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Stolen Skies – Part Three (Nanowrimo 2022)

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.

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Stolen Skies

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