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Stolen Skies – Part Fifteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Our peaceful little ownworlds were the first step towards ditching the human body and becoming digital intelligences uploaded into a weird net of black nanofibers stored in a bath of nutrient gel for all eternity. Well. It wasn’t quite what we had expected, but I also hadn’t expected such a gloomy prediction of the future of the human race and our sad little englobed Earth. Edithine left us and gave us some time for it to sink in. I think the thing that got me most was how damn cheerful she and Hest were about it. I guess if you’ve been working towards this goal for a while it suggests you’re on board with the hole ditching the meat suit thing, but it was a bit of a shock to run into for the first time. It’s not like I’m especially in love with the corporeal me – one knee is pretty dodgy and I’ve not been delighted by the general process of ageing, or the wear and tear from nearly twenty years of living in the gloom – but I do like being able to walk around and do stuff. Of course, the argument was that we could do that equally well in our ownworlds, where we need never grow old, ill or die. I mean, I got the idea, but I knew there was a difference between those two states of reality and ownworld. How far did you have to go before that barrier broke down entirely? We’d lost track and nearly forgotten to wake up, but I didn’t feel that was because we thought we were already awake, we were just really into dreaming… And maybe that is the same thing. Half of human experience is being involved in things, focused on some aspect of our lives, whether it’s work or gaming or lying comatose on a bed. If they feel inescapable, perhaps they are. But surely knowing you’ve got an option to get out changes things. I like options, even if I don’t use them. If the option of being alive in the real world was going to become unavailable, and from Edithine’s – Doctor C’s – account, it sure sounded like Earth was just a few years from being uninhabitable, then sure, oneirocyte upload and transfer might be the best future available.

Fuck, what would you do? I guess the Alometh got through this whole damn shell business better off than we did. I heard you guys just dropped into some kind of hibernation state when your planet got scooped up by. Sounds cool. Hard to imagine: did you all just freeze as the sky went dark, or was there a census and collective decision to sack it all off? And how long could you have lasted? I guess you can, like, stick your roots in the ground and suck out nutrients really slowly and keep yourselves ticking away super-slowly in the background. Would your lot choose to abandon the real world? Would I? If it came right down to it… maybe. As a last resort. Back then I wasn’t ready for the idea that it was last resort for humanity time. Hope is a weird fucking beast. Even when you think it’s fucked off at last, ground down till you haven’t even considered hope for a decade or more, when someone tells you that it’s all over, I found it was still flickering inside somewhere. Unloved, untended, just waiting for a reason to illuminate my insides with that strange tingly fire. Does it do anything on its own, hope? I feel it flicker, but what can I do to tend that flame when I’m a powerless meat suit user? Perversely, I could give it life in the ownworld. Unexpectedly, something inside said “yes” to the oneirocyte endgame, even while the conscious me was struggling to wrap its head around the lack of a human future. Man, I hope you Alometh aren’t like us. We’re a pain in the fucking arse. It seemed like there was still a way to go before I’d fully integrated my conscious and unconscious worlds.

The next days brought testing, meeting a lot of new people and many we remembered being on the project before. That felt like a lifetime ago, though it could only have been a year or so. Doctor C was most interested in our experience in integrating the oneirocytes “in the wild” as she put it, lacking the proper laboratory environment. They’d kept trying that, but subjects tended to grow mad, lost in the space inside their heads, unable to rationalise the experience, or trapped outside their heads, unable to sleep or dream. Neither was conducive to continued existence, and were regrettably unavoidable. We’d had a good idea of what we were getting into, which had doubtless aided our progress, and even though we had certainly had a few dodgy months where we were on the verge of snapping, something about working together as a trio had been effective at balancing us out. The fact that we weren’t trained in how to integrate our ownworlds or travel between them absolutely fascinated Hest. I got the impression that he’d love to crack our heads open and see what was inside. Thankfully they had deep visualisation engines and scanners that could analyse the oneirocyte’s progress at winding themselves deeply around the folds of our brain, and even better, they could read the oneirocytes directly. The whole gameplan was to be able to link and network the oneirocytes together, so they weren’t black boxes with unreadable and incomprehensible processes. Hest argued that it should be possible for us to mentally map the vast unspooled web of the oneirocyte within the ownworld itself and visualise the exact current state of our own minds. Sounded a bit too fucking meta for me, but I could see how that would be vital for the massive transition to another kind of life that they were talking about.

The bond between the three of us was strong, and Doctor C wanted to see the interchange we’d built. Other subjects, Doctor C and Hest included had found ways to travel into each others’ dreamworlds, but the connection between minds was difficult, if not impossible to force. Consent of some kind was required for us to enter each other’s personal spaces and the oneirocytes appeared to be working a little beyond their specification in enforcing that. I figured that this was actually a very good thing – I couldn’t imagine wanting any old fucker to be able to just rock up inside my head. So we embarked on experiments of course. The new zygoptics felt different to those we’d been sucking down back in the city – a period that was receding fast in my head – these were clearly more powerful, and I felt the tug and time lag of it gripping my mind, trailing slightly behind my body until I lay down and re-entered my ownworld.

It had been a few days since I’d been into the ownworld. Previously we’d been inside several times every day, often for whole days at a time. I was enormously relieved to find it still ticking away all by itself. I’d nursed a terrible fear that the trees would have tumbled, the pools dried up and I’d find myself in a bleak wasteland, lighter but equally grim as the outside world was to become. But it wasn’t. My trees still spiralled upwards and a warm comforting glow enveloped me. I wandered about, wondering what I should think about making my ownworld into if it was a place I’d be living in forever. We’d developed our ownworlds as places to visit and explore, knowing that we had a real world to live in – these were our safe dream spaces, not homes – not exactly anyway. I guess I’d need a house… and a bed for my mental body. Would I want to sleep while I was in here, already sort of asleep? There was a lot to think about, but potentially an infinite amount of time to do it in. God damn this was going to be strange. I was idly sketching shapes in the air that a house could look like, a treehouse perhaps that hung between the massive boughs overhead. I couldn’t imagine being in an ownworld forever on my own – at the least I needed to start thinking about sharing the space, which I could do through the interchange, but it wasn’t like living next door to each other. Man!

Then I remembered why I was here, right now, and what I was supposed to be doing. The ownworld has its own allure, and I wondered if the new zygoptics were doing something different to my perception of inner and outer space, making this the one that was easier to think about. A slightly paranoid thought to linger on later… For now, the plan was finding a way to make contact with Doctor C’s oneirocyte (I wasn’t going back to calling them parasites like the doctor did – we’d be parasitically living inside them if all went to plan, and no one likes being called a parasite). Last time she’d managed to use the population of dreamers here to boost her voice and send a message to my oneirocyte, who interpreted it as an angelic voice and scribed the coordinates for this facility in the fabric of my ownworld. She hadn’t actually entered it though, and the experience had rather fucked me up for a while. So while it looked like it might be possible to brute force an entry into someone’s ownworld, it probably wasn’t a good idea. Taking inspiration from the interchanges between Scoro’s Gex’s and my ownworlds, I started to imagine a way of extending a hand beyond the boundaries of my mind. Visual metaphors are good: we’re very visually oriented creatures, and language is hard-coded into our brains, so we can juggle oblique concepts that slyly refer to real things through very shady and suggestive images and ideas. I decided to build a telephone. We hadn’t had such things in the real world for longer than my parents had been alive, but I’d seen pictures and the concept was solid. I added a tall, round table made of dark wood, glossily polished, rising out of the ground like it was another tree. On top I laid a neat little brass handset and receiver, with an old-fashioned dial. I couldn’t quite remember how the dialling thing worked, but in my ownworld I gave it the possibility of reaching outwards and imagined the path the oneirocyte might take, imagined its black spools of nanofibers extending outwards from my skull into a vast web that all the other oneirocytes might have access to. Then I dialled for Doctor C.

I let it ring for a while, a soft ringing buzz that almost sounded like a bee. Somewhere inside my head the oneirocyte was making a connection, somehow triggering those inbuilt networking features that I didn’t fully understand. Then there was a click, and I heard Doctor C on the other end. “Did you just make a telephone?” she asked, somewhat incredulously.

“Sure,” it had seemed like the right idea at the time.

“Alright. I guess it works. Can I come in?”

We’d come this far, and although I was a touch anxious about bringing Edithine into my ownworld, that was what we were here for and the whole purpose of this exercise. It felt OK. Now I had to do what Gex, Scoro and I had done semi-instinctively and give Doctor C a way in. I could feel that hearing her voice was on an oneirocyte level and she wasn’t actually here yet, couldn’t perceive any aspect of my world just as I couldn’t perceive hers. Safe, non-intrusive contact. A useful thing, in my opinion. Now I need to give her a door. Christ, how many doors would there be in the end? Hundreds, thousands? Where would I keep them all? I faintly imagined a city made of nothing but doors, which of course is sort of what the real world is exactly like… That was a thing for later. For now I sketched the outline of a door, put Edithine’s name on my side and carved my name on hers. Then I pushed. Now that I was aware of what I and the oneirocyte together were doing, I could feel the door making contact in a way that I hadn’t before. The appearance of Scoro’s and Gex’s doors had been a surprise, something we had to find a way to make real in our ownworlds. Doctor C evidently already knew how this part worked, because the door solidified, the colours filling in a way that gave it four dimensions instead of three, and it opened. Doctor C stepped through.

Only it wasn’t Doctor C as I’d seen her minutes before in the lab, this was a younger version of herself – still clearly Edithine, but thirty or forty years younger, but with her grey hair replaced by dark brown, her slight limp caused by my inattention also gone. She fairly sparkled.

“Thank you Evanith,” she paused, taking in my appearance and taking time to turn around and take in what she could see of my ownworld, “this is fascinating. You’ve found entirely new ways to communicate between ownworlds.”

“You don’t use doors…?”

“Why would we? These are mental constructs, they can be anything, even just a desire to travel. And I’ve never seen a world like this.”

I gave her a little tour. Her attitude perplexed me. Was this so different to what the project had been working on? We’d built dreamworlds for ourselves, but it sounded like they had been doing something else.

“It’s a bit… austere,” Edithine said as we skirted one of the lagoons, while she ran her hand along the constantly twisting bark of a tree, “why don’t we pop into my ownworld for a minute, then we can have a chat back in the outer world.”

So saying she led me back to her door and we went through. I was beginning to realise that I didn’t know Edithine in anything like the way I knew Gex and Scoro. I didn’t fundamentally trust her in the same way, but it was going to be OK, right? Right?

Edithine’s door opened into a perfectly ordinary room. For a second I thought we’d returned to the real, or “outer” world as the people here called it. But we hadn’t – Doctor C was still young, and I was still in my usual light clothes and bare feet. My toes sank into the carpet. Doctor C took a seat in the comfortable leather armchair next to a window and I gazed around. It was a study, or library or cosy office. Desk, bookshelves, pictures on the tastefully decorated walls. It was just like being in a real room. I went over toward Doctor C and looked out of the window. Outside it was snowing, and the sun filtered through the snowflakes, lighting up fields and countryside.

“Want to go out?” Edithine asked.

I thought she meant return to the real world, but instead she stood up and did something. I could feel her doing something to the fabric of her ownworld, and the room twisted, inverting until suddenly we were standing in the snow just outside the window of her study. I gaped, turned back to the office wall which was just one of hundreds of buildings scattered in an arc before me.

“Welcome to the ownworld Evanith. This is where we all live now.”

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Stolen Skies

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