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Stolen Skies – Part Nine (Nanowrimo 2022)

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.”

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Stolen Skies

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