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Stolen Skies – Part Twelve (Nanowrimo 2022)

I hate how much I keep waking up, you know? Waking up’s supposed to be a good thing – we wake from a nightmare, become enlightened with an inner waking, but in my experience it’s shit. You wake up and it’s just another fucking day to get through. Falling asleep is the part I want, that wonderful sliding moment as your brain switches off the real world, and all the darkness and doom fades away, just for a few hours. But it’s something, right. I’ve always felt like I could sleep for a million years and consider it time well spent. Because the true horror is the waking up part, as reality comes crashing back into place. It doesn’t even have to be a bad reality, though if you’ve been paying attention of course, you’ll know what a ghastly fucking mess the Earth was. No moon, no stars, basically no night time. Or day time, not really. Just that gloomy grey meat-soaked glow instead. Environment: fucked. Society: fucked. Population: fucked. And that last hadn’t finished declining at this point either. So, the future: fucked. Yeah, lots of good stuff worth being wide awake for. No wonder we were so into the oneirocyte idea, and as it turned out, we weren’t the only ones. I gotta say pal, you do not look well at all. We’ve been here hours, and I mean, I don’t know what that stuff coming out of your face is – I hope it’s OK to call it your face, don’t want to offend you or anything, I’m just vaguely kinda excited to meet an Alometh is all. And my face isn’t getting any better. I’m pretty sure there’s a bit of glass that went right into my skull. Feels all itchy up above my ear. And numb, yeah, I guess that’s the shock right? No one takes a pint glass to the face without their body getting a bit upset and struggling to reframe the whole thing as all cool. Maybe I should go and find us a medical professional… No? Well, if you’re sure. I mean that was definitely a nod you just gave me. Yeah. Alright, well I guess I’ll just keep going then.

So where was I? Yup: so waking up is an absolute fucker and I resented it every single time I opened my eyes. This time though, this was going to be different – I’d received a message, inside my head, telling us where to go. We were lost and hopeless, and this was definitely the best thing to have happened since… Well. It had been a while. I shouldn’t have been so keen. Waking up will fuck you every time. A new day is always going to be a lot like the other days and we’d had thirteen years of days just getting worse, so really what the hell was I expecting? What I wasn’t expecting was that this day would begin with a gun in my face.

My face was a locus of pain, exactly how I imagined it would feel if someone smacked me in the face with a rifle butt. And there it was, or rather the other end of the gun looking straight at me, or me at it. Its single super-long eye reminded me of the early arguments about the Hole in Space and whether a hole had two ends or just one, or was just one really long end. Of course, this was actually the second time I’d woken up with a gun in my face, except this time it seemed like I might have a concussion. Plainly I should be paying some proper attention here, but my mind kept slipping back to the Hole in Space. How long had it been since that had popped into my head? It seemed like a thousand years ago, so far from being the present threat that everyone had feared it was. Maybe it was still a huge threat, but we had no clue, wrapped up as we were and being hauled (maybe) god only knows where. Made sense that it had rather dimmed as the prime motivating factor for freaking out on planet Earth, but I couldn’t help wondering if forgetting about it was that good a plan. What if we were just being dragged towards it, and the shell would split open, spilling us straight into the hole? I repeat myself, but it bears repeating: waking up is a fucking nightmare.

Thankfully I was distracted from my concussive ruminations by another soldier pushing the barrel of the rifle to one side and kneeling down to shine a bright light in my eye.

“Yeah, nice. Now he’s got a fucking concussion,” in apparent remonstrance to his fellow soldier.

I discovered that I was sitting on one of the bunk racks that lined the central portion of the caterpillar vehicle.

“Um, can we not do that again please,” I managed, gratefully taking the offered bottle of water. My hands shook as I twisted off the cap and poured the cold, sweet liquid into my mouth. So good.

“Got questions for you. You’re going to answer them, or we’re going to start shooting your mates,” the formerly nice man who’d given me the water indicated my friends on the other side of the cabin, their hands tied together in front of them with a third soldier standing over them holding an all too ready rifle aimed right at them.

“OK. Can I– can I just ask one question first?” I stammered, “what just happened?”

That seemed to throw him off his stride a little, Corporal Lindsmane – his name snapped back into place, aided no doubt by his handy little name badge and a vague collection of rank – seemed as if he were about to reject my question out of hand, but recovered and continued with a new mix of interrogation and information.

“One: who the fuck are you people? One minute you’re asleep and the next so are your two mates. Looked like they just blacked out – you see that black eye?” He indicated Scoro. I nodded appropriately, “that’s from bouncing his head off a cupboard as he went down.” I winced, it was exactly what I’d hoped hadn’t happened when I’d managed to summon them into my ownworld. “Then you have some massive seizure and all the fucking lights in the caterpillar started flickering and turned off. Then you woke up and started yelling. That stopped when Markels knocked you out, somewhat hastily,” he turned a frosty look on Markels who was pointing the rifle at my friends rather than me. “So, we’re wondering now just who the fuck we let onto our caterpillar. Who are you? What are you? Who do you work for? And what the fuck just happened?”

Four questions: a slight challenge to organise for my rattled state, but even concussed I recognised the high stakes we’d somehow reached and had no desire for us all to die.

“We’re government medical researchers,” (basically true, but all three are decent buzzwords to use with a military oriented towards supporting a nice stable authority structure, and killed at least two of the questions), “but we got trapped, separated and left behind when the city fell.” I really didn’t want to mention the oneirocytes, that would just sound crazy to someone not in the project. “But we’ve got a message – I know where we should go next.”

He looked less than convinced. “A message? Something you could have mentioned when we set out?”

“Ah, no. Just got it – before your man over there hit me in the head.”

Gex chipped in helpfully: “We’ve all got comms implants,” before Lindsmane successfully glared her back into silence.

“Yes,” I added, “comms implants. They’ve been offline, the conditions out here are bad for signals.” This was certainly true. We knew the soldiers had been continuously trying to make contact with anyone after we’d passed the wreckage of the evacuation train. No joy. The state of the atmosphere and drifting clouds of oddly irradiated fog played merry hell with radio transmissions. “But headquarters,” (probably), “finally got through – very violently. They must have been blazing out the signal and that’s what happened to us – overload. One of the risks of having tech implanted in your skull.”

This was all pretty plausible and I managed to shut myself up and let Lindsmane chew it over. I could feel a real desire to keep chattering, anything to fill the space between us and the guns with anything other than bullets.

“All right,” Lindsmane ground out. “What’s the message?”

I gave him the coordinates, one of the other soldiers – Cheshblum? – gave him a map which unfolded from a little tablet out into a lit-up plastic sheet six feet across. Between them they matched up the numbers with the reference grids.

“Two hundred miles, north-north-west. What’s there?”

I didn’t have a good answer for that, partly because I had no idea where that was, or who was calling us. Honesty, then. “We don’t know. Only a handful of people have access to this technology, so they’re on our side and they have the resources to reach out for us.” Hopefully I was making us sound fairly important, though not so important that we couldn’t possibly get left behind.

“Yeah, we’re going to need a bit more proof than that before we go haring off into fucking nowhere halfway up a mountain.”

That was fair. I had nothing for him. Gex did though. She looked at Scoro and me, then spoke. “Corporal,” she started politely, “if you can get my bag – the big one with the red straps – we’ve got what headquarters are looking for. There’s a case in there, it’s got a sphinx on it.”

Linsdmane jerked his head and a Cheshblum headed off to the rear of the transport. I fell under Lindsmane’s gaze once more.

“Sir, there’s a case here alright,” Cheshblum returned holding the case of oneirocytes that Gex had nicked from the lab, passed it to his corporal. Lindsmane looked at the stylised sphinx on the front: “the fuck is that supposed to be?”

“It’s a sphinx: human head, lion body with wings, snake tail.”

He grunted and flipped the catches on the case. It was one of those cases with cool lights inside that come on when you open them, so it bathed his face in a gentle blue glare (not purely aesthetic, but anyone who’s worked in medical technology knows the value of making the artifacts look impressive, the light was actually a UV barrier, killing any microbes that drifted into the case. You don’t fuck about with brain-implanting nanotechnology, unless you steal them and implant them illegally, obviously).

Abruptly his sceptical attitude changed, and all the rifles came down. “Project Tutu,” he said out loud, “even I recognise that. Apologies for the bang to the head, sir, we’ll get you where you need to go.” He snapped the case shut and pressed it into my hands. “Get those cuffs off them. We’re moving out in five minutes.”

With that, the soldiers filed out of the cabin with typical military efficiency and an apologetic nod to me from Markels. I let out a deep breath and gingerly pressed my hands to my aching face.

“What the actual fuck?” exclaimed Scoro in a hissed whisper. I flipped the case round, shining blue light into his face. We’d stopped noticing it, but of course “Project Tutu” was stamped on every item inside. Tutu: ancient Egyptian god who protected dreamers from demons and other nightmarish things in their sleep. It hadn’t occurred to me that the project name would be recognisable, but of course it was a military programme. After the various collapses that had shaken our society, everything had military involvement strung through it. And we had worked on the project, that was certainly true. And maybe whoever it was that had sent us the coordinates would remember that. With a bit of luck they might not even be annoyed that we’d stolen a case of invaluable brain tech and tried it out ourselves.

With a roar, the caterpillar burst into life once more. For the first time in a long while, things were looking up, or at least not quite so down.

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Stolen Skies

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