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Stolen Skies – Part Twenty-Eight (Nanowrimo 2022)

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

Stolen Skies

The Sun has vanished, the Moon has been abandoned. Earth is alone, and englobed in a mysterious force. It’s not going well… but hope lies within. You can download the whole story as an ebook here: Stolen Skies ebook. Writing diary and notes kept alongside the story are here: Stolen Skies writing diary.

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