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Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Five (Nanowrimo 2022)

It seemed like everyone went rogue these days. I wondered when it would be our turn, but I suppose we’d been rogue from the beginning when we pretended to be scientists, then pretended to be ambassadors to chat with the Vaunted, and then continued to pretend we had a clue about the vast effort to restore planet Earth to non-shit hole status again. Maybe everyone just pretends, all the time. The Qoth had pretended to be cooperating, but had taken things into their own three-fingered hands the moment the opportunity arose.

We’d had to wait for a couple more hours in the freezing cold while the secondary objective squad woke up the primary objective squad and made sure they were OK. Thankfully, they were all fine, just very cold indeed and more embarrassed than injured. If you’re not allowed to properly fuck up your opponents, who happen to have total diplomatic immunity and an unknown array of skills, then I’d argue that it wasn’t really the soldiers’ fault that they couldn’t intimidate a bunch of alien fur-turtles. A perhaps stronger case could be made that they shouldn’t have let the case out of their eyes’ sight at all… But since Gex had stolen it in the first place, I wasn’t pointing any fingers. Instead we mostly just watched the Qoth, apparently fast asleep on the cold floor, while Gex, Scoro and I popped in and out of our ownworlds, trying to figure out what was going on with the occasional static effect we were getting. Obviously it was something to do with the Qoth and the nano parasites being stuffed in a non-human body, but right then we lacked a lot of useful information about the Qoth. Like, for example, them not having proper brains at all. Still, after a rather chilly wait there were a series of massive clangs that rang out through the underground facility and the lights came back on. After a minute all our torches and lanterns went off. While we’d been waiting, the soldiers had found the door controls, and the little network of military tunnels which we’d missed when we came through last time, as well as gone back down into the facility to retrieve all the machines that had been hooked up in the blood-spattered surgical suite. Watching that massive concrete door grind open was the best. It symbolised everything I wanted about the next hour: not walking up flights of stairs. I know it sounds rather petty, but I earnestly never wanted to climb a single stair again in my life. Some brilliant pilot had navigated a zerocopter right down into the mountain and it settled onto the concrete pad where we’d first arrived. They’d brought a medical team with them, some impressive gurneys for the Qoth (arguably they were pallets and a forklift truck), and an armload of blankets, which were gratefully received by one and all. No more Qoth though, which underscored them being in a new degree of trouble with either our government or theirs.

It was a bit of a squeeze in the back of the zerocopter with the Qoth strapped down to their pallets in the middle of the main bay. I was utterly knackered and crashed out as soon as we were strapped into the seats that ringed it. I didn’t need a window seat this time. I dreamed, rather than wandering back into my ownworld. It didn’t go well – I woke up yelling about something. Incredibly rarely, I’d had a nightmare, which wasn’t a huge surprise given what we’d been doing and what we’d seen all day, but we don’t have nightmares any more. Not unless we want to. The interference that had felt like static was getting worse, affecting not just communications in the ownworlds, but my own ability and the oneirocyte’s to keep a handle on my conscious unconscious. Fucking Qoth.

When we got back to Elevator Town (yes, I know, but if we’d built it back in the viking age it would have ended up as Elevator Town Town or something even more redundant. It was what it was…) we were whisked off up the elevator, leaving our soldiery escort in Colonel Lindsmane’s ungentle hands. He didn’t look impressed, though whether that was with his soldiers’ incompetence or ours, I couldn’t say. I was happy to get on that lift though. Up top we were met by a very concerned Qoth delegation and a handful of banana-form Li. They’d wanted to play with the oneirocytes, and now they were. The trio of bad boys were conveyed into a much less threatening medical suite than those I had experience of, and a metric fucktonne of machines were plugged into them. That’s where we learned that the Qoth don’t have brains like we do, contained in a neat little box at the top. They’re more like octopuses, with the neural network strung out all through their bodies. Along with the case of nano parasites we’d retrieved from Project Tutu, we’d also taken a bunch of their imaging gear which Doctor C and company had used to track the progress of the oneirocytes, and hopefully interface with them. That had all been duly installed by a cool mixture of human technicians, doctors and a handful of Geshiiil. The latter had built this place and installed what they thought would be useful things, like their equivalent of real-time MRI/x-ray devices. Very, very cool. Between them all they resolved trivial things like making Earth plugs and voltage work with whatever the Geshiiil used. Thankfully we weren’t involved at all in such things. We were busy getting a bollocking from the Earth government representatives. It did involve some shouting. They were highly concerned that we’d let a bunch of Qoth maybe kill themselves on our watch, and equally that we’d allowed them to straight up steal vital Earth technologies. Their choice of verbs was very accusative. It was the sort of meeting you just have to sit through quietly, nod a lot and look regretful. We’d become really bad at all of those things, and it was a considerable relief when someone came for us – it was time to take a proper look at the Qoth.

The kit had all been set up, and in an unpleasant echo of our earlier time in a surgical suite, we were ushered into an observation room with a big window where a new face, Doctor Hullesmann, talked us through what they knew already.

“When the nano parasites were injected into their hosts, they were faced with two problems. One, the host isn’t human; and two, the nearest analogue of human neural material they could find in the Qoth was immediately present, and spreads throughout the body. It looks like the nano parasites, smart things that they are recognised the neural material and made a game attempt to do what it’s supposed to: hijack the brain and start learning about it. That intervention immediately paralysed the Qoth hosts, as the parasite locked down the area it was injected. Not that the Qoth have bloodstreams either, this was more like injecting the nano parasites directly into your spine. Not a great idea. Since then, the parasites have been rapidly expanding, since they keep finding more ‘brain’ wherever they look. They’re working very hard, but it’s entirely possible they’re very lost and working off book.”

Cool. As I’d vaguely suspected, it’s not a brilliant plan to shove an oneirocyte into something that isn’t a human. I had questions.

“Do the Qoth dream?”

We had a Qoth in the room with us, who seemed quite relaxed about three of his colleagues being out cold with alien wires in their brains. “We look forward to being reunited with the god-star,” it said.

“Sure, I’m sure you do. But do you dream?” human language is drenched in metaphor and synonyms which are related and interchangeable but mean completely different things. This isn’t the case for all species – some of them actually say what they mean, and really do mean the things they say. “Dream – not hope, not remember. When humans sleep, we lose awareness of the world and create, imagine, new events and ideas. Partly those are remixed memories, but they’re not literal and they don’t relate to the real world. It’s an unconscious process.”

That baffled them. Qoth do sleep, in the sense that they’re not always up and running around doing Qothi things. But they don’t have an analogous state to dreaming. They use their sleep to solve actual problems, without the distraction of wandering about. When the Qoth say they’re going to think on something, they mean sleep on it, and by sleep on it, they mean they’re going to sit immobile and think about it until either someone wakes them up, or they’ve finished thinking about it. They don’t have an unconscious.

“Right, well. That’s going to be interesting for the oneirocyte,” I said, in deep frown, “sorry – the nan parasite. It’s job is to integrate the conscious and unconscious experiences of humans and give us control over both.” The Qoth and Geshiiil were plainly baffled that we didn’t already have command of ourselves. It had seemed so natural and normal right up until we met people who didn’t do it like that. They looked at us like we were mad. Maybe they’re right, it would explain a lot about humans.

“But they’re definitely doing something inside the Qoth. If they’ve triggered this ‘thinking’ state, then the parasites will be trying to connect up with that. And if they’re doing that throughout the body, that might explain why we–“ I indicated myself and my companions “–are experiencing a kind of interference with our nano parasites.”

“Yes, that makes sense,” our doctor buddy chipped in, “the human brain, consciousness itself rides on an electrical field generated throughout the brain. From the data I’ve seen – and thank you for bringing so much back from your expedition, by the way, it makes fascinating reading – the nano parasites intensify that field even further, which is partly how you’re able to communicate across the network. Since the nano parasites inside the Qoth are finding so much more neural material to work with, they’ve spread out much more than they need to in a human, and very possibly are trying to network and figure out what’s happening to them.”

“We must insist that we remove our people to Qothima,” the Qoth ambassador interjected.

That wrong-footed everyone. “We have the best facilities and equipment right here,” said Hellesmann, “we can monitor them properly and advise on the best course of action.”

“But you don’t know what’s happening,” retorted the Qoth, “and we do understand our own people. Perhaps your nano parasite experts could come with us.”

More wrong-footing. We didn’t actually have much to do, now that the Earth government had been coaxed into productive action by the Lesveds. The Vaunted had left us in peace while we fixed up the planet, in no apparent rush to go and tackle crypt-space. I guess it had already been at least twenty years while they dragged us all across the galaxy – the last year didn’t mean much to the immortal rainbow people. Our human ambassadors were getting all ready to huff and puff, but I got in there first.

“Sure, why not,” Scoro looked a little freaked out, but I gave him a reassuring smile, “as long as we can breathe on Qothima, we can work.”

There was a lot of arguing, complaining and doing all the things that ambassadors from the Council of Twelve (not a real thing, despite the Vaunted claiming it was a real thing – it would be in time, once the real war-planning began, but at this stage it was more like a society of friends who argued quite a lot) were supposed to do. In the end the Qoth, and us, won the debate. Obviously we’d be accompanied by a security detail, Doctor Hellesmann and whoever else Earth wanted to send. The Li were keen to be involved too, and basically a whole circus of whoever wanted to play. The Qoth looked pleased. I was excited: we were going to a different planet!

It took a while to sort out all the details and packing. We spent it in our ownworlds, a good distance away from the infected Qoth, who still showed no signs of waking up. We were wandering around in Scoro’s cathedral world, observing the static pulses that we were still getting, even half a mile away on the other edge of the top side space station.

“You think this is a good idea?” asked Gex.

“I do. Well, probably. The Vaunted said that the most interesting thing humans have for the coming war is the fact that we dream. That, and our work with the oneirocytes in controlling dreams.”

“Four and a half billion years of history, and only the last twenty years matters,” muttered Scoro.”

“Yeah, but without the billions of years in front, we wouldn’t have the last twenty years.”

“Plus, technically it’s not just twenty years. The project didn’t kick off with the shell, it just recruited Doctor C and got really serious about what they were doing. From the papers Hellesmann’s been rooting around in, the project goes back decades. The nano bit was the new thing, but they’ve been dicking around with human consciousness for a long time.” The others looked unimpressed by my pedantry.

Another wave of static passed through the ownworld, making the vaulted ceiling twitch. For just a moment it was like looking at a picture where one of the colours has been removed. Weird.

“Are we really going to an alien planet,” asked Gex a little wistfully.

“Unless we’re actually still trapped in the Unity and they’ve invented something cooler than a frozen lake, then yeah, I guess we are.”

“That’s not even funny,” she pouted. “We can breathe there, right?”

“Hellesmann thinks so – the Qoth basically exhale oxygen and nitrogen, so as long as we’re around them we should be fine. Plus he thinks their atmosphere isn’t wholly incompatible anyway. Honestly, who knows – we’ve never done this before.”

I was sneakily delighted that we were going to be among the first humans to ever step foot on an alien world. We didn’t get there by our own skill and ingenuity, not really. Right place, right time. Plus, we didn’t have any spaceships of our own. The terrestrial space programme had been pretty much fucked by the shell. Apart from launching satellites and sending probes to stare uselessly at the shell, all that effort had fallen by the wayside. But we had the Hellevance, and they had spaceships in abundance. As a culture that habitually planet-hopped and expanded, they were more than happy to lend us a spaceship, as long as they could come along. No one argued with that – who the fuck knows how to pilot a Hellevant spaceship?

Qoth was five planets up-orbit from Earth – “up-orbit” being how we described planets ahead of us in the direction the chain of worlds circuited the trinary star cluster – or seven planets down-orbit, if you’re a half-empty glass person. I wish I could say that the trip was a tremendous adventure, but it was nothing like the hair-raising exploits of our failed attempts to reach Mars, in advanced but hopelessly fragile tin cans with untested technology, little or zero gravity and the constant risk of death at any second. Nope, the Hellevance were long-time pros. Gravity, comfort, reassuring humming technology and proper food made it the opposite of those fart-filled human canisters. Obviously we did spent quite a lot of time in the observation lounges, watching Earth dwindle with the Hellevant environment engines as visible as the cloud systems. It was already looking a lot better than it had when the Geshiiil first installed the space elevator. We were at least getting our atmosphere back on track. There were exciting plans in the works to un-fuck the seas, with similar engines to filter all the crap out. After that – and the idea that there could be another “after that” after such astonishing endeavours was almost overwhelming – would come species reintroduction, making use of the vast DNA banks that had been populated early in the days of being in the shell, before so much went extinct. Our cloning technology was good, and the Li had some cool ideas about introducing variety into the cloning cycles so you didn’t just end up with a hundred identical tigers fucking each other. For example. It was all so good and positive that I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: crypt-space. We knew the Vaunted would be calling on us at some point, which was partly why I was keen to get some off-world time with the Qoth or whoever. The implication had been that we three, or at least the things in our heads, were going to be important. We’d spent far too little time exploring what else they could do, and the Qoth had provided us with an opportunity to play with something unimaginable – networking the oneirocytes in a species that didn’t have an unconscious. And poke around an alien planet, obviously.

Qothima emerged along the chain – a bright green bubble against the velvet blackness of space. The trip hadn’t taken long, just eight days of smooth travel through our unnatural solar system. We’d pressed our faces to the screens as we’d passed other worlds too, but this was the one we were getting off on. As it drew closer, we saw that Qothima was mostly greenery with far less ocean area than we had on Earth. It was mostly one huge continent pocketed by seas. Looked nice. As we hove into orbit, the familiar shape of a Geshiiil space station and elevator grew larger. That was ridiculously reassuring. I was excited, but more than a little nervous about this (despite my claims to the contrary with Gex and Scoro), and the homely sight of the space station took the edge off. I was amazed by how quickly we’d embraced such new additions to our world. But look what we had before, I guess. If only everyone back home felt the same way…

We were unloaded into the space station, which proved to be almost identical to Earth’s. Clearly the Geshiiil had gone for compatibility and a proven design choice. The three unconscious Qoth were shipped out ahead of us, to be installed in a custom-built laboratory environment knocked up by the Qoth while we were in transit. We got on the elevator and descended into a continent-wide forest.

Stolen Skies

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.

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