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.