I woke up a couple of days later in a much nicer medical ward. This one had windows, and I could see whichever of the trinary suns was closest. The sky was blue, a shade it hadn’t been for decades, and had taken a few years to sort out. I still remembered the sight of the Hellevance assembling their terraforming machines in the sky, like a massive honeycomb larger than the clouds. It appeared to work a lot like a vacuum cleaner. Seemed funny, because as someone who didn’t have an intimate grasp of atmospheric mechanics and the delicate balances of gases and moisture and so on, it was exactly the sort of solution I would have suggested (if anyone had asked, and really – why would they?) Anyway, it worked a treat, even if it took a full two years to run, sucking the crap out of the air. The honeycomb structures turned dark as they absorbed the poisons and filth we’d dumped into the atmosphere, and then the Hellevance did something clever with local space and the full hexagons folded themselves up and vanished, reappearing in orbit. What you and I might call toxins when we’re trying to breathe them invariably turn out to be incredibly useful elsewhere. In our new community of twelve planets in their artificial orbit, resources were to be hoarded and used. Nice vindication of the old “reuse, recycle, don’t kill your fucking world” ideas. Human civilisation had crashed through chaos in the final decade of the shell, and we were a shadow of our former selves. So many of the ideals that we’d hoped would see us through had fallen by the wayside of plain survival. But under-resourced efforts at survival lead to horrible short-term measures, all of which make the world even worse and harder to live in. The re-opening of the shell was great, but we needed a lot of help to put Humpty back together again.
Oh hey there. Sorry – didn’t spot you at first. Even now I’m not quite used to seeing a blue sky and fluffy white clouds again. And I never thought I’d see birds like this again. I don’t usually get a lot of time to stare out of windows, not down here on Earth anyway. Oh, right. I’m Evanith. I’m here because I spent a few hours inhaling dead Alometh. Apparently that’s a truly awful idea. Nah, I wandered into the wrong waiting room – with a concussion second left and third right sound all too similar – and like the fuckwit I am I didn’t click until they turned up with hazmat suits. Hell, I’d never met an Alometh before. Guess I still haven’t. Basically, when they die, all their inner goop dissolves into airborne particles – pollen, essentially – and they go and pollinate a new body. Seems half their species is kinda like a load of crops, so when the smart half dies, they go and fertilise a load more. I’m not sure whether it’s technically cloning, or if they’re all new people. So it was trying to fertilise me, going straight through my airways into the circulatory system, into the nervous system and up into my brain. Given a bit longer it might have worked, or more likely I’d have just corked it. But I’ve got an oneirocyte in my skull that rather jealously guards its domain. Lucky me. Also, it might crawl out of my skull one day, so there’s that… Ah, mechanical accident? Bad luck. I agree, having two arms is definitely better. “Pulled off by a machine?” Well, you don’t hear that sentence every day, that sucks. I’m sure they’ll sort you a new one easily enough. Ah – yeah, that Evanith. I know. I’m not really cool with the weird fame we’ve ended up with. Someone had to say hello first though, right, and that was me and the others. It’s true – I am not especially tall, particularly when lying down. Woah! No, I’d stay in bed right there if I were you. I flailed for the “nurse” button, and was quite relieved when a pair of impressively burly nurses, one with a whole extra set of manipulator augmentations hanging over his shoulders, pinned the one-armed guy back to the bed. Fame has not been what I’d thought it might be.
Those first few weeks after the shell came down and the bubble-ship entered our atmosphere, when we stopped Project Petbe from making an epic mistake, they were wild. Some of it was down to expectations, and how brutally they can be foiled. I guess I, and others, had felt that our main problem was the shell, that everything which its emergence had triggered – all the climate hell, social breakdown, species extinctions and the annihilation of our own species – would all be somehow solved by the shell just fucking off. Of course it didn’t, and the cold new light of day just laid bare how badly we’d fucked ourselves over in twenty years. It’s a special gift of humanity, trying to blame someone else for our fuck-ups. We’re like the Vaunted in more ways than one, though they didn’t quite blame someone else, they blamed the universe itself for being more complicated than they thought. A lesser species would just give up at that point, but not the Vaunted… Who, by the way, we rarely spoke to again after that rather fraught first meeting on the mountain-top. Clearly they thought we were going to be useful, but we’d impressed on them just how unimpressed we were by their fancy rainbow lights and immaterial existence. I figured they were just giving us space, but it turned out that very few of their rescued planets had regular contact with the Vaunted directly. Maybe they had realised they were a bit shit at it. Given their essentially immaterial nature, and preference for contact on the mental plane, humans were actually one of the few species they could communicate with directly and conveniently – with the three of us at least, at first anyway. For dealing with the Geshiiil and others they’d had to do more with bringing their rainbow membranes into the real and making a proper effort to chat. Maybe we were just too easy to talk to… Whatever, they’re kinda dicks anyway. We spoke with the other species much more, and that was probably the Vaunted’s intention – let a bunch of material races sort themselves out and then we could all do something about crypt-space. But that was to be several years off.
Given the state of our planet, other species came to us at first. The Geshiiil are great. They came from a solar system with about forty planets in it, all of which they’d had a fun time taking apart so they could use their raw materials to make their own world larger and cooler. In appearance they’re sort of like insects, or what lobsters would look like if their mum was an owl – clawed, feathery, tonnes of fingers and awesome eyes that worked like microscopes. If you thought having an arsehole in your eyes like we do was cool, this lot could focus down to almost the nanoscale. Like I said before, all our brilliant ideas about how other intelligences and life would behave were way off the mark. The Geshiiil were engineers – they loved it. Prefab, nano-extrusions, shit – you name it, they got it. They’re the ones who built a space station in Earth orbit and grew (if you watched it being constructed, “grew” is the only word you’d think to use) the space elevator that linked it with the planet below. Its base (where we found our drinking dens) spread out from a then-dead chunk of equatorial archipelago, which turned into the largest new city we had. When it was all up and running, that elevator never stopped, continuously used to ship materials to the surface – all the stuff we needed to bring our people back from the brink.
Once the space station was in place, the Geshiiil shipped the three of us up. I’d never been to space before, and I expected it to be all cool and floaty, but the Geshiiil were far too good for that sort of nonsense. There was certainly an unsettling shift in gravity as we reached the midway point, and stopped feeling like down was behind us and was instead pulling upwards, but you got used to that quickly. Unless, like Gex you’d always hated rollercoasters back in the old days. Similar sensation, but we got her fixed up with pills that helped, or we just spent the trip in our ownworlds and chose not to worry about the space around us. We stayed with it the first time, and personally, it never stopped being amazing. Rising up in the air and watching the landscape splay out around us. Depressing and amazing at first, of course because we could see just how dead much of the world looked. The sea was a grimy-looking thing. Of all the environments on Earth that had suffered by far the most. The Vaunted seemed to have enough empathy, or received enough of a bollocking from us and the other worlds to realise we would be doing precisely fuck all to aid their crypt-space problem until we had liveable environments again. Clearing the clouds and then the atmosphere felt extraordinary, white turning blue, turning black as the big ol’ blue and green marble (alright, dark grey and worryingly brown at first) came into view. And then the elevator vanished into the depths of the space station and the sights fell away.
For that first meeting, representatives of five worlds had been assembled to meet and greet us. Even now, there are a couple of planets like the Alometh whose people I’ve never met. From what the Geshiiil later told me, we weren’t the only civilisation that had taken a beating in the process of being rescued by the Vaunted. One planet, none of the other worlds even knew what its people had called it, had emerged from the shell burnt to the bedrock. No one knew for sure what had happened to it, and everyone just left it the fuck alone. A dead bead on our planetary necklace. Humans like for there to be someone worse off than them, because it means we haven’t hit rock bottom, but in this case it reminded me of how bad it could have been. At least ten percent of our species had survived… We’d already met the Geshiiil of course, as they crawled and flapped about setting up the space elevator, doing an excellent imitation of human language, albeit with a tendency for their tone to drop alarmingly between deep enough to make your bones vibrate and high enough to make your ears hurt. Bird-lobsters. What are you gonna do? They introduced us to a couple of people from Hellevance. That was a big shiny world three planets ahead of us in the ring. It was very hard not to feel totally overwhelmed by meeting people apparently made of gold who were nine feet tall with no apparent bones. Their planet wasn’t even their first, or the only planet they’d settled. Avid terraformers, they’d been planet-hopping from the homeworld for tens of thousands of years, practicing their art of making barren rocks into sweet second homes. They were hugely pissed off to have been taken out of a solar system that they’d only just begun to populate, and had been trying and failing to contact the rest of their star-spanning civilisation to no avail – apparently wherever the Vaunted had taken us, it was a long way from where crypt-space was making inroads on reality. Very nice though, and rather endearingly concerned about the state of Earth. They really, really liked getting their hands dirty and were eager to start fixing our fucked up atmosphere and poisoned oceans.
We spent quite a lot of time explaining that we were just three random folk with extra junk in our heads, and were absolutely not the government, or kings, or anyone with a clue. That didn’t especially faze them. The Geshiiil had already met some of the representatives of Earth’s surviving governments and didn’t seem very impressed. There had been a lot of “you can’t just” which might have been fair enough in the context of a planet struggling with its identity after twenty years of hell and now there were a load of aliens to batter our fragile little egos, but it really conflicted with the Geshiiil work ethic. The other worlds, like the Hellevance and Geshiiil, were very keen to get stuck in, but we had to slam the brakes on eventually, and get some more people up here who properly understood what the Hellevance meant when the said they wanted to re-oxygenate our oceans. Maybe we’d finally demonstrated our incompetence plainly enough, because the Geshiiil suggested we should assemble some kind of Earth council of our own. We were happy to make random decisions, but it did seem likely we’d fuck it up at some point, and there just had to be some people better able to do it back down on Earth.
At that stage, it felt like we had little to offer, beyond a broken planet. But that’s when the Li piped up, enquiring about our oneirocytes. Whatever function the Vaunted played in getting the worlds to cooperate, part of it had clearly been by tipping the others off that we did indeed have something special to take a peek at. We were the last planet to have been slotted into place in the chain of worlds – it wasn’t clear whether that was because we’d been dragged the furthest, or if there was a sensible order to how the worlds had been unshelled. The Geshiiil had been one of the first to emerge, that was for sure. It made a sort of sense – uber-practical, gregarious and intensely sociable – they were great ambassadors for the Vaunted to send off to check out the other planets. Very happy to share their technology and deeply enthused by seeing others take their engines and explore the tech in different ways. The corps of human engineers and mechanics they eventually recruited virtually worshipped them. However it had all been done, the Vaunted had made it known that of all the assembled worlds, only the humans on Earth had come closest to what the Vaunted themselves had done in shifting their existence into the mental plane, the one nearest to the hell of crypt-space. So we found ourselves useful, at last. While Earth put together a functional world government, very much assisted by the Lesveds who looked reassuringly similar to humans, even if they could only live on other worlds immersed in tanks of blood-red liquid and had no toes or fingers… Basically, if you squinted and ignored all the weird shit, and were willing to put on headphones that shut out the outside world, letting you hear them whisper to you, they were lovely, solicitous and turned out to be into governance structures and representation. From what I heard later, their watery world had been through a series of truly brutal and apocalyptic wars from which they’d emerged with very clear views about how to not eradicate yourselves.
Oh yeah, the Li. They were the first to get into the oneirocyte technologies. Again, fascinating bunch, or whatever the word is for a bunch, singular. Over millions of years, the Li had taken over everything on their homeworld. Everything organic on the planet was Li. The planet was called Li, the fish-equivalents were called Li. So were the trees and the grass. Every living cell had Li in it, and they were all connected, constantly chattering to themselves, or itself rather. It was all one big mind, but that didn’t stop it from talking to itself and behaving more like a massively-cooperative ecosystem. They’d apparently thought it would be fun to come to this meeting in the form of one of their native species which was close enough to a walking banana to make me feel vaguely hungry. They’d leveraged the tendency of bacteria-like organisms to invade other cells and had just done that, a lot. They could have come as a potted plant I supposed, but the banana-form also had senses and the features I’d expect from a radio, so it could talk to us too. They were very interested in the oneirocytes because they didn’t seem that different to how the Li themselves had evolved and spread – initially parasitic, but eventually becoming the thing it had once parasitised. The parts of it that lived in the oceans still lived how the fish-things had done, but talked like Li. Their internal communication was a little like talking to yourself as a result, but they firmly inhabited their world. They were most curious about the idea of living in another world of their own creation.
But there were only three of us, and if we were going to try and teach the Li, and other species about the oneirocytes, we’d need some help – a lot more oneirocyte users for one thing, and the technology to make more of them. We didn’t want to mention the sprawling mess of parasites deep down in the mountain, where the experts slash murderers were. We didn’t want them to have any part of this, but we did need more oneirocytes to play with. We knew there was a case down there somewhere, the one that Gex had nicked originally. Fuck. We were going to have to go back into that goddamn bunker and try not to get killed.