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Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-One (Nanowrimo 2022)

If you’ve ever wondered if you can have a migraine in your dreams, I can assure you that it’s entirely possible when some alien fucker has made you review their top ten worst ideas imaginable, from their perspective. I really hoped the feeling wouldn’t continue back in the real world, but I had the impression that it was partly my flexible little mind adapting to the new sensations that had been fed back into it – I was fairly sure I could still smell x-rays – and partly the oneirocyte nesting in my brain going into overdrive. That in itself was a thing that had been troubling me more in the scant free moments between chaos and drama since we’d woken up with scalpels and bonesaws hovering over our faces. Which hell, must have been about three hours ago. Sometimes days are so long, plus we’d spent a subjective decade or so reviewing the epic fuckupery of the Vaunted. I guess that was enough time for my fears about the oneirocyte to be running in the background, waving its hand politely for attention with increasing impatience. Since we’d dropped out of the Vaunted’s surreal projection of their experiential memories, the bubble-man had apparently lost interest in us and was wandering around, peering into the deep clear lagoons, observing the neat little model of evaporation and cloud-formation I’d vaguely recalled from school. Perhaps it was giving us a moment to gather our thoughts, recognising that we might be a tad overwhelmed, or maybe it didn’t really give a fuck and was genuinely interested in the fabric of someone else’s ownworld. Who knows. Either way, from the glazed and stunned expressions on my companion’s faces and the migraine that had kicked into full gear, fracturing both my immediate perception into shards of glass, and carving up my internal attention (along with the drill-like headache bearing outward on all of this), I had a little time to do some extra fretting.

The oneirocytes – the nano parasites had been developed to ultimately enable us to ditch these meat bodies and live on with our awareness fully intact and, in theory at least, live on forever in a little bundle of steel wool, cavorting endlessly in our imaginary realms. That’s all fine, we’ve all seen enough entertainment about virtual realities and the unlikely possibility of uploading our minds into a big computer on the moon, or something. A lot of that was about jacking into the nervous system and replicating all the sensory inputs so the subject would experience all of the virtual reality directly in their body. Or, some intensive brain scanning that copied every neuron and position of every little electric spark in the hunk of head-jelly you used for being yourself. Both were complicated and high-intensity to say the least, and had been dismissed as science fiction nonsense by anyone serious. The oneirocytes were different: once implanted, the parasite got to work breaking down the barrier between unconscious and conscious, gaining access to the whole functioning mind, and granting that access to its host. After that it just kept going, burrowing into every facet of the brain, each fold, wrapping itself into every cortex and lobe in the skull. There it slowly replaced the physical fabric of the brain, swapping itself for each cell and taking over its function. Eventually there would be nothing left inside the host’s skull but a densely-wound ball of grey nanofibers which precisely replicated the brain’s function. And it would have been done so slowly that the subject’s total consciousness, memory and everything would be preserved, simply running off a different lump of matter in the noggin. Very cool. Very scary.

It wasn’t exactly what Gex, Scoro and I had thought we’d signed up for when we nicked a bunch of the parasites. Always read the fine print, I guess. Except the fine print had only been available from the very top tier of Project Tutu. I found it hard to believe that everyone else whose new grey brains had been scooped out and stored in the brain garden inside the mountain had done so with complete knowledge of what was coming. But maybe they did – people are weird, the cult was pretty persuasive and the world did appear to be coming to an end. But we were only after the ownworld, the big cool dreaming experiment where you could build your own world and live in it when you wanted, when you were sick of the real world and just wanted to escape for a bit. But we’d come back for snacks and stuff. The real world might suck (thanks, Vaunted), but we hadn’t been looking for immortality and freedom from the tyranny of the flesh and the prison of the material world. All lovely concepts I’d picked up from our dalliance inside the mind of the Vaunted. Yet, here we were, with the oneirocytes busy swapping fibres for neurons. But not done yet… that much I was sure of – not even close. The self-awareness that the parasite gifted us, the grasp of our inner selves also gave me a measure of how much of myself was still meat and how much a weird carbon plastic. Not like a percentage or volume measurement, but I knew we hadn’t been accelerating on the trajectory that the project would have required. We hadn’t been there, hadn’t been following the programme, so the parasites hadn’t received the right input and training to enact the takeover. The only real difference had been the zygoptics and sheer fervour of Project Tutu. What we vaped encouraged that sense of Unity, but the stuff Hest had given us had been way more intense, made me feel I was lagging behind reality until I went into the ownworld. Just as well we didn’t have any more of that then… But they’d been willing to cut our heads open anyway, shake off the gross brain bits, and then what? Just take whatever bits the parasites had replaced, just the neural shell itself without the personality and memories? We were just spare parts, a gobbet of readymade artificial brainstuff that could be plugged into the network and used. Those total wankers.

Well, I was super glad that I’d taken a little time to worry about that. It wasn’t very reassuring, except that I felt a lot better about killing the twat-scientists who were going to cut us up. But it did leave me thinking that we needed to figure out how to negotiate with the parasites, who were actually just ourselves, but who could become ourselves. Was it any different to having a real brain? As long as there wasn’t a natural point where the oneirocyte replaced my whole brain, drilled holes in my skull and crawled out, then no… I really didn’t want that to happen. The Unity had drawn those bloody hunks of brain-wool out of their now useless bodies, and I liked the idea of that self-preservation, even if it was utter nightmare fuel, especially since I’d also got one of those. I didn’t think I was close to resolving this, but the screaming panic was subsiding.

My headache was fading too. The bubble-man had wandered further off, examining the trees and hopping oddly from foot to foot, dust falling from its toes. Their mental reality had none of this physical stuff in it, so perhaps it was enjoying the experience.

My friends seemed to have returned to themselves too.

“Those absolute fucks,” hissed Gex, “what did they think would happen when they ripped a planet out of its orbit, shoved in a box and kicked it halfway across the galaxy?”

“It’s their fault that everybody died, that our world is so utterly fucked,” Scoro added, seething.

We fully understood what the Vaunted had been saving us from, but they’d profoundly screwed up their rescue effort. Apparently noticing us re-engaging after the trauma of the Vaunted ownworld, the bubble-man was casually strolling back towards us. You might think that in chatting with a representative of a god-like alien species who had the power to toss planets hither and thither, and open a portal into a realm that only enlightenment lunatics had even postulated, that we might be a little cowed, respectful, god-fearing, and all that. It’s actually more like meeting a hero and discovering that they’re an utter prick. By showing us everything that had happened, and seeing it from the perspective of their quite-well-justified-but-actually-maybe-not arrogance, we’d come to know them in an intimate way, erasing all that bowing and genuflection. This god was an arsehole, and we knew it. Sure, they had power, but humans aren’t especially rational when they’re pissed off – as seen in countless wars, relationship breakups, and pub brawls.

Gex went straight for the fucker’s throat. Plainly not rational, since it was made of magic bubbles, and Gex’s closing fist popped its head clean off. We all froze in a moment of proper horrified panic that we hadn’t felt for, gosh – at least a couple of hours – as the bubble head bounced off Gex’s forearm and drifted down to lie in the dust. In our eyes was plainly written: “we’ve just killed a god”. Not cool, even if you are angry. But we were being idiots, humans still bound by the idea that the body matters at all. The bubble-body swayed a bit, straightened and another head bubbled up out of the top of its torso. I looked down. The decapitated head – I swear – raised an eyebrow and popped. A sensation of weight came from all directions and I recognised that the Vaunted was about to whisk us back into its mental plane, possibly for another insight into how you can be incredibly powerful and still a right bell-end, or to give us a psychic bollocking (if such a thing existed). I wasn’t up for that, and neither were the others. We stood our ground, in fact, rotated the ground, shifting us seamlessly from my ownworld into Scoro’s realm of soaring architecture. The bubble-man looked rather surprised, and more than a little put-out.

“No, we’re not fucking going fucking anywhere, until you explain what the fuck you want,” Gex continued, apparently having recovered both her nerves and vocabulary since nipping of its first head. “You lot and your cosmic fuckery have left our planet fucked beyond all recognition. Do you have any idea what you’ve done? Fuck it, take a look.”

The Vaunted had gifted us their experiential memories, and the great thing about doing something like that inside the ownworld is that the oneirocyte remembers it for you, which means you remember it too. Now we could share our experiential memories with the little rainbow bastard. I should note that it was really handy that the Vaunted had appeared in this form. If it had appeared as a mountain-sized dragon we might have treated it with a bit more respect, but in choosing to look a bit like us, it had dragged itself down to our scale, and we don’t like bullies. I’ve still got chunks of glass in my face to prove it.

We took the Vaunted on a whistle-stop tour of everything that had happened to the Earth since the hole in space opened between Saturn and Uranus. The panic when that inexplicable cosmic event had been discovered, the even greater panic when the Sun and Moon disappeared. Twenty years of crops failing, climate disaster (some of it self-inflicted – Project Petbe or fuckwit dictator with their attempts to nuke our way out the shell), mass species extinction, the dwindling birth rate, the billions dying across the globe, our retreat into domed cities – all the things we’d been avoiding thinking too hard about for twenty years, but now that we did, and now that we had someone to blame, we were livid – the desperation that drove us into self-destruction, empathy and sympathy eroded by years of our world failing around us, the death of hope. That was a lot too. A lot of stuff I hadn’t properly remembered, but we’d seen on the news, felt, or heard from our neighbours – the long march that had taken Scoro cross-country with all the dead he left behind before he wound up with us, the skin-crawling horror of what Project Tutu had tried to do to us… The latter was rather a let-down emotionally compared to everything else, but we’re human, and the grand sweep of history is less directly important than the last thing that scared the shit out of us.

We finally let the Vaunted’s avatar go. It might have been my imagination, but I thought the rainbow swirls in its shape had lost some of their colour and glow. Either way, it seemed we had impressed on it quite how shit a time we’d had, that material experience did matter actually (if you weren’t an immortal cloud of bubbles floating in space), and our absolute conviction that it was their fault. It took it quite well, but couldn’t help being itself. None of us can.

“Mistakes were made–“ Gex almost went for the little bastard again at that, and it hastened along “–but now safe. Repairs are available–“ loving the difference between reparation and repair “–there are friends here. A council of twelve, to aid, rebuild. And wage war.”

“The fuck did you just say?” I was entirely content for Gex to take the lead here in our negotiations with this immensely-powerful alien entity. She had exactly the tone that I’d have wanted to use. “Council of twelve – the other planets?”

“More saved worlds. Brought here for safety, and to defeat crypt-space.”

“Right. So let’s be clear: you ‘saved’ us, and eleven more planets of luckless bastards you scooped up and shat out here. And now you want us all to fight for you? Against dead things from a tomb of ideas?”

Great, we’d finally been freed from the shell and were going to be launched into a war against physics. How do you fight a hole? I didn’t understand then, of course, none of us did. The Vaunted, in saving these twelve planets had assembled a spectrum of intelligent life, from our ape-descended five-fingered idiots to minds that covered their whole world. And with that variety came a cornucopia of skills, technologies, ideas and modes of thought that the Vaunted believed could be leveraged into a defence against crypt-space, and ultimately a way to seal off that dimension entirely. Until they had another crack at accessing “safely”, naturally. While Earth was the only planet with life, intelligent or otherwise that we’d ever known, we’d had the vague idea that other intelligences and technologies would probably be somewhat similar – physics and chemistry being supposedly universal properties – but we were as wrong about that as we’d been about the world being flat. Life, and intelligence were common throughout the universe, but they didn’t last long. The galaxy is full of scary shit like life-giving suns being made out of atomic furnaces that go boom, black holes, cosmic rays that regularly fry entire worlds and sterilise them back to the bedrock. We’d been up and running as a proper civilisation for just a few thousand years. Other worlds, even of the eleven others daisy-chained around the trinary stars assembled by Vaunted, had their shit together for hundreds of thousands of years, maybe even longer, but most were young because we tended to get wiped out or annihilate ourselves (I had little doubt that we’d been in the second group, given a few more years). So the twelve here had been lucky to survive so long anyway, and doubly-luck that the Vaunted had saved us from their failed vanity project. We were all special, beyond our limited guesses of how the universe worked, and the Vaunted were going to link us all together so we could become something even greater: a tool for them to fix the holes in space.

With a total absence of contrition, the bubble-man assured us that we’d soon meet representatives from the other worlds and that a “great project” would be undertaken to restore our world to its near-former state of supporting life quite well. Yeah, “we” would soon meet more aliens. “Us? Just us three?” we’d asked, not having twigged that we were about to be inter-planetary ambassadors, purely because we’d been able to say “howdy” to the Vaunted. Yup, that was to be the case, though obviously we could bring in whoever we liked to do the actual work. Thank fuck for that. My grasp of how to cleanse an atmosphere of poison amounts to not farting in an elevator. The Vaunted left us after that, just popped out of our ownworld. We left Scoro’s architecture behind and went back into the real world. All around us, wind howled through the shattered open dome and it was freezing cold. The Vaunted’s bubble ship was still there, hovering over the mountain. Thankfully, they hadn’t actually killed all those nice soldiers who’d tried to kill us, and as they woke up we filled the colonel and his little team in on what was going on, what was going to happen, and that they needed to deal with the idea that we were sort of in charge. It wasn’t a short conversation.

So yeah – that’s what happened until the Vaunted finally rocked up and explained what the fuck was going on. So now we’re kind of a big deal – humans I mean. Some of us anyway. Turns out most things don’t dream – they’re either awake or they’re not – and don’t have that free-roaming imagination fucking up their day to day activities. It’s useful, and somewhat similar to how the Vaunted ended up the way they are – not just absolute pricks (I mean, I can totally see that direction for us if we ever really get it together as a culture), but inhabiting their bubble-space and dreaming of what their future might become. Me and my mates came down the space elevator that the Geshiiil helped us build while the Vaunted taught us how to dream things into reality, and the Li and Hellevance brought their vast environmental engines into the atmosphere and did stuff to the fabric of the air that we’d never have imagined possible. And now we’re on the frontline of the war against crypt-space. Jesus fuck, is that ever a goddamn nightmare. I guess you’ve been mixed up in that too – it doesn’t look like you just happened to bang your head on the doorframe, right?

At that moment the door to the ward slammed open, as they tend to do in hospitals when someone’s wheeling a gurney around and banging it through doors in dramatic television action. The doors smacked back against the walls and a trio of humans in serious hazmat gear burst in behind the gurney. It was a fancy one, with a containment field built into it and was plainly not human-shaped.

“Looks like they’ve come for you at last,” I said to the Alometh slumped in the chair, “hope they can sort you out – good luck.”

At that, one of the medical team spun round, apparently not having realised there was anyone else in here. Man, they’d forgotten about me completely, no wonder no one had come in with tweezers and antiseptic yet.

“What the hell are you doing in here?” the guy inside the really rather thick deadly environment suit demanded, sweeping around the gurney towards me.

“I got glassed in a pub, I’ve been waiting here since I arrived,” I explained, “pretty sure I’ve still got some glass in here–“ I gingerly probed the side of my head, “–be great to get that out.”

A look of repressed panic flushed across the man’s face. “And you’ve been here – next to that–“ he indicated the Alometh that his colleagues were levering awkwardly onto the gurney, chair and all “–for how long?”

“Dunno, couple of hours. Do you have something for headaches? I’ve got a corker coming on, and my face feels kinda numb.”

If he’d looked a bit worried before, now he was as pale as his suit. He snatched up the radio hanging off his belt, “Emergency in haz-ward two. Several hours of exposure to Alomethi death particles,” Well that sounded bad, “no, I’ve no idea why they’re in here.”

A flurry of activity erupted around me as more hazard-clad doctor types charged into the room, slapping breathing gear over my face and stuffing me into a wheelchair which they spun around and we headed off for those barely-closed doors.

“Ah man,” I called back to the guys with the Alometh, “is he not going to make it? We’ve been chatting for hours…”

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.

Stolen Skies

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