I felt like the ground had dropped away beneath me, but instead of hitting the floor in some Victorian swoon, I’d just panic hopped into the ownworld. Rather than the frosty yet empty racks of the Unity nest, I was under my own tranquil sky, and Gex and Scoro were with me.
“They’re gone – all of them,” I stammered out. I received the anticipated eruption of “what?!” and entirely unsurprising wave of panic that travelled through the ground beneath our feet. We had been upfront in the debriefing we’d received from our military and government representatives about the Unity. Doctor Charbroly and her team had definitely done something impressive, but we had been at pains to emphasise both how unnecessary butchering half a thousand people had been to achieving the project goals (ably demonstrated by just the three of us managing to say “howdy” to the Vaunted while being very much still in our meat sack bodies), as well as how fucking insane and murderous they’d been, in a proper nightmare mad scientist way. Ev9eryone had appeared to agree with us, with varying degrees of shock, horror and – now that I thought about it – a little too many mentions of “how unfortunate” that Doctor C and co weren’t still around. I can’t pretend that a fair amount of my feelings weren’t driven by simple fear. It’s OK to be scared of someone who wants to cut you open. And the project had failed: they weren’t there when the Vaunted rocked up, we were. The Unity was a heap of string in the basement, wanking away about their lovely new chalets by the lake. It’s easy to dismiss what scares us, it’s part of how we walk away from our fears and gain power over them. I really thought we’d had enough to worry about with rebuilding the Earth, dealing with our new alien pals, and, not forgetting – fighting crypt-space and killing the dead once and for all. A few hundred strung-together artificial brains should have been left in the past. But class, what do we know about the past? It always comes back to fuck you up.
“They can’t have been let out by the government – there’s no reason for them to send us back now to investigate. Better for them to have scooped the bastards out and never mentioned it. Pointless to let us discover they’re missing and freak about it.” Pointed out Scoro.
“Bluff, double-bluff, counter-bluff… Agreed. Overly complicated,” Gex muttered.
“Do we even have a problem here? They’re a bunch of networked brains – it’s not as if they’re actually coming after us, is it,” I looked to the others for reassurance.
“Murdery robot brains on the loose. No, no problem at all,” Gex spat out.
Well, there was nothing we could do from that end. I dropped out of my ownworld and paid attention to the frosty mess in front of us. The soldiers insisted that we take a good look through the whole space. If I’d thought the lights flashing over human corpses upstairs was alarming, this former repository was even more stressful. The edges of shelves, lines of ice, spattered gel, shadows cast by other torches, all brought the brain tomb to heart-punching life. I was sweating despite the cold5 by the time we concluded that the place was indeed empty, and that there were no holes in the wall or anything where they might have burrowed rat-like through and into the mountain itself. I shuddered at the thought. The sight of the fuckers crawling down the corridor in all that blood, and writhing across the aisles of the archive were still shadows that tried to reach me in my dreams. That was another reason to be grateful for having my own oneirocyte – I didn’t dream about anything I didn’t want to.
Then I got a panicked squawk through the ownworld. It is odd maintaining both worlds at the same time. Being able to see a deep-frozen store room while also hearing the sound of the rain falling in my inner world for example – quite confusing. What I heard was Gex trying to say something9, but there was an additional layer of interference, like static that I’d never heard before in our ownworlds.
“Gex?” I said, out loud and in my mind.
“Sir?” The sergeant was by my side immediately.
“Are you still in contact with the rest of your team, sergeant?”
“There’s the best part of a kilometre of steel and concrete between us – no chance of contact at all.”
“Fuck. Something’s wrong – I can’t reach Gex, or Scoro. That ought to be impossible.” I mean – obviously. If we could reach out and talk to someone in space from our ownworlds, less than a mile should be a joke. “I think we should get out here sergeant, and fast.” The Unity might be gone, but right then there was one massive upside to it… “Since they’re all gone we can just turn the power back on and use the elevators, right?” My knees were virtually cheering, and despite my concern for the others I hadn’t felt this chipper since the flight on the zerocopter.
“Sorry sir, the power’s been physically cut from outside and we don’t have a team set up to bring it back online.”
“You’re fucking joking.” No point phrasing that as a question. This lot weren’t the comedy type. They’d been substantially spooked by the bloody mess upstairs, even if a lot of that tension had been expelled when we found the Unity were missing. Bit of a mission fail, but also something of a relief for everyone. And now something else had gone wrong, somewhere. We did indeed have to take the stairs. And despite my protests, we had to take them a bit quicker than we had coming down. It was all too much like escaping from this fucking bunker all over again. There’s a peculiar thing about running. You can either run towards, or run away. Technically we were running towards the others, but I challenge anyone to run out of a cold cellar where you know there was a monster, and not feel like you’re running away. That horrid cold clutch in the gut, the hairs on the back of your neck rising so that they’ll be the first things brushed when the thing catches up with you. Terrific motivator though. I was not a cross-country specialist or anything – no one was anymore, except maybe the military – but I’m sort of proud of how quickly I got up those stairs, and all without my lungs ending up on the outside, bouncing off my coat.
When we finally reached the formerly blue corridor and clean-room lobby where we’d left the other soldiers, Gex, Scoro and the Qoth, I still hadn’t succeeded in making contact, even though I’d spent half the trip mentally yelling for them in the ownworld. But Gex’s flaming engine realm was empty, gears grinding away on their own, so I knew she was at least still alive. Or the oneirocyte was, a thought I stamped on hard. Her and Scoro’s ownworlds were up and running, but they couldn’t get to them. I figured it wasn’t wise to try and rip them out of the real. If they could be here, they already would be. And the memory of doing it to those scientists, and the results were both geographically and emotionally too close. Besides which, we were almost there. Even the soldiers had to take a moment to catch their breath. Running up a hill with a fridge on your back (or whatever military training entails) is nothing compared to a hundred staircases in sub-zero temperatures. I wanted to die, and everything in my body passionately desired to be outside my body. But we only got a minute before Gex was suddenly back in my mind.
“Where the fuck have you lot been?” she demanded.
Even in the ownworld, I was still out of breath, as ridiculous as that sounds: “It’s fucking miles!”
“Get in here now.”
I swallowed all my organs and bile again, and the soldiers booted the doors open, rifles held at the ready. We found everyone intact, which was great. The squad who’d stayed with Gex and Scoro were all lying flat on the floor, as were the Qoth. Gex and Scoro were sitting on a table, as far from them all as possible, with the Project Tutu case resting between them.
“Hi guys,” Gex started, but the soldiers gave her no time to continue. They saw their downed comrades and despite our little jaunt down and up the stairs, were as alert as I’d seen them, rifles most definitely directed at my friends and the Qoth, while someone else checked on their prone colleagues.
“All alive sarge,” they reported.
“Good. Now,” from behind a rifle, “what the hell is going on here?”
Scoro took over. “Everything was fine until the Qoth got their hands on the case,” he tapped the box between him and Gex, “up till then we were all just having a nice chat and a cup of tea.” Soldiers apparently go nowhere without tea, and since it was freezing cold and there was nothing to do other than watch each other and wait for us to come back, they’d basically had a tea party with the Qoth. Sounded nice. Sounded a lot better than the secondary objective of this bloody mission. “Bremis over there–“ Scoro pointed at one of the downed soldiers “–was just digging out the sugar when I heard 6the snap of the case opening. One of the Qoth had popped it open. I tried to get it back off them but they did that puffing up their fur thing, and um, it was a bit more intimidating than that sounds. Next thing I knew they were muttering about the god-star and had pulled out a handful of the nano parasite injectors.”
The case had thousands of nano parasites, held inert in their injectable capsules. They only needed to be injected into the bloodstream – that was the main improvement on the early project work when they’d had to take the skullcap off to install the things. From the state of the room, it was pretty clear what had happened next, and I guess that showed on my face.
“You got it,” said Gex, “the soldiers went for the case, it being primary objective and all, but these tripod guys are really a lot, lot faster than I thought. They knocked em all out in quick order. I guess our boys had orders not to shoot the Qoth – smart, obviously. We’ve not had an interplanetary diplomatic incident before, but I bet we’ve got one now. Once the lads were down, the Qoth didn’t fuck about – nothing we said slowed them down – they just banged the nano parasites straight into themselves. Then they fell over.”
Well, they would. Nano parasite introduction was supposed to be done when you were at least lying down, if not in a nice stable lab, rather than a freezing cold hole in a mountain. For fuck’s sake. Now we had three aliens with a nano parasite built specifically for humans wandering around in whatever passed for their bloodstreams.
“I’m going to get someone to turn the power back on,” said the sergeant, “I’m damned if we’re dragging this lot back up the stairs.”
Praise be, no more stairs.