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Stolen Skies – Part Twenty (Nanowrimo 2022)

It had been a rather dramatic day: someone tried to open my skull, we’d killed a bunch of people, discovered a horrorshow nursery for extracted brains who could basically walk around, walked up far too many stairs – I swear I can feel them in my knees to this day – to find the shell splitting open at last, nearly got shot by soldiers, and finally we made contact with the godlike aliens who’d started it all. I reckon all the people in charge at Project Tutu and Project Nut, and probably everyone who’s ever been in charge anywhere, would have been horrified at the idea that it would have been the three of us absolute nobodies who made first contact with the aliens. Ha, well fuck them. Say, are you sure you don’t want me to find a doctor? Well, I guess you’d know best. I’d love to know how this all happened for your lot, the Alometh. For us, we first spoke with the Vaunted after an absolute clusterfuck of a day – hell, a clusterfuck of a couple of decades. It sure wasn’t the smooth and urbane diplomatic meeting that anyone had envisaged. I certainly hadn’t expected it to take place inside our heads. But, as it turned out later, the Vaunted don’t really have a proper physical form. Not any more, anyway. Although it’s unclear quite how that came about. The giant soap bubble spaceship that had entered Earth’s atmosphere was just a thin weaving of membranes that they claimed was a side-effect of their mental culture intruding on the real universe. Wild stuff, man. You know, it would be really great to get these bits of glass out of my face some time. I stood up and looked through the little square window set into each of the double doors that had led into the ward, or waiting room or whatever this was. Nothing. Very quiet outside, or very busy somewhere else I supposed. With a sigh, I slumped back down in my chair, wriggling a bit to regain the comfortable slouch I’d achieved before.

The stuff that had been oozing out of the Alometh’s sort-of-face had slowed which was probably a good sign – not bleeding is usually a positive – and had pooled stickily under their chair. Someone’s clean up job was going to suck. God knows what solvents you need for dissolving the product of a species whose body chemistry is only barely analogous to Earth’s. Still, vinegar and baking soda might well do the trick. It was funny how some things like that seemed to have universal application. It was the same in making contact with the Vaunted. All those radio waves and stuff just didn’t interest them – they weren’t looking for them, didn’t hear them, might not even have a “thing” that let them sense them. No ears, no radar dishes, just those mad barely-existing space shapes. What we had in common was minds. It made a sort of sense: there are a load of insane sounding quantum effects that relate to change apparently caused by observation. The presence of an observer appears to make things happen, and the most observant you can be is to be self-aware, observing both the universe and yourself. We’d been sentient, conscious and aware for thousands – hundreds of thousands, more? – of years, and as a species (speaking on behalf, ahem, of Project Tutu) we’d been attaining mastery of our consciousness in a much more purposeful way, properly exploiting the curious duality of human experience: our waking and dreaming worlds. Maybe the people who set up Project Tutu had suspected all along that the mental “plane” was going to be the only way to interact with aliens, that language would fail us, as would trying to construct a shared reality based on maths or music. Or maybe they were just an end-times cult who killed all their cultists to escape this world forever – just on a much bigger budget than most cults.

Either way, as we slid back into the ownworld, standing at the foot of our “hello tower” (calling it a communications spire or something just sounded so much like pretentious bollocks I couldn’t bring myself to do so. It’s not like we knew how it worked, not yet anyway), the diamond spaceship appeared in the sky above us – we had invited it in, after all. It slid down over the spire (dammit) we had constructed, like it was just the right shape to dock with. Maybe it was a coincidence and they would have landed anywhere, maybe it we’d stumbled on the perfect interface. Who knew. That sort of issue remained mysterious, still does – imagination fused with intention takes the idea of intuition to the next level, and even though we can control these mental realms, the synthesis of these powers creates something much greater than the individual parts. Presumably the Vaunted in their bubble ships had figured this stuff out. Watching the tower slip smoothly inside the ship, or the ship bending around the tower really did look like bubbles sliding down the outside of a bottle. It looked exactly the same as it had in the real world, but smaller, resized to match us perhaps. It didn’t stop its progress down the tower, but kept going until it almost disappeared into the ground, its weird-shaped bubbles fading out of existence until the remaining structure of its shape visibly popped, inverting and revolving, transforming itself into a shape we could recognise and interact with. A weird little soapy human, one you could see right through and who was made up of those swirling rainbow shapes, but nonetheless – very definitely a human form.

It was an awkward first meeting. Obviously we were super-impressed with bumping into an alien, especially one that seemed comfortable in the special place that we’d only just learned about ourselves, but it had been quite an overwhelming day. For a little while we just stared at it, while the Vaunted bubble-man took their time, having a good old look around them at my ownworld. I gave the trees a little extra spin and tried hard not feel like I should be tidying up, or making it more impressive. It felt exactly like having your mother visit the absolute shithole you’ve been living in and kicking stuff under the sofa while she’s looking in another direction. Eventually its attention returned to us. How do you start a conversation? It was like we’d never been in one before. All the questions were drowned under the weight of figuring out how to say “hello”. In the end, of course, that’s exactly what I said, once it was looking at us again, cobbling sentences together from movies I’d once seen.

“Er, hello… there. Welcome to Earth. We’re not – uh – in charge, I mean we’re not the government or anything, but you know, it’s nice to meet you.”

Honestly, the look Gex gave me should have made me shrivel up into a husk of a man. Still, it was enough the energise the alien into conversation.

“Your presence is sufficient. Greetings and welcome. Minds are rare and worthy of preservation. We sense others here, beneath your space.”

Ah, the parasite farm down under. “Yeah, they’re a bit weird. You might want to talk to them later.”

“Very well. There have been intrusions. The fracturing of space. Crypt-space must be repelled. Hence your salvation. Soon you will join the fight.”

Well that was a lot all in one go. All the words were fine, mostly, though “crypt-space” didn’t sound remotely good.

“Right – um. Sorry, what does that mean, like, any of it? And who are you?”

It’s funny, we’ve known them as the Vaunted for long enough now that it feels like their name has fallen back through time and we’ve been calling them this for all eternity. It should be obvious that it isn’t really their name – minds don’t have names, they just have selves. No one calls themself by their name inside their own head, unless we’re really trying to gee ourselves up for that job interview, date, or just to get out of bed. The Vaunted don’t have names because they don’t have physical form that needs labelling. They just are who they are, but fuck me do they like to brag when they get a chance. And we gave them that opportunity. It wasn’t that their English wasn’t great – they were literally visiting us in our ownworlds, inside our minds and sharing that reality was constructing the structures of shared language as a simple by-product of existence. They just didn’t really like using words. The Vaunted like pictures, they like memories and they like to show, not tell.

The bubble-man nodded sagely, like he was really thinking hard about my questions. Then he looked directly at each of us in turn – as much as you can look at someone with eyes that are just more bubbles – and the ownworld folded up around us like an origami flower, except it wasn’t a flower, it was space. Or… not space, it had taken us into its own ownworld. We never found out if that’s what they call their mental realm. I guess it’s just “home” to them. The world was made of glittering light, shapes barely sketched in and visible only as gleaming membranes where the light struck them, or rather where light was produced, since there was no sun, no lights here. Light was intrinsic to the shapes and forms the Vaunted created. Pretty cool place. We stood an angles to each other, hanging in space. I suppose up and down are things for petty mortals like us. The bubble-man was still with us, and with a gesture something that was like a three dimensional film began to play in the space between and around us. That’s a deep understatement: it was as much like a 3D film as seeing a bird in the sky is like seeing the world from that bird’s point of view. That’s a terrible metaphor, but we weren’t just seeing the film, we were getting the original viewer’s perspective. And with their view came their thoughts, feelings and beliefs both about what we were seeing and everything that had led them to that point. In the same way that when I see a flower I can recognise what it is, I’ve also got a tonne of conceptual understanding: I know what flowers are, I know what this specific flower is called, where it is, how it got there – a decent grasp of the reproductive cycle of a flower, that bees like it and so on. Plus, I’ve got all my memories of other flower-related incidents, and all the feelings I’ve got when I see this flower, both from the flower and from whatever I’ve been doing that’s leading me to the point where I’m staring at this fucking flower. What I had for breakfast, fretting about not knowing enough about flowers, a vague sense of shame for something I did twenty years ago – basically everything that’s in my head up to the point of looking at a goddamn daffodil. It’s a lot. And we got all of that from the Vaunted, every bit.

I could feel my brain reeling, the oneirocyte racing to keep up with the apparent conversion of our minds from human to Vaunted – new senses, new modes of thought, emotions we didn’t have. We saw the universe as they saw it (fucking massive), felt how they did (incomparably arrogant, to be honest), knew what they did (not quite as much as they wanted, or needed to, not for what they were up to, but an hilariously greater grasp of the cosmos than we had). I felt like I was cartwheeling through time, unfamiliar dimensions and perception of past and future bleeding upward into each other, infusing my present with their past. It wasn’t entirely pleasant: if I’d been doing this in my body I’d have been vomiting constantly, and I was a little concerned that my poor body might well be bleeding from its eyes and ears, with a little pop-up box of a skull that my oneirocyte had leaped out of. But we saw it all. In retrospect, maybe we should have told the Vaunted to deal with Project Tutu, because there were loads of them and they were connected not just to each other, but to governments and all sorts of very important people, and had some proper science training – I’m just a gardener who got into admin. But the Vaunted only ever spoke directly to the three of us. Yay, isn’t it great to be special. As our heads turned inside out, we saw what they wanted us to see.

The Vaunted had been living in an immaterial reality for eons. I don’t think they even remembered having physical forms, though they still played with these rainbow membranes, stretched across star systems, chattering, thinking, playing in their mental realities, and, most importantly, tinkering with the fabric of space. Is this the problem with transcending physical reality? You start to not worry about it so much. The Vaunted seemed to think that since their version of ownworlds existed beyond the physical universe they might even survive the heat death of the universe, billions of years in the future. Because imagination, being a sort of real thing, in that it’s generated by physical objects, can clearly die along with the body. Although ideas can survive death, passed on to other minds, or just as books, it’s not the same as that idea being held by its originator. If the mind can truly escape the real world then it should be able to persist forever. And the Vaunted weren’t quite there. They had mostly forgotten about their bubble forms which still supplied the essential physical structure that they were projected out of, but it might eventually hold them back. Clearly, that wasn’t good enough.

Their big ownworld style innovation was a much more advanced version of what we’d stumbled on: make a thing in your mind and have it directly affect the real world. We all do this constantly, by speaking and acting, but if you could think a thing and make it real just by sheer force of will or desire, that skipped past the meat body and the need to figure out a way to build it with your monkey hands and proper physical materials. Like our hello tower. That had indeed entered the real world, as we discovered later. So the Vaunted went for it. If imagination and the mind were real things, then there must be some plane, or dimension of existence where they persisted. Cartesian dualism, the idea that body and mind are separate things that only happen to look like they directly affect each other, was the sort of problem that the Vaunted never gave up on like we did. You’ve probably guessed where this is going – I had my suspicions, largely because along with the images, insights and memories there was an undercurrent of shame, the kind where you know you’ve fucked up, but double-down and try to bluff through it: “Someone would have fucked up space, eventually, and you know – if they had done – then we’d have been cool with it, because it’s a brilliant idea that just went slightly awry. It’s definitely worth trying again (and we’re going to, so there, fuck you, you just don’t get it, man), and you totally would have done the same if you were half as good as we are,” was very much the vibe I got. Intergalactic super-minds who horribly, horribly fucked up, but were still by far the most powerful things in the galaxy.

The Vaunted had ripped open a hole in space. They’d been looking for the place where ideas go when the body that held them dies. Well, they found it. It turns out that consciousness is separate from the physical realm. Most of the time they do run side by side (Descartes would have been thrilled!), at least until an idea fades away or the body that had it stops (dies, usually). Those ideas and thoughts that have been orphaned rise “upwards”, I guess, in the Vaunted model, and slip out of that parallel thought-realm, into another dimension of space. It’s a realm filled with ideas and minds that have been divorced from reality. But it’s not just ideas – it’s a meta-universe – where ideas exist, and ideas of ideas exist. Everything that’s ever died – not just every idea and forgotten memory – but the dead self and everything it thought it was is there. They’re not doing anything, it’s just a repository for them, a library tomb for reality. We all go somewhere, right? If your body dies it gets recycled into compost or whatever, individual atoms and protons that have existed since the Big Bang, endlessly reused. Ideation doesn’t get recycled, it just gets dumped in another aspect of the universe. And the Vaunted found it, fucking idiots that they are. They found it by making a hole that they couldn’t close. The only thing the dead ideas are missing is matter. Matter is the physical component that lets them move, gives them a thing to be linked to, from which they can continue to exist in the universe. Basically, the Vaunted gave the dead a way to come back. Not zombies or anything like that. Maybe worse. As soon as they opened this rift and went for a look inside, dead ideas started to drift back into the real world. Given the chance, they instantly materialised, and in so doing sucked matter into that dead universe and more dead ideas and memories and things began to become real again. The Vaunted call it “crypt-space” – a realm of dead things that you should leave well alone, either through basic respect for the dead or out of a primal fear that if you break in and try to nick the corpse’s gold teeth it might well wake up and eat you (I don’t like graveyards). Well, now that the Vaunted had broken it open, everything that had died was coming to get us. Matter was never supposed to be in that realm, and as this mental space started to fill with physical stuff, it got lumpy and started making more holes in the universe. Those holes popped up in all sorts of places, but usually in places where minds existed, or had once existed – the places where the contents of this dead realm had likely come from. Maybe they were attracted to such planets where thinking minds existed. Maybe it was like a magnet from our side, dragging ideas back to life.

One of those holes opened in our solar system, twenty years previously. They’re not good – they’re spots where there’s too much matter in the dead world, and as soon as they’re open and pouring into space, they start sucking more matter in. Space gets fucked up. So the Vaunted, recognising that they had fucked up to a staggering, universal degree and couldn’t close the rift, did the only thing they could: rescue the planets of sentient life who were about to be consumed by this over-ambitious cosmic tinkering. Superb celestial mechanics that they are, they moulded space around the threatened worlds and moved them all – just reached out and seized them. Moved them here, into this unnatural orbit around an impossible trinary star cluster.

They definitely expected us to be grateful that they’d saved us from a hole in space that would have wrecked our solar system. In fact, by now our solar system was likely gone, consumed by the emergence from crypt-space of dead things given physical form once more, by the Vaunted, if somewhat indirectly. And yeah, it’s nice to be saved from a genuine existential threat to our survival, but the Vaunted didn’t once think to warn us, or check if we were OK. They just swooped in and grabbed us, and unwrapped us here – we were the opposite of an unwanted gift, a gift that didn’t want what it had been given to. They certainly didn’t expect us to be angry.

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Stolen Skies

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