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Stolen Skies – Part Sixteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Project Tutu had created a shared ownworld, in which people had their own individual spaces contained within in. They’d been working on almost the direct opposite of what we had made for ourselves. We’d built dream environments, places to wander and find peace – there would be more to come, but we’d been focusing on the connection between dreams and reality. Why build a direct version of reality when it sucked so damn hard? Edithine’s team had a very different approach, one that had been coordinated from the top down, with none of our “wild” creation away from the project confines. They’d been building a cosy idealised version of a real world that no longer existed. I didn’t know whether it was always snowing there or if the seasons changed… surely they’d change. Snow is gorgeous and great, even though I barely remember a version of it that wasn’t grey and mildly radioactive (snowball fights and snowmen had been a really bad idea for such a long time that it sounded more like a punishment than a bit of childhood fun), no one wanted it all the time – who wants a cold nose and to be unable to leave the house without wearing gloves? It’s a high bar for acceptable weather, I know. Still. I stood there in the snow, in my light white clothing and I could feel the cold. Plus I had bare feet and they were now standing in an inch of so of crisp crystallised water – they hadn’t gone numb yet, but plainly it would be on the cards if we stayed long. Whatever ownworld synthesis I was in now, it felt really real. I was sure that if I’d been here long enough, that nagging awareness that only recently I’d been somewhere else would fade away and the certainty of this realm would be embedded in my mind. I’m not certain why that gave me such a visceral sense of alarm. This was the whole point of the project, the reason that the oneirocyte in my brain existed at all, and even I hadn’t realised it when we’d implanted them, this was the plan for the future of our entire species. Acceptance is a long road, and our minds like consistency and to able to make predictions about reality that we can later verify and confirm that we are indeed living in a rational world that won’t suddenly fuck you up by surprise. I wasn’t as far down that road as I’d casually thought – once more the divide between conscious and unconscious. We can immediately accept a fact, but it might take much longer for us to believe it, if we ever do.

So I stood there in the snow, my toes going pleasantly numb as I soaked in the feel of this united ownworld, this renovated slice of Earth. There was something inherently magical about the redux of the world we hadn’t seen since before the shell, and yet I missed those more fantastical aspects that Scoro, Gex and I had each developed in our dreamworlds. When I mentioned this to Doctor C, she wasn’t exactly dismissive, but plainly felt I was being shortsighted.

“To imagine that the unconscious is just a kind of dreaming is understandable, but wholly inaccurate. Dreaming is the process by which the conscious becomes embedded in the unconscious, and where the unconscious – ideas and instincts that sit behind our awareness yet drive it in ways we can’t quite realise when we’re awake – gets to test those concepts, and if found usable and relevant, are passed on into the conscious awareness. It’s not dragons and fairy castles – that’s just a dream, singular. Dreaming is an enterprise that the whole mind is involved in. The nano parasites let us put that process in harness, using it to access the fundamental memory structures of the brain and replicate them in a stable environment that we can return to again and again. Further, because the parasites are, in a sense, one single sprawling web through our physical brains, everyone infected with the parasite can travel within that environment, create within it and add to it. Fantastical elements are inherently destabilising, because we recognise that they don’t fit. Placing an elven ice palace in this place shatters the illusion and undermines the establishment of a new consensual reality.”

“So how do you decide to add new stuff? Like–“ I struggled to think what you could add to a place you were just living in, “–I don’t know, a new tree or something?”

To her credit, Doctor C didn’t actually laugh at me, but I did feel like I was asking impossibly childish things – I felt truly lost in this ownworld in a way I hadn’t ever felt in mine. “Consensually – we treat this as the real world, so town planning is a real thing here. The only thing that differs is how we actually create those new elements. No one’s imagining a seed bank, going to get those seeds, planting them and watering them to make them grow. While that would be realistic, it also wastes the advantages of being in a mental realm. We can agree where, in your example, a new tree might go, have a group who decides what it’s going to be, who then dream it into being. Design teams, if you like. Some people are especially good at moulding with imagination. You three have created highly specific and precisely realised ownworld environments, they’re plainly rooted in the physical world, they’re just not very consistent with it. Nothing in your realms could be added here without challenging the sense of reality here, but on their own terms they appear to match themselves. It’s that consistency that keeps the mind going. In the real world we can turn a corner we’ve never walked down and find a whole new street, new trees, new people. It doesn’t usually send any tremor of incongruity through us, because it fits, it all makes sense with what we already know. Human senses are malleable and easily deceived – it’s why people are powerfully disturbed when they encounter phenomena they can’t explain, even if it’s entirely the result of their senses being tricked. Ghosts, for instance. No reason whatsoever to think they’re real, but combine the eternal worries of humanity about just ending at death with sadness, regret, poor lighting, tiredness and the peculiar effects of light and shadow, and boom: ghosts. And with that, the real world crumbles a little, or becomes deeper if you’re prone to fantastical notions, but either way it makes less sense, because the idea that some people might live on to haunt individuals and places is profoundly out of kilter with literally everything else in the world. And that sense of detachment spreads, creating subgroups convinced that the world isn’t all there is, fracturing unity and consensual reality. So we can add a tree, or change the season, sometimes instantly if we wish, because it is an understood law of this reality that such changes can occur, and we all understand how that is done, so the fabric of our world is maintained and enhanced by adding elements according to consensual processes. We call this combined ownworld the Unity. It’s where we can all be together once more.”

“But adding a dragon would really fuck that up, even if people decided they wanted a dragon?”

“If everyone,” heavy emphasis on ‘everyone’, which made me begin to suspect that ‘everyone’ wasn’t precisely each individual’s choice, “consented to the addition of dragons, then yes, we could add dragons.” I admired how Doctor C managed to make ‘yes’ sound exactly like ‘no’. She continued, “but you can’t just ‘have’ dragons. Where do they live? Where did they come from? What do they eat? What other animals are they related to? Are they dangerous? If we have dragons, do we also have to have unicorns, goblins and elves? An entire hidden sideworld of the fae, a fantasy we cultivate and maintain just so that we can occasionally have a vast scaled beast flying across the sky?”

Clearly I looked a little put out.

“There’s room for fantasy in a personal way, of course. In the real world, our experience is tuned and mediated through our senses, which all vary somewhat. You’ll be familiar with the idea that many of us perceive colours slightly differently – ‘red’ isn’t necessarily ‘red’ for everyone – and the same is true of what we attend to, those things that we’re primed by our minds and experience to pay attention to. Some never notice clothes, or the sky, but invest their interest and attention in minutiae – spot birds to the exception of all else. We can do that here. We all have our personal spaces, and as long as those features of our spaces don’t intrude on everyone else’s shared reality then it doesn’t present an issue. Come, let’s return to the outer world.”

She did that thing again, and the world folded back around and we were standing in her cosy wood-panelled study, the snow continuing to fall outside. My feet were dry, but still cold. Consistency wasn’t all that, I thought. We stepped back into the real world.

I opened my eyes to a calm quiet room, all cream walls and ceiling. I was lying on a comfortable bed, a couple of rungs up the ladder from a hospital bed, with added comfort and reassurance. Next to me Scoro and Gex were also waking up. We’d been left together for now, which I was immensely grateful for, because to be honest, the more time I spent with Doctor C talking about this shared universe, the more anxious it was making me.

“So,” I began, “how was that?”

Scoro looked uncomfortable. “They don’t seem to like our ownworlds. We don’t have cosy little chalets.”

“Hest said my engines wouldn’t fit in the Unity,” Gex said. She seemed on the verge of tears. “said they wouldn’t make sense, would upset the reality that had been established.”

This wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I’d hoped that the others would have had more… positive experiences than mine. Not that it had been awful – we’ve all had mad ideas that have been rejected, that’s all part of life. Wild fantasies that get killed off when they meet reality head on. But that was the real world – why should we encounter the same resistance, the same flat “no” in our dreamworlds? That might be their point, but it didn’t have to be ours.

They didn’t give us long to chat, or fret or whatever. Hest and Doctor C, plus the other aide who’d been with Scoro and whose name I don’t think I ever managed to learn, entered our suite together and took seats while we remained sitting, half-reclining on the beds. It wasn’t especially comfortable.

“I know you’re all finding this strange,” Doctor C started, “and that’s no surprise – you’ve been lost all on your own, struggling to make sense of the nano parasites – sorry, you prefer ‘oneirocytes’, don’t you – the oneirocytes embedding themselves in your brains. By lacking the structure here, you’ve gone in an uncontrolled direction. As you probably recall from the pre-relocation of Project Tutu, this is where many of the failures occurred, severe reality dysfunction as an interior world became so wildly at variance with the real world that the subjects were unable to remember which was which or to be able to make conscious choices anymore. The lack of executive direction is a genuine risk, and one we’re keen to keep from occurring to the three of you. Together, you’ve achieved a remarkable degree of stability, despite the quasi-fantastical nature of your ownworlds. Now that you’re safe with us, we’d like to integrate you properly into the Unity. But that’s for tomorrow and beyond. For the rest of today, we encourage you to meet other members of Project Tutu, chat about the Unity and who the people in it are, relax and get some rest. The work we’re doing here can be demanding, physically and mentally – but you’re plainly strong enough for that!”

I didn’t feel unstable. Or I hadn’t until we started exploring the Unity and the people in it. As Doctor C had suggested, we spent the remainder of that day wandering through the various common rooms. The facility seemed endless, but the people were nice. Everyone was interested to meet us and seemed genuinely pleased to have found us wandering about in the real world. At some point we’d wandered out of white walls and carpeted floors into a more comfortable area that had nice leather chairs and more thoughtfully decorated, as if folks might actually want to spend time in it.

“Well this isn’t so bad, is it?” Scoro suggested. The people were nice, even if the world they’d built together was… not so much dull, but ordinary. The entire experience we’d had with oneirocytes felt extraordinary; gaining power over our dreams was thrilling and intense. It wasn’t knocking about in a version of the real world. We’d asked lots of questions: did they eat, sleep, use toilets in the Unity? Eat: yes, if they wanted to, sleep: not really – that was still being worked on, it might just kick you back out into the real world, use toilets: why…? For all that Doctor C described the Unity as this consensual reality, there was a lot of reality missing. I guessed they could always work on that, make it bigger as time went on. I couldn’t help but think of my ownworld, which I’d imagined from the start as infinite – trees that went on forever, with an unlimited amount of space for me to eventually populate with dreamstuff and aspects of that life which would make me happy.

I noticed a shimmering in the corner of my eye, like I’d gotten an eyelash caught under my eyelid, splitting the light oddly. I blinked hard to get rid of it, and it switched to the other side – a shadow made of light, just out of view. “Gex, I think there’s something in my eye,” I said, shaking my head a little. She leant over, peering into my eye as I held it open. The light shadow was in her eye, a glowing rectangle drifting in her iris. A door…

“Motherfuckers,” I exclaimed, “we’re still in the fucking Unity.”

Now that I’d thought it, I could see it. Real, but dull. Gex and Scoro could see it too. We’d been drawn out of our ownworlds into the Unity, stepped through doors that we’d invited into our realms. Absolutely fuck that. With an effort of thought, the glowing door materialised properly, half over the doorway that had led into this room – my reality supervening on this one. But getting back into our ownworlds would just give us our own environments. We needed to be back in the real world, because who knew why we’d been tricked into thinking that we’d woken out of the Unity. Previously we’d only ever woken into reality from our personal ownworlds, but that was partly why we’d built our interchange – a mini-Unity of our own I supposed. And if we had managed that, we knew how it felt to leap back to the real. Let’s just brute force it from here.

“Give me your hands,” I told the others, and we held hands in a triangle while I thought about doing the opposite of what I’d managed when I yanked Gex and Scoro out of their waking bodies into the ownworld while we were slogging over the wastelands in the caterpillar. At least this time no one would be banging their head. I ignored the door, and instead imagined tearing a hole in the air of the room we stood it. With a sound that vibrated through our imaginary bones I ripped a chunk out of the Unity and we spilled back into our meat bodies. Which were lying down on very similar beds to those we’d thought we’d woken up in before, except these were completely horizontal, and we were surrounded by beeping machines and half a dozen white-coated people stood over us, scalpels in hand, reaching out for us.

Our waking up was clearly not expected. Hands lunged for us. Behind the surgical masks over their faces I recognised Hest’s eyes and treated him to a solid kick in the face. We surged up out of the beds, surgical gowns falling away from our otherwise naked bodies as we grappled with our deceivers. There was a wide glass wall at the end of the room that our feet pointed towards, and even as we wrestled, kicked and punched (with gratifying results), I saw the figures in there included Doctor C and a number of other serious-looking individuals, heading for the adjoining door. We were about to be overwhelmed, even though Gex had gotten her hands on one of the scalpels and was viciously lashing out at her attackers. She got one, and a gout of shocking red blood sprayed across the room – she’d nipped an artery in the guy’s throat. That froze everyone for a second, and then they surged forward again, bolstered by the numbers from outside. It didn’t look good – they’d almost pinned Scoro down as one of them frantically prepared a syringe of what could only be very bad news. I’d grabbed hold of some monitor or other and was wildly smashing it on anyone who came close, but there were too many of them. Angry, frightened, I reached out instinctively with my oneirocyte, seizing the other tool I had at my disposal.

I saw through two sets of eyes: in the real world we fought against these white-coated bastards, blood spattered, cries and screams as Gex freed Scoro by stabbing another fucker in the back; in my ownworld the trees twisted fast around me, dust danced and hovered in a bouncing pattern off the ground. Scoro cast a look at me, feeling the presence of my ownworld around us all. Then I twisted again, doing what I’d done to Scoro and Gex, and wrenched every one of our assailants out of the real world. And into my ownworld. Their bodies fell immediately, lots of nasty head injuries for them to deal with another time, and we were suddenly the only people awake. I returned my gaze to the ownworld where they’d all arrived simultaneously. They gaped at their new surroundings – all of them, from Doctor C to the guy with blood pumping out of his throat, all in their white coats. I’d given them no time to reconcile themselves to their usual ownworld appearances. They were in my ownworld now, not their Unity. And I was well fucked off. Gex and Scoro were beside me, all comfortable in our mastery of this realm. Futilely, the scientists and surgeons decided to attack, ignoring their environment in favour of retaining their own unified, consensual reality, as if this was still a surgical suite where they could finish whatever they’d started. But they had no power there. With a thought I set the ground shaking, knocking them off their feet, the trees bending toward them with sharp lashing branches. A pit opened in the ground beneath them, like a mouth leading into the abyssal deeps under my ownworld and they began to tumble in.

“Fuck this,” Gex exclaimed, and with a mental twist of her own the dark engines of her ownworld reared up through the hole I’d made, razor sharp cogs and steam, the glowing red between them hot and issuing a scorching hiss. They spread out, like someone had splayed open a huge clockwork maw, and snapped shut around the sprawling intruders. The engines and the Unity scientists vanished into the hole.

The three of us snapped back into the real world, chests heaving, eyes wide and gazed down at the bodies around us. Not one of them appeared to be breathing.

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Stolen Skies

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