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.