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Stolen Skies – Part Fourteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’d much rather have a getting to know you conversation outside in the open air somewhere nice. My last choice would have been driving into the dark heart of a mountain. Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers. As the last hint of what passed for daylight inside the shell faded away, I felt the sheer weight of mountain above us, like someone was leaning hard on my shoulder, breath harsh against my neck. It felt like forever before the caterpillar slowed, ground to a crunching halt. All I could hear were our own held breaths and creak of the vehicle. Someone was being needlessly dramatic, but of course this seemingly endless moment was just an instant. And then the lamps switched on and we were bathed in the happy warm glow of electric light.

Now we were inside a building within the mountain proper – concrete floor, walls and ceiling. An inner man-made cave. Corporal Lindsmane said, “Right, this is your stop sir.” And we all hauled our bags onto shoulders and trooped out to meet our saviours. Lindsmane was crisply greeted a superior of some kind – more chest, shoulder or collar arrows no doubt – and with a nod, he and his people vanished through a set of doors. They looked very chipper, no doubt eagerly anticipating a proper military-style bunk somewhere in their near future. I took a moment to catch my bearings. This was a huge room, the caterpillar was parked neatly in the centre of a grid of yellow stripes that fanned out to be framed in a series of squares and rectangles. Damned if I know what that was about other than someone who was a tad over-enthusiastic with their painting set. Inset into the walls were a series of huge double doors and some smaller ones like those Lindsmane had gone off through. There wasn’t anything helpful in the way of signage – if you got this far you either knew where you were headed or you weren’t going any further. The last was backed up when I raised my eyes to the gallery that ran around the room some fifteen feet or more above. That was quite well populated with gun-toting soldiers and what seemed to be a few casual onlookers. Those rifles weren’t exactly trained on us, but they gave the powerful impression that we could be their target in a split-second. Cheery. We waited a moment in those rather austere surroundings before a set of the big double doors separated and cool blue light flowed into the room.

Out of the blue came a small deputation, and the words, “My foot still hurts you know.”

“Jesus fucking Christ. Edithine?” I  stammered, nerves making me a little swearier than I’d usually be when I thought I was meeting new people. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“Hello Evanith, it’s been a little while since we did some gardening isn’t it.” Edithine looked great, especially considering it had been at least thirteen years since I’d last seen her.

“Nearly twenty, actually. You’re not the only one to lose track,” she said. The slight limp (yes, I still felt bad about it, even though I probably hadn’t thought of her name in a decade) was smoothly disguised under the cleanest suit I’d ever seen and really sharp hair styling. It certainly made the three of us look like an absolute state, dust and black-stained, unwashed and bedraggled.

“Well, you all look like shit,” she continued, “but we can see that sorted. Come along, we’ll get the three of you settled and cleaned up, and then we can get on with the work.”

Scoro piped up, with some of the questions  we all had: “Um, great. Couple of thoughts… who are you, what is this place and generally what the fuck is going on?”

Edithine smiled broadly, utterly ignoring her aides who seemed keen to get us all off to a shower. “I’m Edithine Charbroly. Before your friend Evanith knew me, and stabbed me in the foot with garden shears I was head of biotech at Charbio. I’d retired, but the world fell apart and they re-recruited me to lead Project Tutu. That’s how I know you’ve used the parasites, and that you were never on a list to receive them.” A wry eyebrow at our mix of surprised and guilty expressions, “So that’s interesting for starters. We think you’ve managed some leaps in the tech that are worth studying.”

“That was your voice in my ownworld?” I asked.

“Sort of. Mine was the voice you heard, projected by all the others.”

“Others?” (It was that sort of conversation.)

“Oh yes, we have almost all the parasite users here with us. You’ll meet them later. But first, I really must insist that we get you decontaminated. We operate a clean environment in here and honestly I can see the filth sticking to you all. Come along.”

Question time was over. Edithine set back off into the bluely-lit corridor. We followed, tailed by the rest of her team. The light was the same as in the case, UV sterilising us and the air we walked through. Edithine disappeared through a door at the end of the hall, and we were ushered into a different room coming off the side.

“I’m Velrent Hest, Edithine’s chief aide,” declared the round little man who accompanied us. He directed us to dump our gear on a series of benches. “Honestly, we’re probably going to burn all of your clothes and bags, but if there’s anything you need you should extract it now and we’ll send it off for cleansing.”

I couldn’t really justify keeping anything in my bags – ratty clothes, food packets and a couple of books. Hest spotted me wavering over the bag of zygoptics: “No need to worry about those, the project will give you all you need.” I dumped them on the bench with the bag. Scoro had made a small pile of keepsakes and a tablet which Hest indicated he place in a tray, ready for processing. As an afterthought I tossed the books in with them. Gex was being a little more circumspect and reluctantly pulled the big Project Tutu case out of her rucksack. Hest was all over that.

“We thought there might be a missing case, but project relocation wasn’t as clean and neat as we’d hoped. In the modern chaos there were things lost,” he rested heavily on the word “lost”, “how fortunate that you found this.”

Yes. Gex somehow avoided her ears turning red and Scoro subtly covered the awkwardness with a coughing fit. I was fairly sure we’d be expanding on this conversation later, but it seemed like we weren’t getting shot for treason yet, and that was a good enough outcome.

“Showers, scrubbers, decontamination, then clothing await,” Hest said, directing us towards the cubicles at the back of the room. “Please place all of your current clothing in the bins provided.”

We obviously weren’t the first guests to rock up, I assumed everyone went through this if they left and returned to the facility. We each took a cubicle and closed the door. They audibly locked behind us, which sent a wave of alarm down my spine, but they probably didn’t want to go to the bother of washing us if we could just go straight back out. The bin was a slot in the wall which I fed my coat, boots, now ripped trousers, shirt and underclothes into. I vaguely hoped for some acknowledgment, or maybe a hint of flames, but it just snapped shut. Next, the showers. This was a kind of bliss I hadn’t even considered. The water felt slightly acidic, accompanied by more of the familiar blue light, but it was hot and plentiful. The only cleaning agent appeared to be a lurid pink slime which smelled exactly how something you described as “chemical-scented” should. Skin tingling and soaking wet, I pushed open the next door after the shower turned itself off. This part was less good. The scrubber was much what I’d hoped it wouldn’t be – instead of a friendly loofah it was a room seemingly made up of nobbly rubber human-sized vaginas. With a bit of an inner sigh I squeezed through, and Christ it was a tight fit. The “scrubber” felt like being compressed through wet sandpaper. If I thought my skin tingled after the shower, this was more like feeling abraded as the rubber scraped all the moisture off my skin and had a good go at removing my hair. Decontamination followed, which was the blue lights but very intense so I had to keep my eyes tightly closed. When the light went off and I could open them again I felt incredible gratitude at seeing a nozzle marked “moisturiser, use all over” in the wall. Gloopy goodness took much of the recently-skinned feeling away and the next door opened to a changing room with an array of near-identical clothing hanging on hooks. Not a lot of opportunity for personal expression here, with maybe three variations on dark grey trousers, t-shirts and shoes. With a size for everybody, I got dressed again and went through the final door. There Hest waited with a handful of lanyards holding ID cards which he distributed as we emerged, sore but clean – cleaner than I think I’d ever been – into the next phase of our lives.

“Onwards,” Hest guided us out of the “welcome centre” as he called it and into the project headquarters properly. Bedrooms first, purely for orientation purposes, then the canteen where he left us for twenty minutes. This did feel like the Project Tutu we’d remembered, with its long racks of benches and tables and carousels of food and snacks (I always think there’s an important distinction between those two somehow), drinks and cutlery. We dug in. I don’t think we’d eaten much more than noodles and other dehydrated foods in the months that we’d been training our oneirocytes (or they’d been training us – symbiosis I guess), so this was a real treat. Some of this was definitely actual chicken for one thing, and I’d never tasted pasta without a tang of ash since the shell came up. Oh, and tea. Something the soldiers had bafflingly little of although I could have sworn the army ran on the stuff. It felt a bit like being on holiday. The cream-coloured walls, tastefully decorated with commercial landscape art and the food all lulled us into a sense of relaxation that had been absent for so long.

“Do you think they’re going to fuck us over about that case?” asked Gex, as we clutched our precious cups of tea.

“Only if they’ve really missed it. I mean, it wasn’t the only case, was it?” Scoro replied.

“Um.”

“OK. Cool. Well – the important thing is we brought it back, and only used like three of the oneirocytes, so there’s tonnes left over,” I said, “and Edithine was never vengeful, not even when I dropped those shears point-down in her foot.”

“You used to garden together?”

“Yup. Back in the olden days before the shell. Municipal landscaping. I thought she was dead – there was a fire, and I never found out if she was OK or not. There’s something kinda nice about meeting someone I used to sort of know way out here.”

“If it means she doesn’t have us all killed, then I am thrilled you have a pal here.”

Hest turned up shortly after, so we downed our teas and followed him onto the next part of the tour. This involved innumerable corridors, glass walls showing us more people dressed like us lying on beds and tapping computer screens with vague frowns on their faces.

“Ongoing testing and work with the parasites,” Hest commented, “I expect you’ll find what we’ve been doing quite interesting. I’m very interested to hear about your experiences with the parasites, too.”

“Do you mind if I ask,” Gex piped up, “But do you have an oneirocyte too?”

“Oneirocyte? Cute. Yes, everyone here except the soldiers have undergone nano implantation.”

“How many is everyone?”

“There are just under five hundred parasite subjects here, including myself and Doctor C – Edithine.”

“And what are you doing here?”

“Why, saving the world of course,” he said with slight surprise, “what did you think the parasites were for?”

Well, that shut us up for a bit. At last we turned yet another corner and Hest led us into a small lecture theatre where Edithine waited by a small tray containing a jug of water and some glasses.

“Thank you, Velrent,” Edithine said, dismissing our tour guide. “Please, take a seat–“ she gestured at the front row of well-worn plastic fold-down seats “–glass of water?” We all vaguely nodded and duly received a little glass of achingly cold water.

“I want to be clear from the start about what we’re doing here, and why you’re here too.” Her bright eyes bounced over each of us in turn, enveloping us in some social contract we’d not previously been party to. “When the nano-parasite project began, we were exploring the potential of unlocking the human unconscious and making it subject to the same discipline and rationality of the conscious mind. As you know, since you were supporting the project, that had a certain failure rate, which reduced as we improved the parasites and their interface. What do you think the project goals were?”

We hadn’t expected a question and answer session. I’d settled in for a good set of explainings, but I was happy enough to venture a guess. “Establish a deeper and more experiential virtual reality environment for education and entertainment.”

“Not bad,” smiled Edithene, “that’s almost exactly what we told the subjects we were doing.”

Seriously, fucking scientists.

“In fact, we’re aiming for an interface that can unite human psyches, enabling us to create environments that can be shared, cohabited and ultimately used as vessels to escape our corporeal forms. In short, this planet is dying, we can’t survive the continued environmental damage. The human population has declined by nearly ninety per cent in the last twenty years of darkness. That’s an estimate of course, but global surveys show near-total loss of habitat and life in the southern hemisphere and most of the northern. We don’t have very long left, and if we want humanity to survive at all, it’s not going be in these meat suits we’re wearing. Our future lies in the networks of nano fibres that have infested our brains. We’ll be able to extract the totality of human conscious and unconscious experience from the flesh of the brain into the parasite, then transfer the parasites into a nourishing support environment where we will persist indefinitely, with no break in awareness or identity.” She gave us a few moments of stunned silence to take that in before adding, “cool, right?”

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