Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Six (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

Qothima was a hell-world of constantly screaming animals. Bird-things, mostly. They apparently spent every waking moment (and nothing on Qothima dreams like a human does) from dawn to dusk screaming, and then spend half the night making a noise like someone hammering on a door. We were told that it’s a constant assertion of their territorial ownership of whatever branch or nest they’ve constructed out of spit and leaves. It’s ghastly. What possibly made it even worse is that the indigenous species can’t even really hear it. They just hear the subsonic rumbles that humans can’t even perceive. The sounds in our hearing spectrum weren’t the main event, though one of the Qoth confessed that they sometimes chose to hear the racket as a kind of aural aphrodisiac. Fascinating people. The noise proved to be the main challenge in setting up the lab and little community for all those who had travelled from Earth with us. Really good sound proofing would be essential, lest we all went insane. Once that was established, Qothima became a truly gorgeous and almost silent world. Everything lives in the canopy there – the ground is strictly for suckers and eaters of the dead, we never even saw it. The trees grow close together, with branches creating interlocking strata from something like fifty feet above the ground to their final height, nearly a kilometre up in the air. We were regularly reminded not to go outside on our own, and definitely not to descend to any of the lower levels.

The Qoth population were mostly spread around the top half-kilometre or so of the world-spanning forest. There they’d taken advantage of the natural shapes of the trees and branches to build their cities into the greenery. Wood’s always been a critically important building material back home, but here it’s almost all they’ve got. They do have a lot more kinds of wood, mind. While we did fun things like extract the cellulose from trees to enhance steel and other materials, the Qoth had forests growing on top of the forests which they tuned and tweaked to produce wood spanning virtually the whole range of materials we use, from glass and plastic analogues, to incredibly hard woods that would make the hardiest lumberjack cry.

Our little compound was built from a mix of these, and it felt like the Qoth were showing off just a bit. They’d been little specific use to the rest of the planets in the chain, having only wood-related technology and their weird spiritual beliefs to offer. The Vaunted didn’t seem to care: the Qoth still got invited to things, and received whatever support they might need from the Geiliiish and everyone else. They’d more or less given up pestering the other worlds about their missing god-star in the face of baffled and apologetic responses. The unshelling of Earth had perhaps offered them some hope. The compound was a great arching shape, enormous spears of hard wood sprouting from each corner, some half a mile square. Between those ribs they’d put in fully transparent walls all around the outside, so we could see (but blessedly not hear) those fucking bird things. “Bird” is a bit of a stretch of course. Evolutionary drives appear similar on lots of planets, and something evolves to fill ecological niches. Lots of space between the branches – and you know, air – meant this was a good place if you could fly, or hop and glide. Just as in the rainforests on Earth the variety was bewildering. From tiny thumb-sized pterodactyl-looking things to balloons with weird organic propellers where their bum should be, all flew around (often into the transparent fence), eating, attacking each other, and, of course – screaming. Beautiful though, once we were soundproofed. I’d never been on another world, never seen or really imagined what might live on a similar-ish planet to Earth. The Qoth had presumably been one of the ground-crawling things they were so keen that we avoided going to see, and had a degree of embarrassment about it. At least, that’s my interpretation of their immediately going off on a tangent whenever I pried. They certainly couldn’t fly. Inside the see-through walls, they built a series of buildings which looked more like wooden pumpkins than house. They certainly knew their woodcraft. Plenty of space to work, live and relax.

It was no small endeavour what the Qoth built, and it suited us very well. The three immobile, nano parasite infected Qoth were kept in a lab where equipment and technicians kept an eye on them. Once we were all settled, we got to work. For us, that work looked a lot like three people having a nap in the lab. The static interference had been reducing all through the journey to Qoth and the building phase. We hoped that meant the oneirocytes were chilling out, or at least not actively shredding the nervous system of the Qoth. Yep – that was a genuine concern of Doctor Hellesmann, which we’d not previously been aware of. The kit that should have allowed the doctors to connect to the parasites wasn’t making a connection, but that was an interface tuned to the human network, and our suspicions were that the parasites were more adaptable than anyone had expected, with typically unexpected results. I sank back into the ownworld, my spiralling white trees feeling like an extension of the real world around us. In time I’d be making some adjustments, but we’d been so busy rushing hither and thither that I hadn’t put any time into further refining my ownworld. All dreams change, and I wanted to keep growing my dream rather than becoming trapped in it. The Unity had shown us that you could build a replica of reality and just stick to it. Seriously though, if you could dream anything, why would you keep what you’ve already got in the real world. Hardly worth the effort when you can just wake up. Though the Unity couldn’t do that anymore, wherever the fuck they were. Time to find the Qoth. Since the Qoth don’t dream, the parasites wouldn’t be helping them to establish a connection between their conscious and unconscious selves or processes. We vaguely expected to find them just trapped in their “thinking” time that they used sleeping for, but first we needed to find a way in.

Gex and Scoro met me at the interchange station we’d built to unite our ownworlds, which had since evolved to allow us to wander through each other’s ownworlds at will. One thing about building imaginary stuff is that when it works as a metaphor it can be hard to tell if it’s the object or the metaphor that’s doing the work. We’d need to pull the interchange apart at some point to see if we’d now adapted the ability to inhabit the wider ownworld network between the three of us, and it was actual consent instead of an implied consent that enabled it. Fun. Anyway, it didn’t really matter which of our ownworlds we started from, and there was some degree of reassurance, and the sense of combined power when we were together in our minds.

“They don’t know how to reach us, if they’re even aware at all at the moment,” I said, “so we can’t ask them to imagine a door.”

“We’ll just make our own door, I guess.” Gex was, as ever, in favour of a direct solution.

“Let’s just see if we can feel them first,” Scoro suggested, “we’re still getting occasional waves of static – let’s follow them.”

We didn’t need the omniscient state that we’d achieved when we created the spire that contacted the Vaunted, we needed to relax and listen. Thank god we couldn’t hear those fucking alien birds, and yet… There was something. A deep booming, well below our usual register, like a quasar ticking away across the cosmos. It felt as if it was from somewhere underneath us. So we went looking. Gex peeled back layer after layer of the cogs and engines that filled her world, the ground spiralling upward into ever more convoluted chains of revolving shapes. And underneath it all, a glow that sounded like someone crying. Creepy as fuck. We laid our hands on it – cold and crisp, like sticking your fist into snow at minus thirty. It was a solid barrier, so what else could we do but knock? Nothing happened immediately, but then the crying sound stopped and the deep boom skipped a beat. We’d made contact with something. We knocked again. We waited for a bit. Someone else trying to get into your mind is a freaky thing, and if the Qoth were trapped in a realm or state they didn’t understand, someone trying to kick in a door you don’t even know is there, to a room you don’t know you’re in… well, it’s a bit disturbing. Now that we’d found this glossy glowing layer we could do something with it. Gex continued her excavations, while Scoro and I pulled it up out of the ground. A perfect sphere drifted upwards, softly glowing. In our ownworlds it wasn’t much larger than a house. Small, limited. What you might hide in or create if you don’t have any imagination. The sound of crying and the deep rumble had resumed, so I pressed my hand against the side of the sphere and pushed.

My hand entered the sphere, and my mind followed. Abruptly I was inside the glowing sphere. Internally it was the opposite – dark, pitch dark like I’ve never known before. And bigger, but probably not much larger than it seemed from the outside. And there was a presence, the feeling of light but without being in the visible spectrum. Very peculiar. I started walking around, heading for the source of the booming which filled the dark space. It’s hard to resist putting your hands out in front of you when you walk into the darkness, and I didn’t even try. That’s how I knew I’d found the Qoth. In a patch of darkness even darker than the absolute blackness of the sphere, I touched a furry shell. Nearly gave myself a goddamn heart attack. It was one of the Qoth, and now I knew it was there I could sort of see it, like a reversed shadow, pale against the dark. It wasn’t alone. The other two were here too, having automatically been joined in a network by the oneirocytes. But this wasn’t a dream, the Qoth were still asleep, or unconscious, or whatever it was that they were doing. They were huddled close together, their shells almost touching. I stood on tip-toes to see if there was anything between them, and then I saw it. The source of that feeling of light I’d been experiencing. The Qoth’s three fingered hands were outstretched, and nestling in the cradle they made, a star glowed fiercely, pulsing the blackness into the room. As if noticing my attention, it suddenly flared into bright light, almost blinding me despite this being all in the Qoths’ minds. I stumbled backwards in surprise, and with a pop, I was pushed back out of their minds and into Gex’s ownworld.

“Well that was fucking weird,” I said, and explained to the others what had just happened.

“Best talk to the fur-turtles, I reckon.” Scoro was almost certainly right. The glowing sphere still hung in the air. We’d managed to pull whatever their ownworld was into ours, we’d almost brought them into the network, but it didn’t feel as if it was the Qoth that we’d made contact with, it felt like their ownworld itself.

All this was quite hard to describe to the waiting crowd of scientists and Qoth, but the latter got really excited when I described the sun the three Qoth had been holding. Because Qoth don’t have dreams, they don’t imagine things in the same way we do. They believe. Oneirocytes link up different parts of the mind: for us that’s waking and asleep. For the Qoth, it might well be that it connects their waking mind to their believing mind. The nano parasites had put the three Qoth in direct communion with their beliefs – it had helped them create the god-star in their minds. As we had established, what’s in our heads is as real as the stuff outside it. Or it can be, sort of. The Qoth were taking that as a definite though: if they had the god-star in their heads, then there was a very real sense in which that really was the god-star, no matter that crypt-space had likely devoured the physical sun. We’d come to play with the nano parasites, not get mixed up in the Qoth’s religious worldview. But there was no escaping it. They’d found their god-star again, and they wanted us to help them get it back.

We stayed on Qothima for nearly a year. The initial attempts to make contact with the three Qoth inside their god-star network all failed, despite us being able to perceive its existence inside our ownworld, which suggested we were partly connected. The Qoth reckoned that eerie crying sound was the sheer state of bliss that the immobilised Qoth were experiencing. Bliss has very rarely made me cry, but then I’m not a furry turtle living in the canopy of an alien forest, so my expectations were worth precisely fuck all. It took a lot of perseverance, and ultimately a volunteer from the Qoth scientific delegation for us to get in. The first three Qoth had taken the nano parasites into the own hands and just banged them into their systems any old way, with no preparation and the worst possible environment. We could do better. At the very least, we now had some idea what the nano parasites were doing inside their alien hosts and might be able to guide it and its host into a more stable and predictable course. It sort of worked. We woke the nano parasite up before injecting it into the Qoth, using the interface machines to have a chat with it. That’s a bit glib, but by opening a door between my oneirocyte and it, I could feel its progress when we did inject it into the Qoth. This time, the scientists placed it carefully, not just shoving it into their whole-body spine. As the parasite encountered the seemingly endless brain stuff I slowed it down. This time the Qoth woke up a little while after initial insertion, and hadn’t lost its mind. Positive. We went back in together, and we opened a doorway far earlier in the process of assimilation and learning than I’d managed with Gex and Scoro. The Qoth hadn’t even started constructing an ownworld out of its beliefs yet, so we did it together. The darkness was, once again complete. Whatever in-built sense of faith the Qoth had, it really was consistent, and this place felt exactly the same as the Qoth ownworld I’d entered previously. This time the Qoth and I explored it together, awake in its beliefs. When we came across the trio of Qoth, I realised that this wasn’t just like the other god-star ownworld, it was the same one. The Qoth automatically inhabited the same belief space. Fuck, maybe it really was the god-star. I had no way to know for sure. I let the Qoth bask in the glow of that sun for a while, then pulled it back out into the waking world. It was overwhelmed by the experience, tears running down its face as it babbled that we had found the god-star, it was still alive, and it was inside all of them. Like I said, I didn’t want to get mixed up in their spiritual business, but when I tentatively suggested that it was, you know, sort of just in their minds, they looked so offended that we backed off from that point entirely.

We’d successfully brought the three original Qoth back into the waking world, which immediately elevated them to the rank of spiritual saviours. That was nice. It definitely made them into less miserable fucks. It did give us a proper logistical problem though. The Qoth wanted – demanded – enough nano parasites to infect their whole population. Billions of them. It was orders of magnitude more than we had available – it was enough of a challenge to dissuade them from nicking the few thousand that we did have. For a bit I was worried that we might have a full on mutiny on our hands, since they all wanted to be able to commune with their god-star, and really, by not giving them that we were really just furthering the persecution and indignities already heaped upon them by the Vaunted. The Vaunted were dicks, and I didn’t want to be lumped into that same category thank you very much. We did have the Geiliiish though, and so far there had been nothing that they couldn’t fabricate. We gave them a batch of the nano parasites to take a look at, and the technical specifications we’d retrieved from Project Tutu. Thankfully we’d only brought a couple of Earth government representatives with us, who were keen to leverage Earth technology for more substantial gains from the other worlds. When we pointed out that we’d already had quite a lot of bang for our buck – and how was reintroducing cloned pandas going – that they backed down and let us do science stuff and make friends properly. The Geiliiish were typically delighted by the project and happy to embark on some mass-manufacturing, even though it was going to take years to cultivate enough oneriocytes for the whole population. We let the Qoth figure out the logistics of how they’d dole them out to their people. Our role was simpler: train the Qoth to train each other in how to use the oneirocytes. I’ll give them this: they were highly motivated. Meeting your own god is quite the tool for learning. And all the while we maintained our connection to their growing god-star ownworld. We’d had to relocate it within our own ownworld network – each mind added to the god-star increased its size. We flung it into our sky, where it could orbit our ownworlds. Our mental realm was growing larger and more complex – we could visit aliens in our heads now!

That year on Qothima flashed past, and I grew used to the lush greens of that alien forest. We’d been training the Qoth, but also inducting a new cadre of humans into using the oneirocytes. I wondered if the Unity had been able to do this the way we learned to: once you’re in someone’s ownworld, you can do what the Vaunted did to us, and immerse them in your memories and almost instantly teach them how to manage the ownworld and the nano parasite the way we had learned. It bootstrapped a new generation of oneirocyte hosts into their ownworlds. Our network grew further, and each new addition created their own mental spaces, many of them influenced by what we’d been surrounded by on Qothima. The practice of teaching others gave us time to think about our ownworlds too, and they all grew both more complex and more personal. I finally made myself a home inside my mind; Scoro created little flying mammals halfway between a sugarglider and a cat, and released them into the ownworld network; Gex shrank all her cogs and engines down until they worked away almost imperceptibly while she grew a city made of houses like those we lived inside in our Qothima compound. It all felt so beautiful, and right. It was all going so well. We’d been away from Earth for a year, receiving occasional snippets of news about how well it was recovering and it seemed like we were finally turning a corner from the disasters of the shell. Of course I did, I was hanging out in an alien treehouse, millions of miles away from my home. It did wonders for reducing the constant stress and worry that living there had generated.

And then the Vaunted showed up again. One of their bubble-formed spaceships slid gracefully through Qothima’s atmosphere and down into the forest, silkily sliding over the tree trunks, branches, leaves and perplexed screaming birds were caught briefly in its rainbow shape and had a new reason to scream even louder. We received a polite invitation to join them in our ownworld. Clearly, our last encounter had taught them some manners. We could be haughty little bastards too when we wanted to be. The little bubble-man appeared again, standing by one of my lagoons which I’d recently begun populating with little fish. It looked vaguely pleased that the ownworld had developed, even it wasn’t all rainbow vanes and angles like theirs was. I wasn’t alone either. Scoro and Gex were there too, as were the hundred other humans we’d shared the oneirocyte with, and a delegation of the Qoth. Good on them actually: since Qoth don’t dream, they’d found our ownworld environment challenging to understand, but once we explained that we sort of believed them into existence they mostly grasped it, even if the nature of our environments disturbed them profoundly. Believing, imagining – it’s all thinking –  that’s what we had in common.

This time, instead of trying to wrench us into the Vaunted mental space, they conjured it up inside our ownworld, bringing it with them like they brought themselves. Which I guess was technically the same thing for a species that was almost entirely mental. Before us, we saw our new solar system, the pearls of our planetary necklace gleaming in the light of the three suns. Then we zoomed out, and out – our stars were still visible, the Vaunted clearly using them as a reference point. What they wanted to show us was this: a hole in space, horribly familiar from what we’d seen twenty years ago in our original solar system. Using Vaunted technology we could see it more clearly. It had opened up in a presumably uninhabited system, near a planet and we finally got to see what crypt-space looked like, and what it did. The hole was like the halo effect – the visual distortions some people get when a migraine is coming on – the fabric of vacuum fracturing, some parts occluded entirely, others moving like shattered chunks of glass, scraping past each other. I could almost feel it. The planet that it had appeared near was visibly dissolving, its matter being hoovered up into the space between it and the hole. And that was where crypt-space was emerging into the real world. From the distance we were at it looked a bit like frost flourishing across a pane of glass, except that there was no glass and the shapes lacked that curious fractal flowering of snowflakes. The Vaunted zoomed in, or got nearer, or whatever it is the Vaunted do when they’re wandering around in space. For all I knew it was a Vaunted bubble-man standing on nothing holding a telescope. The closer we got, the clearer it was that the frosting in space was massive – every bit of the planet that dissolved was being used to materialise the dead realm. A lot of it was unrecognisable shapes, towering forms – hints of architecture and organic forms flowering out of the darkness. But here and there was some human artifact, or the memory of that artifact, an idea that had died which the Vaunted was choosing to find for us: some was ridiculous, like a microwave extruding out of nothing, or a herd of horses that burst into existence, but then we started to see people. Jumbled up with everything else that was being given form again, pressed together in that mass were human faces and bodies, mouths open in screams as they suddenly regained material existence and promptly died again in the vacuum of space. We saw a thousand examples of this – thinking beings returned and snuffed out again immediately, all mashed together with the ideas of buildings, animals, whole cities tumbling in the void.

The Vaunted zoomed back out, returning our view to our little solar system. Finally it deigned to speak with us. “Crypt-space has found us. Now we must fight.”

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Seven (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

After a week being treated for inhaling the death seeds of an Alometh in the larger hospital of Elevator Town, I was finally allowed to leave. It had been quite a pleasant stay, all things considered. Certainly once I got moved away from the other fucking guy who wanted to bitch and complain about everything Vaunted. I mean, I get it. I do. The rainbow gods had fucked up space, fucked up the Earth and perhaps even worse, turned out to be colossal pricks. Being virtually immortal and omnipotent doesn’t necessarily make you a good dude. If anything, having that amount of power separates you physically and mentally from all the miserable mortals working in the grubby material world beneath you. I was a bit worried that we had become a little like them, gallivanting off into space and stuff. But we hadn’t kidnapped a bunch of planets and forced them into a war either. I say “forced”, but we weren’t forced to fight, or to deal with the other planets. Sure, that was partly a result of being so utterly screwed when the shell came down that we had very few options – accept help, or continue to die. It was a good call. Doesn’t mean a lot of people liked it. Human exceptionalism had taken a real hard kicking during the twenty years in the shell, and a lot of folks (my former roommate included) had some heavy-duty resentment for no longer being the big kid in class who could smash everyone else’s pencil cases. It’s not like a lot of these spiteful twats had done anything genuinely useful other than claim their spot in the hierarchy. And now, their rung on the ladder had been broken by their own weight, and the whole ladder was being supported by creatures whose existence they’d never even suspected. Even worse, their lives had improved immeasurably, certainly compared to five years previously. But there’s a problem in humans: if we don’t do it ourselves, can’t do it ourselves, we don’t seem to think it’s real or important. For Gex, Scoro and I, we’d seen the Vaunted’s own memories of crypt-space, and their whole heroic idiocy laid bare. Got to give them that – as far as we could tell, they hadn’t held back. That might just have been a further expression of their extraordinary arrogance. They probably hadn’t expected us to notice how dumb they’d been. They were so embedded in their view of reality that they probably hadn’t thought about how other species might view their memories – they didn’t really have bodies any more. We’d only had a few years experimenting in our ownworlds, but none of our cadre had been trained to think the ownworld was everything, even it was alluring. We’d been very clear about how the oneirocytes can fuck you up if you consider them the endgame, and they seemed to find the notion of becoming only a ball of brain wool as disturbing as we did. We’d shared our memories of the Unity with them, of course. Part of the training regime we’d developed, learning as we went, was that it was much harder to lie and skip over details in the ownworld. It was possible to edit the memories you shared, or render it free of emotion – what was the point of having mastery of our conscious and unconscious minds if we couldn’t actually control them – but that wasn’t helpful, because everyone knows there are emotions attached to memories. It was one reason why the Vaunted had shared theirs. Emotion is like colour, or sound. For thinking creatures they’re all parts of everything. And if you want someone to understand you, you have to give them everything. Radical honesty, sort of. But it’s not like we just spilled all our feelings into the ownworld and had a big sad-sack cry every day. You shared what you wanted to, if you needed to, but you did it completely. So we believed in crypt-space and the coming challenges implicitly. Persuading other people that it was real had been harder. The world government may never have truly believed us, and it wasn’t until the arrival of the aliens that it all started to make sense. Our planet having been moved was inarguable, and proof of something having happened. The idea that shit was going to get real somewhere further down the line stayed much further down that line.

Gex and Scoro turned up to get me out of the hospital, though of course we’d been in constant communication the whole time I’d been having my lungs and blood cleaned of the Alometh death particles. Gex had not stopped laughing about me having alien jizz in me since she’d learned that I’d been in the wrong waiting room. Good friends do that. The fortnight of recovery had been a good break, for my mind, if not my bruised and scrubbed body. That night we’d come down the elevator for a quiet and serious bingeing on booze had been our first break in the war for weeks. We’d been spending days at a time in our ownworlds, supported by baths of nano nutrients in which we were cocooned. It was a bit like lying in a tub of very fine and very dry rice. So fine that it was slippery and made you think it was wet, but the particles were just too small to feel properly. Exhausting work, but necessary. No wonder we wanted to get wasted – even fighting a war from inside your own head takes its toll on you. It’s weird to wake up and find that you’re wholly intact as if nothing has happened. It’s disorienting and I reckon really damaging in the long term. But that’s jumping ahead again.

When we returned to Earth after a year on Qothima, shipping down-orbit to home, we found it much changed. The seas looked bluer, the sky had lost most of its dirty look, and only a few of those massive hexagonal engines still hung in the sky. The sight of them really fucked some people off. It’s hard not to dwell on them I guess. We’d seen such cool things, and received so much assistance that it was still incredible to me that people hated the aliens for it – not just the Vaunted (fair play on that one), but the Hellevance, and even the Geiliiish who by now lived on Earth to get their work done and to train and work with the next generations of human engineers. The further you were from direct contact with and benefit from our new friends, the easier it was to label them the enemy. What’s worse is that this was a pissed off minority who screamed and shouted the loudest. Most people were fine. Maybe that’s always the way, this disproportionality making them seem important. That said, I had been glassed and then yelled at in hospital recently, so maybe I’m the bitter one. Fuck em, I guess. Earth was on its way back to a place we could live, have kids, grow old and die properly – not choked by the world, just dying in normal ordinary ways like traffic accidents. The Vaunted had notified all the worlds simultaneously, so we didn’t have to bring ill tidings home with us. I still had no clue what we were actually going to do to fight crypt-space either. The sight of those people materialising in the vacuum stayed with me. They’d just been re-born – surely we couldn’t simply go and kill them again?

The Geiliish and our engineers had been busy, constructing a new facility especially for those of us with the oneirocytes who we’d trained up on Qothima. Some folks had stayed behind, having grown used to that forest world and its people, but we were now an eighty-strong group with a sprawling ownworld network comprising eighty very different dreamworlds, but each with a dark star in its sky – our Qoth pals. Even across the vast distance between Earth and Qothima, we were all still in each other’s minds when we wanted to be. It was the best demonstration we’d had that the mental plane described by the Vaunted was real, and even though it sat side by side with the physical world, physical distance meant nothing to the proximity between minds. Which made me wond95er why the Vaunted had bothered to show up in a rainbow ship. Good for those without access to the ownworld I guess, and a nice reminder of their power and all-round importance. There was another one still waiting on Earth, suggesting they were at last getting involved properly now that we’d done all that tedious making our homes habitable stuff: boring physical shit. There were also new spaceships in orbit. Some were ours – part of the redevelopment of Earth was establishing our place and asserting that humans weren’t just losers looking for a handout. We had our own spaceships now. Trade and the beginnings of immigration and emigration were being tentatively established with the other worlds. We weren’t the only humans to be meeting and working with aliens – or new friends, as we preferred to call them. The human spaceships were fine, leaning heavily on new toys from the Geiliiish and the Hellevance, but they were ours now. It was a good demonstration that we were back on our feet, and getting involved. But there were spaceships of a style I hadn’t seen before: petal-shaped arcs of gleaming white, things that looked like pomander balls (the oranges studded with cloves like a weird bondage fruit that you see at Christmas sometimes), a good solid pyramid that had its middle knocked out. All these and more were hanging around in Earth orbit. It was beginning to look like a fleet was being assembled.

Once we’d debarked into the up-top space station we were immediately redirected to a new annex. All gleaming white and cool, it had the fresh smell of Geiliiish fabrication. There we started to get filled in on the plan, as well as getting an almighty shock. Like all good briefings those days, we met up in both the ownworld, for those of us capable of it, as well as in a huge circular room with big screens so everyone could see the same stuff at the same time. We just saw it all a bit more directly. While we’d been on Qothima, crypt-space had continued to swell, sucking in the solar systems that it had emerged into previously. Our home systems, in other words. It’s not like we didn’t know that was what was happening, but it was still a shock to hear that there was never going to be a home to go back to. I’m not sure when I’d started thinking of Earth and its whole solar system as our home, but I suppose it was in-built, like having the Moon and the Sun. They’d been there forever, and even though we’d been taken away from them, I guess I’d vaguely imagined that we’d be going back there one day, returned to our spot in orbit. But of course we weren’t. The gravitic distortions of crypt-space sucking up matter, like our neighbouring planets, and spouting the reinstantiated dead ideas back into space had continued, spilling into the physical world until they ran out of matter to convert. Those holes in space were now inert, apparently, or almost. Having consumed everything – planets, sun, asteroid belts and the dust that hangs between worlds, the emergence had slowed to a trickle of ideas popping into existence. The problem was that there was more stuff in crypt-space than in the universe. While matter gets broken back down and reused when suns go nova, or when someone dies and they turn into fancy compost, the matter and energy is mostly reused as something else. When ideas die, and the minds of those now pushing up the flowers drift upward into crypt-space, they just stay there. And there have been an awful lot of sentient species who had lived and died in the cosmos. All their ideas and minds were up there, all stacked up or whatever. There was more in there than there was matter in the universe, and if crypt-space broke out entirely, they’d hoover up everything there was, and there would be no room for the living. The Vaunted were rather concerned that those “inert” rifts in space continued to consume something, possibly cosmic rays and light, which was why stuff was still emerging, even if they were now doing so very slowly. And there were more holes. Of course there were. And since crypt-space seemed to hug closest to the material realm where minds existed, there had been an excellent chance of crypt-space finding us here.

The idea that we were being hunted by the dead did nothing for my nerves. Even if wasn’t really intentional, I’d seen far too many zombie and mummy horror movies when I was a kid to not shudder at the thought. It really was zombie space, and all it wanted was miiiinds. The Vaunted had been unable to close the hole in space that they created when dicking around with the fabric of reality. Even though they were basically gods, they were too deeply embedded in the mental strata of existence, and lacked sufficient presence in the duality of material and mental space. That was where we came in – humans, specifically. Horribly rooted in the dirty life and death of the physical universe, but through the nano parasites we’d attained a control over the mental realm too, without losing our bodies. More importantly, using the oneirocytes correctly meant that we could do more than just build our own imaginary worlds. We’d had a taste of what it’s like when you use the mental to deliberately affect the physical, creating form using just the power we had access to fro69m the ownworlds. It was the same manipulation of reality that the Vaunted had used to tear open space, and to form shells around our worlds and move them here. We’d done it first when we created the “hello tower”, a structure that even now speared up through Earth’s atmosphere. The Geiliiish told us that it was made of ordinary matter, that we’d converted the atoms in the atmosphere into the fabric of the object. Doing in seconds what stars did over eons, converting matter into new elements by reorganising protons and neutrons and all that atomic scale business. The advantage of doing it from the ownworld was that you didn’t really need to understand how we did it. Since we were just petty mortals, though, we’d need some help.

The new spaceships in orbit belonged to aliens we hadn’t met before: the Calus and the Tel. As they were introduced, we felt the weight of their awareness inside the ownworld. They were saying hello and asking to join the network. It was a council of war, after all, so we let them in. They sent only a small delegation, two of each. They appeared in the ownworld in presumably the same forms that they had in the real world – I wouldn’t know, I’ve never met them off their ships. Their atmosphere is quite incompatible with ours, and with most of the other worlds. The Calus essentially breathe acid – their whole world is a bubble of toxic death, so they stay on their ships, and the Tel are similarly unsociable. Although they’re two distinct species, they’re not originally from the same planet. The Tel escaped some planetary catastrophe of their own and shacked up on the Calus’ world. They don’t breathe acid. They just stay on their spaceships because that’s where they’d been living the whole time they were on the Calus homeworld, because it was toxic to them too. Since we’d been moved to our new solar system the Tel had been eyeing that dead world at the end of the chain, but as yet had made no overt claims to take it over. For now they just lived in the space between the worlds, free at last of Calus’ atmosphere. What we realised immediately was that they had nano parasites. There’s a familial resemblance to how the mental realms feel – even the Qoth felt identifiably linked by the same underlying technology, even in a non-physical space. And the Calus and Tel representatives had that same vibe. I had many questions, since as far as I knew, we’d managed to keep hold of all the nano parasites that we’d retrieved from Project Tutu. Sure, we’d given a bunch to the Qoth and the Geiliiish to manufacture more, but we’d never even heard of these new guys.

That’s when Doctor C showed up. With a fucking smile and a wave. She emerged into the shared ownworld space next to the little bubble-man, invited in by the Vaunted. Now we knew where the Unity had gone – the Vaunted had liberated them and utterly failed to mention it.

“What the actual fuck is she doing here?” Gex demanded, always keen to take the lead in diplomacy.

“A valued resource,” said the Vaunted.

“So kind,” added Doctor C, looking incomparably smug, “we’ve been very busy preparing for your arrival. With the Calus and Tel,” a polite nod in their direction, “we’ve been assembling tools that will amplify the latent abilities of the nano parasites to manipulate matter in the physical realm.”

“If you’ve got the fucking Unity, what do you need us for?”

“Alas, the Unity network, having pre-emptively abandoned their physical bodies, have the same limitation as we, the Vaunted do. They lack the capacity to interact dualistically like the humans.”

Yeah, that was a nice slap in the face for the murderous doctor. She at least looked a bit embarrassed about that. Just a little too hasty to kill people and escape the real world. I wondered where all their oneirocytes were. Probably stuffed in a box somewhere. I found that I rather did want to know exactly where they were, just so we could definitively avoid them.

“Still got no bodies, eh?” Gex tactfully enquired.

“The Unity has no need for physical presence,” declared Doctor C haughtily.

She was about to continue when the Talus helpfully chipped in, “Given the nature of their ascension, we determined it was better for the rest of humanity that their request for clone bodies was denied.”

Most definitely another one in the face for the Unity. We didn’t need that pack of killers in the real world. I was alarmed by the idea that they’d been trying to get new bodies. Maybe Doctor C had realised they were mistaken in leaving their bodies behind. But none of us had really known whether the shell was coming down again and it had seemed like a somewhat sensible plan, minus the killing everyone part. I wondered how all the people who had been sacrificed for the project felt, knowing that if they’d just waiting a few more months or days, we’d have been released from the shell and found ourselves a whole new life. Pretty fucking bitter, I’d imagine. That’s if all of them even were separated from the meat bodies and preserved as whole minds, or if they were just spare parts like we’d been intended to be. Fuck – maybe it was just Doctor C, Hest and few trusted cronies wandering in their winter wonderland. We never did meet any of the project’s “subjects” down in those tunnels. And now we were working with the motherfuckers again. I’d be having words with the Vaunted about that, and Earth government were going to be really annoyed about the Vaunted just nicking the Unity without telling anyone. But all that was for another day. Right now we were going to see the tools we’d use to end crypt-space, before it ate us all.

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Eight (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

We’d been planning to take it easy for a little while between battling crypt-space – it’s why were were on Earth at all, for a few drinks. My encounter with the Alometh drew that out a bit further. Having a couple of weeks off from the front-lines. It meant the rest of my battle-pod were also on leave, by default. After we’d returned to Earth and seen the approaching storm of crypt-space rifts opening in nearby solar systems, the prospect of the fight was all too real. While we and the Qoth had been expanding our use of the nano parasites, the Vaunted and their new pals, the fucking Unity, had been developing the technological aspects of our armed forces. No tanks, no guns, no bombs. Not unless we wanted them… Crypt-space couldn’t just be bombed into oblivion like a rogue state. The Vaunted had tried many different tactics as the enormity of their error in tearing open space to find the place where ideas went when we died. Crypt-space is the recreation of ideas from the mental realm back into physical form. It uses up huge amounts of matter to reinstantiate a thinking being – a soul – into the universe again. But it also gives new life to raw concepts and ideas. It was all too abstract for humans to deal with – ultimately we had to meet it face to face before we could really wrap our heads around it. But shooting holes in space was exactly as successful as it sounded – crypt-space cheerfully welcomed the extra matter and energy and turned it into more dead things. Squeezing the rifts between gravities didn’t work either, as the Vaunted ran through their whole toolbox of celestial mechanics. When they focused on creating matter directly through thought they had the first glimmers of success, but as a species so nearly free of physical presence, they were closer to what crypt-space was made of than the physical universe itself. You go and open a tomb and the zombies that stumble out basically think you’re one of them. Awkward. The inhabitants of the twelve worlds (presumably, if we include the one that’s just cinders) were all still resolutely physical beings, but with the added existence of minds and thoughts that granted us access to the mental realm, further enhanced by the nano parasites that humans had developed.

My battle-pod was one of just fifteen. We’d divvied up the eighty human oneirocyte hosts, added a Qoth, and a Tel, both with parasites of their own. The oneirocytes had proved to be terrifyingly adaptable, with the training that we (or the Unity, in the case of the Tel) had provided, the little grey strings had wormed their way into both the furry tripedal turtles of the Qoth as well as found some purchase in the Tel. The latter were spindly figures, not unlike daddy longlegs that seemed to be made entirely of varnished bone. They spoke unnervingly through a complex of fluted vanes low down on its body which came across as a someone talking through a whistle. Somehow, the nano parasites had found some way to get through that apparently bone structure. However they had managed it, Doctor C and Project Tutu had created something quite remarkable. We were teamed up with the aliens for a good reason – the ownworld runs on imagination, intention and will. Humans were the only true dreamers in the species here assembled. It’s not that the others lacked imagination – their technological and cultural development clearly showed imagination – but the way they thought didn’t have the same freewheeling unconscious component. They didn’t dream wild worlds full of incredible tedium like we did every night. And with the oneirocytes we could trigger that chaotic, intuitive search for ideas whenever we wanted to. Qoth provided the sheer will of absolute belief. Their ownworld was intimate, direct contact with their god-star – real by as an article of the innate belief that defined their mental existence. The Tel were our focal point, combining the syntheses of imagination and belief, and providing the link to the weapons that had been built by the Calus, Hellevant and Geiliish. Fifteen pods structured in this way, acting independently but able to coordinate through the shared access to the ownworld. But for the pods to function we had to construct smaller, more intimate networks between each ten entities. These we called “ourworlds”, a shared creation from which we could work. The ourworld that Gex, Scoro and the others built was redolent with possibility: we sliced the top off a mountain, perfectly smooth and level. We were surrounded by a thick mass of clouds, concealing the unknown space below – imaginary potential for anything to be underneath that cumulus layer. It was to be our war-room, our play area, both of these and something else altogether.

The first time we set out for crypt-space proved to be a gruelling test of our combined resources and a shocking introduction to what we were going to be fighting. The great petal-shaped ships in orbit around Earth were our homes for this war. They were paired with the enormous pyramidal shapes we’d seen drifting near the up-top space station. The latter were our supply train. Three of the petal-ships took the fifteen pods out into space. Even though the Vaunted had shown us where crypt-space rifts had opened “relatively” nearby, the universe is so fucking stupidly big that the described distances make no sense to me. It was in travelling there, using the clever engines that the Hellevance used for their planet-hopping, that I got some sense that crypt-space was not far away at all. It had taken a week to get from Earth to Qoth, and that was within our little system (and we hadn’t been in a frantic rush), and it took just two weeks to reach the solar system currently being torn apart by crypt-space. We weren’t travelling at anything like the same speed, but my dumb human brain was starting to get the sheer imminence of the threat. To smart species who do maths as a by-product of just being alive, our Tel colleague was hugely amused at my failure to grasp measurements or dimensionality. Twat. I liked him though, Hessex. Within our petal ship, the ten of us were held in cocoons, each filled with a nutrient gel comprised of yet more nano particles that felt slippery because they were so fine. They protected us from acceleration (we were going quite quickly), fed us, did whatever our bodies needed support doing so that we could live entirely in the ourworld for the duration of the mission. It also meant the Hellevance didn’t have to waste time with gravity or any such nonsense – the cocoons were physically joined to each other, hanging in spherical chambers like a sprawling metal bush with ten huge gooseberries hanging off it. There was no particular order or rank to our positions, but it had ended up with Hessex at the very top – his spindly limbs folding down into the open pod had given me an atavistic shudder, but he was funny, in a very Tel way. My cocoon was right underneath, and my friends Gex and Scoro slotted in around us. The other five human hosts and our Qoth, whose name was so much too long to pronounce that we called it “G” in protest at its excessive length, all lay unconscious in their cocoons. We waved faintly in the space, the movement related to whatever involuntary movements we made while our bodies slept. Our minds were busy.

A new solar system, a humble orange star with fifteen planets of varying sizes and compositions – rocky close to the star, huger and larger gaseous masses further out. Not a lot different to home really, which was of course gone by now. The petal ships split as we roared into the system, each petal home to one pod of dreamers, and accompanied by its own pyramid, spinning ahead of us. I’d never seen the hole in space near Saturn, just the images that distant probes captured of it. It had looked strange, like the fractured sight some people get with a migraine, that halo erasing parts of the perceptible world and doing strange things to shapes that move between the new panes we see the world through. Up close it like that but worse. The rift glowed, illuminated by the atomic processes of dissolving a planet and converting its matter into new, dead life. The plan was that we would never get physically close enough to it for it to reach us. There was no point giving it both more matter to play with, or worse, a bunch of living minds to kill. Our minds would translate instantly upward through the mental realm as soon as we were separated from our bodies, and then into crypt-space, presumably to be promptly spat back out into the real world and become an even greater part of the problem. We’d trained with our new technology, which focused the power of the ownworld to generate objects in the real world. Rather than being as haphazard as we’d achieved with our “hello tower”, the Calus had designed these pyramids as concentrations of nano matter. It was as smart as technology got, and in combination with the Tels in our pods focusing our ideas, the nano matter would form into whatever we imagined and we’d effectively teleoperate it into action. It seemed like a good plan.

“Contact,” Scoro declared, as our petal ship and its pyramid fell into the defined orbital distance from the rift. Other petals were taking up similar positions, all ready to either attack or swap with an exhausted pod. We anticipated some degree of mental exhaustion, or ship damage and had enough backup, we thought, to press this first encounter before retreating and assessing our effectiveness.

Crypt-space yawned open before us, glittering frames of converting matter. Falling out of crypt-space were the dead. An amalgamation of structures were being given life, seemingly at random: an immense spire extended out of nowhere, spearing towards our petal. From its rocky walls sprang a greater array of smaller objects. Zooming in, we could see they were bodies and twisting shapes that might have been the concepts of useful devices or hope and shame made suddenly incarnate once more. We’d discussed this in advance, and from our mountain top ourworld, we started to dream. Out in space the nano matter began to unravel from the pyramid and formed planes of slashing blades that fanned out like a flower, and began shredding the approaching spire and its offshoots. The newly animated matter fractured and disintegrated under the blades, pulverised back into ordinary matter which fell toward the nearest gravity well: crypt-space. Whatever we smashed it was sucked back towards its source and reborn as something new. We imagined alternative tactics, a new formation of massive cutting arms with something like a giant vortex at its heart. As we struck the crypt-space emergents they shattered and were sucked through our weapon, accelerated and flung further off into the solar system, well away from crypt-space itself. Once it entered the real world, those dead things were real again and we could break them. It felt like an achievement, and between us our petals were battering the new creations back down to their component molecules and clearing space between us and crypt-space. The problem ultimately was that the rift could continue to suck up the planet that was supplying it with most of its matter. Each petal-ship had a Vaunted presence available through the ourworld, and we summoned the little bubble-man to our mountain top. Through the clouds around us rose up the original imaginations of the tens-of-miles wide bladed tools that hacked into real space.

The Vaunted looked characteristically politely interested in our activities, as if there wasn’t a cosmic struggle that they’d dragged us into going on outside. The humans and Qoth were making shapes out of the air in front of them, refining the tools we’d built to more speedily despatch the emergence from crypt-space. We were almost keeping pace with its creations, but as long as the planet was there, we couldn’t make any more headway. Either we waited while it destroyed the planet, and risked wearing out our own supply of nano materials, or we got the Vaunted to move the planet. With a shrug the Vaunted consented.

It was weird to see from the outside. Last time we’d seen the Vaunted enclose a planet we’d been inside. But now we saw those massive segments materialise and fold in around the planet like a flower closing. In doing so, they would cut crypt-space off from its source and matter, and the Vaunted would tug it away from the battle. Whatever crypt-space had left we should be able to handle, based on what we’d seen so far. Hessex was fairly confident that we had enough nano matter left to annihilate its remaining intrusions.

Of course, that’s where it all went wrong. In lieu of a proper technical explanation, which the Hellevance and Vaunted would later supply when they reviewed the battle, let me just say that crypt-space went fucking mental. As the planet closed up and began to move away the rift convulsed, almost turning itself inside out. Where before the shapes that emerged had seemed random, now a continuous flow of objects emerged, printed into real matter as they made contact with the vacuum. An enormous claw of shattered dreams, made up of screaming bodies dying as they entered the cold unbreathable space, tore at the Vaunted shell, peeling off one of the enclosing segments like it was ripping apart an orange. The bubble-man looked, for the first time, perturbed. The claw reached all the way inside the shell, spilling shapes and condensing matter the whole time and ripped out the heart of the planet, hauling it back towards the rift itself. We had planned for the slow and steady annihilation of the planet, not for crypt-space to suddenly have access to hundreds of billions of tonnes of matter in one go. The whole of local space shuddered, shaking us in our cocoons and even making the ground quake in the ourworld. More claws lashed out of crypt-space, given a faster route to life, and they were reaching for the petal ships. One claw, looking like the contents of a child’s toy box haphazardly glued together and mashed into to the shape of a hand lunged across the void, smashing through the depleted nano matter pyramid, and daggering straight down through the petal ship behind as it desperately tried to twist away. We twisted away from yet another claw, and intervened, spinning up a dozen more of the machines that had been so successful at hacking the things apart before. Even as they made contact and began slicing away at the claws, space rippled again and a more massive shape emerged. Because you don’t get a claw on its own, do you? You get an arm for each claw, and for the arms you get a torso. And that’s what was now dragging its way out of crypt-space, coming into existence as it crossed the threshold into normal space. It was a many-armed figure, each arm joined to its body at an unsettling angle with too many elbows. Between those horrid shoulders, a rounded, headless body. It didn’t need  a head, because an array of red eyes blinked open in what might have been its chest if it was from Earth, and a trembling black hole underneath. It’s important to emphasise just how fucking enormous this thing was. Not only did it have hands large enough to grab an appreciable chunk of a planet, it was more like the size of a star, hanging in space. As we attacked it with all that we had, the crypt-space thing reached out, seized the whole planet – Vaunted shell and all – and thrust it into the hole that opened up beneath its eyes. The claw that had pierced the petal ship casually shredded it, dragging half of it into that awful mouth, which we saw was the rift. The cosmic tear had turned itself inside out, and now the maw of this… thing… was the rift itself, literally feeding on reality.

We heard the screams and felt the panic of our colleagues as the petal ship with its pod of dreamers vanished into crypt-space, and then their nerve-shredding horror stopped abruptly. Then the crypt-space monster turned towards the other petal ships, and we fled. What had once seemed to be random outpourings of dead minds into the real world had become something else, something worse. A gestalt entity, its body made up of the materialised forms of the dead ideas it comprised. It was hungry, it knew we were there, and it was coming for us.

The Hellevant got us out of the star system far faster than humanly possible, our petals sliding back into their combined forms, the heavily eroded pyramids towed along in our wake. From the sensors looking backwards, the crypt-space form was following us. We’d wondered what our enemy truly was, and how we might fight it. We thought we knew what we were dealing with, but we’d threatened an entire dimension of the universe and it seemed really pissed off. It had seemed weird that the Vaunted had characterised this as a war to begin with. I’d thought of it more as a war against a disease, or maybe a natural feature like a volcano. They did their thing, destructive simply as an aspect of their nature. But it wasn’t personal, there was no animosity in a lava flow entombing a city. It was just regrettable, but only from our perspective. Crypt-space had seemed like that. Perhaps it was just that the way the realm had torn open, its reborn minds had died in vacuum, being returned into an environment that wasn’t for them at all, that made them seem like so much random junk. But if we could combine our minds and create a reality in the ownworld and ourworld, couldn’t a bunch of disembodied dead minds do the same thing? It looked like it, and right then they seemed to have the advantage of desperate imagination over our alliance. We headed home to lick our wounds, panic a whole lot more, regroup and go back out to fight again. Whatever crypt-space had become, whatever the Vaunted thought they’d broken into, we’d succeeded into catalysing it from cosmic threat to something personal.

Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Nine (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

“The great thing about war is how it really drives technological progress forward.” The Lesved had flipped into lecturing mode when we returned from our abject failure against crypt-space. We’d lost an entire petal ship containing its pod of ten dreamers – we’d felt their shock and horror through the ownworld network as they were consumed by the rift in space and converted into their base atoms, turned into some dead life that fell back into the real world. We hadn’t even been close to the rift, we’d thought we were safe, that we could prosecute this war at a distance. That this might be the first war ever where there were no casualties. We were wrong about that, and I wondered if we were wrong about everything. But the Lesved were still banging about something from their tanks filled with red liquid (it’s not for nothing that less kind humans had dubbed them “vamps”), their weird spatulate hands and feet waving for emphasis.

“But that progress cannot be controlled or limited. We developed these tools for manipulating matter, and crypt-space has responded. The escalation from this point cannot be predicted. Either we permit both sides to continue escalating their military technology in the hopes that we’ll be slightly faster than crypt-space, or we grind forward at the existing level. The nano resources we’re deploying are inherently adaptable, so the war cannot help but radically escalate . We must be prepared for greater losses, and greater aggression in our tactics.”

Greater losses sounds OK until you realise we lost twelve and a half percent of our dreamers in our very first encounter. I thought the problem was one of imagination: we’d attacked what we thought was like a flood, so we erected metaphorical barricades and tried to beat the sea into retreat. We’ve got a long history of fucking that idea up right here on Earth. Crypt-space had responded imaginatively to our fairly mundane creations, which suggested a couple of things to me. One, it had access to imagination – even if it was responding instinctively, it was doing so in a creative way. So, I was inclined to discount raw instinct, it felt a lot more like the sort of thing you might do in a dream. Two, it opened up a new arena for the battle. If we didn’t just have to imagine hammers to whack space nails, we could use our pooled minds to pitch the battle between any objects or entities. Humans might be tool-users, but our dreams aren’t exactly filled with the thrill of measuring things and making wheels. Alright, some of our best and brightest innovators and scientists must have dreamed mostly numbers and right-angles, but it sure wasn’t my forte, all right?

“I think they’re dreaming,” I interrupted, internally smirking at the Lesved in the tank’s expression at being cut off part way through its lecture. “I think crypt-space is unconscious and acting like it’s in a dream when it enters our physical world. If we’re going to fight this thing we need to treat it like it’s thinking, not just as a jumble of mad stuff falling through space.”

We argued a lot. It’s what happens when you get a dozen species together and present them with failure. While we were planning for this it was all fine and lovely, but no one likes to lose, and no one enjoys being told that their weapons, plans or ideas worked out terribly. There was a lot of sulking and bitterness. The Vaunted seemed impossibly bored, and only wanted us to decide where we would attack crypt-space again. I remained very conscious of that 12.5% we’d lost in battle. The ownworlds of those we’d lost were still accessible in the shared ourworld. Our network of oneirocytes still held the memory of their private worlds, even if their dreamers were gone. It was eerie to see them at the periphery of ourworld. They even seemed darker, greyer than they had when their dreamers were still alive. Presumably their worlds would remain until the rest of us consciously allowed the network to remove them. They just sat there empty, bereft and waiting for the dreamers to return.

We did return to the war. The Hellevance had to begin dismantling another pair of star systems to generate the volume of nano materials we thought we might need. We went for smaller rifts, avoiding the terrifying figure that had defeated us previously. The Vaunted kept an eye on that thing as it devoured the rest of the solar system that had birthed it. We left it the fuck alone. But we did attempt to apply what we’d learned from the first rift we fought. We deprived them of resources, the Vaunted whisking whole worlds away from them as we arrived in-system. The rifts responded to us like the first one had, but lacking the resources that the Beast had (not a great name, but it was the only one that seemed to exist in every species’ vocabulary) it could manage less radical and dangerous transformations. Where the crypt-space emergents twisted into horned and tentacled creatures that lunged for us, we manifested space-striding dragons and burned them to ash. Unleashing our imaginations felt… right. The awkwardness of imagining a machine that would chop up the dead faded as the dead conjured more familiar dangers: every claw, feather, tooth and wing that existed in their collective dead unconsciousness was brought to vivid life, composed of the broken wreckage of thoughts formed in the void. We felt like dragon hunters now, lancing through their creations with kilometre-long weapons, battering them with the giant claws of our rampaging lions, or the monstrous bird-spider things that the Kel threw into the mix. Most effective were the shapes of creatures the Qoth had glimpsed way down on the forest floor of Qothima: sharp, worm-like hydras that pierced the crypt-space creations and tore them apart.

This was a battle we could win – while the resources of both sides were finite, ours limited by what the Hellevance could equip us with, and crypt-space limited by the matter it could consume before we slammed into it with maximum aggression – I was increasingly certain that it was a fight between an unconscious mind and a conscious one. The latter was us, of course. The skillset that the oneirocytes had given us was that we could use our conscious and unconscious minds simultaneously and in synthesis. There should be no contest between those two states. And in the lesser battles, there wasn’t. We’d rip the crypt-space reinstantiations to dust and suck all matter out of the rift in space until it hung there, inert, nothing falling into the real world. Even the foaming crystallisation around its edges faded away. It looked like it was dead, but it was still open. Those we’d pushed back so far we had the Vaunted continue to monitor, in case we were wrong.

Each tour comprised weeks of travel, followed by a truly exhausting and intense battle which in some cases lasted weeks of continuous existence in the ourworld, creating and responding to our opponent. The Hellevant had adapted their pyramids of matter to process physical materials we encountered in transit and convert that into new nano matter. In the more violent clashes the pyramids would even seize the wreckage of crypt-space that we loosed from its conglomerate bodies, rendering it into more nano matter that we could stab it with. Our arms race had inadvertently given us the same basic requirement for physical stuff, and a very similar method for taking it.

After a successful battle with crypt-space, in which we’d beaten a rift back from its hungry onslaught against a binary star system, our petal-ship and its pods got some shore leave. That’s when we went down the elevator for a pint or two of homebrew gin. That’s when I ended up in hospital after inhaling an Alometh. While I was hanging around, getting my blood and lungs cleaned out, I spent most of my time in my ownworld. I caught up on the rest of my pod – Gex and Scoro had led the others on a fairly epic series of pub crawls which I was annoyed to have missed out on. Hessex, our Tel, had stayed up in orbit to hang out with the rest of the Tel who were up there tinkering with the devices that controlled the nano matter. G, our Qoth, had wandered off into some of the great human libraries, exploring the history of a species which had once lived in trees. Funny bunch all round. We’d become very close, living cooped up in each other’s minds for months at a time. I avoided the ourworld we’d created to conduct our battles, and instead wandered off through my own pale forests, seeking a measure of peace. With our new tactics we hadn’t lost anyone else. We’d burned through a shocking amount of physical stuff though, and I’d begun to wonder if we’d end up using more matter to fight crypt-space than it had stolen so far. The difference was that we could both run out of stars to convert into matter, but even if crypt-space consumed the whole physical universe, there would still be more of it in its own dead mental realm. Without really thinking about it, I’d wandered out of my domain and found myself in silent shadows. I’d crossed ourworld and walked a few feet into one of the dead ownworlds. I couldn’t tell if it was really darker than the rest of the worlds, or if that was just my imagination making it feel darker, which was the same thing, really. I hadn’t been inside since before its creator, Vasselt, had died in that first battle. Vasselt had been one of the first cohort of students we’d helped integrate the oneirocytes on Qothima. Her ownworld was a series of graceful curves and twisted planes of glazed porcelain. It was like someone had taken a china shop, turned it into spaghetti and flung it into the air, where it hung, twisting gently in abstract patterns. It was lovely, but strange to see it all still moving.

In a constantly shifting world, you’d think it was hard to detect motion, but the cycle of the porcelain elements was regular, if strange. I caught a flash of irregular movement out of the corner of my eye. Like a bird flitting between branches, caught against a full moon. None of the animal creations from the other ownworlds entered these dead realms. We didn’t really know why, most likely they inherited their creators’ preferences and feelings about the dead ownworlds, but still, it could have been a crow or something more exotic. That motion again, ahead of me this time, flickering between the rotating ceramic vanes. I pursued it, curious and since I was technically on some kind of sick leave, I really did have nothing better to do, since Scoro refused to let me seek out any booze. Something to do with having had all my internal organs recently scrubbed left them rather vulnerable to recreations that were technically poison. I followed the flickering snub of darkness through the twisting shapes. It stopped at last, and let me catch up. I approached cautiously. There wasn’t much in the ownworld that could surprise me, not the human parts anyway. The Tel areas were… odd, but that reflected their entirely different physical and mental make-up, so was surprisingly different, but it all felt like it belonged. This was different. Huddled between two half-shells of ceramic lace, a dark shape flickered in and out of existence. It was like looking at some high speed film of a person’s life, terribly scratched and distorted, hanging in the air. I stared for a long while before I realised what I was seeing – a human figure – turning towards me again and again, hands reaching out for me. The flickering slowed enough that her face came clear as it faced me over and over: Vasselt. Blackened and riven with static, but it was her. Abruptly the vision froze in place, and a thin sound croaked out of it: “help us.”

I fell backwards in shock, Vasselt’s what – ghost? – stood fixed before me, arm outstretched in supplication. And then it all dissolved, leaving me alone in her porcelain realm. I summoned Gex, Scoro and the other members of my pod immediately – couched as a polite invitation rather than a pull, I didn’t want to stun them too badly. They all materialised in Vasselt’s ownworld, and recognised it immediately.

“The fuck are you doing, Evanith, aren’t you supposed to be wringing out your kidneys or something?” asked Gex, eyeing her surroundings. “Well, this is morbid.”

“Kinda,” I started, “but I I’ve found something. Vasselt’s still here. Or she was.”

The inevitable uproar ensued, but I got them all to shut up by showing them my memories of the last five minutes. The ownworld is great: no need for an argument when you can just show them what you saw and felt, or so I thought.

“Are you sure you didn’t create her?” asked Hessex, long fingers probing the ground between the lace shells.

“Did I create a ghost so I could scare the shit out of myself? No, no I didn’t. It was her, it was Vasselt.”

“This changes everything,” said Scoro, “if she’s trying to access her ownworld, then she’s sort of still alive.”

“No, she’s definitely dead, but the idea of her and her connection to the network have transitioned to crypt-space,” Hessex replied. “It’s possible that there has never been a networked mind lost to crypt-space before, at least not so violently.”

“What if we could get Vasselt and her pod back – through the ownworld?” I suggested.

“Pull their minds out of crypt-space directly? They would return to the mental plane, but with no body to orient them or root them in the physical universe.” Hessex said.

“They’d need to download into something physical at the same time they came out of crypt-space, otherwise they’d just bounce between dead and alive,” Gex pulled a face. “That sounds worse.”

But someone else had down something like this. Someone I really didn’t like at all. The Unity had transferred entirely from their meat bodies into the nano parasites, into a ghastly tangled mess of grey brain wool. If they could do it, couldn’t we do it the other way around, and copy the dead pod back from the ownworld into oneirocytes? Well, we had nothing else to do with our shore leave, so we got to work.

Stolen Skies – Part Thirty (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies

It was the hubris of the Vaunted that had wrecked the boundary between the living world and the dead realm of thoughts divorced from flesh. Their continued quest for a way to end their slight dependence on physical form – even if that form was by then just a whisper of rainbow light hanging in the space between stars – had led them to tear space apart looking for those ideas that no longer had form. In doing so they’d spilled crypt-space back into the real world. A seemingly infinite dimension of the universe where every idea, mind and disembodied thought ended up when their incarnate bodies slipped away and were recycled back into the rest of the physical universe. They were the authors of all our misfortunes, from the decimation of Earth’s population while they whisked our world out of its home solar system away from the emergence of crypt-space between our outer planets, to the present dismantling of whole star systems to fuel our war against what they unleashed.

Not that I resented our new friends in the solar daisy chain they’d inserted us into. But you’re allowed to have a good holiday while still being pissed off that you were grabbed from the street, stuffed into a car boot where you spent weeks in darkness before emerging, blinking, into the sunny sight of a tropical beach. Aren’t metaphors great. We spent most of our time in the war juggling metaphors, translating the basic idea of “I want to smash that thing” into fantastical beasts that were sometimes larger than whole moons. It was working, even if it wasn’t sealing shut the rifts, and we didn’t yet have an idea about how to go after the Beast – the crypt-space rift that had inverted itself and become the maw of a space-striding monster. A monster that was slowly but surely making its way to our little trinary solar system. For now though, we were technically on a break from battling wild space dreams. The mortal losses we’d suffered against crypt-space were light, as long as you discounted the original annihilation of our home solar systems. In the case of humans that was really just a bunch of planets we hadn’t found a way to live on, and our Moon. For the Hellevance they’d lost contact with the rest of their civilisation, spread out across its neighbouring systems. In the case of our twelfth, dead planet, they’d lost everything. And yet we’d only lost ten dreamers to the void in space. Quite a lot more of us were struggling with the constant psychological wear, even if our bodies were protected and supported by their cocoons. Those nano baths were as perfect a creation as anything, and yet I still swear they made me itch. War grinds you down, even if you’re winning.

Once I’d discovered that Vasselt – one of our dreamers lost in the first battle against crypt-space –was still able, if tenuously, to access the ownworld that she and her oneirocyte had created, I could think of nothing else but trying to get her back. When we shared my memory of her with the Council of Twelve, opinions were divided. No one had heard of the dead genuinely returning to the world of the living. Even though all the species had various myths and legends of resurrection, they weren’t really taken seriously. Even on Earth, twenty years of darkness had given our salvation myths a kicking, especially when our saviours turned out to be the Vaunted, who were no one’s idea of Jesus. Most declared it impossible – it was probable that the shadow of Vasselt I’d seen was an artefact of our oneirocyte network’s facility for expressing the imagination and unconscious desires of its contributors and hosts. The Vaunted had a stronger reaction. They expressly forbade us to attempt to make contact with the shadow, and proposed excising the dead ownworlds from our shared experience entirely. That really hacked off the dreamers who were our frontline in this war. Words were had, led largely by Gex as usual who remained our preferred blunt diplomat for dealing with the Vaunted.

“One, get fucked. And two, get the fuck out of our ownworld,” Gex summed up our feelings adroitly.

Thus banished, we dreamers were left with the rest of the oneirocyte network. Qoth, Tel, and the latest inclusions to the ownworlds: the Li. We’d been unable to offer much aid to the Li in their adoption of nano parasites until they figured out a way to integrate the technology in their disparate and widespread physical network. Since they already existed as a mental network, generated through the electrical fields that united every cell of living matter on their planet, it had been unclear what the oneirocytes could really do for them. When they finally did find a solution, it wasn’t much less horrifying than the Unity: the nano parasites had to be embedded in something, and although they might have been nanoscale in size, just putting a drop of them in each Li cell was both impractical and too little to achieve the desired result. Instead they’d created something new to house the nano parasites, a huge conglomeration of flesh on their homeworld, drifting in the oceans where a vast proportion of the Li-bearing organic life dwelled. Made sense, I guess. They’d manipulated their powers over the life of their world and basically started gluing it all together. I wasn’t very comfortable with the idea, but isn’t that just the joy of technology: you make a thing and someone else finds a terrifying thing to do with it. Oh, and also the Unity, since we’d allowed them into the greater ourworld after their work with the Tel and Calus to develop the petal-ships and matter converters we used in the war. These last two parties, the Li and the Unity were already projects that sought to never die, and never enter crypt-space to begin with. They had little interest in pulling anything else back from there. In the case of the Unity, I still strongly suspected that it only contained a handful of individuals who had murdered hundreds of others to use their partially nano infected brains as spare parts. Of course they didn’t want to go looking in crypt-space: they might find all the poor bastards they killed. The Li were harder to get a read on. They were a vast mind. They felt a bit like the Vaunted, although still solidly rooted in the physical world. Every plant, animal and single-celled organism on their planet was part of the Li. Despite their technically being comprising trillions of Li cells on their world, they only appeared here as the single mind they produced. Their sprawling avatar shrugged and vanished out of the ourworld. The Unity, in the shape of Doctor Hest,  fucked off shortly afterwards, claiming they had better things to do that indulge our morbid curiosity.

Of all the pods of dreamers, ours was the only one at home. All the rest were engaged with crypt-space from their petal-ships. They faded away to fight their battles. Leaving the ten of us. Physically, we were still on Earth, hanging out in the quarters assigned to us during rest leave. We didn’t need to argue any further and we went off in search of Vasselt. Her shade was still flickering back and forth in her porcelain ownworld like a dark candle. She reminded me of our very first experiences in the ownworld, when Gex, Scoro and I were trying to link our dreamworlds together. All we had to do then was imagine a door that someone else could walk through. Could it be so straightforward? We weren’t entirely cavalier about this. There was a risk that this wouldn’t work, that it wasn’t really possible to have Vasselt returned to us. Maybe her shade was just a creation of the combined minds in the oneirocyte network, but maybe it wasn’t, and we wanted her – and the rest of her pod of dreamers – back. Crypt-space and the Vaunted had cost us too much. So we created a door, infused it with a welcome message for Vasselt, and invited her back into our minds.

We waited.

It took a while, long enough for us to get bored and then excited again several times as the door’s edges appeared to shimmer, but nothing happened while we watched. Vasselt’s shade flickered in and out of existence before vanishing between one blink and the next. As with uniting our ownworlds, some things only happen in the corner of your eye. The door cracked open, a thin slice of blackness revealed beyond, possibly our first sight directly into crypt-space. It was the total absence of light, no mere darkness, this was a place where the possibility of light had never existed except in the minds of those who had ended up there. The crack opened wider, revealing still more blackness, and then Vasselt stumbled through. She was not quite herself – the scratchy distortions of her shade continued to assault her, and though she had a reassuring solidity, her mental image jerked back and forth, as if she were a beaded curtain assailed by the wind. She scanned us frantically, bursting into tears at the sight of her ownworld again. I knelt down to help raise her to her feet as she sobbed, “I’m sorry – I didn’t want to, but they made us.”

The door was still open behind her, and in the darkness another shadow uncoiled itself, reaching for the doorframe. With a shout, Hessex slammed it closed, sealing us off from crypt-space.

“It’s too late,” Vasselt said. “They’re already here.”

Alarms went off in the real world, a dizzying peal of sirens that half-jerked us out of the ownworld. Crypt-space had found us – by opening the door we’d shown them where we were, and how to find us. Had Vasselt betrayed us? Was this even really Vasselt? She seemed to anticipate such questions, and desperately choked back her tears to explain.

“It’s not what you think – we’re all still in there, the whole pod. Everything that’s ever been, but it’s not dead – it’s not random. They’re in control there as much as they are here. It’s the Vaunted, Evanith, crypt-space is full of Vaunted, and they’re trying to come back.”

We reeled in shock, but there was no time to hang around in the ownworld. We had no choice but to leave Vasselt there, dwelling in the spaces between our minds since she no longer had a body in the real world. It was a weird sensation, like going to sleep knowing that there’s someone living in your attic.

Crypt-space was here, and most of our dreamers were far, far away. Re-entering the physical world with its comfortable armchairs, soothing wallpaper and the angry scream of the alarms. All ten of us were together as someone burst into the room – Brigadier Lindsmane, yelling at us: “The rifts have opened here, right here on Earth.”

Fuck it, we’d only gone and pulled a Vaunted. We hurried out of the room after Lindsmane and the small army of soldiers who were now filling the halls. There was no doubt that we were headed into trouble – that’s the direction folks carrying guns run in. The corridor wall suddenly tore open, its matter dissolving into dust which was sucked out of the gap, along with half the soldiers nearest to it. Through the hole we could see another one of the migrainous fractures in reality, hoovering up physical stuff. It wasn’t a large rift like those we’d seen and fought in space, this was merely the size of a car, yet already shapes were beginning to pour out – a small flood of absurdly Earth-centric objects: a grandfather clock, a shower of flowers and more mundane human memories, heaping up next to the rift. And then something larger muscled its way through, materialising as it stepped over the threshold: many-armed, red eyes with a hungry looking hole in the middle of its body. The Beast?

I screamed at Lindsmane and his men to get as far away from us as possible. We were going to have to fight the thing here and now, without our petal-ship and its reserve of nano matter. Anything we built we’d have to rip out of the world around us. Dipping half into my ownworld I channelled my imagination and will into a hulking suit of armour around me and an enormous mace in my hands which came into existence just as it made contact with the crypt-space form. I tried not to pay attention to the building dissolving around us as my companions constructed their own weapons. The mace shattered the body of the crypt-space entity, but it wasn’t the only Beast here or even the only rift. And they were on our home planet – horrifyingly made of physical matter which they could subsume as fast as we could. More crypt-space monsters emerged onto Earth as the ground beneath all of our feet shuddered with the energies tearing the city apart. Hessex manifested a giant spike studded beast from its homeworld which stamped on the growing army of reincarnated dead. Because we weren’t in space any more where the resurrected dead immediately choked and died in vacuum. Here they were coming back for real.

A tremor in my mind distracted me from the desperate fight. Even as my physical body continued to lay about with weapons that sprouted from my hands as I needed them, I stepped half into the ownworld. That goddamn door was open again. Vasselt was watching it with horror as one of the many-armed creatures stepped through.

“That’s them,” she hissed, “they’re the Vaunted – it’s what they were before.”

Well, that made a horrifying kind of sense. With another effort of will I reached out and found one of our Vaunted – the faint smell of rainbow in my mind’s eye, and yanked it into Vasselt’s ownworld. It appeared in its usual form of a rainbow-hued bubble-man, and it was all blame.

“You fools,” it said, more animated than I’d ever seen it before, “you can’t be here.”

“The fuck is going on?” Gex spat, appearing next to me.

“They’re all Vaunted – we’re fighting the Vaunted’s dead.”

“Not just the dead,” the many-armed version of the Vaunted hissed, in a voice that sounded like broken glass falling from the sky. “The betrayed.” And it shared in an instant its own memories: the Vaunted, all in these many-armed bodies arguing, and then fighting, and then a civil war all of their own. It wasn’t clear at first what the war was about, but as we watched some of the Vaunted discarded their bodies, forming glimmering shapes in the sky that slashed through cities, leaving thousands dead. The newly de-fleshed Vaunted pressed the attack, mercilessly hunting down their physical brethren, exterminating them. Planets drifted, lifeless in space, rainbow membranes spearing away from them through the darkness.

“You absolute wankers. You killed your people so you could ascend to the mental realm, because what – they didn’t want to join you?”

“We could not be complete while tethered to the material species,” the Vaunted bubble-man muttered.

“And then they pursued us into crypt-space, hoping to kill even the remnants of our minds.”

Great. The Vaunted weren’t just arrogant bastards, they were arrogant genocidal bastards.

“But we’re back now, thanks to these humans, and we’ll hunt you all down in turn.” The dead Vaunted said in its shard-edged voice.

For fuck’s sake, I genuinely hadn’t thought that things could get worse. Optimism is for suckers.

Stolen Skies – Part Thirty-One – The End (Nanowrimo 2022)

Stolen Skies - the End

The Vaunted weren’t just arrogant bastards, they were liars. They’d murdered half their species in the quest for immortality in the mental plane, yet not content with just killing their brethren, they’d sought out a way to kill even the idea of them. When they tore open crypt-space, and it began to absorb physical matter, all those dead minds got a little taste of existence again. A sort of hope flowered in that tomb of the soul, and it grew into revenge. It’s things like this that make it really hard to trust people. We were now fighting a war on every front: our dreamers in their petal-ships were deployed across the stars, pressing crypt-space intrusions back inside their rifts. When we’d sought out our own dead we’d brought crypt-space to Earth too, where we fought its newly incarnated Vaunted in the streets. We even now faced them in the ownworld. It looked a lot like we were utterly fucked.

Existing consciously in the real world and the ownworld is taxing – two sets of sensations layered on top of each other. In one moment I manifested a steel-jawed shark lunging up out of the concrete to snap its teeth shut around a Vaunted that was attacking Scoro, in the next moment I witnessed a fight between the Vaunted in my mind. It was confusing.  Both situations really did require all of my attention, so I was flipping between them, half-second at a time. My existence in both realms flickered like strobe lights. The newly reborn Vaunted were clawing their way out of the rift in Elevator City. Buildings collapsed as the rift siphoned up all available matter: concrete, steel, people and turned them into whatever was pressing most keenly against the real world from within crypt-space. There was a lot more human stuff than we’d seen created out in space. We’d suspected that when crypt-space bulged with matter and split, it did so where minds existed, and perhaps whatever passed for awareness in crypt-space still kept tabs on where their homes had been. The flow of Vaunted was almost matched by the ridiculous piles of human artefacts that heaped up. The battle was a distraction from the junkshop magpie that awakened in me for a second, as I recognised Roman columns, toys half familiar from entertainment shows, an implausible gyrocopter smashed into the street, hats, half a chemistry lab, and at last… people. Whenever we’d fought crypt-space before, living beings had been spat out as part of the overflowing stuff, but they’d all died almost immediately in the vacuum of space. Here, like the Vaunted who were forcing their way in, they lived once more. As long as they weren’t immediately crushed by the rest of the junk that was suddenly given physical form once more, or the collapsing city around them. They were pushed out of the rift in the same way you might shove a sofa out of a window, to topple helpless to the ground, on new and uncertain legs, shocked at suddenly being more than disembodied and silenced thought. The Vaunted didn’t take kindly to these humans taking up physical space that could have been theirs. We leapt to their defence, erecting diamond shields around them, their outer layer dagger-sharp (I mean, why not – the oneirocytes allowed our unravelling imaginations to create whatever we felt was needed at that moment), and mashed the Vaunted against them with rearing mastodons formed out of the city’s structure. Colonel Lindsmane and his men had ignored much of our entreaties to get the fuck out of there. Fighting’s what soldiers do, but even more importantly they defend. While they had mostly kept a sensible distance from us, as they saw that we were as intent on ripping the city apart as crypt-space, but the sight of the returned humans spurred them into real action. Some wild piloting brought a series of zerocopters swooping in under the arcs of dissolving matter that were being funnelled through the air towards crypt-space, and hovered while the men on board hauled the revenants onboard. We diverted as much resource as we could to protecting their mission, but there was no end to the flood of Vaunted stomping onto our planet. This wasn’t even the only rift on Earth, and we were getting no closer to stopping them.

Back in the ownworld, the Vaunted bubble-man and its murdered kin were still bickering while the fighting raged on outside. This wasn’t the realm that the dead Vaunted had ever wanted to occupy, but their disembodied cousins had forced them into the land of the dead, and there they’d learned much about how to function in the mental plane. This wasn’t their mind though – we’d inadvertently invited them in when we created a door into crypt-space for Vasselt to return through – this was Vasselt’s world, and she began to assert herself. When she’d clawed her way back into reality, she’s appeared to be glitching, a black cloud diffused her form, but it was fading fast as the ownworld remembered her, relinking to the memory of her existence. And we were there to help, reinforcing her with our own memories of her, from the first time we’d met on Qoth, watching an implausible winged fat-bird slam into the transparent outer wall of the compound. Even that memory of her laughing seemed to strengthen her, and she took on colour as the distortions faded. With a snarl, and a wave of her fist, a shard of her porcelain ownworld curled up out of the ground, flinging the Vaunted bubble-man up and out of the ownworld entirely. She could have just told him to leave, but she was regaining her anger along with her presence. Vasselt faced the returned Vaunted, with its waving arms and gaping mouth, and – with a cry – vanished. She’s just slipped out of the ownworld, and was gone. I didn’t know if it was something the Vaunted had done, but I mustered my will to respond on her behalf. The living Vaunted had betrayed us, the dead Vaunted wanted revenge on their brothers, and we were in the way. Two wrongs don’t make a right and all that. As far as I was concerned, both lots were the bad guys now. Before I could take a stand, we received more bad news. From Qothima and the Li, reports that rifts had opened up on their homeworlds too – likely the entire chain was under attack. Our petal-ships in deep space had abandoned their missions and were racing for home. But there were nothing like enough dreamers here to repel the invaders. Even on Li, the rifts were consuming great chunks of that being’s living matter, and all the weaponry the Li had could only be made of itself in an auto-cannibalistic orgy of war. It looked even more like we were fucked.

No matter how bad things seem, they can always get worse. Even as Elevator City dissolved under the combined onslaught of crypt-space and our weapons, a hundred other places on our worlds suffered similar invasions. Though they were without the benefit of much defence, save on Li, the Tel space fleet, and Qoth. Even when we could fight, we began to lose. Hessex died first, crushed underneath a collapsing building as crypt-space hungrily undermined its foundations, soon followed by three of our human dreamers. We felt them all blink out of existence, their avatars vanishing from the ownworld, transcending into the crypt-space realm we were fighting against. It surely couldn’t get much worse, but it did. The Tel dreamers in the space stations orbiting Earth reported it first: a vast intrusion into our solar system. The Beast had arrived, and we could see it for ourselves. Where once our Moon had hung in the sky, visible in the day as a peaceful white disc, now the form of the Beast filled the sky, striding through space towards us. Our fleet might have been far away, but we had one petal-ship in orbit. The Tel dreamers piled on board and used the pod systems to launch their attack. But if we had been unable to stop it, or even prevent it from creating itself with our whole fleet, a single petal-ship had little chance. But what else can you but fight? It seemed we were doomed to fail.

Across the vast distance of space our dreaming warriors were present in ourworld, crying out at the assaults on their homeworlds, but too far away to physically intervene. The Vaunted, sensing our distraction (I and the other dreamers on Earth were doubly, or perhaps trebly distracted with the fighting in Elevator City) turned back to the open door into crypt-space and reached inside, arms distending improbably as it hauled another of its kin into the ownworld. We needed to shut that door, and end these motherfuckers. Like Vasselt, they only existed in the mental realm, foisting themselves on our network. G, our Qoth dreamer leapt forward, enraged by what he felt from his Qoth kin on their homeworld, summoning the force of his faith. The god-star, always present in the ownworld from the sheer certainty of Qoth belief, glowed darkly in the sky, pulsing with the Qoth rage. The door to crypt-space slammed shut, disintegrating under the black heat of the god-star. The dead Vaunted who had been reaching into the doorway recoiled, its mental grasp of itself shaken as it looked at its amputated arms where the doorway had shut.

“They’ll kill you too,” it hissed as G slammed the force of the god-star down onto the Vaunted, shattering it into a million flecks of black dust.

“Well that was interesting,” Gex commented, as the black dust faded away.

In space around the Earth the Beast tore our only petal-ship apart, even while its creations smashed its weird-elbowed arms to pieces. Without the minds behind them, the nano matter objects drifted off, or into the maw of the gigantic creature. Now we knew that the Beast had taken on the shape of the Vaunted’s physical form, it made sense that they’d seized control of crypt-space from within – natural tyrants perhaps, twisting even the realm of the dead into a weapon of revenge. Those fucking Vaunted: they’d started all of this, dragged us into it, and now apparently fucked off to let us take the damage that resulted. Perhaps they’d already fled, correctly ascertaining the capacity of the mortal worlds for revenge ourselves. Revenge, justice, or punishment? Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, sometimes they’re all the same thing. Even as we died in the street, the rainbow membranes of the Vaunted returned. They arced through space and onto our worlds, appearing as twisted curtains of force that sank through buildings and deep into the Earth, anchoring themselves as a web of glittering vanes speared through space, slicing into the Beast as it ripped away at the orbital platforms. If it was possible to roar in space, I was sure we’d have heard it. The bubble-men’s lances of light cut cleanly through the Beast’s arms and the strange blend of inside-out crypt-space that they were made of uncoiled out of existence. It didn’t stop though, and the Vaunted clawing over the wreckage of Elevator City didn’t slow down either. Between us we’d burrowed down into the bedrock in our race to consume matter to power either our weapons or our very existence, in the case of crypt-space. We fought now in a ragged crater, filled with wreckage, the dead, and the newly reborn. There were only four of us left now, Gex, Scoro, myself and G. The flowing shield of blades and violence we’d built around us was being assailed by the sheer weight of Vaunted undead, exercising their return to flesh with ardour. We were out of time.

It was the Qoth who saved us all. Inspired by the effect of the god-star in the ownworld and G’s example of using it to crush the Vaunted and the doorway into the land of the dead, Qothima itself joined us in ourworld. The programme that the Geiliiish had been working on, to create enough oneirocytes that ultimately all of the Qoth could have direct, personal access to the god-star, had been underway for a few years, equipping millions of Qoth with the tools to enter their ownworld, which for them was a pure spiritual experience of communing with their god. They took everything we’d done a step further, borrowing power from everyone in the ownworld network. On Earth, our shield faltered as the Qoth seized our oneirocytes, on Li, every cell in every organism on the planet froze, and every mind in the network appeared in the ourworld, eyes fixed on the god-star hanging above us. Its black glow intensified, and it swelled with the focused attention of our minds. And then the Qoth pushed it into the real world.

The star at the heart of the Qoth’s home solar system had been destroyed by crypt-space, consumed to feed the murdered Vaunted’s desire for revenge. But the Qoth, once they’d stolen our nano parasites (and once we’d dug in and rescued them), had discovered that their beloved god-star lived on inside every one of them. Its existence reinforced and their beliefs justified by their faith in it. And now it emerged into the physical universe like a dandelion clock being blown back together. A new star blazed into existence in the sky, its dark shroud in the ownworld evaporating as it took on its natural brilliance. They – we – summoned it into life beyond the circuit that our chain of planets followed, millions of miles away so as not to instantly incinerate all life on Earth. As it flared into solidity, it consumed the Beast, ripping its imaginary matter into the fuel the god-star’s atomic heart ran on. Across Elevator City, the many-armed Vaunted burst into flames and their smoke and ashes wound up into the sky, drawn inexorably into the god-star. The same occurred on all the planets under Vaunted assault – our enemies burned away by the light of the Qoth’s faith as the god-star returned to its physical existence. As an idea, when the god-star was originally consumed by crypt-space, the concept of it had transcended the mental realm into crypt-space  as a mere shell of itself. Now, the Qoth had brought it back and it was using crypt-space to rebuild itself.

In the crater of Elevator City, our minds returned to us with a shocking hangover. Our shield had evaporated while our attention was elsewhere, but our battleground was empty of the enemy – just wisps of smoke rising high into the sky. The crypt-space rift was visibly shrinking, having stopped stealing matter and pouring nonsense ideas back out into the world. Just before it finally closed, G said, “watch now.” And we did. The rift convulsed one last time, coughing out a gaggle of ragged-looking figures. Then we ran towards them. They were all holding hands, right along the chain of human, Tel and Qoth staggering in their newly re-created bodies. Some of them had only been dead for minutes, but dying is pretty disorienting, or so they tell me. In the lead was Vasselt, fully alive once more.

“I went back to save the dreamers,” she said. And she had – those in our network who had fallen in this battle, and the petal-ship we’d lost when we encountered the Beast. “I found everyone I could. When you opened the doorway to crypt-space it woke up the ghosts of the oneirocyte network. The Qoth gave us just enough time to escape.”

G was just standing there, staring at the god-star in the sky. As they recovered from their ordeal, so did the other Qoth dreamers.

“G… I can’t feel you in the ownworld any more,” I said, realising I could no longer sense my friend’s mind, “I can’t feel any of you.”

“We don’t need it any more,” G replied, raising one furry arm to the heavens, “that’s the only ownworld we ever wanted.”

With the effort of resurrecting the alien star the Qoth had burned out their oneirocytes. Their beliefs told them that the god-star was the place they went when they died, and now their souls had a destination again.

“They’re all there now – all of the dead,” G continued. “The god-star has taken them all.”

Crypt-space’s intrusions into reality were gone, all the rifts closed and at last sealed once more. We’d undone what the Vaunted had attempted. Their rainbow shapes still hung in the sky, and their anchors still penetrated the Earth, great glimmering membranes that reached down into the ground nearby. Still hanging around. One of their bubble-men materialised in our midst. In marked contrast to their usual demeanour, this one was furious.

“What have you done? Crypt-space is empty!” it cried, shaking its little bubble fists. I looked at G, our main Qoth representative.

“Crypt-space is empty because the god-star has claimed all the souls that were lost there. Now they are found,” G declared, looming over the bubble-man, his fur puffed up and claws twitching angrily.  “Now they are safe, and you can never reach them again.”

“How dare you. We saved you, and your pathetic mortal worlds–“

“–after putting us in danger and fucking up the galaxy, you absolute prick.” Gex finished for it.

The sense of power flexed – the mental affecting the physical – and the rainbow spears into the Earth began to move, burrowing deeper into our planet.

A small voice called out from inside the ownworld: “I don’t think so.” It was Doctor C, or the Unity, or whatever they wanted to call themselves, re-entering the network. They stood in the centre of my ownworld, my peaceful trees twisting endlessly upward around them. She held one of the bubble-men by the centre of its chest, or rather she’d impaled it with her arm. She turned to me, as the Vaunted she’d caught jerked and spasmed against the contact. “We’re leaving you now Evanith. Hest and I, and the others.” She smiled, “We’re taking what the Vaunted had, and they’ll never bother you again.” She clenched her fist and the bubbles that made up the little man began to pop, its substance frothing onto her skin which she absorbed. As the Vaunted deliquesced out of existence, her grin only intensified and her skin took on an oily rainbow sheen.

“The hell you are,” I declared, and speared her to the ground – right through the foot I’d dropped the shears onto, all those years before. Her scream, of pain and outrage shook the ownworld. Whatever part of the Vaunted mental space she’d just hijacked, she wasn’t in control of it yet. I summoned assistance; Gex and Scoro appeared and slammed further spikes through her, pinning her into the ownworld.

“How many of you are there really? How many did you murder to form the Unity?” I demanded.

“You’ll never know,” she snarled, and then began to scream.

The Li had arrived, in the form of a drifting jellyfish made of cutlery, and Hessex returned to the ownworld, freshly reincorporated into the real world with them.

“The Unity cannot be permitted to take the powers of the Vaunted,” Hessex said. “We offer you a choice: either reincorporate, or cease to exist.”

Of course, the Tel knew exactly where the Unity’s tangle of brain wool was. After the Vaunted stole them from Project Tutu’s frozen facilities on Earth, they’d refused to tell us what they’d done with the Unity. They’d been in the ownworld network, but that hadn’t given us a clue about where they were physically, and since they were just a mass of neural string it was hard to remember they hadn’t transcended to the purely mental. Just like the Vaunted, they were still anchored, however faintly to the real world. They were the last people I’d trust to have the kind of power the Vaunted wielded. Hell, I certainly didn’t trust the Vaunted to wield those powers either.

Doctor C, or the avatar of the Unity or whatever she was now, rippled, testing the mental bonds we’d applied. She wasn’t going anywhere. The rest of the Unity’s avatars turned up. All two of them: Hest, and the other one whose name I’d never bothered to learn. They attacked us immediately, sending arcing chains of blades towards me and Gex. But the Unity lacked our experience of exerting ourselves in both the real and mental realms. Those chains shattered before they even got close. The Li immobilised them. It looked like the three of them really were all the real entities inside the Unity. Appalling. They’d murdered hundreds to build their bullshit chalet-world. They really were just like the Vaunted, who it seemed like they had just murdered too.

“Well, I guess you’ve made your choice,” I said.

In the real world, the Tel incinerated the physical mess of nanowires that supported the Unity, burning it to ash. In the ownworld they screamed and cracked, and crumbled and were gone.

We’d won. Crypt-space was gone, and the Vaunted had disappeared – possibly forever. Their legacy had changed the destiny of the human race and a dozen other species. The arm of the galaxy we used to hang out in was a stranger to us, our solar system ground into dust by crypt-space. But our worlds were now locked into an unnatural but stable orbit around the trinary stars the Vaunted had created for us..2 A new star created by the sheer power of our united minds hung out beyond our orbital ring, the god-star, patiently waiting to be a home for the Qoth souls when they died. And maybe a home for all of us. All of our billions of dead lived on inside it, and one day perhaps we’d join them. But for now, we had a real world to repair, and a universe to explore together. With twelve species working together, we’d build a better galaxy than the Vaunted ever managed. Unless we massively screwed it up of course. And that was always an option, even the smartest people fucked up sometimes, and the more powerful they were, the worse the mistake. But for now…

“Right, I think we all deserve to get absolutely wankered,” Gex declared, and we off we went in search of the nearest bar that was still standing.

The End

Stolen Skies Ebook Files and Meta-Nanowrimo 2022, 3

Stolen Skies - the ebook

Stolen Skies – the ebook files

Supposing you are some kind of masochist who can handle reading a book that’s barely had spellcheck run over it, let alone edited and proofread, perhaps you’d find it easier to read Stolen Skies as a proper ebook on your ereader of choice. The links below should let you download the files and then you can send them on to your Kindle or whatever as you like. Enjoy! Apologies in advance for the miscellany of errors you’ll discover. 

Stolen Skies – Captain Pigheart (EPUB) // Stolen Skies – Captain Pigheart (MOBI)

The Story’s Over

I cheerfully breezed through the Nanowrimo minimum of 50,000 words and ended up almost bang on 83,000. It’s been immensely satisfying to bash out a bunch of alphabetic strings over five weeks and discover they mostly tell a coherent story. Not entirely coherent, obviously! The process of working with no plan is going to inevitably generate a little chaos. However, from my pair of dedicated daily readers (thank you Eddie & Benedetta!) apparently it does indeed make sense, and is good in places and interesting to watch unfold. In fact, I’m gonna quote Eddie here because it’s good for my soul:

Ferocious output, inventive and original ideas and a galactic battle to sort everything out. A worthy piece of work.

I’ll take that!

Creative Stuff, Why Bother?

It does feel like it’s been worthwhile. I suspect we all need reminders that we’re creative people who can make a thing, and while most people probably want to make good things, there’s a large number of us who just enjoy the process. Not everyone’s knitting will adorn the queen’s coffin, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. I’ve happily re-inspired myself to do more writing, or at the very least think a lot harder about doing more writing. Half of the battle was reminding myself that I could even do it. The discipline of forcing myself to get up early and write 3-4k words before work (and even at the weekend!) was knackering, but I’ve rarely felt so motivated to drag my lifeless corpse out of bed as when in the midst of a story.

I’ve found it reviving to have this additional thing to occupy my brain with too – literally feeling bits of my mind wake up which have been quiescent for a time. I get a lot of work-thinking done when I’m on my near-daily swim, and that proved an ideal time to think about what on earth could be happening next in the story (sorry work…) I like how stories find their own way, and the feeling of threads I’d tossed out earlier in the story start to draw themselves together – that wonderful feeling of inevitability that I enjoy when I read proper books. Really, writing this thing has been a lot like reading a book by someone else, but with more effort.

Finishing a Story

I’m pleased that I went on to the extra 33k. Even though I’d reached a sort of ending, I hadn’t actually gotten to the original idea that inspired the story. Two ideas got blended together in the end. The original idea was a group of soldiers linked together in some tree-shaped device where they’re all in pods, who experience mostly a virtual realm that they’ve created together. But as they die in combat their world shrinks until it’s just one soldier left alone, and he’s got to figure out what’s happened. We don’t even get close to that until the very end, and even then I haven’t mined that concept for all it’s worth. The other idea I dug out of one of my old writing journals “someone nicks the Earth and takes it somewhere”, which became the beginning of the story. Joining them up was fun, and occasionally stressful as I made some choice or other in the moment that sent us down a different path. I’ve learned that I really like killing characters and other radical character moves that fuck up my own tenuous idea of what’s coming next, forcing me to spend much time digging myself out of a hole. I’m aware that the last third of the book is maybe a bit rushed. In a different reality maybe I’d want to spend more time getting to know the aliens and enjoying the war properly, but I think stories do resolve themselves, or at least they create opportunities to be ended. I had to end somewhere, and did not want to be racing to finish this around Christmas. I wanted it to be complete, and not to stress myself out over a thing that ultimately should not matter that much. 

No Editing?

I got in the habit of reading the previous chapter while I waited for caffeine to infest my brain appropriately before writing the next one. I did correct the odd word and added a couple of sentences here and there which had become necessary overnight, but I only deleted one chapter and re-wrote it (Part Twenty-Eight), as I absolutely hated it and needed more “show don’t tell”. That and the first two versions of the opening chapter, neither of which gave me an in for the story. I’d regularly pause while writing and shuffle paragraphs around, which only contributes further to the chaos. A lot of my writing is waffly Evanith thinks stuff, which I enjoy, but easily leads me to totally forget where I was going a few sentences ago because I’ve become distracted and gotten into moaning about something or other, often people.

Otherwise it’s all been knocked out as you’ve (maybe) read it. The ebooks above have had the obscene grace of Word’s spellcheck which picked up far less than I expected – mostly it’s/its, a few missing words and the variety of mis-spellings I achieved for the awkward alien names like Geiliiish, and the made-up character names. Not bad, right? Or, more likely, you really shouldn’t rely on Word to fix your book.

Cover Art

I’ve always found that even if a book cover doesn’t tell you what’s inside, it should set the mood or the tone for the story to come. All the “art” for this one were generated by the fascinating, and fascinatingly shit Dall-E AI art creator. They variously show the results of text prompts like an alien night sky filled with shooting stars and Escher-inspired spaceships, an alien spaceship being chased by a rocket shaped like a giant grasshopper, or oneirocyte: nano parasite that infects the brain, allowing its users to create imaginary worlds – digital art by Hieronymous Bosch. The results are fascinating, but patchy as fuck, and so far below the standard of what a talented human could produce that I feel OK using them for this! The rather random gluing of images together does feel a bit like writing first thing in the morning…

The Best (Maybe) Movies to Watch on Christmas Eve

I like Christmas, but I don’t especially enjoy the nauseating romantic comedy dramas that infest the season. A couple are tolerable, but we shall not speak of them. Instead I’ve been watching some old Christmas favourites and soaking up a bloody tide of Christmas horror movies. Like all horror they’re wildly hit and miss, but each one has at least something that was worth watching them for. Here’s a few thoughts about everything I’ve seen so far this December. 

Violent Night (2022)

Brand spanking new, featuring the beloved David Harbour (presumably in between Stranger Things) as Santa, and John Leguizamo as the villain who storms a wealthy family’s compound at Christmas. High production values, fun script and really very violent action scenes once Santa gets started.

The Gingerdead Man (2006)

Total trashy nonsense in which nasty robber/murderer Gary Busey is reincarnated as a gingerbread man in a little bakery. He proceeds to kill a bunch of people. The script is dreadful, but the central idea… somehow brilliant. It’s not good, but I did enjoy it. Apparently there are sequels… (including the wonderfully named Gingerdead Man 2: Passion of the Crust.) 

Die Hard (1988)

We can skip the “is it really a Christmas movie…” – it’s set at a Christmas party, and that’s the whole reason that everything happens on that occasion. Done. Also, it’s great! Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman absolutely glow. Unmissable Christmas action fun.

Santa’s Slay (2005)

Here we have a wrestler playing an ancient demon finally allowed to go out and murder people at Christmas. I laughed quite a lot during this one, even if there isn’t much to it. Check out the ripped Santa though!

The Children (2008)

A nice simple idea – the kids go crazy (infected with something or other) and try to kill their parents. What’s not to love? It has a few pleasingly grim early murders and “accidents” that should cheer up anyone who’s ever found children a bit worrying. And if you’re into kids being murdered, well, there’s plenty of that here too. Nicely tense and chilling.

Wind Chill (2007)

I don’t think this really qualifies as a Christmas horror movie, but I watched it so… Emily Blunt (who I think I always enjoy watching in films) gets a lift home from a fellow student who turns out not to be who he seems… But it gets much worse when they crash their car into a night of freezing snow, with ghosts! Pretty straightforward and fairly tense, especially while we’re figuring out if the chap she’s with is going to kill her. Definitely has a few surprises, and if you like ghost stories that don’t feature Christmas at all (technically they’re on their way home from college for the festive season), then you might enjoy this. 

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Unquestionably the best and most faithful version of Charles Dickens’ Christmas ghost story, it’s somehow thirty years old, and we caught the cinema re-release. It was magical. Continuously funny and with heartwarming songs, the highlight for me is how utterly terrible Michael Caine is at singing and dancing. This is definitely up there in my top five Christmas films of all genres.

Fatman (2020)

I somehow missed this entirely when it came out (I dunno, pandemic or something), but it’s Walton Goggins (who I utterly adore) hired to assassinate Mel Gibson’s Santa. Instantly great fun. It’s all driven by a little boy who is very much Artemis Fowl, but a right little shit. The tone is rather odd, because it isn’t played for laughs, even when the elves are subcontracted out to work for the US military. 

Silent Night (2021)

Loved this, it’s super-grim. A family and friends meet up at Christmas with their (variously smart, kind, and hateful children) for the very last time… It’s rather subtly done and only partway into the film is it made clear why everyone is running on ragged nerves. It’s funny, and nicely acted by a great cast (including Keira Knightley and Lucy Punch), and the kids are unusually good too. The ending is the exact bleakness I saw coming and very satisfying. 

Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)

I’d been looking forward to finally watching this after chasing it around the streaming services for a few years. It’s OK. Zombie musical set at Christmas is cool and there are plenty of funny parts, but it didn’t hang together particularly well for me (I suspect for very similar reasons to the film version of the Matilda musical). I’m glad I’ve seen it, and if you haven’t then it’s totally worth a shot.

Better Watch Out (2017)

This is very slick and satisfying. I’d forgotten that I’d already seen it, and thought I was watching a different film, so I was very happily surprised. I remember having a babysitter when I was younger and vaguely fancying them, but thankfully I’m not a sociopathic little bastard who’s really into his babysitter. This has very nice home invasion vibes, with some excellent subversion, kills and lovely production work all round.

Scrooged (1998)

An essential Christmas film which we watch most years, and this time accompanied tree erection. This has all the spirit and mean fun of Dickens with one of Bill Murray’s most satisfying performances, as well as good quality Bobcat Goldthwaite. If you haven’t seen it, but like Christmas films then you’re only letting yourself down.

Christmas Evil (1980)

Alright, this one isn’t good, but it’s oddly fascinating. Low budget, incredibly slow and with a really odd script… Sold? It feels a lot like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, in that the lead is very worrying all the way through. Disturbed by seeing Santa (presumably his dad, but I don’t think that was entirely clear) touching up his mum on Christmas Eve, Harry grows up obsessed with Christmas, taking notes on which neighbourhood kids have been naughty or nice, works in a toy factory… and eventually goes on a little killing spree after his employers turn out to be utterly cynical bastards. It escalates nicely, but the first forty-five minutes is a slog. The flying van is worth it though… 

Christmas Bloody Christmas (2022)

The best kinds of Christmas horror films combine a witty script with a cool idea and great murders. This one almost manages it. They’ve nicked the idea from Small Soldiers, only converting military robots into store Santa “toys”, I guess. For some reason one goes on the rampage, killing quite a lot of people. The script is surprisingly full and sharp, beginning with a pair of co-workers in a music shop going out to get wasted. If you wanted the characters from High Fidelity to die horribly, you might be in luck. It’s not brilliant, but the robo-Santa proves to be quite hard to kill and makes for a satisfying end to the movie. It won’t be a total waste of your time. 

Black Christmas (1974)

A classic, but like many classics that you just have to see, it’s actually not that great. I don’t care about people being murdered if I don’t like any of them. I’m not exactly cheering on the killer, but I didn’t really care for this. Apart from the movie above, this is the most classic slasher I’ve watched, and they don’t give me a lot of fun overall. I look forward to seeing if the remakes are any better. Props though, for a rather upsetting bathroom scene. 

Rare Exports (2010)

An outstanding example of the genre. We’ve been watching this one for a few years now, and it’s not yet diminished. Way up in Lapland some folks are excavating the real Santa, one the Fins killed and entombed long ago, because being European Santa’s not going to give you a teddy bear. Enter a lovely young lad who sort of discovers it’s all going to go tits up, and his hunter/butcher dad. This isn’t an out and out horror slash or action fest, but it’s warm, funny and very dark – another Christmas horror story with a cracking ending. Unlike most of this lot, I find I don’t want to spoil it… 

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)

Possibly the best Christmas action movie ever, this is a stunning Shane Black-written Christmas action comedy (does he write anything else?) with Geena Davis as an amnesiac assassin who’s living the good life with her daughter and boyfriend in a lovely Christmas town. Unfortunately her assassin alter ego is coming back, and so are all the people who thought she was dead… This might also be my favourite Samuel L Jackson film (and is apparently one of his favourites too). There’s some very dodgy ’90s comedy and very snappy dialogue, great shoot ups and fights, and lots of heartwarming Christmas family stuff too. You must watch it. Killer soundtrack too.  

Everything Else

The usual Christmas rewatch list obviously includes modern Christmas classics like Elf (2003) (a grown man thinks he’s an elf – horrifying!), and the truly excellent Krampus (2015). We also can’t resist the near-perfect Halloween/Xmas stop-motion musical The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and the also stop-motion, by Aardman and not-very-horror Robbie the Reindeer (Hooves of Fire 1999 and Legend of the Lost Tribe from 2002) although the second one does see the reindeers trapped as theme park mannequins by the villain (voiced by Jeff Goldblum). Finally, of course, Gremlins (1984) which remains unbelievably good, funny and entertaining. At the very least, every one of these films is shorter than Avatar: Way of the Water and likely a better use of your time.