Stolen Skies – Part Eighteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

More goddamn stairs. Why was everything stairs these days? We’d pretty much run out of puff, and with the blue corridor and quite a lot of doors and stairs between us and the cat’s cradle psychic hell deep inside the mountain, I felt like we were able to relax a tiny bit. Our hearts were racing, legs aching with build-up of lactic acid, we wheezed like the forty year-olds we were, who’d spent their adult lives in a scum-filled atmosphere, chugging zygoptics for most of that time. We more pulled ourselves up the staircase by the banister than climbed. A cold sweat clung to me. Those bastard fibres were still crawling across the floor towards us, leaving lacework patterns of blood behind. I was really glad that I hadn’t tried to go the whole way into the surgical suite. The coils I’d seen worming their way out of that man’s skull wasn’t going to go away without therapy and a fuck-tonne of drugs, but it would have been a million times worse to have seen a whole room of dead bodies with that wiry shit sprouting out of their ruined heads. Ah, you know what – maybe I didn’t need to see it, my imagination was doing just fine all on its own. One of the benefits of the oneirocytes, of course, was having a much greater control over such useful mental functions as imagination and perception – specifically the shaping of a perpetual reality that could be perceived the same way again and again. I really hoped our powers with the oneirocytes were good enough to excise these images from my dreams, and keep them out of our ownworlds.

Speaking of the ownworlds, and our oneirocytes… As yet I hadn’t fully wrapped my head around what I’d seen and the knowledge that I had exactly the same thing cradling my own brain, and those of Scoro and Gex who wheezed beside me, trudging upwards. That should have been a lot more alarming, that I had a similar ball of steel wool busy replacing my brain with a synthetic, lasting version of itself. A parasite which could escape my skull after my death and… I don’t know, fuck off and live in a tree or something. Presumably the skull-wool I’d seen leaving their hosts was actually heading off down to the huge room where all its pals were, rather than specifically chasing us – because that would be stupid as fuck. Filaments aren’t going to catch running people, after all, and even if they did, what were they going to do, crawl in through our ears and eyes to get at our oneirocytes? Cool, yet another mental image I did not need. The prospect of ever sleeping again receded further. Shared ownworlds were consensual, that was the whole point and key to making them work. We could never be consciously abducted and installed in the freaky garden downstairs – that was why they tried to trick us into thinking the Unity was reality. So, no. We were safe from integration, but not necessarily safe from murder. Would our parasites fight for us? I mean, my oneirocyte had shown no inclination to get in on the act of forming some super-organism writhing in a basement greenhouse. I was still labelling “it” as “it”, rather than what it really was, which was “me plus”. In time, the oneirocyte would replace my brain entirely and whatever distinction had once existed would become moot, only for worrying about by philosophers and other twats excited by whether an axe that you’ve replaced the handle and head of is still the same axe. Which meant that since “I” had shown no interest in their bland paradise, neither had “it” or “me plus”. I was still me, which was reassuring, probably. Ah, fuck. It felt like everything had gotten seriously out of hand, and fretting about it while my lungs laboured for breath was not the best time. For one, I was plainly short of oxygen, hence the wheezing, and therefore not thinking at my best. A spot of paranoia when people have tried to kill you and keep you alive in their tedious infinite simulation is very appropriate, but I wasn’t likely to answer any of my deep and meaningful questions until we were far from here, in a hermetically sealed room while we watched each other get some sleep.

Even at our agonisingly slow pace, the staircases passed, our knees creaked alarmingly and we turned a final corner into another fucking lobby area with more fucking doors. I had grown profoundly weary of both stairs and doors, never mind corridors. No wonder my ownworld was devoid of all three – I must have cultivated some deep loathing of them well before entering the home of Project Tutu, or I just liked open spaces and no surprises. We paused to catch our breath properly, hanging off the railing as we returned to a more natural colour. We’d seen no soldiers, so maybe they really weren’t allowed inside the complex at all, and lived in a shack on the outside of the mountain, herding goats or whatever. And these stairs – Jesus, I couldn’t bear to imagine how many steps there had been. I leaned back over the banister and looked straight down the middle. Yep, basically infinite.

I turned to the others. “All OK?”

Many eyerolls, but the ghost of a smile on Gex’s face, and a proper nod from Scoro. Belatedly I realised that we’d failed to find any weapons on the way out, but had at least retained the crappy soft-soled shoes that we’d pulled on for the airlock and cleansuits. They weren’t comfortable, but our feet weren’t bleeding from pounding up the stairs I didn’t think – we hadn’t checked and all the dampness everywhere else was sweat. Planning is not my forte, but then neither is escaping from a scientific facility and meat-killing a bunch of people. Ah, how times change. We made some effort to look ready for anything and gently pushed open the doors.

We’d found the soldiers. They were standing facing away from us, eyes on the monitors and read-outs that ringed the consoles all around the room. What dominated the big wide room was the clear dome that covered it. You could just about see the structures that ringed this observatory, some of those huge dishes and spiky towers that you found at astronomical observatories, plus a whole load of weird fin shapes, curling pillars and things I had no idea about at all. In the centre of the room stood another guy wearing a beret, and with him was our Corporal Lindsmane. Both spun at the sound of the door opening, and they took in the sight of three somewhat damp white-coated individuals gaping at them.

“You took the stairs?” was the first thing out of Lindsmane’s mouth. Motherfucker. Somewhere there was a lift.

“Yes… didn’t want to risk getting trapped. If… something happened,” I replied, aiming for ultra vague with a hint of competence.

“Well you made excellent time, considering, Doctor…” commented the other fellow, presumably a higher rank because of the fancier beret and additional decoration on his play suit.

I glanced down surreptitiously at the lanyard hanging round my neck and cautiously ventured: “Quince.” Gex and Scoro did the same, figuring out who they were supposed to be, Gex subtly covering the vivid splatter of blood from the scientist whose throat she’d cut. Lindsmane was giving me a very odd look, since “Quince” was very obviously not my real name, and soldiers are rather security-focused. I gave him a thumbs up and strained grin, as his superior turned his attention back to the massive window. Hopefully our few days together would buy us just a little grace.

“Quince. Excellent,” the other soldier said, hands clasped behind his back as he stared at the sky through the glass dome. “Thank you for coming so quickly. As you can see – something is happening at last.”

Cool, we’d wandered into yet another situation where we had no idea what was going on. I was incredibly grateful when Lindsmane chose to throw us a bone.

“Colonel Stallford–” a name I was probably supposed to know “–perhaps we should fill our science colleagues in. Not all of Project Tutu is as well-versed in Project Nut.”

“Quite right Lindsmane. I’d rather expected to see the senior executive team up here, considering.”

“Ah yes, Doctor Charbroly is um, indisposed,” all true… “The project is at a critical point. So she sent us,” I ended with limply.

But apparently satisfactorily, though Lindsmane boggled at us. I gave him a secret headshake, and tried to convey that everything was both utterly fucked and that we weren’t any kind of a problem he needed to worry about. I can only guess that every project here was so weird that he’d been feeling a bit unsure about everything since arriving.

“So – Project Nut,” the colonel continued.

I hadn’t heard it properly the first time, and couldn’t help but blurt out, “Project Nut?”

Either Stallford was expecting the question or I’d managed to disguise my incredulity because he proceeded smoothly with his mini briefing. “Project Nut, named for the Egyptian goddess of the stars. While Project Tutu looked inward to find a solution for humanity here inside the englobement, Project Nut looked outward, seeking the stars beyond. Since the englobement twenty years ago, Project Nut has been at work across the world, probing the barrier, testing it and attempting to breach it with traditional and non-traditional communication tools.”

Phenomenal, these were likely the pricks that tried firing nukes into near-Earth space, which fucked up half the world. I chose not to interrupt.

“While some tests were more successful than others, we’ve had no success whatsoever in penetrating the barrier. Similarly none of our instruments have been successful in detecting a single particle passing through the barrier. We’ve been protected from all cosmic rays; not even the most super-energetic particle has struck the Earth, to the best of our detection. Utterly cut off from the known universe. Since losing trace of the moon’s gravity, we’ve detected no other sources of gravity strong enough to affect us.”

A striking success of a project, I thought. Some real quality work being done here, with god knows what resources.

“Until three days ago,” he added, since we looked so radically unimpressed with his little speech. “Three days ago we detected gravity from outside the shell – multiple sources, and big. Equivalent to, or greater than our own planet.”

“You mean… there’s something outside?”

“More specifically, we think we’ve arrived somewhere.”

“And what happens next?”

“We stand ready to extend our communication efforts. If, as we suspect, we’ve been taken somewhere for a reason – since plainly the englobement of our world is no simple cosmic event, this a purposeful action – which we must assume is hostile, though possibly in an alien sense that we may struggle to interpret, we must be ready to communicate with whatever reveals itself. And, if necessary, respond in kind.”

That was great, for twenty years these guys had been waiting to have a chat with something, but if in doubt they were going to shoot it. Humans, right?

Gex chipped in, “A very thorough summary colonel,” honestly, praise works so well on these guys – I’d have sworn he was standing taller, “and what is happening right now, that caused you to summon Project Tutu from our important work?” She was laying on a little thick, but it felt like the right kind of arrogance from those we’d encountered below.

“We believe the projects are about to intersect.”

Even as he spoke, it began. Total silence enveloped the room and we all stared straight up through the dome. Fine lines had appeared in the meat-grey sky, glowing edges of light that steadily grew as, in a high-speed reverse of how the shell had appeared in the darkness of space, the vast segments of the shell receded, sinking back into the deep. In their place: light. Light, unbelievable light washed through the spaces between the shells until their shapes were overwhelmed, like a figure walking away through a brightly lit doorway, their outlines blurring and warping in the bright, bright light that flooded across our darkened world. While we stared, hands were tapping away at their instruments, dishes were mechanically grinding on tracks outside, button catches were flipped open and the nervous chatter of detection equipment sent needles and pens scrawling across rolls of paper. But there was nothing I could do but gaze into the glowing light.

Stolen Skies – Part Nineteen (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

It was like a new dawn, a new heat and light that blasted through the clouds casting shadows on the ground below. It had been so long since clouds had shadows. Colour erupted across the hills and countryside around us – our vantage point let us see our grim grey world turning Technicolor. It felt like being punched in the chest and tears ran down my cheeks as the dirty sky’s blue tint returned.

“We’re out,” gasped Scoro.

“Is that the sun…” I half-moaned. It was something I’d never really thought we would ever see again, but that flicker of hope had been down there somewhere, despite all the efforts of the last two decades to smother it forever. The light was so bright that it hurt, even though the glass dome adjusted its polarisation to protect our mere human eyes.

“Contact sir,” reported one of the soldiers at a terminal, interrupting our ecstasy of illumination, “major gravity wells detected, and the sun – the star – well, it’s not just one sun, sir.”

A screen unfolded in the centre of the room above a round conference table, showing in live time what the arrays could now detect of the space around the Earth. The Earth lay in the middle of the image and new details were sketching in as the equipment translated the signals they received from the instruments outside and beyond. Seeing a model of our home planet without its moon was strangely shocking given how long it had been since we’d known its presence. Something ingrained I guess, “our planet has a moon” is locked in tight to my sense of what this planet is, or was supposed to be. That clearly wasn’t our sun, and the sketch made that much clearer than just by looking upward. Now that the screen had polarised enough you could just make out that instead of a single bright orb in the sky, there was another fainter one – I could almost have mistaken it for a moon if I wasn’t surrounded by people determined to layer in as much detail as possible.

“A full picture will take longer sir, but we’re getting immediate hits from all ground-based astronomy and it looks like some satellites that we’d lost contact with are coming back online.”

“Tactical systems active?”

“Yes sir. Project Petbe fully online, including orbital systems.”

“Project Petbe?” asked Scoro. We’d been pretty much ignored since the sky opened like a flower, but it was clear that significant action was about to occur, and we’d had enough of being bystanders. Plus, our newly assumed ranks of scientist people surely gave us some kind of voice.

“Petbe, ‘god of revenge’. Whatever comes at us now, we’ve got a good chance of taking out,” Stallford said absently, his attention entirely on the display before us, now coming to life and filling in with more and more detail. Fuck me, another Egyptian god-named project. Whoever started this off had a real fixation with the ancient civilisation – it had lasted for thousands of years after all, and we could barely claim a few hundred, so maybe it was something to aim for. And now, encountering something cosmic and beyond humanity for the first time, we’d made a plan to fuck it right up if we didn’t like it. Honestly, it makes me want to scream sometimes.

Three stars, that’s what the machines were seeing anyway. A trinary system, with three stars orbiting each other in a tight pyramidic loop. It was genuinely hard to even think while looking at this stuff – we’d been locked away for twenty years of death, disaster and failure and now the universe looked completely different. This obviously wasn’t our solar system, I mean: duh. More details flickered into life, tentatively marking out gravity wells and more impossible cosmic features came into focus: eleven other planets, varying widely in mass, plus ours – all strung out in a single ring encircling the stars. Which was nuts. In a solar system like our old one we’d all had separate orbits, but here we all followed the same track. To say it was beyond my comprehension really added nothing to the conversation, so I just watched the soldiers do their stuff.

“Sir, we think the Earth has begun to rotate again,” called out a really sweaty and excited guy down at the front, “the other gravity wells have started us turning – we’ll have day and night again.”

Every shock seemed greater than the last, but the idea that we might have day and night once more was overwhelming. I hadn’t even realised that I’d taken Gex by the hand, or that Scoro’s hand was clamped tight on my shoulder.

“Begin communication protocols,” ordered Stallford. A brand new array of lights and displays burst into life as the Earth beamed out greetings to the new heavens. I was still reeling from being in daylight again. Granted it wasn’t the Earth’s gentle-seeming Sun, but a whiter, brighter light presumably resulting from the trio of stars freshly irradiating us. I wondered where we might get sun tan lotion from. Or sunglasses for that matter.

“No incoming transmissions received sir,” reported back half a dozen of the soldier-technicians, “no contact that we can detect.”

Why bring us to this bizarre artificial place if they weren’t going to talk to us?

“All right then, over to you Doctor Quince,” said Stallford expectantly. He and Lindsmane turned to us. Fuck… What had Project Tutu been doing here? Sure, they were building a safe future in case we never came out of the shell and the rest of the Earth died, probably tapping the geothermal depths of the world to keep their Unity going until the Earth cooled – millions of years to wait and figure something out. But they’d also been able to reach out to us as we drove around, lost. That had been Doctor C plus the entire parasite community downstairs. There were just three of us, and no fucking way was I going back into the Unity again.

“Well, yes. Obviously we’re ready to make an attempt,” Scoro stepped up, with a greater sense of self-preservation than me. “We’ll need a few moments to prepare. You have somewhere for us to sit.” Plainly that was a question, but it sounded like an order. My friends were slipping into their newfound roles nicely.

“Of course, we have a dedicated workstation for you right here.”

Bang in the centre of the room. Four neat little couches slid out from under the conference table over which the visualisation of our new solar system sprawled. At least they definitely expected us to be doing this using the parasites. It was all going so well, right up until this point where we had no fucking clue what we were doing. In fairness to Corporal Lindsmane, he’d held his peace for us up to now, and I can see how the current situation – making contact with an unknown alien presence on behalf of the whole planet – might make him a bit leery of letting three people he’d basically scraped off the street and who he knew were impersonating official science types take the lead here.

He did the soldier thing and drew his sidearm on us. “Just hold it right there.”

“Corporal, what the hell do you think you’re doing?” Demanded his superior, suddenly alert to a new threat in the room.

“Excuse me, Colonel, but there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding. These people aren’t who they’re claiming to be. They’re the three refugees we brought in with us – those aren’t their ID badges.”

The air felt electric with tension, and everything moved in slow motion as the soldiers around us reacted to this new danger that was in the room with them. Who knows what they’d been told about Project Tutu and what its subjects might be capable of. Very possibly more than we had. I sensed that this would be a difficult situation to talk ourselves out of, especially now that the soldiers had spotted the blood spattered over Gex’s coat and taken proper account of our rather scruffy demeanour and unscientific looks of fear on our faces. There were a lot more guns pointed at us than I was comfortable with. More than none made me very uncomfortable.

“Where is Doctor Charbroly?” asked Stallford, leaving his own weapon holstered. He didn’t need it, one more bullet hole would make little difference to how dead we got. Although, a thought whispered in the back of my mind, as long as they weren’t head shots, we actually might not die… I felt we had a couple of options, neither of them good: keep lying, or tell the truth. I made a choice, with a thought of apology at me friends.

“Doctor Charbroly is dead. They’re all dead.” Well, that got the exact reaction I expected as the sound of safety catches coming off clicked in the quiet. “They went too far, and the parasites got out of control. It’s just parasites down there now – they’ve taken over. We’re the only ones left.” All true, except the parasites were them, but I reckoned that was a subtlety that only made sense if you’d just killed a bunch of people and found out they were still alive. “If you want Project Tutu to make contact, we’re the only ones who can do it.” Which gave me another question – how would the parasite garden below be able to talk to anyone else – how did you talk to them if you weren’t one of them. I guess you could plug a phone into the network, or something. Give them new bodies? I shuddered, none of that would help us right now.

Stallford looked radically unimpressed.

“We can do this,” I assured him. “We’re networked and trained in exactly the same way as the rest of the project. We just had to get out of there–“ I gestured at Gex’s splash of blood and indicated our general bedragglement, “–down there they’ve been physically integrating the parasites outside the human body. They’ve been killing the subjects to advance the project timetable. We’re more use to you outside the project than killed by it.”

That was almost certainly true, and it seemed to have some weight. Clearly Stallford had met some of the sociopaths running Project Tutu and this didn’t seem wholly unlikely.

“I never did trust in nanotech solutions,” muttered Stallford, “you get one attempt. But if you sabotage this, we’ll know, and we’re fully authorised to use deadly force to defend this planet.”

We edged warily around the still-raised weapons and eased ourselves into the couches. I didn’t feel fantastic about closing my eyes while surrounded by paranoid, gun-toting soldiers. Still, we had run out of options. I lay back and slid into the interchange between our ownworlds. Gex and Scoro emerged from their ownworlds, fading into reality like shadows filled by a can of spray-paint.

“Shit man, what the actual fuck?” Scoro had the right questions, but we didn’t have time to mess about.

“Look, we’re about to get killed for real if we don’t come up with something. This lot, Project Nut,” (for fuck’s sake, couldn’t they have found some cooler god names for these projects?), “are going to be as happy to shoot the shit out of us as they are to launch a missile or whatever into the nearest planet. Our best chance is to try something.”

“You want to do what Doctor C did when they reached out to you before?” Gex asked.

“Yep. We don’t have five hundred or so oneirocytes in train that we can use to boost the signal, but we’re better at this than they are. Look what we’ve already been able to do – they built wank little wooden chalets, we built worlds – all on our own. It took the whole weight of their Unity to yank us out of the real world, but we did it with just the three of us.”

“All it takes is a little imagination…” suggested Scoro.

“Exactly that. If we can imagine it here, make it real, we can replicate what they did, and more.” I was increasingly convinced of it. Whether I really believed it, or was just desperate enough to think I did wasn’t really important. We were in an imagined space, and whatever we imagined was real here became true. If there was something out there that could hear us, even while they ignored radio signals and whatever other crap the Nut people were banging out there, then we should – we could – reach them.

Even as I was talking, Gex’s world was rising up through the white dust of my ownworld, man-sized cogs and engines revolving. Scoro’s architecture grew up around it, like frost crystallising on a window pane. I added to it, tree trunks spiralling around the tower as it twisted up into the sky. We infused it with our sense of selves, laying hands on the structure and feeling some vital matter of ourselves extend throughout its structure, laced with a desire, an overwhelming wish to communicate. Together we receded from the world, attaining that gods’ eye view I’d experienced when Project Tutu combined their resources to reach just a few hundred miles to a mind like theirs. We perceived the bubble of ownworld existence – a complete universe with no limits, no outside, only the world itself – and pierced it. The tower, a twisting spire of our three combined worlds – part stone, machine, and imaginary organic life all deeply interwoven and suffused with our sense of selves. I could almost feel the oneirocyte moving inside my real world skull. It was a nauseating sensation, but one that told me our actions here did have a direct impact outside. As the spire pierced the fabric of the ownworld’s reality it slid into the real world, invisibly punching through the Earth’s atmosphere and crying out into space.

For a seeming eternity we poured our attention and hope into that spire and out into the universe beyond ourselves. It was cold, and dark out there. Were we feeling the actual touch of vacuum inside our minds? And then, at last, something heard us. It was like walking in the woods and catching a glimpse of something, squinting to make it out and then suddenly realising it was a thing with eyes which opened and looked back at you. A feeling of immensity washed over us, making the spire shudder and shaking us back into our ownworld bodies at the foot of the tower. We stepped back, no longer needing to touch the structure since we had created it and the oneirocytes had locked it into existence. Way up where it penetrated the boundary of our ownworld space, there was a distant whistling, as if the atmosphere was being sucked out through the hole way up in the sky. Well, we’d done something all right.

Perhaps not the right something as I woke back into the real as the shock of a slap across my face smacked my head back in the headrest. Lovely, another fucking gun in my face, and Stallford shouting, “what did you do?” while frantically leaning over his underlings’ consoles. Whatever we’d done had made the observatory break out with noise – shouting from one desk to another, running back and forth. It was Lindsmane who had his gun in my face this time, and two more soldiers were aiming at Gex’s and Scoro’s faces as they too lurched back into reality.

“Woah! We did what you asked – we said ‘hello’,” I cried, hands up as is traditional in these situations. It failed to have the impact I’d hoped for, which was to see the gun move away.

From across the room: “We have definite contact, there’s a… shape… a spaceship,” (you could hear the extreme reluctance to commit to that in the soldier’s voice), “it appeared on radar out of nowhere, and it’s headed our way.”

The display screen that we were seated around was still updating with detail and this new object appeared on the board. Diamond-shaped, or like a long tear drop with all curves rendered into brutal sharp lines. From the display it looked like it was about half the size our moon used to be.

“It’s just smashed through the satellite grid,” another soldier reported, “satellite field epsilon is gone – just gone. It’s coming in fast.”

“Launch countermeasures,” snapped Colonel Stallford, “Project Petbe approved, authorisation Alpha-Zero, commit on my mark.”

I almost suppressed a snort at the ridiculous military procedural stuff they came out with, but it sounded a lot like…

“Wait,” I shouted, “Are you seriously planning to attack that thing? Are you a fucking idiot?”

This was unwelcome feedback from an untrusted source. I might have pushed it a bit too far, but I was terrified that we were about to start a war with something so far outside our experience it was a joke. Stallford wheeled round and drew his own sidearm, adding it to Lindsmane’s. Cool, I’d be double-dead.

“We’ve been uprooted from our solar system, most of Earth’s population is dead, they’ve killed our planet, and now they’re wiping out our satellite imagery and weaponry. That–” he pointed at the angular spacecraft grinding its way into our atmosphere, “–that is an immediate threat, and we will deal with it.”

We couldn’t let this happen. I submerged once more into the ownworld, this time maintaining my presence in the real. The overlaid worlds were confusing to say the least. In the real world I heard someone, probably Stallford say, “Mark, open fire, all Petbe assets.”

As he spoke I saw Gex and Scoro lunging out of their couches, pistols raised to track them, opening fire. In the ownworld I laid a hand on our spire and whispered, “Help,” as I too threw myself forwards, aiming to tackle Stallford. These were terrible plans: three idiots against a trained military unit, but sometimes you just have to do something, because doing nothing is unthinkable. This time we got a clear response. The observatory rang like a bell that had been struck. In one fell swoop all the soldiers collapsed where they stood or sat, their shots going happily awry as Gex, Scoro and I fell through where our intended targets had been and stumbled against the floor.

“Fuck, that was close,” hissed Gex. I didn’t reply: I was looking up. The needle point of the spacecraft was directly overhead, pointing down at the exact centre of the dome. It didn’t even leave a shadow – the suns’ light passed right through it. It was like looking at a rock made of soap bubbles. It was awesome. The dome rang again, and the glass crazed instantly and collapsed into powder that rained down on us harmlessly.

We’d made contact with someone, something greater than us, and it was waiting for us – just hanging there in the air. Gingerly we sat back in our couches. I was painfully aware of the bullethole right where I rested my head. We sank back into the ownworlds, and that’s where we finally met the Vaunted.