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.