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.”