anyone live with what they’ve done otherwise. We suited up, somewhat ineptly, helping each other with zips, Velcro and what I guess were flanges. Suitably helmeted we all went into the airlock and waited while it shone that blue light over us, hissed some vapour from all sides, waited for it to dissipate and then finally the other door opened.

Onto a single enormous room. Compared to where we’d explored so far this was a vast space – think of every school hall you’ve been in and treble it in size. The blue lights were a primary feature here, lighting up the floor and ceiling. In between were racks, almost like a series of supermarket aisles, or a server farm, if you’re more technically minded. We tentatively edged down the first aisle. It was lined on both sides with shelves which were half electronic equipment and wires plugged into a seemingly endless array of glass tanks, very much the same as the weird terraria they’d been planning to dump our brains into. Or rather, Scoro had been right, it was just oneirocytes. At the end we began on the tanks held thick grey masses of the parasite, a really badly twisted ball of thread that a cat must have had a fine time playing with, tangled into the support structures, or plants that were in there with them. The further down the rack we got, the larger, denser and more sprawling those parasite webs became, until they were fully enmeshed with the trees and filled the tanks entirely, the networks so large that they pressed up against the sides.

It was all rather sobering. It actually took a while to grasp what we were looking at – not just that these were all advanced oneirocytes that had grown big and fat, but they didn’t have human brains attached. Now, it’s possible that they’d always been like this – that they had been grown independently of a host – but there were hundreds here, possibly a lot more than that. And that tallied pretty well with the absence of anyone in the facility except those we’d met. They were all down here, and what had almost been done to us had already been done to them. If all Doctor C had said was true, then they all lived on down here in the Unity. The parasites had copied their minds completely as they spread through their brains until they had replaced all the brain flesh that mattered. Once that growth process was complete, they could be harvested from the body and these individuals might never know it had even happened. Unless they tried to wake up. And that was the part that got me – the Unity ran off compelling you to forget about the real world – the “outer world” as Hest had kept calling it. Well, fuck that.

We were still shambling along the blue lit aisle when we reached a new section – presumably an older section where the parasites weren’t confined to their boxes any more. They overflowed, plunging threads into the tanks around them, making it look like the whole shelving rack was covered in a massive black web, tendrils stretching onto the floor, reaching out and touching the tendrils coming from the other side.

“I reckon we’ve seen enough…” Gex whispered. We’d begun whispering almost the second we’d entered this place. A mausoleum of living minds.

“Yeah, let’s get the fuck out of here,” I said. The quiet hum of the equipment had become deafening – a rising whine that filled a space beyond my ears. We started to back up the way we’d come, careful steps turning to a deliberate stride.

“Is it just me or–“ Scoro was not alone. The black threads of the parasites were moving, very faintly writhing, the tips crawling across the floor and out of the tanks beside us. Reaching out. Reaching for us. We were halfway back up the aisle, the soft glow of the airlock dead ahead when they started reaching out in other ways. My vision split again: the blue-dark of the parasite tomb overlaid with a gently snowing landscape. Gex and Scoro flickered in and out of the snow. I looked around and the glimpse of the Unity that Doctor C had given me was revealed to have been only a sliver. Behind me was the village of wooden chalets which Edithine had shown me, but when I turned I saw a whole city rising out of the snow – a wide frozen lake between us. This was all the people who had been butchered by the project and given this new place to live. A massive weight of pressure somewhere in my mind forced me to my knees, the gravity of the Unity pulling me down, freezing out my vision of the real world. The blue lights and dark racks faded, covered up by snow. I could feel the attention of all the minds in the Unity. A pair of legs stepped into view – I was crouching, trying to resist the weight that had driven me down. I craned my neck up and saw that it was, impossibly, Doctor C.

“Hi…” I managed.

She knelt down to look at me. I couldn’t tell whether she was angry or not. I’d have been fucking livid if someone killed my body, but there was no violence in her gaze. (I guess at heart, violence is not so far from my nature as I’d like to believe.) She took me by the chin.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said, “I’d hoped you and your friends would accept this, that you’d become part of the Unity, and live forever here with us. But I don’t think you really want that, do you?”

“Did anyone really want this, or did you just hack their heads open anyway?”

“Everyone here knew what the project was leading to,” she said.

“Cool, that’s just a tiny bit fucking evasive. I bet most of them didn’t, and now they don’t even have a clue that there ever was a real world.”

“It’s all a matter of perception,” Doctor C half-conceded. “But we can’t have you loose in the facility like this, not while we’re all in here. So I’m afraid it’s time to say goodbye. I did enjoy gardening together, once.”

She stepped away and invisible fingers began to pull at my mind. It felt like the oneirocyte was being drawn out of my head like you might wind a Guinea worm out of your leg. I began to scream and didn’t think I’d ever stop. I’d lost all sight of Gex and Scoro, blinded by the snow and the pain, the interference as my mind was pulled apart. I really thought it was all over, that I’d die, lying there cold in the fake snow, but then I heard a voice – Scoro’s: “we’re coming.” The snow shuddered and split as arching walls of intricate stone and ironwork erupted from the ground, wrapping me in a spike of gothic cathedral. As the snowy sky was blotted out, the pain in my head faded. The architecture snapped shut and hauled me out of the Unity.

My eyes flickered back open in the real world, the snow gone, replaced by the soft blue light. I was being dragged and began to struggle until Gex put her face right in front of mine. I nodded understanding and tried to stand, but I didn’t yet have full control of my legs and it just made it harder for my friends to drag me. While they piled us into the airlock, the cavernous room full of dead people’s brains slowly reached out for us. It was like being underwater. And then the airlock snapped shut, gassed us again, and we fell back out into the antechamber.

“We really, really need to get the fuck out of this mountain,” I gasped as Scoro pulled my helmet off.

“Too true.”

We tore off the cleansuits and stumbled back out. Down had proven to be an utter nightmare, so that left up.

“Are you OK?” Gex’s voice in my ear as we shambled up the stairs. I was getting my legs back, as if I’d spent weeks on a rough sea, and my skull ached.

“Yeah, yeah. They’re still alive – all of them, Doctor C, all those people we killed.”

It felt unreal – we hadn’t really accepted what Doctor C and Hest had been telling us. Project Tutu worked, really worked, and when we’d yanked them out of the real world and thrown them in a pit. That metaphorical murder of Gex’s had actually cut them off from their bodies. Their bodies died, but the parasites lived on. Which perfectly explained what we saw when we reached the floor where they’d tried to take our brains. We were just aiming for the next flight of stairs upward, but a movement far down the hall caught my eye. I stopped, and stared. Blood was pooling out of a doorway, and in it I could see what looked like black string, sopping with blood writhing forwards.

“I’m sorry – I just need to see this,” I said, to Scoro’s audible horror. I slowly approached the surgical suite where the blood was coming from. I didn’t need to go inside. The blood covered the floor, redly slick and the man who’d never made it out of the observation chamber still lay there, clothes soaking up the blood. But his head… his skull looked like someone had gone at it with a cheese grater – from the inside. Black threads unwound through the holes in his scalp, lashing about in the blood, pulling more of itself out of him and writhing through the blood towards the door. Beyond him, the surgical suite showed more of the same, black masses, greasy with chunks of brain matter oozing towards us.

“OK, I actually didn’t need to see that,” I hissed as I rejoined Gex and Scoro who were just staring as the pool of blood continued to seep into the corridor. “Yep, didn’t need that at all. Might never sleep again. Let’s go.”

We ran up the stairs from then on. Two flights. Three, then four. Hearts racing we got to the top of the stairs which opened into a bluely lit corridor. We burst through it, noting the door on the right that we’d been brought through initially for cleaning, and the big double doors at the very end which opened back out into the concrete garage space where we’d left the caterpillar. The door we came out of must have been the one the scientists went through while we got scrubbed. They weren’t the only doors though – there was another pair opposite the cleaning rooms. There was an excellent chance that these led straight to the soldiers, but just then that didn’t seem so bad.

Stolen Skies – Part Eighteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

More goddamn stairs. Why was everything stairs these days? We’d pretty much run out of puff, and with the blue corridor and quite a lot of doors and stairs between us and the cat’s cradle psychic hell deep inside the mountain, I felt like we were able to relax a tiny bit. Our hearts were racing, legs aching with build-up of lactic acid, we wheezed like the forty year-olds we were, who’d spent their adult lives in a scum-filled atmosphere, chugging zygoptics for most of that time. We more pulled ourselves up the staircase by the banister than climbed. A cold sweat clung to me. Those bastard fibres were still crawling across the floor towards us, leaving lacework patterns of blood behind. I was really glad that I hadn’t tried to go the whole way into the surgical suite. The coils I’d seen worming their way out of that man’s skull wasn’t going to go away without therapy and a fuck-tonne of drugs, but it would have been a million times worse to have seen a whole room of dead bodies with that wiry shit sprouting out of their ruined heads. Ah, you know what – maybe I didn’t need to see it, my imagination was doing just fine all on its own. One of the benefits of the oneirocytes, of course, was having a much greater control over such useful mental functions as imagination and perception – specifically the shaping of a perpetual reality that could be perceived the same way again and again. I really hoped our powers with the oneirocytes were good enough to excise these images from my dreams, and keep them out of our ownworlds.

Speaking of the ownworlds, and our oneirocytes… As yet I hadn’t fully wrapped my head around what I’d seen and the knowledge that I had exactly the same thing cradling my own brain, and those of Scoro and Gex who wheezed beside me, trudging upwards. That should have been a lot more alarming, that I had a similar ball of steel wool busy replacing my brain with a synthetic, lasting version of itself. A parasite which could escape my skull after my death and… I don’t know, fuck off and live in a tree or something. Presumably the skull-wool I’d seen leaving their hosts was actually heading off down to the huge room where all its pals were, rather than specifically chasing us – because that would be stupid as fuck. Filaments aren’t going to catch running people, after all, and even if they did, what were they going to do, crawl in through our ears and eyes to get at our oneirocytes? Cool, yet another mental image I did not need. The prospect of ever sleeping again receded further. Shared ownworlds were consensual, that was the whole point and key to making them work. We could never be consciously abducted and installed in the freaky garden downstairs – that was why they tried to trick us into thinking the Unity was reality. So, no. We were safe from integration, but not necessarily safe from murder. Would our parasites fight for us? I mean, my oneirocyte had shown no inclination to get in on the act of forming some super-organism writhing in a basement greenhouse. I was still labelling “it” as “it”, rather than what it really was, which was “me plus”. In time, the oneirocyte would replace my brain entirely and whatever distinction had once existed would become moot, only for worrying about by philosophers and other twats excited by whether an axe that you’ve replaced the handle and head of is still the same axe. Which meant that since “I” had shown no interest in their bland paradise, neither had “it” or “me plus”. I was still me, which was reassuring, probably. Ah, fuck. It felt like everything had gotten seriously out of hand, and fretting about it while my lungs laboured for breath was not the best time. For one, I was plainly short of oxygen, hence the wheezing, and therefore not thinking at my best. A spot of paranoia when people have tried to kill you and keep you alive in their tedious infinite simulation is very appropriate, but I wasn’t likely to answer any of my deep and meaningful questions until we were far from here, in a hermetically sealed room while we watched each other get some sleep.

Even at our agonisingly slow pace, the staircases passed, our knees creaked alarmingly and we turned a final corner into another fucking lobby area with more fucking doors. I had grown profoundly weary of both stairs and doors, never mind corridors. No wonder my ownworld was devoid of all three – I must have cultivated some deep loathing of them well before entering the home of Project Tutu, or I just liked open spaces and no surprises. We paused to catch our breath properly, hanging off the railing as we returned to a more natural colour. We’d seen no soldiers, so maybe they really weren’t allowed inside the complex at all, and lived in a shack on the outside of the mountain, herding goats or whatever. And these stairs – Jesus, I couldn’t bear to imagine how many steps there had been. I leaned back over the banister and looked straight down the middle. Yep, basically infinite.

I turned to the others. “All OK?”

Many eyerolls, but the ghost of a smile on Gex’s face, and a proper nod from Scoro. Belatedly I realised that we’d failed to find any weapons on the way out, but had at least retained the crappy soft-soled shoes that we’d pulled on for the airlock and cleansuits. They weren’t comfortable, but our feet weren’t bleeding from pounding up the stairs I didn’t think – we hadn’t checked and all the dampness everywhere else was sweat. Planning is not my forte, but then neither is escaping from a scientific facility and meat-killing a bunch of people. Ah, how times change. We made some effort to look ready for anything and gently pushed open the doors.

We’d found the soldiers. They were standing facing away from us, eyes on the monitors and read-outs that ringed the consoles all around the room. What dominated the big wide room was the clear dome that covered it. You could just about see the structures that ringed this observatory, some of those huge dishes and spiky towers that you found at astronomical observatories, plus a whole load of weird fin shapes, curling pillars and things I had no idea about at all. In the centre of the room stood another guy wearing a beret, and with him was our Corporal Lindsmane. Both spun at the sound of the door opening, and they took in the sight of three somewhat damp white-coated individuals gaping at them.

“You took the stairs?” was the first thing out of Lindsmane’s mouth. Motherfucker. Somewhere there was a lift.

“Yes… didn’t want to risk getting trapped. If… something happened,” I replied, aiming for ultra vague with a hint of competence.

“Well you made excellent time, considering, Doctor…” commented the other fellow, presumably a higher rank because of the fancier beret and additional decoration on his play suit.

I glanced down surreptitiously at the lanyard hanging round my neck and cautiously ventured: “Quince.” Gex and Scoro did the same, figuring out who they were supposed to be, Gex subtly covering the vivid splatter of blood from the scientist whose throat she’d cut. Lindsmane was giving me a very odd look, since “Quince” was very obviously not my real name, and soldiers are rather security-focused. I gave him a thumbs up and strained grin, as his superior turned his attention back to the massive window. Hopefully our few days together would buy us just a little grace.

“Quince. Excellent,” the other soldier said, hands clasped behind his back as he stared at the sky through the glass dome. “Thank you for coming so quickly. As you can see – something is happening at last.”

Cool, we’d wandered into yet another situation where we had no idea what was going on. I was incredibly grateful when Lindsmane chose to throw us a bone.

“Colonel Stallford–” a name I was probably supposed to know “–perhaps we should fill our science colleagues in. Not all of Project Tutu is as well-versed in Project Nut.”

“Quite right Lindsmane. I’d rather expected to see the senior executive team up here, considering.”

“Ah yes, Doctor Charbroly is um, indisposed,” all true… “The project is at a critical point. So she sent us,” I ended with limply.

But apparently satisfactorily, though Lindsmane boggled at us. I gave him a secret headshake, and tried to convey that everything was both utterly fucked and that we weren’t any kind of a problem he needed to worry about. I can only guess that every project here was so weird that he’d been feeling a bit unsure about everything since arriving.

“So – Project Nut,” the colonel continued.

I hadn’t heard it properly the first time, and couldn’t help but blurt out, “Project Nut?”

Either Stallford was expecting the question or I’d managed to disguise my incredulity because he proceeded smoothly with his mini briefing. “Project Nut, named for the Egyptian goddess of the stars. While Project Tutu looked inward to find a solution for humanity here inside the englobement, Project Nut looked outward, seeking the stars beyond. Since the englobement twenty years ago, Project Nut has been at work across the world, probing the barrier, testing it and attempting to breach it with traditional and non-traditional communication tools.”

Phenomenal, these were likely the pricks that tried firing nukes into near-Earth space, which fucked up half the world. I chose not to interrupt.

“While some tests were more successful than others, we’ve had no success whatsoever in penetrating the barrier. Similarly none of our instruments have been successful in detecting a single particle passing through the barrier. We’ve been protected from all cosmic rays; not even the most super-energetic particle has struck the Earth, to the best of our detection. Utterly cut off from the known universe. Since losing trace of the moon’s gravity, we’ve detected no other sources of gravity strong enough to affect us.”

A striking success of a project, I thought. Some real quality work being done here, with god knows what resources.

“Until three days ago,” he added, since we looked so radically unimpressed with his little speech. “Three days ago we detected gravity from outside the shell – multiple sources, and big. Equivalent to, or greater than our own planet.”

“You mean… there’s something outside?”

“More specifically, we think we’ve arrived somewhere.”

“And what happens next?”

“We stand ready to extend our communication efforts. If, as we suspect, we’ve been taken somewhere for a reason – since plainly the englobement of our world is no simple cosmic event, this a purposeful action – which we must assume is hostile, though possibly in an alien sense that we may struggle to interpret, we must be ready to communicate with whatever reveals itself. And, if necessary, respond in kind.”

That was great, for twenty years these guys had been waiting to have a chat with something, but if in doubt they were going to shoot it. Humans, right?

Gex chipped in, “A very thorough summary colonel,” honestly, praise works so well on these guys – I’d have sworn he was standing taller, “and what is happening right now, that caused you to summon Project Tutu from our important work?” She was laying on a little thick, but it felt like the right kind of arrogance from those we’d encountered below.

“We believe the projects are about to intersect.”

Even as he spoke, it began. Total silence enveloped the room and we all stared straight up through the dome. Fine lines had appeared in the meat-grey sky, glowing edges of light that steadily grew as, in a high-speed reverse of how the shell had appeared in the darkness of space, the vast segments of the shell receded, sinking back into the deep. In their place: light. Light, unbelievable light washed through the spaces between the shells until their shapes were overwhelmed, like a figure walking away through a brightly lit doorway, their outlines blurring and warping in the bright, bright light that flooded across our darkened world. While we stared, hands were tapping away at their instruments, dishes were mechanically grinding on tracks outside, button catches were flipped open and the nervous chatter of detection equipment sent needles and pens scrawling across rolls of paper. But there was nothing I could do but gaze into the glowing light.

Stolen Skies – Part Nineteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

It was like a new dawn, a new heat and light that blasted through the clouds casting shadows on the ground below. It had been so long since clouds had shadows. Colour erupted across the hills and countryside around us – our vantage point let us see our grim grey world turning Technicolor. It felt like being punched in the chest and tears ran down my cheeks as the dirty sky’s blue tint returned.

“We’re out,” gasped Scoro.

“Is that the sun…” I half-moaned. It was something I’d never really thought we would ever see again, but that flicker of hope had been down there somewhere, despite all the efforts of the last two decades to smother it forever. The light was so bright that it hurt, even though the glass dome adjusted its polarisation to protect our mere human eyes.

“Contact sir,” reported one of the soldiers at a terminal, interrupting our ecstasy of illumination, “major gravity wells detected, and the sun – the star – well, it’s not just one sun, sir.”

A screen unfolded in the centre of the room above a round conference table, showing in live time what the arrays could now detect of the space around the Earth. The Earth lay in the middle of the image and new details were sketching in as the equipment translated the signals they received from the instruments outside and beyond. Seeing a model of our home planet without its moon was strangely shocking given how long it had been since we’d known its presence. Something ingrained I guess, “our planet has a moon” is locked in tight to my sense of what this planet is, or was supposed to be. That clearly wasn’t our sun, and the sketch made that much clearer than just by looking upward. Now that the screen had polarised enough you could just make out that instead of a single bright orb in the sky, there was another fainter one – I could almost have mistaken it for a moon if I wasn’t surrounded by people determined to layer in as much detail as possible.

“A full picture will take longer sir, but we’re getting immediate hits from all ground-based astronomy and it looks like some satellites that we’d lost contact with are coming back online.”

“Tactical systems active?”

“Yes sir. Project Petbe fully online, including orbital systems.”

“Project Petbe?” asked Scoro. We’d been pretty much ignored since the sky opened like a flower, but it was clear that significant action was about to occur, and we’d had enough of being bystanders. Plus, our newly assumed ranks of scientist people surely gave us some kind of voice.

“Petbe, ‘god of revenge’. Whatever comes at us now, we’ve got a good chance of taking out,” Stallford said absently, his attention entirely on the display before us, now coming to life and filling in with more and more detail. Fuck me, another Egyptian god-named project. Whoever started this off had a real fixation with the ancient civilisation – it had lasted for thousands of years after all, and we could barely claim a few hundred, so maybe it was something to aim for. And now, encountering something cosmic and beyond humanity for the first time, we’d made a plan to fuck it right up if we didn’t like it. Honestly, it makes me want to scream sometimes.

Three stars, that’s what the machines were seeing anyway. A trinary system, with three stars orbiting each other in a tight pyramidic loop. It was genuinely hard to even think while looking at this stuff – we’d been locked away for twenty years of death, disaster and failure and now the universe looked completely different. This obviously wasn’t our solar system, I mean: duh. More details flickered into life, tentatively marking out gravity wells and more impossible cosmic features came into focus: eleven other planets, varying widely in mass, plus ours – all strung out in a single ring encircling the stars. Which was nuts. In a solar system like our old one we’d all had separate orbits, but here we all followed the same track. To say it was beyond my comprehension really added nothing to the conversation, so I just watched the soldiers do their stuff.

“Sir, we think the Earth has begun to rotate again,” called out a really sweaty and excited guy down at the front, “the other gravity wells have started us turning – we’ll have day and night again.”

Every shock seemed greater than the last, but the idea that we might have day and night once more was overwhelming. I hadn’t even realised that I’d taken Gex by the hand, or that Scoro’s hand was clamped tight on my shoulder.

“Begin communication protocols,” ordered Stallford. A brand new array of lights and displays burst into life as the Earth beamed out greetings to the new heavens. I was still reeling from being in daylight again. Granted it wasn’t the Earth’s gentle-seeming Sun, but a whiter, brighter light presumably resulting from the trio of stars freshly irradiating us. I wondered where we might get sun tan lotion from. Or sunglasses for that matter.

“No incoming transmissions received sir,” reported back half a dozen of the soldier-technicians, “no contact that we can detect.”

Why bring us to this bizarre artificial place if they weren’t going to talk to us?

“All right then, over to you Doctor Quince,” said Stallford expectantly. He and Lindsmane turned to us. Fuck… What had Project Tutu been doing here? Sure, they were building a safe future in case we never came out of the shell and the rest of the Earth died, probably tapping the geothermal depths of the world to keep their Unity going until the Earth cooled – millions of years to wait and figure something out. But they’d also been able to reach out to us as we drove around, lost. That had been Doctor C plus the entire parasite community downstairs. There were just three of us, and no fucking way was I going back into the Unity again.

“Well, yes. Obviously we’re ready to make an attempt,” Scoro stepped up, with a greater sense of self-preservation than me. “We’ll need a few moments to prepare. You have somewhere for us to sit.” Plainly that was a question, but it sounded like an order. My friends were slipping into their newfound roles nicely.

“Of course, we have a dedicated workstation for you right here.”

Bang in the centre of the room. Four neat little couches slid out from under the conference table over which the visualisation of our new solar system sprawled. At least they definitely expected us to be doing this using the parasites. It was all going so well, right up until this point where we had no fucking clue what we were doing. In fairness to Corporal Lindsmane, he’d held his peace for us up to now, and I can see how the current situation – making contact with an unknown alien presence on behalf of the whole planet – might make him a bit leery of letting three people he’d basically scraped off the street and who he knew were impersonating official science types take the lead here.

He did the soldier thing and drew his sidearm on us. “Just hold it right there.”

“Corporal, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Demanded his superior, suddenly alert to a new threat in the room.

“Excuse me, Colonel, but there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding. These people aren’t who they’re claiming to be. They’re the three refugees we brought in with us – those aren’t their ID badges.”

The air felt electric with tension, and everything moved in slow motion as the soldiers around us reacted to this new danger that was in the room with them. Who knows what they’d been told about Project Tutu and what its subjects might be capable of. Very possibly more than we had. I sensed that this would be a difficult situation to talk ourselves out of, especially now that the soldiers had spotted the blood spattered over Gex’s coat and taken proper account of our rather scruffy demeanour and unscientific looks of fear on our faces. There were a lot more guns pointed at us than I was comfortable with. More than none made me very uncomfortable.

“Where is Doctor Charbroly?” asked Stallford, leaving his own weapon holstered. He didn’t need it, one more bullet hole would make little difference to how dead we got. Although, a thought whispered in the back of my mind, as long as they weren’t head shots, we actually might not die… I felt we had a couple of options, neither of them good: keep lying, or tell the truth. I made a choice, with a thought of apology at me friends.

“Doctor Charbroly is dead. They’re all dead.” Well, that got the exact reaction I expected as the sound of safety catches coming off clicked in the quiet. “They went too far, and the parasites got out of control. It’s just parasites down there now – they’ve taken over. We’re the only ones left.” All true, except the parasites were them, but I reckoned that was a subtlety that only made sense if you’d just killed a bunch of people and found out they were still alive. “If you want Project Tutu to make contact, we’re the only ones who can do it.” Which gave me another question – how would the parasite garden below be able to talk to anyone else – how did you talk to them if you weren’t one of them. I guess you could plug a phone into the network, or something. Give them new bodies? I shuddered, none of that would help us right now.

Stallford looked radically unimpressed.

“We can do this,” I assured him. “We’re networked and trained in exactly the same way as the rest of the project. We just had to get out of there–“ I gestured at Gex’s splash of blood and indicated our general bedragglement, “–down there they’ve been physically integrating the parasites outside the human body. They’ve been killing the subjects to advance the project timetable. We’re more use to you outside the project than killed by it.”

That was almost certainly true, and it seemed to have some weight. Clearly Stallford had met some of the sociopaths running Project Tutu and this didn’t seem wholly unlikely.

“I never did trust in nanotech solutions,” muttered Stallford, “you get one attempt. But if you sabotage this, we’ll know, and we’re fully authorised to use deadly force to defend this planet.”

We edged warily around the still-raised weapons and eased ourselves into the couches. I didn’t feel fantastic about closing my eyes while surrounded by paranoid, gun-toting soldiers. Still, we had run out of options. I lay back and slid into the interchange between our ownworlds. Gex and Scoro emerged from their ownworlds, fading into reality like shadows filled by a can of spray-paint.

“Shit man, what the actual fuck?” Scoro had the right questions, but we didn’t have time to mess about.

“Look, we’re about to get killed for real if we don’t come up with something. This lot, Project Nut,” (for fuck’s sake, couldn’t they have found some cooler god names for these projects?), “are going to be as happy to shoot the shit out of us as they are to launch a missile or whatever into the nearest planet. Our best chance is to try something.”

“You want to do what Doctor C did when they reached out to you before?” Gex asked.

“Yep. We don’t have five hundred or so oneirocytes in train that we can use to boost the signal, but we’re better at this than they are. Look what we’ve already been able to do – they built wank little wooden chalets, we built worlds – all on our own. It took the whole weight of their Unity to yank us out of the real world, but we did it with just the three of us.”

“All it takes is a little imagination…” suggested Scoro.

“Exactly that. If we can imagine it here, make it real, we can replicate what they did, and more.” I was increasingly convinced of it. Whether I really believed it, or was just desperate enough to think I did wasn’t really important. We were in an imagined space, and whatever we imagined was real here became true. If there was something out there that could hear us, even while they ignored radio signals and whatever other crap the Nut people were banging out there, then we should – we could – reach them.

Even as I was talking, Gex’s world was rising up through the white dust of my ownworld, man-sized cogs and engines revolving. Scoro’s architecture grew up around it, like frost crystallising on a window pane. I added to it, tree trunks spiralling around the tower as it twisted up into the sky. We infused it with our sense of selves, laying hands on the structure and feeling some vital matter of ourselves extend throughout its structure, laced with a desire, an overwhelming wish to communicate. Together we receded from the world, attaining that gods’ eye view I’d experienced when Project Tutu combined their resources to reach just a few hundred miles to a mind like theirs. We perceived the bubble of ownworld existence – a complete universe with no limits, no outside, only the world itself – and pierced it. The tower, a twisting spire of our three combined worlds – part stone, machine, and imaginary organic life all deeply interwoven and suffused with our sense of selves. I could almost feel the oneirocyte moving inside my real world skull. It was a nauseating sensation, but one that told me our actions here did have a direct impact outside. As the spire pierced the fabric of the ownworld’s reality it slid into the real world, invisibly punching through the Earth’s atmosphere and crying out into space.

For a seeming eternity we poured our attention and hope into that spire and out into the universe beyond ourselves. It was cold, and dark out there. Were we feeling the actual touch of vacuum inside our minds? And then, at last, something heard us. It was like walking in the woods and catching a glimpse of something, squinting to make it out and then suddenly realising it was a thing with eyes which opened and looked back at you. A feeling of immensity washed over us, making the spire shudder and shaking us back into our ownworld bodies at the foot of the tower. We stepped back, no longer needing to touch the structure since we had created it and the oneirocytes had locked it into existence. Way up where it penetrated the boundary of our ownworld space, there was a distant whistling, as if the atmosphere was being sucked out through the hole way up in the sky. Well, we’d done something all right.

Perhaps not the right something as I woke back into the real as the shock of a slap across my face smacked my head back in the headrest. Lovely, another fucking gun in my face, and Stallford shouting, “what did you do?” while frantically leaning over his underlings’ consoles. Whatever we’d done had made the observatory break out with noise – shouting from one desk to another, running back and forth. It was Lindsmane who had his gun in my face this time, and two more soldiers were aiming at Gex’s and Scoro’s faces as they too lurched back into reality.

“Woah! We did what you asked – we said ‘hello’,” I cried, hands up as is traditional in these situations. It failed to have the impact I’d hoped for, which was to see the gun move away.

From across the room: “We have definite contact, there’s a… shape… a spaceship,” (you could hear the extreme reluctance to commit to that in the soldier’s voice), “it appeared on radar out of nowhere, and it’s headed our way.”

The display screen that we were seated around was still updating with detail and this new object appeared on the board. Diamond-shaped, or like a long tear drop with all curves rendered into brutal sharp lines. From the display it looked like it was about half the size our moon used to be.

“It’s just smashed through the satellite grid,” another soldier reported, “satellite field epsilon is gone – just gone. It’s coming in fast.”

“Launch countermeasures,” snapped Colonel Stallford, “Project Petbe approved, authorisation Alpha-Zero, commit on my mark.”

I almost suppressed a snort at the ridiculous military procedural stuff they came out with, but it sounded a lot like…

“Wait,” I shouted, “Are you seriously planning to attack that thing? Are you a fucking idiot?”

This was unwelcome feedback from an untrusted source. I might have pushed it a bit too far, but I was terrified that we were about to start a war with something so far outside our experience it was a joke. Stallford wheeled round and drew his own sidearm, adding it to Lindsmane’s. Cool, I’d be double-dead.

“We’ve been uprooted from our solar system, most of Earth’s population is dead, they’ve killed our planet, and now they’re wiping out our satellite imagery and weaponry. That–” he pointed at the angular spacecraft grinding its way into our atmosphere, “–that is an immediate threat, and we will deal with it.”

We couldn’t let this happen. I submerged once more into the ownworld, this time maintaining my presence in the real. The overlaid worlds were confusing to say the least. In the real world I heard someone, probably Stallford say, “Mark, open fire, all Petbe assets.”

As he spoke I saw Gex and Scoro lunging out of their couches, pistols raised to track them, opening fire. In the ownworld I laid a hand on our spire and whispered, “Help,” as I too threw myself forwards, aiming to tackle Stallford. These were terrible plans: three idiots against a trained military unit, but sometimes you just have to do something, because doing nothing is unthinkable. This time we got a clear response. The observatory rang like a bell that had been struck. In one fell swoop all the soldiers collapsed where they stood or sat, their shots going happily awry as Gex, Scoro and I fell through where our intended targets had been and stumbled against the floor.

“Fuck, that was close,” hissed Gex. I didn’t reply: I was looking up. The needle point of the spacecraft was directly overhead, pointing down at the exact centre of the dome. It didn’t even leave a shadow – the suns’ light passed right through it. It was like looking at a rock made of soap bubbles. It was awesome. The dome rang again, and the glass crazed instantly and collapsed into powder that rained down on us harmlessly.

We’d made contact with someone, something greater than us, and it was waiting for us – just hanging there in the air. Gingerly we sat back in our couches. I was painfully aware of the bullethole right where I rested my head. We sank back into the ownworlds, and that’s where we finally met the Vaunted.

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

It had been a rather dramatic day: someone tried to open my skull, we’d killed a bunch of people, discovered a horrorshow nursery for extracted brains who could basically walk around, walked up far too many stairs – I swear I can feel them in my knees to this day – to find the shell splitting open at last, nearly got shot by soldiers, and finally we made contact with the godlike aliens who’d started it all. I reckon all the people in charge at Project Tutu and Project Nut, and probably everyone who’s ever been in charge anywhere, would have been horrified at the idea that it would have been the three of us absolute nobodies who made first contact with the aliens. Ha, well fuck them. Say, are you sure you don’t want me to find a doctor? Well, I guess you’d know best. I’d love to know how this all happened for your lot, the Alometh. For us, we first spoke with the Vaunted after an absolute clusterfuck of a day – hell, a clusterfuck of a couple of decades. It sure wasn’t the smooth and urbane diplomatic meeting that anyone had envisaged. I certainly hadn’t expected it to take place inside our heads. But, as it turned out later, the Vaunted don’t really have a proper physical form. Not any more, anyway. Although it’s unclear quite how that came about. The giant soap bubble spaceship that had entered Earth’s atmosphere was just a thin weaving of membranes that they claimed was a side-effect of their mental culture intruding on the real universe. Wild stuff, man. You know, it would be really great to get these bits of glass out of my face some time. I stood up and looked through the little square window set into each of the double doors that had led into the ward, or waiting room or whatever this was. Nothing. Very quiet outside, or very busy somewhere else I supposed. With a sigh, I slumped back down in my chair, wriggling a bit to regain the comfortable slouch I’d achieved before.

The stuff that had been oozing out of the Alometh’s sort-of-face had slowed which was probably a good sign – not bleeding is usually a positive – and had pooled stickily under their chair. Someone’s clean up job was going to suck. God knows what solvents you need for dissolving the product of a species whose body chemistry is only barely analogous to Earth’s. Still, vinegar and baking soda might well do the trick. It was funny how some things like that seemed to have universal application. It was the same in making contact with the Vaunted. All those radio waves and stuff just didn’t interest them – they weren’t looking for them, didn’t hear them, might not even have a “thing” that let them sense them. No ears, no radar dishes, just those mad barely-existing space shapes. What we had in common was minds. It made a sort of sense: there are a load of insane sounding quantum effects that relate to change apparently caused by observation. The presence of an observer appears to make things happen, and the most observant you can be is to be self-aware, observing both the universe and yourself. We’d been sentient, conscious and aware for thousands – hundreds of thousands, more? – of years, and as a species (speaking on behalf, ahem, of Project Tutu) we’d been attaining mastery of our consciousness in a much more purposeful way, properly exploiting the curious duality of human experience: our waking and dreaming worlds. Maybe the people who set up Project Tutu had suspected all along that the mental “plane” was going to be the only way to interact with aliens, that language would fail us, as would trying to construct a shared reality based on maths or music. Or maybe they were just an end-times cult who killed all their cultists to escape this world forever – just on a much bigger budget than most cults.

Either way, as we slid back into the ownworld, standing at the foot of our “hello tower” (calling it a communications spire or something just sounded so much like pretentious bollocks I couldn’t bring myself to do so. It’s not like we knew how it worked, not yet anyway), the diamond spaceship appeared in the sky above us – we had invited it in, after all. It slid down over the spire (dammit) we had constructed, like it was just the right shape to dock with. Maybe it was a coincidence and they would have landed anywhere, maybe it we’d stumbled on the perfect interface. Who knew. That sort of issue remained mysterious, still does – imagination fused with intention takes the idea of intuition to the next level, and even though we can control these mental realms, the synthesis of these powers creates something much greater than the individual parts. Presumably the Vaunted in their bubble ships had figured this stuff out. Watching the tower slip smoothly inside the ship, or the ship bending around the tower really did look like bubbles sliding down the outside of a bottle. It looked exactly the same as it had in the real world, but smaller, resized to match us perhaps. It didn’t stop its progress down the tower, but kept going until it almost disappeared into the ground, its weird-shaped bubbles fading out of existence until the remaining structure of its shape visibly popped, inverting and revolving, transforming itself into a shape we could recognise and interact with. A weird little soapy human, one you could see right through and who was made up of those swirling rainbow shapes, but nonetheless – very definitely a human form.

It was an awkward first meeting. Obviously we were super-impressed with bumping into an alien, especially one that seemed comfortable in the special place that we’d only just learned about ourselves, but it had been quite an overwhelming day. For a little while we just stared at it, while the Vaunted bubble-man took their time, having a good old look around them at my ownworld. I gave the trees a little extra spin and tried hard not feel like I should be tidying up, or making it more impressive. It felt exactly like having your mother visit the absolute shithole you’ve been living in and kicking stuff under the sofa while she’s looking in another direction. Eventually its attention returned to us. How do you start a conversation? It was like we’d never been in one before. All the questions were drowned under the weight of figuring out how to say “hello”. In the end, of course, that’s exactly what I said, once it was looking at us again, cobbling sentences together from movies I’d once seen.

“Er, hello… there. Welcome to Earth. We’re not – uh – in charge, I mean we’re not the government or anything, but you know, it’s nice to meet you.”

Honestly, the look Gex gave me should have made me shrivel up into a husk of a man. Still, it was enough the energise the alien into conversation.

“Your presence is sufficient. Greetings and welcome. Minds are rare and worthy of preservation. We sense others here, beneath your space.”

Ah, the parasite farm down under. “Yeah, they’re a bit weird. You might want to talk to them later.”

“Very well. There have been intrusions. The fracturing of space. Crypt-space must be repelled. Hence your salvation. Soon you will join the fight.”

Well that was a lot all in one go. All the words were fine, mostly, though “crypt-space” didn’t sound remotely good.

“Right – um. Sorry, what does that mean, like, any of it? And who are you?”

It’s funny, we’ve known them as the Vaunted for long enough now that it feels like their name has fallen back through time and we’ve been calling them this for all eternity. It should be obvious that it isn’t really their name – minds don’t have names, they just have selves. No one calls themself by their name inside their own head, unless we’re really trying to gee ourselves up for that job interview, date, or just to get out of bed. The Vaunted don’t have names because they don’t have physical form that needs labelling. They just are who they are, but fuck me do they like to brag when they get a chance. And we gave them that opportunity. It wasn’t that their English wasn’t great – they were literally visiting us in our ownworlds, inside our minds and sharing that reality was constructing the structures of shared language as a simple by-product of existence. They just didn’t really like using words. The Vaunted like pictures, they like memories and they like to show, not tell.

The bubble-man nodded sagely, like he was really thinking hard about my questions. Then he looked directly at each of us in turn – as much as you can look at someone with eyes that are just more bubbles – and the ownworld folded up around us like an origami flower, except it wasn’t a flower, it was space. Or… not space, it had taken us into its own ownworld. We never found out if that’s what they call their mental realm. I guess it’s just “home” to them. The world was made of glittering light, shapes barely sketched in and visible only as gleaming membranes where the light struck them, or rather where light was produced, since there was no sun, no lights here. Light was intrinsic to the shapes and forms the Vaunted created. Pretty cool place. We stood an angles to each other, hanging in space. I suppose up and down are things for petty mortals like us. The bubble-man was still with us, and with a gesture something that was like a three dimensional film began to play in the space between and around us. That’s a deep understatement: it was as much like a 3D film as seeing a bird in the sky is like seeing the world from that bird’s point of view. That’s a terrible metaphor, but we weren’t just seeing the film, we were getting the original viewer’s perspective. And with their view came their thoughts, feelings and beliefs both about what we were seeing and everything that had led them to that point. In the same way that when I see a flower I can recognise what it is, I’ve also got a tonne of conceptual understanding: I know what flowers are, I know what this specific flower is called, where it is, how it got there – a decent grasp of the reproductive cycle of a flower, that bees like it and so on. Plus, I’ve got all my memories of other flower-related incidents, and all the feelings I’ve got when I see this flower, both from the flower and from whatever I’ve been doing that’s leading me to the point where I’m staring at this fucking flower. What I had for breakfast, fretting about not knowing enough about flowers, a vague sense of shame for something I did twenty years ago – basically everything that’s in my head up to the point of looking at a goddamn daffodil. It’s a lot. And we got all of that from the Vaunted, every bit.

I could feel my brain reeling, the oneirocyte racing to keep up with the apparent conversion of our minds from human to Vaunted – new senses, new modes of thought, emotions we didn’t have. We saw the universe as they saw it (fucking massive), felt how they did (incomparably arrogant, to be honest), knew what they did (not quite as much as they wanted, or needed to, not for what they were up to, but an hilariously greater grasp of the cosmos than we had). I felt like I was cartwheeling through time, unfamiliar dimensions and perception of past and future bleeding upward into each other, infusing my present with their past. It wasn’t entirely pleasant: if I’d been doing this in my body I’d have been vomiting constantly, and I was a little concerned that my poor body might well be bleeding from its eyes and ears, with a little pop-up box of a skull that my oneirocyte had leaped out of. But we saw it all. In retrospect, maybe we should have told the Vaunted to deal with Project Tutu, because there were loads of them and they were connected not just to each other, but to governments and all sorts of very important people, and had some proper science training – I’m just a gardener who got into admin. But the Vaunted only ever spoke directly to the three of us. Yay, isn’t it great to be special. As our heads turned inside out, we saw what they wanted us to see.

The Vaunted had been living in an immaterial reality for eons. I don’t think they even remembered having physical forms, though they still played with these rainbow membranes, stretched across star systems, chattering, thinking, playing in their mental realities, and, most importantly, tinkering with the fabric of space. Is this the problem with transcending physical reality? You start to not worry about it so much. The Vaunted seemed to think that since their version of ownworlds existed beyond the physical universe they might even survive the heat death of the universe, billions of years in the future. Because imagination, being a sort of real thing, in that it’s generated by physical objects, can clearly die along with the body. Although ideas can survive death, passed on to other minds, or just as books, it’s not the same as that idea being held by its originator. If the mind can truly escape the real world then it should be able to persist forever. And the Vaunted weren’t quite there. They had mostly forgotten about their bubble forms which still supplied the essential physical structure that they were projected out of, but it might eventually hold them back. Clearly, that wasn’t good enough.

Their big ownworld style innovation was a much more advanced version of what we’d stumbled on: make a thing in your mind and have it directly affect the real world. We all do this constantly, by speaking and acting, but if you could think a thing and make it real just by sheer force of will or desire, that skipped past the meat body and the need to figure out a way to build it with your monkey hands and proper physical materials. Like our hello tower. That had indeed entered the real world, as we discovered later. So the Vaunted went for it. If imagination and the mind were real things, then there must be some plane, or dimension of existence where they persisted. Cartesian dualism, the idea that body and mind are separate things that only happen to look like they directly affect each other, was the sort of problem that the Vaunted never gave up on like we did. You’ve probably guessed where this is going – I had my suspicions, largely because along with the images, insights and memories there was an undercurrent of shame, the kind where you know you’ve fucked up, but double-down and try to bluff through it: “Someone would have fucked up space, eventually, and you know – if they had done – then we’d have been cool with it, because it’s a brilliant idea that just went slightly awry. It’s definitely worth trying again (and we’re going to, so there, fuck you, you just don’t get it, man), and you totally would have done the same if you were half as good as we are,” was very much the vibe I got. Intergalactic super-minds who horribly, horribly fucked up, but were still by far the most powerful things in the galaxy.

The Vaunted had ripped open a hole in space. They’d been looking for the place where ideas go when the body that held them dies. Well, they found it. It turns out that consciousness is separate from the physical realm. Most of the time they do run side by side (Descartes would have been thrilled!), at least until an idea fades away or the body that had it stops (dies, usually). Those ideas and thoughts that have been orphaned rise “upwards”, I guess, in the Vaunted model, and slip out of that parallel thought-realm, into another dimension of space. It’s a realm filled with ideas and minds that have been divorced from reality. But it’s not just ideas – it’s a meta-universe – where ideas exist, and ideas of ideas exist. Everything that’s ever died – not just every idea and forgotten memory – but the dead self and everything it thought it was is there. They’re not doing anything, it’s just a repository for them, a library tomb for reality. We all go somewhere, right? If your body dies it gets recycled into compost or whatever, individual atoms and protons that have existed since the Big Bang, endlessly reused. Ideation doesn’t get recycled, it just gets dumped in another aspect of the universe. And the Vaunted found it, fucking idiots that they are. They found it by making a hole that they couldn’t close. The only thing the dead ideas are missing is matter. Matter is the physical component that lets them move, gives them a thing to be linked to, from which they can continue to exist in the universe. Basically, the Vaunted gave the dead a way to come back. Not zombies or anything like that. Maybe worse. As soon as they opened this rift and went for a look inside, dead ideas started to drift back into the real world. Given the chance, they instantly materialised, and in so doing sucked matter into that dead universe and more dead ideas and memories and things began to become real again. The Vaunted call it “crypt-space” – a realm of dead things that you should leave well alone, either through basic respect for the dead or out of a primal fear that if you break in and try to nick the corpse’s gold teeth it might well wake up and eat you (I don’t like graveyards). Well, now that the Vaunted had broken it open, everything that had died was coming to get us. Matter was never supposed to be in that realm, and as this mental space started to fill with physical stuff, it got lumpy and started making more holes in the universe. Those holes popped up in all sorts of places, but usually in places where minds existed, or had once existed – the places where the contents of this dead realm had likely come from. Maybe they were attracted to such planets where thinking minds existed. Maybe it was like a magnet from our side, dragging ideas back to life.

One of those holes opened in our solar system, twenty years previously. They’re not good – they’re spots where there’s too much matter in the dead world, and as soon as they’re open and pouring into space, they start sucking more matter in. Space gets fucked up. So the Vaunted, recognising that they had fucked up to a staggering, universal degree and couldn’t close the rift, did the only thing they could: rescue the planets of sentient life who were about to be consumed by this over-ambitious cosmic tinkering. Superb celestial mechanics that they are, they moulded space around the threatened worlds and moved them all – just reached out and seized them. Moved them here, into this unnatural orbit around an impossible trinary star cluster.

They definitely expected us to be grateful that they’d saved us from a hole in space that would have wrecked our solar system. In fact, by now our solar system was likely gone, consumed by the emergence from crypt-space of dead things given physical form once more, by the Vaunted, if somewhat indirectly. And yeah, it’s nice to be saved from a genuine existential threat to our survival, but the Vaunted didn’t once think to warn us, or check if we were OK. They just swooped in and grabbed us, and unwrapped us here – we were the opposite of an unwanted gift, a gift that didn’t want what it had been given to. They certainly didn’t expect us to be angry.

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-One (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

If you’ve ever wondered if you can have a migraine in your dreams, I can assure you that it’s entirely possible when some alien fucker has made you review their top ten worst ideas imaginable, from their perspective. I really hoped the feeling wouldn’t continue back in the real world, but I had the impression that it was partly my flexible little mind adapting to the new sensations that had been fed back into it – I was fairly sure I could still smell x-rays – and partly the oneirocyte nesting in my brain going into overdrive. That in itself was a thing that had been troubling me more in the scant free moments between chaos and drama since we’d woken up with scalpels and bonesaws hovering over our faces. Which hell, must have been about three hours ago. Sometimes days are so long, plus we’d spent a subjective decade or so reviewing the epic fuckupery of the Vaunted. I guess that was enough time for my fears about the oneirocyte to be running in the background, waving its hand politely for attention with increasing impatience. Since we’d dropped out of the Vaunted’s surreal projection of their experiential memories, the bubble-man had apparently lost interest in us and was wandering around, peering into the deep clear lagoons, observing the neat little model of evaporation and cloud-formation I’d vaguely recalled from school. Perhaps it was giving us a moment to gather our thoughts, recognising that we might be a tad overwhelmed, or maybe it didn’t really give a fuck and was genuinely interested in the fabric of someone else’s ownworld. Who knows. Either way, from the glazed and stunned expressions on my companion’s faces and the migraine that had kicked into full gear, fracturing both my immediate perception into shards of glass, and carving up my internal attention (along with the drill-like headache bearing outward on all of this), I had a little time to do some extra fretting.

The oneirocytes – the nano parasites had been developed to ultimately enable us to ditch these meat bodies and live on with our awareness fully intact and, in theory at least, live on forever in a little bundle of steel wool, cavorting endlessly in our imaginary realms. That’s all fine, we’ve all seen enough entertainment about virtual realities and the unlikely possibility of uploading our minds into a big computer on the moon, or something. A lot of that was about jacking into the nervous system and replicating all the sensory inputs so the subject would experience all of the virtual reality directly in their body. Or, some intensive brain scanning that copied every neuron and position of every little electric spark in the hunk of head-jelly you used for being yourself. Both were complicated and high-intensity to say the least, and had been dismissed as science fiction nonsense by anyone serious. The oneirocytes were different: once implanted, the parasite got to work breaking down the barrier between unconscious and conscious, gaining access to the whole functioning mind, and granting that access to its host. After that it just kept going, burrowing into every facet of the brain, each fold, wrapping itself into every cortex and lobe in the skull. There it slowly replaced the physical fabric of the brain, swapping itself for each cell and taking over its function. Eventually there would be nothing left inside the host’s skull but a densely-wound ball of grey nanofibers which precisely replicated the brain’s function. And it would have been done so slowly that the subject’s total consciousness, memory and everything would be preserved, simply running off a different lump of matter in the noggin. Very cool. Very scary.

It wasn’t exactly what Gex, Scoro and I had thought we’d signed up for when we nicked a bunch of the parasites. Always read the fine print, I guess. Except the fine print had only been available from the very top tier of Project Tutu. I found it hard to believe that everyone else whose new grey brains had been scooped out and stored in the brain garden inside the mountain had done so with complete knowledge of what was coming. But maybe they did – people are weird, the cult was pretty persuasive and the world did appear to be coming to an end. But we were only after the ownworld, the big cool dreaming experiment where you could build your own world and live in it when you wanted, when you were sick of the real world and just wanted to escape for a bit. But we’d come back for snacks and stuff. The real world might suck (thanks, Vaunted), but we hadn’t been looking for immortality and freedom from the tyranny of the flesh and the prison of the material world. All lovely concepts I’d picked up from our dalliance inside the mind of the Vaunted. Yet, here we were, with the oneirocytes busy swapping fibres for neurons. But not done yet… that much I was sure of – not even close. The self-awareness that the parasite gifted us, the grasp of our inner selves also gave me a measure of how much of myself was still meat and how much a weird carbon plastic. Not like a percentage or volume measurement, but I knew we hadn’t been accelerating on the trajectory that the project would have required. We hadn’t been there, hadn’t been following the programme, so the parasites hadn’t received the right input and training to enact the takeover. The only real difference had been the zygoptics and sheer fervour of Project Tutu. What we vaped encouraged that sense of Unity, but the stuff Hest had given us had been way more intense, made me feel I was lagging behind reality until I went into the ownworld. Just as well we didn’t have any more of that then… But they’d been willing to cut our heads open anyway, shake off the gross brain bits, and then what? Just take whatever bits the parasites had replaced, just the neural shell itself without the personality and memories? We were just spare parts, a gobbet of readymade artificial brainstuff that could be plugged into the network and used. Those total wankers.

Well, I was super glad that I’d taken a little time to worry about that. It wasn’t very reassuring, except that I felt a lot better about killing the twat-scientists who were going to cut us up. But it did leave me thinking that we needed to figure out how to negotiate with the parasites, who were actually just ourselves, but who could become ourselves. Was it any different to having a real brain? As long as there wasn’t a natural point where the oneirocyte replaced my whole brain, drilled holes in my skull and crawled out, then no… I really didn’t want that to happen. The Unity had drawn those bloody hunks of brain-wool out of their now useless bodies, and I liked the idea of that self-preservation, even if it was utter nightmare fuel, especially since I’d also got one of those. I didn’t think I was close to resolving this, but the screaming panic was subsiding.

My headache was fading too. The bubble-man had wandered further off, examining the trees and hopping oddly from foot to foot, dust falling from its toes. Their mental reality had none of this physical stuff in it, so perhaps it was enjoying the experience.

My friends seemed to have returned to themselves too.

“Those absolute fucks,” hissed Gex, “what did they think would happen when they ripped a planet out of its orbit, shoved in a box and kicked it halfway across the galaxy?”

“It’s their fault that everybody died, that our world is so utterly fucked,” Scoro added, seething.

We fully understood what the Vaunted had been saving us from, but they’d profoundly screwed up their rescue effort. Apparently noticing us re-engaging after the trauma of the Vaunted ownworld, the bubble-man was casually strolling back towards us. You might think that in chatting with a representative of a god-like alien species who had the power to toss planets hither and thither, and open a portal into a realm that only enlightenment lunatics had even postulated, that we might be a little cowed, respectful, god-fearing, and all that. It’s actually more like meeting a hero and discovering that they’re an utter prick. By showing us everything that had happened, and seeing it from the perspective of their quite-well-justified-but-actually-maybe-not arrogance, we’d come to know them in an intimate way, erasing all that bowing and genuflection. This god was an arsehole, and we knew it. Sure, they had power, but humans aren’t especially rational when they’re pissed off – as seen in countless wars, relationship breakups, and pub brawls.

Gex went straight for the fucker’s throat. Plainly not rational, since it was made of magic bubbles, and Gex’s closing fist popped its head clean off. We all froze in a moment of proper horrified panic that we hadn’t felt for, gosh – at least a couple of hours – as the bubble head bounced off Gex’s forearm and drifted down to lie in the dust. In our eyes was plainly written: “we’ve just killed a god”. Not cool, even if you are angry. But we were being idiots, humans still bound by the idea that the body matters at all. The bubble-body swayed a bit, straightened and another head bubbled up out of the top of its torso. I looked down. The decapitated head – I swear – raised an eyebrow and popped. A sensation of weight came from all directions and I recognised that the Vaunted was about to whisk us back into its mental plane, possibly for another insight into how you can be incredibly powerful and still a right bell-end, or to give us a psychic bollocking (if such a thing existed). I wasn’t up for that, and neither were the others. We stood our ground, in fact, rotated the ground, shifting us seamlessly from my ownworld into Scoro’s realm of soaring architecture. The bubble-man looked rather surprised, and more than a little put-out.

“No, we’re not fucking going fucking anywhere, until you explain what the fuck you want,” Gex continued, apparently having recovered both her nerves and vocabulary since nipping of its first head. “You lot and your cosmic fuckery have left our planet fucked beyond all recognition. Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Fuck it, take a look.”

The Vaunted had gifted us their experiential memories, and the great thing about doing something like that inside the ownworld is that the oneirocyte remembers it for you, which means you remember it too. Now we could share our experiential memories with the little rainbow bastard. I should note that it was really handy that the Vaunted had appeared in this form. If it had appeared as a mountain-sized dragon we might have treated it with a bit more respect, but in choosing to look a bit like us, it had dragged itself down to our scale, and we don’t like bullies. I’ve still got chunks of glass in my face to prove it.

We took the Vaunted on a whistle-stop tour of everything that had happened to the Earth since the hole in space opened between Saturn and Uranus. The panic when that inexplicable cosmic event had been discovered, the even greater panic when the Sun and Moon disappeared. Twenty years of crops failing, climate disaster (some of it self-inflicted – Project Petbe or fuckwit dictator with their attempts to nuke our way out the shell), mass species extinction, the dwindling birth rate, the billions dying across the globe, our retreat into domed cities – all the things we’d been avoiding thinking too hard about for twenty years, but now that we did, and now that we had someone to blame, we were livid – the desperation that drove us into self-destruction, empathy and sympathy eroded by years of our world failing around us, the death of hope. That was a lot too. A lot of stuff I hadn’t properly remembered, but we’d seen on the news, felt, or heard from our neighbours – the long march that had taken Scoro cross-country with all the dead he left behind before he wound up with us, the skin-crawling horror of what Project Tutu had tried to do to us… The latter was rather a let-down emotionally compared to everything else, but we’re human, and the grand sweep of history is less directly important than the last thing that scared the shit out of us.

We finally let the Vaunted’s avatar go. It might have been my imagination, but I thought the rainbow swirls in its shape had lost some of their colour and glow. Either way, it seemed we had impressed on it quite how shit a time we’d had, that material experience did matter actually (if you weren’t an immortal cloud of bubbles floating in space), and our absolute conviction that it was their fault. It took it quite well, but couldn’t help being itself. None of us can.

“Mistakes were made–“ Gex almost went for the little bastard again at that, and it hastened along “–but now safe. Repairs are available–“ loving the difference between reparation and repair “–there are friends here. A council of twelve, to aid, rebuild. And wage war.”

“The fuck did you just say?” I was entirely content for Gex to take the lead here in our negotiations with this immensely-powerful alien entity. She had exactly the tone that I’d have wanted to use. “Council of twelve – the other planets?”

“More saved worlds. Brought here for safety, and to defeat crypt-space.”

“Right. So let’s be clear: you ‘saved’ us, and eleven more planets of luckless bastards you scooped up and shat out here. And now you want us all to fight for you? Against dead things from a tomb of ideas?”

Great, we’d finally been freed from the shell and were going to be launched into a war against physics. How do you fight a hole? I didn’t understand then, of course, none of us did. The Vaunted, in saving these twelve planets had assembled a spectrum of intelligent life, from our ape-descended five-fingered idiots to minds that covered their whole world. And with that variety came a cornucopia of skills, technologies, ideas and modes of thought that the Vaunted believed could be leveraged into a defence against crypt-space, and ultimately a way to seal off that dimension entirely. Until they had another crack at accessing “safely”, naturally. While Earth was the only planet with life, intelligent or otherwise that we’d ever known, we’d had the vague idea that other intelligences and technologies would probably be somewhat similar – physics and chemistry being supposedly universal properties – but we were as wrong about that as we’d been about the world being flat. Life, and intelligence were common throughout the universe, but they didn’t last long. The galaxy is full of scary shit like life-giving suns being made out of atomic furnaces that go boom, black holes, cosmic rays that regularly fry entire worlds and sterilise them back to the bedrock. We’d been up and running as a proper civilisation for just a few thousand years. Other worlds, even of the eleven others daisy-chained around the trinary stars assembled by Vaunted, had their shit together for hundreds of thousands of years, maybe even longer, but most were young because we tended to get wiped out or annihilate ourselves (I had little doubt that we’d been in the second group, given a few more years). So the twelve here had been lucky to survive so long anyway, and doubly-luck that the Vaunted had saved us from their failed vanity project. We were all special, beyond our limited guesses of how the universe worked, and the Vaunted were going to link us all together so we could become something even greater: a tool for them to fix the holes in space.

With a total absence of contrition, the bubble-man assured us that we’d soon meet representatives from the other worlds and that a “great project” would be undertaken to restore our world to its near-former state of supporting life quite well. Yeah, “we” would soon meet more aliens. “Us? Just us three?” we’d asked, not having twigged that we were about to be inter-planetary ambassadors, purely because we’d been able to say “howdy” to the Vaunted. Yup, that was to be the case, though obviously we could bring in whoever we liked to do the actual work. Thank fuck for that. My grasp of how to cleanse an atmosphere of poison amounts to not farting in an elevator. The Vaunted left us after that, just popped out of our ownworld. We left Scoro’s architecture behind and went back into the real world. All around us, wind howled through the shattered open dome and it was freezing cold. The Vaunted’s bubble ship was still there, hovering over the mountain. Thankfully, they hadn’t actually killed all those nice soldiers who’d tried to kill us, and as they woke up we filled the colonel and his little team in on what was going on, what was going to happen, and that they needed to deal with the idea that we were sort of in charge. It wasn’t a short conversation.

So yeah – that’s what happened until the Vaunted finally rocked up and explained what the fuck was going on. So now we’re kind of a big deal – humans I mean. Some of us anyway. Turns out most things don’t dream – they’re either awake or they’re not – and don’t have that free-roaming imagination fucking up their day to day activities. It’s useful, and somewhat similar to how the Vaunted ended up the way they are – not just absolute pricks (I mean, I can totally see that direction for us if we ever really get it together as a culture), but inhabiting their bubble-space and dreaming of what their future might become. Me and my mates came down the space elevator that the Geshiiil helped us build while the Vaunted taught us how to dream things into reality, and the Li and Hellevance brought their vast environmental engines into the atmosphere and did stuff to the fabric of the air that we’d never have imagined possible. And now we’re on the frontline of the war against crypt-space. Jesus fuck, is that ever a goddamn nightmare. I guess you’ve been mixed up in that too – it doesn’t look like you just happened to bang your head on the doorframe, right?

At that moment the door to the ward slammed open, as they tend to do in hospitals when someone’s wheeling a gurney around and banging it through doors in dramatic television action. The doors smacked back against the walls and a trio of humans in serious hazmat gear burst in behind the gurney. It was a fancy one, with a containment field built into it and was plainly not human-shaped.

“Looks like they’ve come for you at last,” I said to the Alometh slumped in the chair, “hope they can sort you out – good luck.”

At that, one of the medical team spun round, apparently not having realised there was anyone else in here. Man, they’d forgotten about me completely, no wonder no one had come in with tweezers and antiseptic yet.

“What the hell are you doing in here?” the guy inside the really rather thick deadly environment suit demanded, sweeping around the gurney towards me.

“I got glassed in a pub, I’ve been waiting here since I arrived,” I explained, “pretty sure I’ve still got some glass in here–“ I gingerly probed the side of my head, “–be great to get that out.”

A look of repressed panic flushed across the man’s face. “And you’ve been here – next to that–“ he indicated the Alometh that his colleagues were levering awkwardly onto the gurney, chair and all “–for how long?”

“Dunno, couple of hours. Do you have something for headaches? I’ve got a corker coming on, and my face feels kinda numb.”

If he’d looked a bit worried before, now he was as pale as his suit. He snatched up the radio hanging off his belt, “Emergency in haz-ward two. Several hours of exposure to Alomethi death particles,” Well that sounded bad, “no, I’ve no idea why they’re in here.”

A flurry of activity erupted around me as more hazard-clad doctor types charged into the room, slapping breathing gear over my face and stuffing me into a wheelchair which they spun around and we headed off for those barely-closed doors.

“Ah man,” I called back to the guys with the Alometh, “is he not going to make it? We’ve been chatting for hours…”

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Two (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

I woke up a couple of days later in a much nicer medical ward. This one had windows, and I could see whichever of the trinary suns was closest. The sky was blue, a shade it hadn’t been for decades, and had taken a few years to sort out. I still remembered the sight of the Hellevance assembling their terraforming machines in the sky, like a massive honeycomb larger than the clouds. It appeared to work a lot like a vacuum cleaner. Seemed funny, because as someone who didn’t have an intimate grasp of atmospheric mechanics and the delicate balances of gases and moisture and so on, it was exactly the sort of solution I would have suggested (if anyone had asked, and really – why would they?) Anyway, it worked a treat, even if it took a full two years to run, sucking the crap out of the air. The honeycomb structures turned dark as they absorbed the poisons and filth we’d dumped into the atmosphere, and then the Hellevance did something clever with local space and the full hexagons folded themselves up and vanished, reappearing in orbit. What you and I might call toxins when we’re trying to breathe them invariably turn out to be incredibly useful elsewhere. In our new community of twelve planets in their artificial orbit, resources were to be hoarded and used. Nice vindication of the old “reuse, recycle, don’t kill your fucking world” ideas. Human civilisation had crashed through chaos in the final decade of the shell, and we were a shadow of our former selves. So many of the ideals that we’d hoped would see us through had fallen by the wayside of plain survival. But under-resourced efforts at survival lead to horrible short-term measures, all of which make the world even worse and harder to live in. The re-opening of the shell was great, but we needed a lot of help to put Humpty back together again.

Oh hey there. Sorry – didn’t spot you at first. Even now I’m not quite used to seeing a blue sky and fluffy white clouds again. And I never thought I’d see birds like this again. I don’t usually get a lot of time to stare out of windows, not down here on Earth anyway. Oh, right. I’m Evanith. I’m here because I spent a few hours inhaling dead Alometh. Apparently that’s a truly awful idea. Nah, I wandered into the wrong waiting room – with a concussion second left and third right sound all too similar – and like the fuckwit I am I didn’t click until they turned up with hazmat suits. Hell, I’d never met an Alometh before. Guess I still haven’t. Basically, when they die, all their inner goop dissolves into airborne particles – pollen, essentially – and they go and pollinate a new body. Seems half their species is kinda like a load of crops, so when the smart half dies, they go and fertilise a load more. I’m not sure whether it’s technically cloning, or if they’re all new people. So it was trying to fertilise me, going straight through my airways into the circulatory system, into the nervous system and up into my brain. Given a bit longer it might have worked, or more likely I’d have just corked it. But I’ve got an oneirocyte in my skull that rather jealously guards its domain. Lucky me. Also, it might crawl out of my skull one day, so there’s that… Ah, mechanical accident? Bad luck. I agree, having two arms is definitely better. “Pulled off by a machine?” Well, you don’t hear that sentence every day, that sucks. I’m sure they’ll sort you a new one easily enough. Ah – yeah, that Evanith. I know. I’m not really cool with the weird fame we’ve ended up with. Someone had to say hello first though, right, and that was me and the others. It’s true – I am not especially tall, particularly when lying down. Woah! No, I’d stay in bed right there if I were you. I flailed for the “nurse” button, and was quite relieved when a pair of impressively burly nurses, one with a whole extra set of manipulator augmentations hanging over his shoulders, pinned the one-armed guy back to the bed. Fame has not been what I’d thought it might be.

Those first few weeks after the shell came down and the bubble-ship entered our atmosphere, when we stopped Project Petbe from making an epic mistake, they were wild. Some of it was down to expectations, and how brutally they can be foiled. I guess I, and others, had felt that our main problem was the shell, that everything which its emergence had triggered – all the climate hell, social breakdown, species extinctions and the annihilation of our own species – would all be somehow solved by the shell just fucking off. Of course it didn’t, and the cold new light of day just laid bare how badly we’d fucked ourselves over in twenty years. It’s a special gift of humanity, trying to blame someone else for our fuck-ups. We’re like the Vaunted in more ways than one, though they didn’t quite blame someone else, they blamed the universe itself for being more complicated than they thought. A lesser species would just give up at that point, but not the Vaunted… Who, by the way, we rarely spoke to again after that rather fraught first meeting on the mountain-top. Clearly they thought we were going to be useful, but we’d impressed on them just how unimpressed we were by their fancy rainbow lights and immaterial existence. I figured they were just giving us space, but it turned out that very few of their rescued planets had regular contact with the Vaunted directly. Maybe they had realised they were a bit shit at it. Given their essentially immaterial nature, and preference for contact on the mental plane, humans were actually one of the few species they could communicate with directly and conveniently – with the three of us at least, at first anyway. For dealing with the Geshiiil and others they’d had to do more with bringing their rainbow membranes into the real and making a proper effort to chat. Maybe we were just too easy to talk to… Whatever, they’re kinda dicks anyway. We spoke with the other species much more, and that was probably the Vaunted’s intention – let a bunch of material races sort themselves out and then we could all do something about crypt-space. But that was to be several years off.

Given the state of our planet, other species came to us at first. The Geshiiil are great. They came from a solar system with about forty planets in it, all of which they’d had a fun time taking apart so they could use their raw materials to make their own world larger and cooler. In appearance they’re sort of like insects, or what lobsters would look like if their mum was an owl – clawed, feathery, tonnes of fingers and awesome eyes that worked like microscopes. If you thought having an arsehole in your eyes like we do was cool, this lot could focus down to almost the nanoscale. Like I said before, all our brilliant ideas about how other intelligences and life would behave were way off the mark. The Geshiiil were engineers – they loved it. Prefab, nano-extrusions, shit – you name it, they got it. They’re the ones who built a space station in Earth orbit and grew (if you watched it being constructed, “grew” is the only word you’d think to use) the space elevator that linked it with the planet below. Its base (where we found our drinking dens) spread out from a then-dead chunk of equatorial archipelago, which turned into the largest new city we had. When it was all up and running, that elevator never stopped, continuously used to ship materials to the surface – all the stuff we needed to bring our people back from the brink.

Once the space station was in place, the Geshiiil shipped the three of us up. I’d never been to space before, and I expected it to be all cool and floaty, but the Geshiiil were far too good for that sort of nonsense. There was certainly an unsettling shift in gravity as we reached the midway point, and stopped feeling like down was behind us and was instead pulling upwards, but you got used to that quickly. Unless, like Gex you’d always hated rollercoasters back in the old days. Similar sensation, but we got her fixed up with pills that helped, or we just spent the trip in our ownworlds and chose not to worry about the space around us. We stayed with it the first time, and personally, it never stopped being amazing. Rising up in the air and watching the landscape splay out around us. Depressing and amazing at first, of course because we could see just how dead much of the world looked. The sea was a grimy-looking thing. Of all the environments on Earth that had suffered by far the most. The Vaunted seemed to have enough empathy, or received enough of a bollocking from us and the other worlds to realise we would be doing precisely fuck all to aid their crypt-space problem until we had liveable environments again. Clearing the clouds and then the atmosphere felt extraordinary, white turning blue, turning black as the big ol’ blue and green marble (alright, dark grey and worryingly brown at first) came into view. And then the elevator vanished into the depths of the space station and the sights fell away.

For that first meeting, representatives of five worlds had been assembled to meet and greet us. Even now, there are a couple of planets like the Alometh whose people I’ve never met. From what the Geshiiil later told me, we weren’t the only civilisation that had taken a beating in the process of being rescued by the Vaunted. One planet, none of the other worlds even knew what its people had called it, had emerged from the shell burnt to the bedrock. No one knew for sure what had happened to it, and everyone just left it the fuck alone. A dead bead on our planetary necklace. Humans like for there to be someone worse off than them, because it means we haven’t hit rock bottom, but in this case it reminded me of how bad it could have been. At least ten percent of our species had survived… We’d already met the Geshiiil of course, as they crawled and flapped about setting up the space elevator, doing an excellent imitation of human language, albeit with a tendency for their tone to drop alarmingly between deep enough to make your bones vibrate and high enough to make your ears hurt. Bird-lobsters. What are you gonna do? They introduced us to a couple of people from Hellevance. That was a big shiny world three planets ahead of us in the ring. It was very hard not to feel totally overwhelmed by meeting people apparently made of gold who were nine feet tall with no apparent bones. Their planet wasn’t even their first, or the only planet they’d settled. Avid terraformers, they’d been planet-hopping from the homeworld for tens of thousands of years, practicing their art of making barren rocks into sweet second homes. They were hugely pissed off to have been taken out of a solar system that they’d only just begun to populate, and had been trying and failing to contact the rest of their star-spanning civilisation to no avail – apparently wherever the Vaunted had taken us, it was a long way from where crypt-space was making inroads on reality. Very nice though, and rather endearingly concerned about the state of Earth. They really, really liked getting their hands dirty and were eager to start fixing our fucked up atmosphere and poisoned oceans.

We spent quite a lot of time explaining that we were just three random folk with extra junk in our heads, and were absolutely not the government, or kings, or anyone with a clue. That didn’t especially faze them. The Geshiiil had already met some of the representatives of Earth’s surviving governments and didn’t seem very impressed. There had been a lot of “you can’t just” which might have been fair enough in the context of a planet struggling with its identity after twenty years of hell and now there were a load of aliens to batter our fragile little egos, but it really conflicted with the Geshiiil work ethic. The other worlds, like the Hellevance and Geshiiil, were very keen to get stuck in, but we had to slam the brakes on eventually, and get some more people up here who properly understood what the Hellevance meant when the said they wanted to re-oxygenate our oceans. Maybe we’d finally demonstrated our incompetence plainly enough, because the Geshiiil suggested we should assemble some kind of Earth council of our own. We were happy to make random decisions, but it did seem likely we’d fuck it up at some point, and there just had to be some people better able to do it back down on Earth.

At that stage, it felt like we had little to offer, beyond a broken planet. But that’s when the Li piped up, enquiring about our oneirocytes. Whatever function the Vaunted played in getting the worlds to cooperate, part of it had clearly been by tipping the others off that we did indeed have something special to take a peek at. We were the last planet to have been slotted into place in the chain of worlds – it wasn’t clear whether that was because we’d been dragged the furthest, or if there was a sensible order to how the worlds had been unshelled. The Geshiiil had been one of the first to emerge, that was for sure. It made a sort of sense – uber-practical, gregarious and intensely sociable – they were great ambassadors for the Vaunted to send off to check out the other planets. Very happy to share their technology and deeply enthused by seeing others take their engines and explore the tech in different ways. The corps of human engineers and mechanics they eventually recruited virtually worshipped them. However it had all been done, the Vaunted had made it known that of all the assembled worlds, only the humans on Earth had come closest to what the Vaunted themselves had done in shifting their existence into the mental plane, the one nearest to the hell of crypt-space. So we found ourselves useful, at last. While Earth put together a functional world government, very much assisted by the Lesveds who looked reassuringly similar to humans, even if they could only live on other worlds immersed in tanks of blood-red liquid and had no toes or fingers… Basically, if you squinted and ignored all the weird shit, and were willing to put on headphones that shut out the outside world, letting you hear them whisper to you, they were lovely, solicitous and turned out to be into governance structures and representation. From what I heard later, their watery world had been through a series of truly brutal and apocalyptic wars from which they’d emerged with very clear views about how to not eradicate yourselves.

Oh yeah, the Li. They were the first to get into the oneirocyte technologies. Again, fascinating bunch, or whatever the word is for a bunch, singular. Over millions of years, the Li had taken over everything on their homeworld. Everything organic on the planet was Li. The planet was called Li, the fish-equivalents were called Li. So were the trees and the grass. Every living cell had Li in it, and they were all connected, constantly chattering to themselves, or itself rather. It was all one big mind, but that didn’t stop it from talking to itself and behaving more like a massively-cooperative ecosystem. They’d apparently thought it would be fun to come to this meeting in the form of one of their native species which was close enough to a walking banana to make me feel vaguely hungry. They’d leveraged the tendency of bacteria-like organisms to invade other cells and had just done that, a lot. They could have come as a potted plant I supposed, but the banana-form also had senses and the features I’d expect from a radio, so it could talk to us too. They were very interested in the oneirocytes because they didn’t seem that different to how the Li themselves had evolved and spread – initially parasitic, but eventually becoming the thing it had once parasitised. The parts of it that lived in the oceans still lived how the fish-things had done, but talked like Li. Their internal communication was a little like talking to yourself as a result, but they firmly inhabited their world. They were most curious about the idea of living in another world of their own creation.

But there were only three of us, and if we were going to try and teach the Li, and other species about the oneirocytes, we’d need some help – a lot more oneirocyte users for one thing, and the technology to make more of them. We didn’t want to mention the sprawling mess of parasites deep down in the mountain, where the experts slash murderers were. We didn’t want them to have any part of this, but we did need more oneirocytes to play with. We knew there was a case down there somewhere, the one that Gex had nicked originally. Fuck. We were going to have to go back into that goddamn bunker and try not to get killed.

Stolen Skies Meta-Nanowrimo 2022, 2

Nanowrimo target achieved, and yet…

I smashed through the nominal Nanowrimo 50,000 word target on Saturday, with Stolen Skies, Part Twenty-One – one short novel completed! I’d been agonising about this for a couple of days, since I knew I wouldn’t have finished off the story I’ve been telling in 50k, and I wasn’t sure quite what I felt about that. On the one hand, absolutely hurray: I haven’t written like this for ages, and you know what kids, I can still bash out an unedited heap of words in rapid succession that, if you squint, definitely looks like a fun unpolished story. Many thanks to my four dedicated readers for making me feel like I’m a proper writer and everything. On the other hand: what’s the point in just ending a story when I haven’t reached the end…? Nightmare scenario basically.

I’ve been able to get up and write a few thousand words each day far more easily than I can get up to go and do exercise, so plainly this is really very good for something deep inside, the artist locked up in my bony garret is having a fine old time. I figured maybe I needed another ten or fifteen thousand words to round the tale off properly. And then the possibility of just starting a sequel winked at me lasciviously from the back of my mind. God damn it.

In the end, part twenty-one does wrap up the story, in that it brings us all the way (pretty much) from the future point that the story begins with (Evanith getting glassed in a pub), and then has a 50,000 word flashback to see what’s led him to that point. Which I can argue to myself is at least part one of a story complete. Spoilers, we finally meet the Vaunted by the end of 21, we see what’s going on with him in the present, but I was u5nable to resist putting a bit of a cliffhanger in.

Stolen Skies

And, as I knew it probably would, that cliffhanger was for me, not the reader, teasing and tempting me to get up reasonably early on a Sunday morning and write more tasty words. Which I duly did. Part Twenty-Two is really the start of the next phase of the story as I see it. This phase probably won’t turn out to be as long as the first section, but it’s got lots more aliens and hopefully will explain what happens both in between the Vaunted showing up and Evanith getting glassed, and I’d like to get into the ensuing war against (spoilers) afterwards. I’ll just have to see how I get on. Rather than portentously name the next bit a whole new book Dead Skies, for example, I’m just gonna keep going. Partly it’s because the prospect of starting with a blank page is appalling, whereas this Word doc now has 54,865 words in it, and that proves an enormous esteem and encouragement boost first thing in the morning. Still, worth knocking out a new bit of AI cover art for.

So, onwards into the coming tide of destruction. Enjoy! If you’ve been reading it, I’d love to hear (mostly positive, this is just for fun) feedback and what you’ve thought so far.

Stories are just fun to tell

I’ve been realising a lot during this writing month. It’s making me happy, and making my brain feel awake in a specific way it hasn’t for a while. I love improvised comedy, and that’s 100% storytelling and playing with friends. Occasionally I get to tell stories on my own, on stage. If you can tolerate such stupidity, you’re welcome to view my storytelling contribution to MissImp’s Monsters of Improv show from earlier this month at Malt Cross. It’s a science fiction story, I guess. Apologies to Frank Herbert, and the Catholic church I guess (but generally, fuck em, they owe us more than we could ever owe them).