A lot of things had happened to the Earth very fast. The unshelling, the shocking appearance of new suns, a whole chain of new and friendly alien worlds that all popped into existence one afternoon. We were so heavily in the mix right from the start that we didn’t really stop to think about how other people might feel about it. I was wildly excited by the whole shebang – the dramatic explosion of hope where before there was only gloom and a bleak future – for the first time since I was twenty it looked like everything might work out OK. I’d never had a clue what I wanted back then, and while I’d spent most of that twenty years of meat-grey darkness engaged in helpful community projects and ultimately dicking around with the oneirocytes, that was all happy accident. It hadn’t left me with any profound glimpses of a future where I had a job (if those sorts of things even existed now), was in a relationship or hoped to bring a family into the world. That last was a particular shock to the system: our population had bombed, not just because our environment choked us to death, but because barring accidents and outrageous optimism, our reproduction rate had crashed through the floor too. For a very long time it felt as if there had been a tacit assumption that we were the final generation, more or less, and when we finally went that would be it. The Earth would keep going, eventually scrubbing its eco-system clean and starting again. In a way, that had been my greatest hope for the planet. Wipe it off and begin clean. From the sounds of it, talking to the other worlds, that was pretty much the deal everywhere. I don’t know how many ninety-percent extinction events we’ve had on Earth before the apes got smart, but there have been quite a few. Life finds a way, as they say. And it had found a way all over the galaxy.
Once again, there was hope for a new life even here on Earth. Our remaining population were reeling from that new discovery. We were sufficiently scattered that it took weeks to reach all the known cities and smaller settlements who weren’t connected to the smartnet anymore. All communications had taken a kicking, and we’d lost track of the isolated communities all over the world who had been eking out an existence off the net. They’d all seen the sky open again, had rediscovered the utter joy of day and night. For weeks, hell – months – we cried at sunset and sunrise, some atavistic delight returning to our lives. They were astonishing sunsets too. We’d pumped so much junk into the atmosphere that they produced the best sunsets ever. It’s almost a shame the Hellevance cleared all that up… But no one had told a lot of these people what was happening. The government had got its shit together and found most of these folks to clue them in a bit to the vast cosmic crisis we’d been saved from, who the Vaunted were, and what all those frighteningly close planets were in the night sky. Looking at Hellevance wasn’t like getting a glimpse of Mars through a telescope or a lucky squint – their encrusted world glowed and you could see it with the naked eye. There was an awful lot to explain, break down and reassure people about. But still, the Geshiiil started installing the space elevator before a lot of folks had heard that there were even aliens, so the whole planet was still in a state of psychic shock. And those shocks kept coming. The massive Hellevant engines in the sky, the world starting to become habitable again. But it was an awful lot. It’s easier to deal with when you’re close to it, but if you’re living in a tented community that a week ago was struggling to breathe but now has sunrises and occasionally sees a zerocopter speeding by overhead, it’s harder to feel involved. There was a lot of resentment, and wholly justified anger. Anger towards the Vaunted, classic human fear of the unknown, fear of new things – of change to even a totally fucked up life. It’s still your life, even if it’s awful, and now everything was changing, whether you wanted it to or not, and no one was asking if it was OK. Consultations were approximately zero, and a lot of that was our fault – me, Gex and Scoro. When the Geshiiil wanted to put the space elevator in, we were like “yeah, cool, do it”, and had similar feelings about scrubbing the atmosphere. But being placed in charge by alien gods isn’t the same as being put in charge by your own people, and I was incredibly grateful when the world government took over a lot of that stuff. Unfortunately, by then the three of us were famous. Both for being the first to talk to the aliens and also for being the ones who invited the other aliens in. Initially the government tried to make out that although we were representing Earth’s interests, actually we were doing what the government said. But after a while it became convenient to have some scapegoats for when people were unhappy about the aliens. That was nice of them. Gave us a certain notoriety, described in some quarters as collaboration. Of course we fucking collaborated – they fixed the damn world! Also, they were mostly kind of ace.
The range of alien life we were now meeting was genuinely intoxicating (and not just if you breathe them in when they die). It was like being in a toy shop where every toy was cooler and more interesting than the last, and they could all talk to you and show you amazing new things. The ones we met early on were the most sociable, but there were other worlds farther round the chain circling the trinary suns who we didn’t meet until much later on. Next on the list for us was the Qoth (their actual name was much, much, much longer but no one could be bothered to use it in full except the Geshiiil who seemed to delight in trilling the full forty seconds it took to pronounce). Generously, I’d call them miserable fucks. It wasn’t their fault, of course. None of us wanted to be here, we’d all been unceremoniously uprooted and jacked halfway across the galaxy, with no regard whatsoever for what we had been doing, what our planetary ambitions were, or even how we were dispersed across a solar system. Like the Hellevance, for example. Just one of their many worlds had been filched by the Vaunted. I wondered what the rest of the Hellevance thought about that, one of their planets just vanishing one day. Which reminded me of our Moon of course. I hoped they’d made it, somehow. At least they had no organic environment to die off around them – the Hellevance had come through the shell irritated, but with their already high-technology and artificially expanded world had been easy enough to seal up and continue as they were.
The Qoth’s problem was spiritual: the first of the truly religious alien species I’d met. The Li had expanded into every inch of their ecosystem and there was nothing but Li there, no room for gods. The Geshiiil and Hellevance liked the idea of gods, but they were so busy doing half the things that humans would have expected gods to do that there was no point in them. The Qoth were more like us, especially a few hundred years ago. It was an article of faith that their world had been birthed by their god-star, which would ultimately reclaim their souls when they died, and one day the sun would consume its child planet once more and all the Qothi souls would be reborn in their god-star’s heart. They took that very seriously. The Vaunted had paid no more care to their concerns than to anyone else’s. Sure, they’d saved the Qoth from certain doom since crypt-space had erupted very close to their god-star, which meant the dead realm had a lot of matter to suck up and convert itself back into physical stuff. The Qoth world would have been next, but they could not give a flying fuck. They wanted their god-star back, because otherwise their souls would be lost here in the void. Unlike a lot of Earth religions, they didn’t wrap this in apologetics to paper over the appalling cracks in their theology. We’d spun our myths over thousands of years, made up by illiterates, carried orally and finally written down, and then reinterpreted, rewritten, stolen wholesale, called something else and then spent centuries trying to explain how all the obvious errors and nonsense were totally true, and really, if you thought about it, were what made all of it make sense. Not my thing. The Qoth didn’t have any of that. Their spiritual story was dead straight, and they seemed to be born knowing it as a solid fact. In the same way that we’re born knowing absolutely fuck all, but have a bunch of structure that early experiences will bootstrap into self-awareness and knowledge, the Qoth are born with inbuilt knowledge about their god-star, and learning about everything else comes second. They’re not monks or anything like that though. They’re quite beautiful furry tripedal tortoise things. Apologies if that’s a little hard to envision, but we were still hampered by all our reference points for alien things being based on our domestic environment which lacks such bizarre hybrids (except in really old children’s entertainment). No, the Qoth have a lovely world – it was actually the first alien planet in our new solar system that I visited – it’s a little like how I remember Earth being before the shell, and how I hoped it would end up again.
The reason I bring up the Qoth is that they were just as interested as the Li in our nano parasites. If the Vaunted wouldn’t return them to their god-star, and they probably couldn’t, because crypt-space would have eaten it, their god and the souls of everyone who had ever died on Qothima (I’m abbreviating again, no way am I spelling out a four hundred and twenty-two character transliteration of their subsonic language), they needed some way to remember the god-star properly, and if they could find it in their collective memory, maybe it would be real enough to offer them salvation. I mean, why the hell not, right? The Vaunted had shown that if you do it right, you can create a mental realm – a spiritual realm (I really hoped there wasn’t a third dimension of existence for soul on top of body and mind – there’s only so much complexity a little human mind wants to handle) – and it’s exactly as real as the physical world we’re used to. From what we’d seen of Project Tutu’s plans, you could shuck off your body and live in it full time too. If living in a tank of grey brain wool is what you want to call living.
The Qoth wanted in, the Li wanted in. We really needed some more oneirocytes. They’d bought our explanation that the creators of the nano parasites were all dead (true), since they’d seen the state of our planet that was certainly credible. But, I explained, the project headquarters still contained some samples which we could extract and no doubt we, or the Geshiiil at any rate, would be able to figure them out and reproduce the technology. We’d talked ourselves into a little roadtrip, and despite our apprehensions, the Qoth were keen to accompany us. We had already established that the Li weren’t coming down to our planet. Their help was staying in orbit. When we’d mentioned them to the nascent world government and explained how they had reproduced by taking over cells of every lifeform on their planet, but were very keen to help get our animal populations back to normal, we were met with a “fuck no”. I was fairly sure the Li could resist hijacking our ecosystem, but we humans are a suspicious bunch and we had enough to be dealing with without swallowing yet another spider to eat a fly. So it was us, a trio of Qoth (they never, ever turn up in anything other than multiples of three. Don’t know if it’s a sex thing or what, never found a polite way to ask), and a human military escort.
After waking up in the ruins of the observatory, Colonel Lindsmane had somehow gotten a promotion. Presumably it was an awkward combination of his failure to attack the Vaunted’s rainbow ship, and of simply being there when they showed up. It’s not quite failing upwards, I guess. Now he was Brigadier Lindsmane, which still meant very little to me, but was apparently equivalent to a director or something. Either way, he met us at the bottom of the space elevator: me, Gex, Scoro, and three Qoth. He took it pretty well considering how our first meeting had gone. No guns in our faces this time, so that was nice. He also took the Qoth well – military briefings emphasise being very professional, and not freaking out when you meet anything, including five-foot tall shelled tripeds. He ushered us all into a broad briefing room. Again, the military love briefings. It was a measure of our dwindling authority as representatives of Earth that we weren’t allowed to just ask the Geshiiil to give us a lift, and instead had to go through the new proper channels. It did make fewer things our fault.
“The site we’ll be visiting was the epicentre of the Vaunted’s incursion into our atmosphere, which penetrated a highly secure research facility,” he paused, catching my eye, “in the subterranean facility we’ll be on our guard against any rogue elements of the project which might still be present.”
It wasn’t just the three of us who weren’t happy about how Project Tutu had wrapped up. From what I’d heard, partly from Lindsmane himself, Tutu’s official purpose had been a new form of communication and organisation. Shucking five hundred plus brains out of their skulls had not been part of that plan. Doctor C and her cadre had indeed gone rogue, very rogue.
He went on. “The facility has been entirely powered down since the Vaunted arrived. We don’t expect any activity given the lack of power, but we’ll be going in armed. Respectfully,” he addressed the Qoth representatives with their insanely long names, “we’ll ask you to stay within our security cordon at all times and allow our field experts–“ us “–to locate the assets.”
Everyone seemed OK with that, even if I wasn’t entirely sure the Qoth knew what a security cordon was. We got to ride in a zerocopter next, which was a first for me. It would have been unthinkable just six months earlier, with greasy winds roaring around about and visibility often just upward of nil. Plus, they were a new toy that the Geshiiil had knocked up for us. They’d seen our mothballed helicopters and the variety of winged and hovering aeronautic kit, tutted thoughtfully, and made something a million times better. The zerocopters just gave no fucks about what they were flying through, and instead of having wings or rotating blades, they just hummed and moved slickly through whatever was around them. Apparently you could chuck them in the sea and they were fine there too. We sliced through the billowing winds and additional clouds and currents generated by the now-functional environmental engines hanging in the sky.
The observatory had been sealed over, to protect or at least preserve the equipment inside from the ravages of the weather. We landed in between some of the dishes and towers that had failed to make contact with the Vaunted, and headed inside. The soldiers kept their rifles at the ready, leaving us free to look around anxiously, while the Qoth ambled about quite happily. I suppose this was a sort of day out for them, away from fretting about the god-star. A section of canvas came away to permit us access and we entered the facility. The lift was still out of action – no way were we going to power the place up. I profoundly hoped that killing the electric had frozen those creepy fuckers in the basement. At least those blue lights wouldn’t be on everywhere. However, with the lift out, we’d have to use the stairs again. They’d almost killed us last time. But there was nothing else for it. Down we all went, the Qoth with surprising dexterity – maybe three legs are better than two for staircases.
Down and down. Colder and colder. We reached the main corridor that led in from the garage where we’d left the caterpillar. I plaintively gestured at the massive concrete doors that led outside via a long dark tunnel, but apparently there was no way to open them at all from the outside, not without power or a kick-ass bomb. I’d have taken the explosion for the sake of my knees in a heartbeat. The plumes of our breath flowed outwards, misting up the air. The Qoth seemed fine with it all. Their fur was a decent match for our heavy-duty arctic gear. The more we breathed, the more they liked it. They’re fans of a carbon-dioxide environment, so they liked Earth in general. They breathe backwards from us or something – taking in C02 and extracting what they need, exhaling a different gas mix which was thankfully not toxic to humans. Aliens, eh. All of this wondering served to distract me from what we were doing. I walked along, torch in hand behind the soldiers who swept every door we approached, rubbing shoulders with Scoro and Gex.
We found the case with the sphinx on the lid absurdly easily. On our way out we’d been through lots of the rooms trying to find a way out, but we hadn’t searched the clean rooms we’d entered the facility through, due to all those annoying auto-closing doors. Sure enough, the neat secure case with the sphinx logo on the top was in a storage locker where Hest must have stashed it for dealing with later. After all, Project Tutu had run out of humans to infect with the nano parasites.
“All right, cool. That was easy,” Scoro said. We all breathed easier for that. “Hardly worth you lot getting all tooled up, eh?”
At that, the demeanour of our armed guard changed. Their sergeant, whose name I forget, spoke ominously. “Primary objective achieved then. Secondary objective – check the nest.”
Now, those were not the words I wanted to hear.
“We need you to come with us,” the sergeant pointed at me. “One squad stays here with the primary objective and the Qoth, second squad and Evanith comes with me.”
“Ah fuck,” I muttered.
Gex put a hand on my arm, “we’re not splitting up. Have you not seen a single horror movie?”
“Orders ma’am,” the sergeant replied firmly, continuing to split the squad up.
“It’s OK,” I said (it wasn’t), “we can keep in touch through the ownworld.” Walking in both worlds simultaneously was something that we’d all been practising. At first it was hard, because you fell over and bumped into things a lot, but there are infinite degrees of immersion, and going in shallow meant you could feel each other but see the real world. Much safer.
With a profound sense of terror, I allowed the second squad to nudge me through into the main facility. It was the same as it had been before, except even colder. This deep in the mountain there’s no heat at all, and even the floor was slippery. We went down and down again. When we came to the corridor where the surgical suites were, I spoke again, shivering but definitely from cold not fear, “We need to check out a room down here.”
Bloody streaks ran the length of the corridor, looking just how you might expect if a ball of string soaked in blood had dragged itself along, and vanished down the stairs we’d yet to traverse. We followed the blood trail. I wasn’t sure how much the soldiers had been clued in, but they didn’t seem perturbed by the presence of blood. The room full of corpses with holes grated out of their scalps, blood soaked and frozen onto every surface… Only one of them quietly vomited in a corner. I hadn’t come this far into the room before, and I wished I hadn’t now. The sight of the bodies welded together by the frozen blood was awful. The shadows jumped alarmingly as we played our torches over them. A dead body always looks as if it’s about to leap back to life and grab you – under moving lights it’s even worse. When we – I’d – yanked their consciousnesses into my ownworld I’d just been trying to save us from their grisly plans, but I hadn’t intended for them to die. Or be left like this. I couldn’t unsee Doctor C’s frozen open eyes staring at me from the floor. I hurried back outside.
The soldiers looked a little pale, but it might have been the cold.
“That wasn’t the nest, was it sir?” asked the sergeant, who had clearly been well briefed on the debrief we’d received months earlier, after Lindsmane’s men had woken back up and we’d all been whisked off for lots of meetings.
“No. We need to go quite a long way down. Hope your knees are up to it.”
More down. If possible it was even colder as we reached the basement and the antechamber with its airlock. The inner window that should have given us a good view of the blue-lit room was frozen opaque from whatever moisture had been inside. We’d need to go in. The kit we’d all been supplied with contained breathing apparatus in case we needed it deep in the facility. I wasn’t remotely concerned about taking bacteria or anything into the garden of deadly mind string. Hell, if it offered a chance to fuck the little bastards up some more that was all good. But it did seem to reassure the soldiers. I suppose to them this was a major threat of contamination, but I didn’t think the nano parasites were a risk unless they were inside your head. Without power we couldn’t operate the airlock so easily, but soldiers are brilliant at this stuff. They popped open a range of hatches and brute forced it open.
We lit up the interior of the big open room with our torches. I hoped to find all the nano parasites frozen solid, their little tanks of jelly iced up, locking them in place. But instead it was much worse. All the racks that filled the chamber were empty. A few tanks lay on the shelves, scattering their frozen goop across the floor. But that was it. The Unity was gone.