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Stolen Skies – Part Ten (Nanowrimo 2022)

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.”

 

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