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Stolen Skies – Part Seventeen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Fuck. We stood there, breathing heavily. That had taken a bit of a turn. We were surrounded by bodies, limbs flung out and tumbled to the ground wherever they’d fallen when I tore their conscious minds away. It was the opposite of a peaceful-looking death for them. Still, the moment of peace and quiet gave us a chance to look around and figure out what the fuck was going on. It was certainly possible that we’d over-reacted, though I was a little torn on that: if we had over-reacted, then we were definitely murderers, stupidly working through a situation with violence that could have been fixed with five minutes of honest conversation – and I didn’t want to think I was that kind of person. Even as I thought that, I could hear the corollary: “I’m not a violent person” in quiet italics in my head. Ah fuck. We might have just killed the last best hope for humanity, though that didn’t really ring true either. No one who’s doing the right thing tricks you into believing in their world and then tries to do surgery on you. That’s not normal. That’s not OK. High-stepping over the white-clad bodies nearest to the bed I’d been resting on I saw that the tools of their trade were scattered across the floor: scalpels, clamps, worrying salad tong-type things. Ah, neat little electric saws. Nah. It looked a lot like they had been aiming to cut our skulls open. A lot of the guilt that was excitedly building up in my chest dissipated when I realised that. Behind each of the three beds in the suite were complicated-looking boxes, more like miniature terrariums, half-filled with a gelatinous fluid and with weird fibrous grey structures that looked a bit like plants, if you were especially committed to the terrarium metaphor.

“Looks quite a lot like they were gonna cut our oneirocytes out and stick em in these tanks, doesn’t it?” murmured Scoro.

My companions looked equally freaked out – we’d come here looking for some kind of safety and hope, and all that had been comprehensively fucked.

“Someone was a bit too keen to get us into the Unity,” agreed Gex. “Makes me wonder… I mean, do you think we were special somehow?”

“Doctor C–“ who was lying right there in the doorway, lying peacefully bent over the body of some happily anonymous surgeon-type, quite dead, “–thought we’d done some unusual stuff with our ownworlds, but it seemed to be the opposite of what they were aiming for.” I shook my head, poking the gel stuff in the tank with my finger. It had the texture of what I imagined it would be like to poke your own brain.

“I guess we all wonder what’s in each other’s heads sometimes,” Scoro said. He seemed fractionally more upbeat than I felt, and added, “I really didn’t like being in the Unity.”

Hard to argue with that, unless you really did think it was the future of our species. Which we might have just fucked up, even if we did it in self-defense.

“Have we just killed the human race?” I asked.

“Feels like a lot to lay on our shoulders. Lots of blame to go around,” said Gex, stepping over the bodies towards the exit. “These fuckers for a start.”

I was still staring at Doctor C – Edithine – imagining her in her younger incarnation inside the Unity, a newer brighter version of this human body. Fuck it. I followed Gex, and Scoro in making way through the wreckage of the room.

“We really need to find some way out of here. Someone’s bound to be along in a bit when they fail to rock up with our brains in boxes.”

“Yeah… Quiet though, isn’t it?” Scoro noted. He was right. Apart from the low hum and occasional gentle beeps from the machinery we’d largely knocked on the ground, it was deadly silent. We hadn’t spent a lot of time awake here yet, but in the tour that Hest had given us (now lying slumped against the wall, head with the fine looking bruise spreading over his forehead, chin resting on his round chest, eyes open, staring, no one home…) we’d seen lots of neat, clean facilities, but hadn’t met anyone. Even our quarters were quiet. I’d paid it no mind. It was such a fantastic contrast to being penned up in the caterpillar that the relative silence of gently buzzing lights was a real treat.

“Weird. There’s got to be another way out of a complex like this – no one builds just one door. Plus, that would be super-useful since the only door we’ve seen so far is loaded up with soldiers. Can’t imagine they’d be cool with us swanning after wiping out the projects executive committee.” It wasn’t a great situation to be in, even if it was better than having our brains cut out. I’m not even sure how we’d get back to that big entrance – there were a lot of locking doors the way we came.”

“Cool. Makes you wonder if the soldiers are only outside. None of them came in here – our lot with Lindsmane went off through another door. Bet they’ve got billets, or whatever they call them tucked into the mountain too, but their job is to cover that entrance and exit, not fuck about with what the scientists are up to. Need to know, and all that.”

Gex was probably right. Hopefully. While we could play tricks on individuals (and even groups, now) with parasites, we’d be in serious trouble against anyone with a weapon, or training, or even just two people with a brick and a glass bottle who lacked oneirocytes. Exploring time, then. We looted the bodies first – not like proper looting, we weren’t after gold teeth or anything – but I don’t know what else you call it when you start rooting through corpse’s pockets for keys and security passes. We came up with a fistful each of keys and cards.

The room adjoining the surgical suite that we’d been able to see through the glass wall was another couple of walls filled with equipment: computers, monitors, baffling displays labelled “interior”, “engagement”, “independence” and more besides. There wasn’t much for us in there, just knocked over chairs and the one guy who hadn’t made it through the crush into the suite when they went for us. He was dead too. I’d just grabbed everyone nearby who wasn’t Gex or Scoro. I had lots of questions about the oneirocytes and these newfound extensions of its functions, but unfortunately we’d just killed everybody who might have been able to answer them. Another door happily opened onto a familiar looking cream corridor. Familiar, but not actually one we knew since they all looked the damn same. It wasn’t even like a hospital where they try to overcome its terrifying maze-like qualities by painting stripes on the floors and walls to guide you. Nope, like everything here the corridor went on for ages and had plenty of unmarked doors leading off it. It remained eerily quiet.

We started trying doors, all of them. It felt very strange leaving a roomful of bodies to go and systematically root through their house. I didn’t like feeling as if we’d broken into someone’s home, murdered them and then sought out all the valuable electronics and first day cover collections. We could at least be quick. Many of the doors opened onto similar pairs of rooms as those we’d left, or storage rooms half-filled with cartons and crates. Some of them were less than half full, which made us wonder just how long the project had been running, and what stage it had been in when we arrived. Doctor C said she’d been seconded to the project right at the beginning, just after the shell came up. It had been a live project since at least then, and there was no reason to think it hadn’t been underway since long before that. We’d only joined as assistants a few years ago, just before they packed in the testing phase. There were more rooms. Always more fucking rooms. Someone had fun burrowing into the mountain and making this weird hive. Finally, at the end of that corridor there was another door that led to stairs, and an elevator. Now, call me paranoid, but the fuck was I getting into an elevator. That must have been how we got up here – the room we woke up in definitely wasn’t the one we went to sleep in, so they must have wheeled us out and up to the “surgery hall” or “butcher suites” or whatever they called this place. We had the choice of up or down. It seemed to make sense that up was where we’d likely come from – who builds a secret lair in a mountain and builds upwards? No, you put the door at the top and the cool shit as deep down, safe and secure as you can. Did Smaug make a nest on top of the mountain for all his gold? Exactly. So down we went, anxiously eyeing the stairs above in case anyone did appear. But it was still quiet, and grew unnervingly so the more time we spent here. Going down felt darker, even though the lighting was exactly the same. I imagined that extra weight of the mountain above us and could see where people got claustrophobia from – it wasn’t grabbing me by the throat or anything, but it was there – an anxious little squeeze on my lungs and heart. Well, the sooner we found a way out the better.

The next floor was similar to the one above, but with additional meeting and conference rooms, more storage, more lack of people. Down again then…

Bingo. Of a sort. We had to flip through the cards until we found one that would work: Doctor C’s. Even Hest’s only got a polite beep out of the door, but together both of them swiped across the sensor made the door swing open. And into another fucking nightmare we went. This wasn’t a hall of doorways this time. The door opened onto a cleanroom antechamber, loaded up with closets containing white clean suits, sprays, gloves and all that useful stuff. There was neat little airlock that led into a much darker space beyond. We couldn’t quite make out what was in there. I eyed the suits speculatively.

“You must be joking,” Scoro said.

“Kinda,” I said, “But I feel like I want to know what was going on. There’s no one else here. So what’s behind that door?”

We all grumbled a bit. Even I didn’t really want to go in, but the curiosity was overwhelming. We’d put these oneirocytes in our heads to experience what Project Tutu had told us it was for – create your own virtual world to hang out in and escape this grey world for a while – but now it was clear that they’d had other ideas, and they’d just made us kill to stay free of them. “Made us kill”. Yeah, I know. Already rationalising our actions, but how does anyone live with what they’ve done otherwise. We suited up, somewhat ineptly, helping each other with zips, Velcro and what I guess were flanges. Suitably helmeted we all went into the airlock and waited while it shone that blue light over us, hissed some vapour from all sides, waited for it to dissipate and then finally the other door opened.

Onto a single enormous room. Compared to where we’d explored so far this was a vast space – think of every school hall you’ve been in and treble it in size. The blue lights were a primary feature here, lighting up the floor and ceiling. In between were racks, almost like a series of supermarket aisles, or a server farm, if you’re more technically minded. We tentatively edged down the first aisle. It was lined on both sides with shelves which were half electronic equipment and wires plugged into a seemingly endless array of glass tanks, very much the same as the weird terraria they’d been planning to dump our brains into. Or rather, Scoro had been right, it was just oneirocytes. At the end we began on the tanks held thick grey masses of the parasite, a really badly twisted ball of thread that a cat must have had a fine time playing with, tangled into the support structures, or plants that were in there with them. The further down the rack we got, the larger, denser and more sprawling those parasite webs became, until they were fully enmeshed with the trees and filled the tanks entirely, the networks so large that they pressed up against the sides.

It was all rather sobering. It actually took a while to grasp what we were looking at – not just that these were all advanced oneirocytes that had grown big and fat, but they didn’t have human brains attached. Now, it’s possible that they’d always been like this – that they had been grown independently of a host – but there were hundreds here, possibly a lot more than that. And that tallied pretty well with the absence of anyone in the facility except those we’d met. They were all down here, and what had almost been done to us had already been done to them. If all Doctor C had said was true, then they all lived on down here in the Unity. The parasites had copied their minds completely as they spread through their brains until they had replaced all the brain flesh that mattered. Once that growth process was complete, they could be harvested from the body and these individuals might never know it had even happened. Unless they tried to wake up. And that was the part that got me – the Unity ran off compelling you to forget about the real world – the “outer world” as Hest had kept calling it. Well, fuck that.

We were still shambling along the blue lit aisle when we reached a new section – presumably an older section where the parasites weren’t confined to their boxes any more. They overflowed, plunging threads into the tanks around them, making it look like the whole shelving rack was covered in a massive black web, tendrils stretching onto the floor, reaching out and touching the tendrils coming from the other side.

“I reckon we’ve seen enough…” Gex whispered. We’d begun whispering almost the second we’d entered this place. A mausoleum of living minds.

“Yeah, let’s get the fuck out of here,” I said. The quiet hum of the equipment had become deafening – a rising whine that filled a space beyond my ears. We started to back up the way we’d come, careful steps turning to a deliberate stride.

“Is it just me or–“ Scoro was not alone. The black threads of the parasites were moving, very faintly writhing, the tips crawling across the floor and out of the tanks beside us. Reaching out. Reaching for us. We were halfway back up the aisle, the soft glow of the airlock dead ahead when they started reaching out in other ways. My vision split again: the blue-dark of the parasite tomb overlaid with a gently snowing landscape. Gex and Scoro flickered in and out of the snow. I looked around and the glimpse of the Unity that Doctor C had given me was revealed to have been only a sliver. Behind me was the village of wooden chalets which Edithine had shown me, but when I turned I saw a whole city rising out of the snow – a wide frozen lake between us. This was all the people who had been butchered by the project and given this new place to live. A massive weight of pressure somewhere in my mind forced me to my knees, the gravity of the Unity pulling me down, freezing out my vision of the real world. The blue lights and dark racks faded, covered up by snow. I could feel the attention of all the minds in the Unity. A pair of legs stepped into view – I was crouching, trying to resist the weight that had driven me down. I craned my neck up and saw that it was, impossibly, Doctor C.

“Hi…” I managed.

She knelt down to look at me. I couldn’t tell whether she was angry or not. I’d have been fucking livid if someone killed my body, but there was no violence in her gaze. (I guess at heart, violence is not so far from my nature as I’d like to believe.) She took me by the chin.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said, “I’d hoped you and your friends would accept this, that you’d become part of the Unity, and live forever here with us. But I don’t think you really want that, do you?”

“Did anyone really want this, or did you just hack their heads open anyway?”

“Everyone here knew what the project was leading to,” she said.

“Cool, that’s just a tiny bit fucking evasive. I bet most of them didn’t, and now they don’t even have a clue that there ever was a real world.”

“It’s all a matter of perception,” Doctor C half-conceded. “But we can’t have you loose in the facility like this, not while we’re all in here. So I’m afraid it’s time to say goodbye. I did enjoy gardening together, once.”

She stepped away and invisible fingers began to pull at my mind. It felt like the oneirocyte was being drawn out of my head like you might wind a Guinea worm out of your leg. I began to scream and didn’t think I’d ever stop. I’d lost all sight of Gex and Scoro, blinded by the snow and the pain, the interference as my mind was pulled apart. I really thought it was all over, that I’d die, lying there cold in the fake snow, but then I heard a voice – Scoro’s: “we’re coming.” The snow shuddered and split as arching walls of intricate stone and ironwork erupted from the ground, wrapping me in a spike of gothic cathedral. As the snowy sky was blotted out, the pain in my head faded. The architecture snapped shut and hauled me out of the Unity.

My eyes flickered back open in the real world, the snow gone, replaced by the soft blue light. I was being dragged and began to struggle until Gex put her face right in front of mine. I nodded understanding and tried to stand, but I didn’t yet have full control of my legs and it just made it harder for my friends to drag me. While they piled us into the airlock, the cavernous room full of dead people’s brains slowly reached out for us. It was like being underwater. And then the airlock snapped shut, gassed us again, and we fell back out into the antechamber.

“We really, really need to get the fuck out of this mountain,” I gasped as Scoro pulled my helmet off.

“Too true.”

We tore off the cleansuits and stumbled back out. Down had proven to be an utter nightmare, so that left up.

“Are you OK?” Gex’s voice in my ear as we shambled up the stairs. I was getting my legs back, as if I’d spent weeks on a rough sea, and my skull ached.

“Yeah, yeah. They’re still alive – all of them, Doctor C, all those people we killed.”

It felt unreal – we hadn’t really accepted what Doctor C and Hest had been telling us. Project Tutu worked, really worked, and when we’d yanked them out of the real world and thrown them in a pit. That metaphorical murder of Gex’s had actually cut them off from their bodies. Their bodies died, but the parasites lived on. Which perfectly explained what we saw when we reached the floor where they’d tried to take our brains. We were just aiming for the next flight of stairs upward, but a movement far down the hall caught my eye. I stopped, and stared. Blood was pooling out of a doorway, and in it I could see what looked like black string, sopping with blood writhing forwards.

“I’m sorry – I just need to see this,” I said, to Scoro’s audible horror. I slowly approached the surgical suite where the blood was coming from. I didn’t need to go inside. The blood covered the floor, redly slick and the man who’d never made it out of the observation chamber still lay there, clothes soaking up the blood. But his head… his skull looked like someone had gone at it with a cheese grater – from the inside. Black threads unwound through the holes in his scalp, lashing about in the blood, pulling more of itself out of him and writhing through the blood towards the door. Beyond him, the surgical suite showed more of the same, black masses, greasy with chunks of brain matter oozing towards us.

“OK, I actually didn’t need to see that,” I hissed as I rejoined Gex and Scoro who were just staring as the pool of blood continued to seep into the corridor. “Yep, didn’t need that at all. Might never sleep again. Let’s go.”

We ran up the stairs from then on. Two flights. Three, then four. Hearts racing we got to the top of the stairs which opened into a bluely lit corridor. We burst through it, noting the door on the right that we’d been brought through initially for cleaning, and the big double doors at the very end which opened back out into the concrete garage space where we’d left the caterpillar. The door we came out of must have been the one the scientists went through while we got scrubbed. They weren’t the only doors though – there was another pair opposite the cleaning rooms. There was an excellent chance that these led straight to the soldiers, but just then that didn’t seem so bad.

Stolen Skies

Stolen Skies

The Sun has vanished, the Moon has been abandoned. Earth is alone, and englobed in a mysterious force. It’s not going well… but hope lies within. You can download the whole story as an ebook here: Stolen Skies ebook. Writing diary and notes kept alongside the story are here: Stolen Skies writing diary.

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