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Stolen Skies – Part Six (Nanowrimo 2022)

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.

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Stolen Skies

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