“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.