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.